Saturday, June 7, 2014

Not Qualified, But Call-i-fied

Ordination of Sarah Peterson-Johnson
Hope Lutheran Church, Saint Charles, MO
June 7, 2014
Is 43:1-3, 5-7a, 10; Psalm 95:1-7a; 1 Cor 1:25-2:5; John 21:15-17

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’ He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.

You can tell a lot about someone just by the kinds of art they appreciate, the music they cherish, the books they devour.

This morning we can tell a lot about you, Sarah, just because of the splendid scripture readings you’ve chosen for your ordination service.  As I mentioned to you—these texts are almost TOO GOOD for us to wrap our heads and hearts around them.

Great texts—Yes!  And even better:  there’s a red thread that ties them all together—a red thread that reveals how well you already realize the most important thing a pastor needs to know.

What you know, Sarah, is that you’re not gifted enough, talented enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, or brave enough to do what God is calling you to do.   You know that pastoral ministry is about so much more than you and your gifts, even with that amazing degree you recently received--“Master of Divinity!”

These marvelous Bible readings all bear witness to a God who is forever dealing with flawed, frail, failing folks like us. 

For you and I, sinners all!  We are all God’s got—no one else is available.

Ernst Kaesemann, the great professor of New Testament, put it most pointedly: “The Kingdom of God is made of stuff that is fundamentally unusable!”

So, as Isaiah 43 reminds us, there are no self-made men or women.  We’re utterly dependent on the One who created, formed, redeemed and named us.  God alone holds our heads up when the waters overwhelm us, shields us when the flames are nipping at our heels.

And as Psalm 95 goes on to declare, we aren’t God’s roaring lions or God’s soaring eagles, either…but we are the people of God’s pasture, and the sheep of God’s hand….and when the Bible likens us to sheep (please remember!) we are not being paid a compliment!

And in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we’re reminded that God uses us not because of all the gray matter between our ears or our spiritual biceps or our winning personalities or our consistent cleverness….but rather, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

And here in our gospel from John 21, we see clearly how our service is never based on our dependability, courage, or rock-solid devotion.  Take a look at “Exhibit A,”--Simon Peter, being rehabilitated by the Risen Christ after the latest in a long string of failures-of-nerve.

If ever there was someone whose story illustrated perfectly the notion that God’s Kingdom is fashioned from stuff that’s fundamentally unusable….it’s got to be Peter, the prince of the disciples, purportedly the first pope….Peter the crude fisherman….Peter the most unqualified person imaginable for such a lofty calling.

Think about it.   Can you picture Peter walking across the stage to receive the degree “Master of Divinity?”  Would he have had even a prayer’s chance of getting through the ELCA candidacy process?—can you imagine what his psych evaluation would have looked like?

Recall Peter’s track record as a follower of Jesus—hardly a shining example for other would-be pastors--and definitely not “pope material.”   Peter was forever shooting off his mouth, making promises he couldn’t keep, blowing his stack, hanging back in shame….

In fact, the last time we saw Peter here in John’s gospel, he was denying that he even knew Jesus—right in the clutch moment, when our Lord could have used someone to “have his back,” Peter failed miserably--not once, not just twice, but three times….

….Which explains (don’t you see?) why here in John 21 the Risen Christ restores Peter by asking him a simple question, not  once, not twice, but three times:  “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

What delicious, haunting irony that Peter the three-timing denier of Jesus….should now be prodded to profess his love for this same Lord Jesus—not once or twice but three times!

And in this way, he is restored.  It’s kind of a strange “liturgy” of confession and forgiveness that Jesus leads Peter through here.   He doesn’t make Peter name his sin, doesn’t force Peter to say “sorry,” doesn’t dredge up any of his tired, old shame…

No….Jesus takes Peter (and us) by surprise, asking a simple question….a question that seems less about repentance, less about remorse….and more about relationship“Simon, son of John, do you love me?”

And then notice how Jesus forgives, how he absolves Peter….not by announcing forgiveness (though forgiveness is surely being conveyed!)….but by sending Peter, commissioning him to do Jesus’ work:  “Feed, care for, my sheep, my lambs….look after my flock.”  

Here in John 21 at least, that’s how absolution sounds:   Do you love me?   Well then, look after the people my blood has bought.   Get back to work, Peter--not your old fisherman job--but my work of capturing sinners, catching human beings, caring for God’s little flock in the world.

Here precisely is what Ernst Kasemann was driving at:  “The Kingdom of God is made of stuff that’s fundamentally unusable”—stuff like Simon, son of John, miserable denier, now restored and called to express his undying love for his Savior by caring for Jesus’ sheep.

You chose this short gospel lesson, Sarah, because you get it.  You get the one thing that pastors need more than anything else—a palpable sense of our own unworthiness…joined to a reckless trust that God will nevertheless use us.

A friend of mine likes to say that we may not be qualified, but we certainly are "call-i-fied" to do the work of ministry!

God uses unworthy folks to speak God’s Word, splash God’s Baptism, serve God’s Supper, fashion God’s new community, serve God’s mission in the world.

….God will use us, with all our inadequacies….and not as sort of a consolation prize or a Plan B, either…but rather as God’s primary chosen way of fashioning a church that gives itself away for the sake of the world.

