Mar. 05, 2007
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal
manages to deliver a thought-provoking sermon ... and avoid damnation
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.
Rev. Mark Wickstrom, left, senior pastor of Community Lutheran Church,
assists Levitan with his alb. He provided minimal assistance with the
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
"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
"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
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
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