Friday, December 19, 2014

Paragons of the Kingdom

Opening Devotions
Board of Regents Meeting—Oak Grove Lutheran School, Fargo, ND
December 18, 2014

Matthew 2:13-18
Now after [the wise men] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.  Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
   wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
   she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

In England, near the beginning of the 15th century, a religious order called the Star of Bethlehem decided to welcome some patients into their monastery in London.  In time the monastery was named Bethlehem Hospital—the first “lunatic asylum,” as they called it, in all of England.  Over the years Bethlehem became shortened and slurred into Bedlam….and soon this hospital for the mentally ill was called Bedlam….a word that eventually became associated with any place or situation characterized by uproar or confusion.[1]

From Bethlehem….to Bedlam…

Sometimes it feels like that in late December.  We long for Bethlehem….but instead we encounter Bedlam in our malls, our workplaces, our homes, maybe also our congregations.

Even the church’s calendar has a Bethlehem-to-Bedlam quality about it.   On December 25 we observe the Nativity of our Lord, but one day later we remember St Stephen, the first Christian martyr….and three days after Christmas we revisit this gruesome story of the Holy Innocents, Martyrs.

I know preachers fairly well, and I can tell you that whenever one of those two lesser festivals falls on the Sunday after Christmas, most preachers moan and groan and duck for cover—avoiding the stoning of Stephen, side-stepping the slaughter of the innocents. “Let’s just sing carols and not read these bloody tales, lest we ‘spoil Christmas.’”

But truth be told, even if the church’s calendar didn’t shove these horror stories in our faces….life itself and the daily news can easily ‘spoil Christmas’ for us.

132 Pakistani school children senselessly slaughtered this past Tuesday, two years (almost to the day) after the horrific school shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut!

Every Advent, for as long as I can remember, something happens that threatens to ‘spoil Christmas’ for us.  At the same time, though, such tragedies make us hanker for Christmas all the more.

Because even these heart-stopping brutalities remind us what was at stake for God to come among us in the baby born in Bethlehem’s manger.

Into this sorry old world where children have always been at risk, God came among us as a child….the one Infant who got away from cruel old King Herod….and grew to become a man who wrapped his arms around children, blessed them, and set them in the midst of his closest followers—pointing to these little ones as paragons par excellence of his peculiar kind of Kingdom.

Jesus our Lord came among us not to have a joyride or a picnic, here on earth--but to redeem us, to restore fallen humanity, and to renew the whole, groaning creation.

Nothing, nothing that happens to us, nothing that makes us shudder when we watch the news on TV….nothing and no one is outside of the scope of  God’s saving intervention in this fallen world.

That is a wonderfully appropriate thing for us to remember today as we meet to care for this beloved school where children are treasured, where little ones are nurtured, in the name of him who came among us as a little child and who calls us to recognize in our youngsters, signs of his kingdom right here, right now.

Let us pray:   Eternal God, whose Advent we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving, bless all schools, and especially Oak Grove Lutheran School, that they may be lively places for sound learning, new discovery, and the pursuit of wisdom.  Grant that those who teach and those who learn may find you to be the source of all truth.  Open our eyes to behold in the faces of our children the image of your dear Son, who took on human flesh to make us and the whole creation new.  Bless our deliberations today so that everything we think and say and do will give you glory and reflect your care for all children.  In Jesus’ name.   Amen.

[1] Based on an excerpt from Edmund A. Steimle, From Death to Birth (Fortress, 1973) p. 115.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Gospel Era Dawns!

Dilworth Lutheran Church, Dilworth, MN
Advent 2/Mark 1:1-8
Installation of Pr. Elizabeth Hiller

Mark 1:1    The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Some years ago an advertising agency down in Florida came up with the idea of creating a series of billboards, each of them conveying a message purportedly from God.   This “GodSpeaks” campaign caught on for a while, and swept across the country.

Perhaps you saw one of these 10,000 clever billboards that were put up in about 200 cities across America.