Sarah, you are richly gifted for the work of pastoral ministry.   You are smart and edgy and creative and hard-working and fun-loving….and (I think) maybe even a little sassy…and all of us gathered here thank God for the you God has made you to be!

But today, primarily, we give thanks to God that you realize down in your bones that none of your fine gifts or wonderful qualities can (by themselves) “deliver the goods,” hand over Christ to persons dying for Good News.

Today, Sarah, we rejoice that you know now—even before you are ordained—how much God will do through you…not just through your strengths….but primarily through your weaknesses, your brokenness, your emptiness, your longing.

So as you get ready to head way up to the Canadian border and walk with the people of the Baudette Lutheran Parish, and as you live out what we hope will be a long, long ministry…..take these words of St Paul on your lips, as your watchword:  “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

That’s it—right there—that’s all you really need to know, think, say and do for as long as you serve as a Shepherd, a Pastor in Christ’s church.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Faith At Home...At Home in Faith

Faith at Home…At Home in Faith
NW MN Synod Assembly
Concordia College, Moorhead, MN
May 17, 2014
I Peter 2:1-10

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.”[1] 

Let me say that once again:  “Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he (or she) is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.”

Thank God, when Martin Luther wanted to make a point, he never mumbled or beat around the bush!   Thank God, the Great Reformer had a penchant for shockingly-bombastic hyperbole!

Of course, Luther was grinding an ax here, as he was wont to do.   He was demolishing a whole way of envisioning the church--especially leadership in the church.  Luther was leveling, flattening the church of his day by sweeping away a rigid hierarchical structure that was burdening consciences, blunting the gospel, keeping God’s Word shackled and killing the church!

For the church Luther inherited was a church that carefully distinguished leaders from followers, those at the top from those on the bottom, the rulers from the ruled….

…..which is why in brash, sweeping assertions like this one, Luther declared:  “Enough already!”

Whoever (accent on that:  whoever, meaning anyone!)….Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he (or she) is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope!

Now I suppose we could say:  “Well and good!  Sounds like ‘Luther being Luther,’ ‘democratizing’ a brittle medieval religious bureaucracy, helping the grassroots reclaim their community of faith….

Except that this brash quotation from Martin Luther has such deep roots in God’s ancient and abiding Word…..even as it also presses ahead, reaches forward, right up into our own day.  

Martin Luther’s contention in 1520, after all, echoes the words of our text from I Peter, a first century letter of encouragement that circulated among scattered bands of “resident aliens,” Jews and Gentiles living in Asia Minor.  These spiritual “exiles” had been caught in the updraft of the Holy Spirit, claimed by the Risen Christ to spread the Good News in an indifferent if not hostile, distracted, religiously pluralistic world.

Peter deploys a cascading array of images to remind these “resident aliens” just who they now were in Jesus Christ:  
·       newborn infants drinking in the spiritual milk of God’s Word,
·       living stones being crafted into a spiritual temple
·       God’s elected, chosen race,
·       God’s royal priesthood,
·       God’s holy nation,
·       God’s own people.

If the world around them counted them as good-for-nothings, God had decided otherwise:  
Once you were not a people,
   but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
   but now you have received mercy.

And to what end, for the sake of what work had God gone to the trouble of feeding, building, electing, claiming and sanctifying these “nobodies?”  

That they might “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

When Martin Luther brazenly proclaimed that “Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope” he was only reclaiming for his own day, an ancient scriptural word from the First Epistle of Peter.

Luther reached back to a first century biblical treasure-chest…even as he simultaneously pointed forward, into God’s future, right into our own time.    For, my dear friends, you and I also need desperately to hear that “whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.”

You and I need to hear these words, not so much to flatten an outdated hierarchy but to reclaim the dignity of our calling to live fully, imaginatively, energetically as the whole people of God in the year 2014.

Luther contended with a bullying Pope Leo and a corrupt Vatican Curia in Rome….but  we contend with a more subtle, insidious adversary:  ourselves and some of the assumptions we make about who the church is, how it is formed, and why it is sent into God’s world.

We contend with a church that still mutters nostrums like:

·       “Oh good, the pastor is here now, so he can pray for us, and we can start our meeting….”

·       Or:   “Bishop, please tell our minister to visit all our shut-ins every month….that’s her job, you know….that’s what we hired her to do!”

·       Or:   “What has the ELCA, what has the synod done for us lately?”

Words like those, my friends, are the death-rattle of a terminally-ill church, a church turned fatally inward, a church that thinks it can hire somebody else to do the ministry that’s been given to all of us, a church panting for Christ’s death-defeating, resurrecting power.

In this assembly, I pray, we’ve been opening our eyes to another way, a better way of being church and doing church in this time and place.

Living in an indifferent if not hostile, distracted world….a world with scads and scads of competing stories and compelling messages….feeling sometimes like resident aliens, not sure we’ll ever feel “at home” here….

….you and I are dying to hear Peter’s amazing proclamation of who we are and what God is equipping us to do:  “But you—you, “you all”!-- are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

You can’t hire someone to do that for you, though you surely can call a minister to help you do your work better….but the work’s been given to all of us….in our communities, in our congregations, and in those “little platoons” where we hang out with folks near and dear to us.

