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Mar. 05, 2007
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Our reporter manages to deliver a thought-provoking sermon ... and avoid damnation


Watch the video

click on the photos to enlarge them...
Review-Journal reporter Corey Levitan gives a guest sermon at the Community Lutheran Church at 3720 E. Tropicana Ave.
Photos by Craig L. Moran.

Levitan, center, greets one of a couple dozen complimentary parishioners following his 8 a.m. sermon.

The Rev. Mark Wickstrom, left, senior pastor of Community Lutheran Church, assists Levitan with his alb. He provided minimal assistance with the sermon, however.


The list of jobs I had no business attempting has a new topper. It's Sunday morning, and I'm standing in the alb of the Rev. Mark Wickstrom, senior pastor of Community Lutheran Church. (Well, not his alb. It was too long. Luckily, the church also employs a short female minister.) Lightning bolts from the sky are not an entirely unrealistic health concern.

"Hey, Jesus was a Jew," Wickstrom said on the Monday before my sermon.

Even that argument is shaky, however, since I belong to a denomination of Judaism known as nonpracticing. The last worship service I attended was during the Reagan administration.

Wickstrom, 58, said he wanted people to see how difficult his job is. (Given my skill set, that has become a specialty.) Members of the clergy don't only write and deliver sermons, he explained. They're teachers; family, couple and grief counselors; newsletter and liturgy writers; staff recruiters, interviewers and trainers; charity workers; fundraisers; wedding officiants; budget-makers; committee members; and worship-service coordinators.

"It looks easy to the person who just comes and listens," Wickstrom said. "Most pastors I know work a six-day week."

For me, the sermon alone is more than enough to produce an unbearable load. It takes an hour of preparation for every minute a pastor preaches, I discovered. And my sermon must fill 20 minutes.

"This is your reading material," Wickstrom said, handing me a folder overflowing with encyclopedia articles, theology book chapters and psalms.

"Every time you preach, you're a participant in the dialogue with the text," he explained, likening each sermon to a house.

"You build it from scratch every week," he said. "You have a vacant lot, and next Sunday there's got to be a home there."

Wickstrom taught at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., for 10 years before being hired by Community Lutheran Church upon the 2005 retirement of the Rev. Ray Christensen. Christensen founded this church in 1973, the same year Wickstrom said he received his calling.

"There was no big dream or vision," Wickstrom recalled. "It was just a series of circumstances and God-winks." (This term was coined by Squire Rushnell's "When God Winks at You" as a theistic alternative to coincidence. Wickstrom frequently quotes from the 2006 book on his pulpit.)

Wickstrom, who is married with four children, originally planned on becoming a teacher of the secular kind.

"Then I got my first job in a youth ministry position and I loved it," he said.

According to Salary.com, the approximately 700 spiritual leaders residing in Las Vegas earn between $55,680 and $105,942 per year. Starting pastoral salary at Community Lutheran, according to Wickstrom, is $40,000 to $50,000. To be ordained — to perform Communion and baptism — in the Lutheran Church requires a four-year master of divinity degree from an approved seminary — although anybody at all, apparently, can preach for a day.

Wickstrom would tell me only two things about my sermon: It must be about prayer, and it must be entirely my own.

"Use whatever inspires you — the first thing that comes to mind," he added, dropping the hint that "every sermon is about the pastor's individual struggle with spiritual issues."

Back on the pulpit, I click to the first slide in my visual presentation — after several sweaty seconds of trying to open my tightly tied alb so I can rifle through my pockets for the clicker.

My opening image, Wickstrom advised me, "has to get them into your house."

Mine not only gets them in, it locks the door and pulls a knife.

"Wow!" audience member Bill Sweeney later reports thinking to himself. "Jim Morrison in a sermon? These Lutherans are really out there!" (Sweeney is a Catholic visiting from upstate New York.)

The first thing that came to my mind about prayer was the introduction to the 1969 Doors song, "The Soft Parade." Its words protest the notion of a God who takes requests.

"You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!" I announce, before continuing on a curvy path that wraps around the theory of relativity.

My personal struggle with spiritual issues is how to relate them to my belief in science. Within Einstein's work, there isn't as much of a conflict. (He already proved, 100 years ago, that energy — which includes prayer — is composed of the same fundamental "stuff" as all matter in the universe.)

For spice, I mixed in some quotes from the Scripture and Rushnell, hoping for a better reaction than Galileo got from the Catholic Church after proclaiming that the Earth revolves around the sun.

A surprisingly decent amount of applause erupts when I finish, and Wickstrom pats me on the back.

"We think you did a great job!" church member Linda Williams told me at the head of my greeting line in the lobby.

Sweeney explained that he and his son were visiting Sweeney's aunt when they decided to attend her church. Later, he sent me a two-page e-mail about how profoundly my sermon inspired them.

"It reminded both of us that God's presence, and good things, aren't just found in the church that we call home," he wrote, "but in people of other faiths and in the attempts of a newspaper personality trying to give a sermon for a week — who probably got more out of the experience than he bargained for."

Sweeney and his son are both avid Doors fans, by the way, who happened to be discussing Einstein on the flight in.

"I mean, what are the odds?" Sweeney wrote, prompting Wickstrom to suggest that maybe this entire article was part of a God-wink designed to awaken the spirituality of two seemingly random travelers.

Only one parishioner, in dozens, objects.

"Is this telling us that Pastor Mark is willing to put anybody off the street up there?" asks children's ministry assistant Sandy LeBlanc. "It makes you stop and think. That's not what we're about and not what I'm about."

Actually, someone else may have objected. Remember that lightning bolt I told you I was expecting?

During the service, as the line of Communion-takers snaked past, I felt compelled to experience the sacrament. So I reached over to ask Wickstrom whether it would be appropriate.

As I made contact with his arm, a powerful shock sparked from my index finger.

"Yeah," Wickstrom said, shaking his head. "I think we've pushed things far enough this morning."


Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.




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