Some of these simple, direct GodSpeaks messages were warm and inviting, for example:
·        “Tell the kids I love them.”  --God
·        “Is your heart heavy?  I’m here.” --God
·        “Let’s meet at my house Sunday—before the game.”   --God
·        “I love you. I love you. I love you.”  --God

But other GodSpeaks messages had a surlier, more menacing tone:
·        “Have you read my #1 bestseller.  There will be a test!”   --God
·        “Life is short.  Eternity is not.”—God
·        “You think it’s hot here?”  --God
·        “Don’t make me come down there!”  --God

Such supposed “messages from God”, like the hand-drawn signs you see even dotting our own landscape….such messages always make me wonder:  what sort of God is speaking here?  What tone of voice is coming through?   Most importantly:  Is the ‘news’ from this God good news or something else?

Our text from St Mark, chapter one, offers an answer, right out of the gate:   “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

As you may know Mark is considered to be a first of its kind:  the first-written, earliest-to-appear of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

Mark (whoever he was!) probably set out to write a biography of Jesus…but his little writing project produced something far beyond a simple biography-of-Jesus. 

Not that Mark’s gospel is lacking in information about Jesus….but when Mark got going, it became apparent that he had written the kind of document this world had never seen before.  

It was as if Mark realized, as he wrote, that he was imparting transformation at least as much as information.  Mark realized that the words spilling forth from his pen had a snap-crackle-pop energy to them.   These words didn’t just say something—they DID SOMETHING!

It’s as if Mark was quickly overcome by a compelling need to burst forth with glad tidings, fresh news so amazing that it simply had to be shared—the way young couples can’t wait a second longer to share the news about their engagement or the birth of their first child.

What’s the latest from God?  Is the news from God good or not?

Mark tipped his hand right off the bat, no beating around the bush:  “The beginning of the good news (we could say:  the glad tidings) of Jesus Christ the son of God.”

Mark began his writing project by gushing:  “Hang on to your hats, folks!  We’ve got the latest, freshest news from God, and it’s all good news--the greatest news ever!”

And then, to flesh that out, Mark didn’t just launch into a series of facts about Jesus or a long list of doctrines about Jesus….but rather he simply started regaling his readers with what this Jesus did when he arrived on our scene….always with an urgent, breathless quality to it.

This year, as we dwell in Mark’s Gospel a lot, we’ll notice things like how often Mark uses one of his favorite words:  “immediately!”   Everything happens at breakneck speed in Mark’s gospel.  Every story is told with an economy of words (lest we dilly-dally along the way)…

….until, until we come to the end of Mark’s short gospel, when the pace slows down, because Mark has gotten us to the climactic conclusion, where everything about this Jesus comes together at his cross, his grave, and his rising-from-the-dead three days later.

There, at the very end of Mark’s short gospel, it becomes crystal clear that in Jesus we meet a God who means us well, always and forever.

It’s as if someone hits the slow-motion button starting with the 14th chapter of Mark’s Gospel…as we behold Jesus  not just spreading the good news but becoming the good news as he dies on the cross for us, is buried in a grave for us, and after three days is raised to life again for us and our salvation—the best, greatest surprise this sorry old world has ever seen.

Which is why, of all those GodSpeaks billboard messages I referred to earlier, the goofiest one surely has to be this one:  “Don’t make me come down there! –God.”

No, no, no, no, no you wacky billboard people! 

“Don’t make me come down there”???   Sorry!   It’s way too late for that!  God has already beat us to the punch.  God has already come down here—and we thank our lucky stars for that! 

God’s arrival in Bethlehem’s manger, God’s Advent in our midst, kicks off the whole amazing adventure of God’s rescuing redemption of you and me--God’s astounding restoration of the whole creation!

All of that is tucked into this first sentence in Mark’s Gospel.  This isn’t just “nice to know” information about Jesus.   This is a sentence that cracks open the transformation that God in Christ is all about.