This assembly has invited us to pay close attention to these most basic cells in the Body of Christ on earth—however we name them:  homes or households or families or table-gatherings or wherever folks live  and breathe together…

As David Anderson reminds us:  “Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships—often in our own homes….Where Christ is present in faith, the home is church too.”[2]

Wrapping our heads and hearts around that notion….inviting a critical mass of our synod’s congregations to live more deeply into that bracing vision….just might be the most hopeful and promising thing we could do as a synod over the years to come.  

I can think of nothing, nothing else that will help us tap into God’s renewing, refreshing Spirit as much as assisting congregations in helping households pass on the faith to the next generation of God’s chosen people.

When I was serving at Our Savior’s in Moorhead, we had some pretty big confirmation classes come through our congregation’s process of forming young people as disciples of Jesus.   After confirmation Sunday one of those years, I got a card from one of the young men that read:  “Pastor Larry, thanks for teaching me everything I know about God.”

When the young man who scrawled those words first gave me that card, my heart was warmed….for about 15 seconds….

….but then I said to myself:  “Oh no.   This can’t be!   He didn’t really mean that I had taught everything he knew about God.”    I barely knew the lad, having been with him for such a slender slice of his tender young life!

Surely, surely, others had been teaching him about God, proclaiming “the mighty acts of God who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

Friends, it will not do to keep thinking that if parents or other caring adults just drop their kids off at our church buildings for one quick hour each week during the school year, they will be formed into fervent followers of Jesus, with a faith they can be at home in, a faith to carry them into the rest of their lives.   It takes more than one hour a week to accomplish that!  

Faithful, fruitful proclaimers of God’s mighty acts want to get at the other 167 hours in every child’s, every young person’s week!

If that thank you note from my former confirmation student eats at me, other stories give me hope.

I think of the young dad who told me recently that his oldest son was soon to become a teenager.  “Oh boy--you ready for that?” I asked.   “Well,” the dad responded, “so far, so good.  He still won’t go to bed at night unless I bless him.”

We can do this.   Oops—let me say that better:   God, through us, will do this, even with the likes of you and me….because Luther got it right:  “Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he (or she) is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.” 

….consecrated—that is--to do what priests, bishops and popes and every other person baptized into Christ is called to do:  “To proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] To the Christian Nobility (1520)  LW 44:129
[2] David W. Anderson, The Great Omission, p. 17.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Bishop's Report NW MN Synod Assembly

Bishop’s Oral Report
NW MN Synod Assembly
May 16, 2014
Concordia College, Moorhead, MN

In a Facebook post from June 15th of last year, I wrote:  “I'm pretty sure something big happened last weekend....but right now there's a little girl who has simply captured all my attention. The Next Generation isn't a slogan or a nifty idea...right now she is a tiny person I'm cradling in my arms.”

The “something big” was your renewal of my Call to serve as bishop for another six years—what I’ve been calling the SECOND best thing that happened to me in 2013. Joy and I are so grateful for the chance to continue serving our synod!

But, as wonderful as last June’s synod assembly was for us, something even better happened the following Wednesday, June 12th when early that morning Olivia Carolyn was born to our daughter Kristen and her husband Aaron—our first grandchild, weighing 8 lb. 12 oz. and 21 1/2” long!  

This wondrous birth was a milestone that will shape the rest of our days here on earth!

Olivia’s birth has also impacted my spiritual journey.   As I wrote on Facebook:  suddenly the Next Generation became—not just a slogan or a concept—but a tiny person I could cradle in my arms.

When Olivia arrived, I was granted yet another reason to care all the more deeply about the kind of planet, the kind of environment, the kind of country and world we’re leaving to our grandchildren….and perhaps most importantly:  the kind of church I want Olivia and her generation to inherit.

So please indulge this slobbery, blubberly old grandpa for a few moments as I share with you the contours of the kind of church I want for my grandchild and her generation.

1. I want for Olivia and her generational cohort a church that lives (and knows that it lives) only because Jesus the crucified one is risen again, nevermore to die.   My favorite Easter word comes from the late great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan…"If Christ is risen, nothing else matters.  And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters."

I want a church that lives only because Christ lives, and I look for a church that doesn’t just hope for the Resurrection of the dead to happen “someday”--but that already now is practicing Resurrection in our common life and shared mission.

Such a church fearlessly faces whatever it encounters.  It doesn’t shy away from bad news, uncomfortable truths or difficult conversations.  Such a church does not view “dying” as the worst thing that could ever happen…because it clings to Jesus’ promise that those who seek to save their life will lose it, and those who are ready to “die” by giving themselves away—will find life, will receive life back again as a gift.

My colleagues and I see this happening in every congregation or ministry organization that’s willing to take a risk and leave something behind in order to embrace what lies ahead.   We recognize this “practicing of resurrection” as congregations enter into new shared ministry agreements—none of which happen without some sort of giving up, some sort of ‘dying’—for that alone opens up space for God’s power to raise the dead.

