For nearly 200 years an unbroken line of fathers and sons have devoted themselves to be guardians of the Word of God and agents of the gospel. I share this heritage with five generations of Cloeter men before me. As the sixth generation, I recognize that we are different men molded for different times. For instance, I hope I never look like my great, great, great grandfather (left). And I refuse to name my son Ottomar (his name and that of two other ancestors).
My father Paul (5th generation) preached at the 150th anniversary of St. Peter's Lutheran Church in Afton, MN this past Sunday. Ottomar Cloeter was the second pastor in this congregation's history. He came to St. Peter's after 11 years in northern Minnesota as a missionary to the Ojibwe tribe. Here's an excerpt from Paul's sermon. And thanks, Dad, for not naming me Ottomar.
An excerpt from a sermon preached by Pastor Paul Cloeter at the 150th anniversary of St. Peter's Lutheran Church, Afton, MN, on July 21st, 2013.
Eleven years before accepting the call to become your pastor, my Great, Great Grandfather served as a missionary to Native Americans in the wilds of northern MN. Instead of German names, he found an Ojibwe people with names like White Feather, Ringing in the Sky, and Chief Hole-in-the-Day. Missionary Cloeter did so at great peril to his life and that of his family. In preparing for today, I read through again the reports he sent from his mission station on the Mississippi (translated from German). These reports make my ministry challenges today look tame!
What struck me - more than the physical risks he took; more than the social/economic deprivation they endured - was his dogged determination to bring salvation to the lost. Many today would call it foolhardy; a poor use of mission dollars. I can imagine that the church leaders at the time, reading 11 years of reports of physical danger, limited resources and minimal success, would have thought Cloeter was crazy; that for the sake of these unappreciative heathen it wasn't worth it! Even such a noble task of seeking and saving the lost is never conducted without dissension.
The same thing was true in the house of a man named Zacchaeus. Those who witnessed Jesus' presence there muttered, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner'." Some people just aren't worthy . . . or worth it! It seems that wherever our Lord or His church is about the business of seeking and saving the lost, there will be dissension, factions and division.
St. Peter Lutheran Church in Afton, MN has not been immune from this either. Your congregation was given birth during the height of the Civil War, right after the Battle of Gettysburg. I know these weren't the front lines up here, but war and politics, like religion, have potential for division! Your church's history reads that in 1868, the same year my forefather came here to be your pastor, "there was dissension in the church until a group of members severed their connection with St. Peter to form a congregation affiliated with the Ohio Synod." Doesn't say 'why', but it doesn't sound like the parting was on friendly terms. Fact is, we Lutherans over the years have done a lot of 'separating'. And today, as you see people with strange cultures and lifestyles surround you, the temptation might be to circle the wagons and focus inward.
My congregation is deeply involved in outreach ministry to a growing Sudanese population in the St. Cloud area. Even though we're strongly committed to supporting this cross-cultural ministry and helping them launch their own church, this goal still gets tempered now and then by a "we've-got-to-take-care-of-our-own-first" mentality.
Maybe the biggest change in the religious landscape during the past 150 years is that we no longer live in a 'churched culture'. Membership and attendance at a church is no longer the cultural expectation that it was throughout American history. In fact, institutional religion as a whole is widely despised these days. People aren't going to just come to your house because it looks nice, or you've got a good-looking pastor, or because they were raised in the church. Statistics show that in the last 25 years, St. Peter Lutheran Church has experienced a 20% decline in membership. And you are by no means unique in this. That's the norm. Part of the reason, of course, is that family size has shrunk. But, truthfully, we've become a nation of 'lost' Zacchaeus'. I don't need to remind you that seeking and saving the lost can be discouraging work these days.
You ever notice how much of Jesus' ministry was focused on 'the one'? The 'lost' that He sought was often of a singular dimension. Here on His death march to Jerusalem, having earlier healed a blind man and now surrounded by crowds, Jesus detours a bit, spots a little man up in a tree and says, "I'm going to your house today." It was a schedule interruption; but to save lost Zacchaeus, it was worth it. Each and every 'one' is worth it.
Permit me to read a brief excerpt from one of my Great Great Grandfather's letters, dated June 11, 1859 - two years after he began his work up there on the shores of the Mississippi:
"Recently a woman was brought to our area who has been suffering already for some time, but is now seriously ill, and perhaps has but a short time to live. She has expressed the desire to be instructed and baptized. I began this instruction 14 days ago. As long as I have been here, this is the first instance that a person has expressed such a desire. May God grant that we are not hoping in vain. Except for this one case, we have no better expectation."
Two years of hard, dangerous labor was worth it for this one lost woman!
Great Great Grandpa's ministry to the Indians finally came to an end in 1868 when he took the call here. Ministries die! So do a lot of churches over the centuries; as did all the churches in the Book of Acts and those mentioned in Revelation that had such promising starts. 150 years is a long time, but there's no promise that this church will be here in another 150, or even 10.
Jesus, however, continues to grow His kingdom today, His Church, in the same way He always has, using us to seek after and assist Him in saving the lost. The cross reminds us that you and I were the lost ones searched for and pursued, called and saved. And it reminds us that there are lost ones in each of our lives, individuals who need to know that there's a better way to live. Like Zaccchaeus, and each of us, they need to know the joy of repentance and forgiveness; the thrill of sharing material blessings; and the delight of themselves extending an invitation to a lost one. They, like us, need to rub shoulders with Jesus.