2.  Second, I dream for Olivia and others born in 2013 to live in a church that dares to live now on the basis of God’s coming kingdom.   If God is making all things new for Jesus’ sake, the door’s wide open for us to start living as if the Kingdom were already here. 

The question is:  which part of your automobile do you pay the most attention to--your rear-view mirror or windshield?  Are we always looking back, hoping for some golden age to return?  Or do we strain ahead, lean forward, into God’s future?  Where’s your congregation along that continuum?

Lest we forget, our churches have experienced amazing transformation in how we carry out confirmation ministries over the last 25 years.   Confirmation no longer is conceived as something that happens once a week, with a dozen restless teens and one harried pastor locked in a room together for an hour!  Confirmation instruction has gone from being “dead and boring” to occupying a bright spot in the lives of many of our pastors and other adult guarantors who are making confirmation more engaging, more relationship-oriented, and more outcome-focused….skillfully blending our concern for content with young people’s hunger for learning by doing and serving and being mentored.
3.  I long for my grand-daughter and her generation to have a church that assumes God is abundant and will supply our every need—a church that therefore fosters the faith practice of generosity in all things.  

In this regard, it is so gratifying to see our synod’s congregations returning to more generous sharing of financial resources for the sake of God’s mission in the world.    THANKS to you and your congregations…

  • Mission support giving increased in 2013 over the previous year, for the third straight year!
  • We have exceeded our $225,000 goal for the ELCA Malaria campaign, and in 2013 our synod was #1 of the ELCA’s 65 synods in total dollars remitted through the synod for the Campaign!
  • Also in 2013 our synod was the fifth largest of 65 synods in terms of total remittances to the ELCA churchwide organization for Global Sponsorship giving.
  • And support for the ELCA Hunger Appeal places us in the top quarter of all ELCA synods.

We also received word from Portico Benefit Services last week that our synod once again reached the goal of having at least 65% of Portico health plan members/spouses take the Health Risk Assessment—in fact our percentage of participation put us at #2 of the ELCA’s 65 synods!

4.  I anticipate for Olivia and others her age a church that understands its worship, witness and work to be all of one piece….a church that doesn’t pit any one of these responses to God’s grace in Christ against any other such response….but that understands our entire life of discipleship as being  rich, life-giving, multi-faceted and fully integrated.

Playing off my third point, I’m guessing that as Olivia grows up her own financial offerings will grow out of her direct involvement as a disciple of Jesus.   Like others in the first third of life, she will want skin in the game and sweat on the brow for things that mean enough to her that she ALSO offers her financial gifts to God’s work.

Some of us gray-haired folks lament that younger persons “don’t know how to give the way the Greatest Generation gave.”   We wonder:  “Why don’t they get out their checkbooks and give more to church and charity?”

Well first, most of our young ones can’t find their checkbooks because they use plastic or give online.   But second, first-third-of-life folks hunger for a deeper, more integrated understanding of generosity—giving dollars to purposes that capture their imaginations, their hearts and their muscles.  They tend to practice “sweat equity” giving more than “write a check and call that good enough” giving!

5.  I long for a church for my grand-daughter that accompanies global companions in mutually-enriching ways….a church that is always both a sending and a receiving church….a church that is thoroughly “glocal”—both global and local in its approach to mission and ministry.

In this regard I’m happy to announce a brief visit, the first week in July, from four leaders in our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church.   Following a weekend consultation in Madison, Wisconsin, these four AELC leaders (including Bishop Frederick) will be with us in northwestern Minnesota, June 30-July 6th.  Due to the brevity of this visit—during a busy week of holiday celebration and vacation time--their itinerary will focus on Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes and the Moorhead area.   I do want to invite you all to several events that are open to all people of our synod--  a midweek worship service and program to follow at Trinity Lutheran Church of Detroit Lakes, commencing at 6 p.m. on Wednesday July 2, as well as Sunday worship services at Rollag Lutheran Church, rural Hawley, and the Lutheran Church of Christ the King in Moorhead.  Mark your calendars now and watch Northern Lights and the synod website for more information.

 6.  My prayer is that Olivia will inherit a church that is all about noticing gifts, naming gifts, cultivating gifts and sending gifts into God’s service in the church and the world.   I long for Olivia to be part of a church that prioritizes helping all of its members and friends reflect deeply on God’s multiple callings in their lives.

This is first and foremost, about VOCATION—God’s calling of all of us to bear his light into all the arenas, activities, and relationships of life.   Our ELCA colleges and campus ministries are riding the wave of renewed interest in VOCATION on campuses across our country.  What a great time it is to be situated as we are in our synod and our ELCA to contribute to a national conversation that is already happening!

But this is also about vocational discernment that will lead some young people to prepare for full-time service in the church.   There are sea changes playing out in how our ELCA conducts its candidacy process and engages in the vital task of theological education for ministry.   From homegrown efforts to provide theological education for laity to hothouses for discernment like our campus ministries and Bible camps to the major curriculum revision happening at Luther Seminary--we are witnessing a host of changes in how theological education is delivered, how future pastors and lay ministers blend book learning with contextual ministry experiences, and how this church continues to recognize and authorize disciples of Christ to build up the Body of Christ.  

Our synod needs to shift from being a net “importer” of pastors raised up in other synods to becoming a net “exporter” of pastors for this synod and for the whole church.   Will you pray, ponder and visit with others about that?  Will you actually speak to someone in whom you perceive gifts for ministry—and invite them to think about living their professional life within our ELCA?

 7.  I envision for my grand-daughter a church that regularly spends time stopping, looking, listening, and imagining what God is already doing in the world and in this church…..and then searches for ways to align its energies and resources with God’s promsed future.  In other words, I want Olivia to be part of a church that in all its manifestations invests itself in planning for how it will best serve God’s mission.

In this regard, I want to announce that next year’s synod assembly will explore another theme topic based on Faith Practices 2.0.   When we gather back here at Concordia next May 15-16, we’ll focus on creatively imagining the contours of God’s promised future—or, in other words, planning for how our congregations will participate in God’s work.   Mark your calendars now—and pastors, please declare those days a “wedding free zone” on your church planning calendar for 2015!

8.  Finally, I long for Olivia to have a church that passes on faith as naturally as we eat, drink, breathe and sleep.  

Olivia is already blessed with parents who are shaping her life and its rhythms around God, God’s unconditional love in Christ, and God’s call to Olivia to live as one of Christ’s followers.   

Just recently, when I was staying overnight with Olivia’s family in south Minneapolis, I was moved by how her big strong daddy helps her fall asleep at night…by gently singing Jesus Loves Me to her.   Except that Papa Aaron switches the pronouns and sings to Olivia:  Jesus loves you, this you know… 

At this assembly we will consider a major effort to bring the perspectives and the resources of Vibrant Faith Ministries (our assembly keynoters and Growth Group leaders) into a wider swath of our synod’s congregations.   I encourage your full engagement with this proposed project….not just during this assembly, but after you return home (assuming the resolution passes).   Go home, please, and become a gadfly by challenging your congregation grow deeper as a faith community that equips homes for commending to our young people the faith, hope and love that we receive in Jesus Christ.  Let’s create a tsunami of positive change across our synod, trusting that God’s Word never returns empty but  accomplishes God’s purposes wherever it is spoken and lived out!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Things That Make for Health

ISAIAH Forum on Community Health
First Presbyterian Church, Moorhead, MN
May 6, 2014

Why are we here today?
Some framing comments by Bishop Larry Wohlrabe, NW MN Synod ELCA

Three foundational words
·       “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them;  male and female he created them.”   Genesis 1:27
·       “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  (John 10:10)
·       “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.”  (Nicene Creed)

We are here today because we believe that God who made all things and all people, in the redemptive love of Jesus Christ and the resurrecting power of the Holy Spirit, is making all things new.   This is God’s great work in time and space.  Because God has caught us up in this new creation—we say to ourselves:  “Well, what are we waiting for?   What’s keeping us from living now (and helping others live now) on the basis of our hope for the New Creation God is bringing to us from God’s gracious future?”

We are here today to bring to the world a comprehensive, wide-angle, faith-based perspective
In the ELCA Social Statement, Caring for Health:  Our Shared Endeavor (passed overwhelmingly at the 2003 CWA of the ELCA in Milwaukee) we have this cogent introductory paragraph:

“Health is central to our well-being, vital to relationships, and helps us live out our vocations in family, work, and community. Caring for one’s own health is a matter of human necessity and good stewardship. Caring for the health of others expresses both love for our neighbor and responsibility for a just society. As a personal and social responsibility, health care is a shared endeavor.”

Breaking this paragraph down into its component parts:
·       Enjoying health—moving from suffering to wholeness—makes everything we are and do betterWe know that some diseases, like malaria and diabetes, are especially troubling because they magnify every other ill that afflicts those who suffer from them.  Conversely, good health enhances everything else in life!
·       Taking responsibility for our own health and wholeness is a profound act of stewardship—caring for one of God’s greatest gifts to us, our selves/bodies/minds/spirits.
·       Caring for our neighbor’s health is a powerful, concrete way of “loving our neighbor” to the core of their being.
·       Realizing that as we seek to multiply good health individualism gets us nowhere—we regard overcoming suffering, working toward greater health, as a shared endeavor….and we resist all efforts to “atomize” this.

We are here today because people of faith bring unique gifts to this work of alleviating suffering, diminishing shame, restoring wholeness
  1. An encompassing theological perspective that takes seriously our created dignity, our limitations/finitude/mortality, and the sobering reality of sin—sin in each one of us and sin in all of us together.
  2.  A Triune understanding of what makes for wholeness and the abundant life—as flowing from God’s creating, redeeming and sustaining power in the world.
  3.  A sense of personal responsibility, as befits our dignity as creatures made in God’s image and entrusted with the care of all God’s gifts, which is balanced by a deep appreciation for the communal, relational nature of human life.
  4.  Rich, multi-faceted, holistic ministries of the Church that enlist prayer, worship, visitation, education, social ministry (including provision of a whole network of SMOs) and public advocacy in service to the goals of reducing suffering, overcoming shame and healing the world and its peoples.

We are here today because we are awakening to the power of “public advocacy”
Three “chestnuts:”
·       John Perkins:  “Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day, but teach them to fish and they’ll eat for the rest of their life…The problem is that nobody is asking who owns the pond.”
·       Dietrich Bonhoeffer:  “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, but we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
·       Dr. Martin Luther King:  “We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside…but one day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed.  True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar.  It comes to see that a system that produces beggars needs to be repaved.  We are called to be the Good Samaritan, but after you lift so many people out of the ditch you start to ask, maybe the whole road to Jericho needs to be repaved.”

One final thought that has come to me in just the last few days:   One of the reasons why people of faith have been cautious to speak out in the public arena is that we’ve allowed ourselves to become sidetracked by questions about authorization and representation.  (“Who authorized me to advocate on behalf of a living wage for all?”   “When I speak--especially as an identified faith leader--whom do I purport to represent?”)    Critics of faith-based public advocacy often leverage these questions into SILENCING our public voice….shifting attention to questions of process (who authorizes? who is represented?) and away from the CONTENT being conveyed by our public voices.  It’s time for us to grow bolder in speaking out because what we have to say is a valid, perhaps even decisive contribution to a richer public conversation about the things that alleviate suffering and enhance wholeness in our world.

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA
Synod Website:

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Walking, Listening, Teaching, Transforming

Ordination of Jacquelin Lawson
Eventide at Sheyenne Crossings, West Fargo, ND
May 2, 2014
Luke 24:13-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This lovely short story is about two things for sure.  

First, it’s a Resurrection story…

But second, it’s also a ministry story.   It reveals what lies ahead for Someone who has put death behind him, once and for all.

There are some things worth noticing here about the ministry of Jesus, after he has passed through death into resurrected life….things that carry over into our lives and ministries as people who in baptism have also passed from death to life, with our Lord Jesus.

First, the ongoing ministry of the Resurrected One is all about moving out into the world.

In none of the four gospels does the Risen Lord Jesus hang around the Empty Tomb for long.   Later, followers of Jesus returned to the Empty Tomb, made pilgrimages there, built basilicas on that sacred site (with gift shops attached!)

Some of Jesus’ followers have returned to the Empty Tomb over the years.  But Jesus himself, alive forever in the power of the Spirit--Jesus is out and about, always moving ahead, ardently pursuing his mission of restoring the whole creation.  

Whatever else it means, the Resurrection is about God set loose in the world.   It’s about the Risen Jesus who (in the words of a hymn)  is “no longer bound  to distant years in Palestine, but saving, healing here and now, and touching every place and time.”  (ELW #389)

And what does this ministry of the Risen Jesus look like? 

Here things get real interesting, because the Risen Lord’s ministry seems rather unspectacular!   Rather than dazzling folks, Jesus simply goes walking, sidling up to two travelers who’re escaping from Jerusalem, heading to the village of Emmaus.

Here in this gospel lesson Jesus travels with them for quite a while.  As he accompanies them he draws them out, asks questions, hears what’s bugging them. 

The Resurrected One walks, asks questions, listens, and walks some more.

In this gentle, subtle way Jesus comes to know the broken hearts of his fellow travelers—how they are in deep grief and confusion, trying to make sense of the Cross where their Lord died—little knowing that the One who had now joined them on the road knew everything they wanted to know—and then some!

The restraint of the Resurrected Jesus is what catches our attention here.   The willingness of Jesus to walk with doubters, questioners who desperately want answers—that’s what’s striking here.

Jacquelin,  your baptism joined you to this Crucified and Resurrected Lord Jesus.  So your ministry is now an extension of the Risen Christ’s ministry.   You are being ordained this evening for a ministry of walking with others, listening intently to them, bearing with them in their joys and griefs and confusion…taking their questions seriously and accompanying them on their journey toward God’s future.

Please notice that the Risen Jesus here in Luke 24 isn’t on the lookout for folks who’ve already caught on, gotten their acts together and are doing great things in the world.   No, here on the road to Emmaus Jesus accompanies doubters, questioners, grieving souls trying to make sense of the senselessness of life.    That is now your ministry, too, Jacqquelin in this place of sheltering care.

But the Risen Christ’s ministry of accompaniment is about more than just commiserating with his companions.   Jesus walks and listens—true!—but when the time is right Jesus also speaks to his companions, sharing the best he has to offer.
And here, once more, we’re surprised.   Because—even though he has first-hand information to share—Jesus starts by taking his travelers back, into their own Scriptures, and opening those Scriptures in a way they’d never experienced before:   “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

What does the ministry of the Resurrected Lord Jesus look like?  It begins with accompaniment, coming alongside the doubting and the troubled, listening to them genuinely and patiently….

….but this ministry continues, it unfolds only as Jesus opens up God’s Word for his fellow travelers.   Jesus starts doing here what the church has spent centuries doing---relearning everything in the Bible with the lens of the Cross and Empty Tomb now bringing it all into focus.

In short, the Risen Jesus does Bible study out on the road to Emmaus.

Sound familiar,  Jacquelin?   Your ministry here at Sheyenne Crossings surely involves lots of listening….and  I know you’ll  give yourself to that.   But your listening will lead you into bold speaking of the Word, too—which is what these residents long for you to do.

In my work as a synod bishop, I occasionally receive complaints about some of our pastors!   It’s not uncommon for a frustrated parishioner to critique the way her pastor does hospital visits: “He came to my bedside, which was good, and he made some small talk and  nodded his head and listened sympathetically, but he never got around to reading scripture to me, praying with me, or proclaiming  Jesus’ promises to me.”

There came a time on the road to Emmaus when the Risen Jesus went beyond walking and listening.  There came a time when he had to speak, to share what he knew, to point his fellow travelers back to the promises of God.   And that speaking of Jesus, that opening of God’s Word, that willingness to give voice to the hope that we have—that, too, will mark and must mark your ministry, Jacquelin—as you already know.  

These folks want to hear more from you than the latest Twins score, or how your tomatoes are doing, or how awful the weather happens to be.   They want to hear about Jesus and his love and the purpose he bestows on every chapter in our lives!

But there is even more here in this rich Emmaus story…for as crucial as it was that Jesus shifted from listening to speaking….what “sealed the deal” was his willingness, at the end of a long day, to stay with his fellow travelers, to sit at table with them, and to share a simple meal with them.

If Jesus had stopped with his Bible study on the road to Emmaus, his two fellow travelers might have mistakenly concluded that this is all some kind of “head trip.”

Because whatever was preventing them (two of Jesus’ followers, we learn!), whatever was keeping them in the dark fell away only when Jesus, the Guest, became Jesus the Host who “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”

Jesus’ listening prepared the way for Jesus’ speaking, and Jesus speaking of God’s promises led him to actually performing, actually “doing” those promises—making  God’s Word  visible, touchable, “taste-able,” and consumable!   Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

And that didn’t just feel good for these two travelers.   They experienced so much more than a momentary spiritual “high.”
No, they were changed, they were transformed.   All the loose ends and dangling threads of their lives were suddenly re-woven together, and they realized why their hearts had been burning on the road while Jesus spoke to them.

The “proof of the pudding” is that those two disciples did something very foolish and risky.   Instead of hitting the hay for the night, they braved the darkness to run the whole seven miles back to Jerusalem, so they could share with their fellow disciples the Great News that had overtaken them on the road to Emmaus:  “That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

Jacquelin, this too will mark your ministry—the awesome opportunities you will have to act out, to “do” God’s promises in Jesus Christ, in baptismal water, with bread and wine, by way of touch and presence that bears the light of Christ wherever you go.

And this good ministry to which you’ve been called will make a difference in peoples’ lives, in the power of the Holy Spirit.   Cold hearts will be warmed, puzzled hearts restored, doubting hearts assured that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God truly does forgive sins, deliver us from death and the devil and give eternal life to all who believe.

God has richly gifted you for this ministry, Jacquelin.   Amidst the twists and turns in the winding journey that has brought you here—Jesus has been accompanying you every step of the way and God, speaking through his church, has called  you to this ministry, even as God promises to sustain you in it.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Getting Out of Church

Faith Lutheran Church, Pelican Rapids, MN
April 27, 2014
John 20:19-31
Easter 2, Confirmation Sunday

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Happy Easter!   It’s still OK to say that, you know, because Easter just STARTED last Sunday…and the whole blooming season of Easter runs for a full 50 days…the greatest season of the year for Christians and for all people.

The longer I live, the more amazed I am at how much there is in this rich, rich story of Jesus’ liberating death and his hope-engendering resurrection.

Last Sunday, as I listened to a great Easter sermon from my pastor in Moorhead, I was reminded about one of the peculiar little cul-de-sacs in this whole, amazing story.

I was reminded that Matthew’s gospel includes a detail that the other three gospels don’t mention:  that on the Saturday after Good Friday some of the same religious leaders who sought Jesus’ crucifixion convinced Pilate, the Roman governor, to seal up Jesus’ tomb—for fear that Jesus’ followers would come and steal away Jesus’ dead body in order to claim—falsely!—that Jesus had arisen from the dead.

So in this weird scene at the tail-end of Matthew, chapter 27  Pilate agrees that Jesus’ tomb should be sealed up, tight as a drum, so no troublemakers even have a chance to steal his body.   Pilate even dispatches a bunch of Roman soldiers to stand guard--to prevent any monkey business from happening there in the cemetery.

We can picture them—a whole cohort of Roman soldiers--tough guys, packing heat, their backs to the tomb, peering outward, scanning the horizon for marauding grave robbers lurking in the shadows!

Here those grave-guarders thought the danger was “out there” somewhere—Jesus’ followers trying to pull a fast one and bust their way INTO Jesus’ tomb!

But what the soldiers failed to realize was that the danger wasn’t “out there.”  The danger was inside the tomb!

These tough-guy Roman soldiers were dumbstruck when a “grave robbery” actually DID take place on Easter morning—not because some rowdy outsiders got into the grave, but because Jesus, the Resurrected Insider got out of the grave!

Now, this morning, something very much like that is repeated here in John’s story of the first Easter evening.  

We come upon another “tomb” of sorts…..a room in Jerusalem where Jesus’ closest followers are holed up, all the windows shuttered, all the doors locked-tight so that the same enemies who demanded Jesus’ death don’t come after them, too!

Jesus’ disciples, on that first Easter evening, imagined the biggest danger they faced was “out there”--the same mob who condemned Jesus and orchestrated his execution on trumped up charges.   

The disciples were terrified of the dangers that lurked outside their safe house—which left them flabbergasted when they discovered that the Danger was actually on the inside the room with them.

Because all at once, the Risen Lord Jesus Christ just appeared in their midst.   Jesus, the Living One, paid no never-mind to barred windows or locked doors!!

…and that could only mean trouble for his disciples—scared rabbits who all turned tail and ran for their lives  when Jesus was arrested.  Jesus’ disciples had good reason to fear him showing up in their midst—they had let him down.  They deserved condemnation from the lips of the Risen Christ.

But that’s not what they got.   Jesus’ first word to them was such a welcome surprise:  “Peace be with you!”  

The cowardly disciples deserved a blistering attack by the Risen Christ—but instead, they heard him from his lips the sweetest word imaginable:  “Shalom!  Peace to the n-th degree!”

The Danger that showed up in their midst was unsettling….but in a way that broke open life for them, that offered a fresh future beyond their imagination.   Jesus not only freed them from their guilt—but re-enlisted them to continue his mission of piecing back together the whole broken creation, one sorry sinner at a time.   “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.”   Get going and proclaim my peace, announce my forgiveness!

These two stories…the story of Roman soldiers in Matthew 27  trying in vain to keep Jesus in his grave….and the story of Jesus’ followers trying to keep trouble out of their safe house here in John 20….

These two stories have gotten me thinking about us, our “tombs,” the “safe houses” we try to hole up inside so that the danger out there doesn’t “get” us.

Why, sometimes we even make the church into a fortress where we hide, lest we be tainted by all the evil that’s “out there.”    Sometimes we imagine we’ll be safe if we just shutter our windows, lock our doors, huddle up and seek protection from whatever or whoever might try to lead us astray.

But that’s not how the Resurrected Jesus looks at things---not at all. 

The Risen and Living Jesus is all about breaking out of whatever tight, closed, place—whatever tomb, whatever sealed room—we try to put him inside of.

That’s what unfolds here in these rich Resurrection stories:   Jesus will not be confined.  Jesus will not stay dead and buried.   Jesus will not stay put.   Jesus is always breaking out and getting loose in the world….

….and taking us with him, in the process!

So in the Easter stories of the four gospels, Jesus never just hangs around the Empty Tomb, chit-chatting with pilgrims, signing autographs, or taking “selfies” with his admirers.

No, in the gospels, Jesus is about getting out of the cemetery, running his race, way out ahead of us, leading us out into mission in the world.

Here in what we call the Doubting Thomas story, Jesus shows up inside that sealed room—only so that he can get himself and everybody else out of that room, only so that he can send his followers back into this dangerous world, in order to continue what Jesus began at his Cross and Empty Tomb.

That, my dear friends, is what this Easter season is all about…..and it’s also what this Confirmation Sunday means for us here at Faith Lutheran.

Whatever else happens here this morning with our five dear confirmands and all the rest of us—we’ll be reminded about just what happens here in churches like Faith….where the gift of faith is given in  Word and Sacrament….and where our doubts are heard and taken seriously, where God gives us reasons to keep on believing, just as our Risen Lord Jesus met Thomas in his doubts and restored him to a faith that proclaimed:  “My Lord and my God!”

It’s a matter of life and death, you see, that we come to church, to receive faith and have our doubts removed.  

And it’s just as crucial that we also get out of church!

What was that?   Every relative, every friend of our confirmands is probably worried about just that—that our young friends will “get out of church” now that they’re confirmed.

But I’m not talking about “getting out of church” as in ABANDONING the church.

I’m talking about getting out of church the way Jesus wanted his followers to get out of that locked room in Jerusalem.   I’m talking about getting out of church in the way Jesus talks about that here in John 20:  “As the Father has sent me so I send you.”

So please—I say this to our confirmands and to all of us:  please keep coming to church, so that you can keep getting out of church and returning to God’s world!

The Affirmation of Baptism promises in our confirmation liturgy pick up on that “come and go” rhythm of life…

Notice, please, how these promises include two COMINGS and three GOINGs:

You have made public profession of your faith.  Do you intend to continue in the covenant God made with you in holy baptism: (and here they are…)

To live among God’s faithful people…that’s a COMING…
To hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper….another COMING…
To proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed….there’s the first GOING…
To serve all people, following the example of Jesus…another GOING…
And to strive for justice and peace in all the earth? more GOING.

Dear friends in Christ, may we all find here in God’s church a wonderful home, a nourishing haven, a place where we always feel as though we belong…

May we enter and re-enter this community of Christ, time and again…

But please, let’s not stay here.   If the church starts feeling too cozy, the Risen Jesus will come and along and push us out, into God’s world again.  And that’s a very good thing, because the whole human family needs what Jesus sends us to do:  to proclaim his good news, to serve all people, to speak up for justice and pursue peace because that is our God wants more than anything else—for us and for all people.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.