Mark Allan Powell, who teaches New Testament at our ELCA seminary in Ohio, says that “Mark wants to tell us about the beginning of a new era, a time and place in which God has entered human history in an unprecedented way.  It is ‘the gospel era’…[in which] God is ready and willing to rule our lives…”[1]

What the GodSpeaks billboard campaign got right is that we really do pine for a Word from God.  Our ears are truly itching to hear from the One who made us.  

But (we also want to know) if there is news from God, is it good or not?  Mark’s answer is clear:  “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ the Son of God.”  Folks, we’ve got the latest news from God—and that news is as good as news ever gets!

It sounds so sweet to our ears, because, you se,we’re dying to hear it.

We’re longing, we’re panting to hear such good news because most of the time we’re caught up in all the bad news that’s always coming at us.

Think about that:  the news has been pretty grim, of late, hasn’t it?

It’s filled with words about Ebola….beheadings by terrorists in Syria and Iraq….school shootings that have become all too routine….and the violent deaths of young black men in our cities.

I don’t know about you, but my wife Joy and I regularly find ourselves shutting off the TV and the radio, the news gets so depressing.

So we escape to social media, like Facebook, except that there too the bad news is readily available from our “friends” who beseech us to pray for them as they cope with bad choices, cancer diagnoses, wayward kids, strained marriages, lost jobs, and on and on.

In this perpetually bad news world, we hanker for another message.  If God were to speak today, what would God say?

That’s the question, Pastor Elizabeth, that I hope will be on your mind not just during this Advent season, but in all the seasons yet to come, every day as you walk among God’s people and every week as you get ready to stand in this pulpit.

Don’t get me wrong:  you can, and at times you will, draw our attention to the bad news “out there,” as well as the bad news we have made of things because of our sin….
But  when you do that, do it always with an eye toward the latest, freshest news from God:  news that is always good!

God’s good news in Christ has the power to shut down all the purveyors of bad news, including that nagging little voice inside each of us that’s always haranguing us with all those “shouldas, couldas, and wouldas!”

May you come to the good work of pastoral ministry here with a daily dose of St Mark’s ants-in-the-pants eagerness to burst forth with the story of Jesus that has launched the gospel era, the advent of God’s strong and gentle rule over all things!

And as you take up your ministry here at Dilworth Lutheran Church, Pastor Elizabeth, may you always have ears able to hear and a voice ready to say:  “God is still speaking.  God has news for us—and it is GOOD news, always and forever!”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Commentary on Mark 1:1-8 at

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Planting--Not Burying--Faith!

Redeemer Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls, MN
Vibrant Faith Training Weekend
Pentecost 23/November 15, 2014 (Saturday evening worship)
Matthew 25:14-30

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Quick:   your house is on fire.  You think you can chance one last trip inside to bring out the one thing that means the most to you, the one thing you most want to pass on to your children.  

What do you go after when you enter your burning house for the last time?

OK, here’s the answer:   this quick question is really a trick question—because the best things in life aren’t things.   There is no thing in your burning house worth risking your life to grab and run with it.  Doing so will only jeopardize one of the greatest gifts God has given you:  your very life!

So, remove the burning house from the equation, and ponder the same question:  what’s the most important thing you want to make sure you pass on to the next generation?

It’s not your life that could easily be snuffed out were you foolish enough to run into a burning building.

It’s your faith, the faith in the God we know best in Jesus Christ, the faith that this head-over-heels-in-love-with-you God showered upon you freely, fully lavishly.   God has bestowed on you this awesome gift, with great abandon.    For it is in God’s nature to give away the best God has to offer—to give away Jesus, to give away the faith and hope and love that Jesus brings--to “spend” this great gift like a drunken sailor, plopping it down right in our laps.

What do you do with this gift?  You do what God does:  you give it away, starting with those right under your roof, the ones in your innermost circle of loving care, your own children….and if you don’t happen to have kids of your own, you give it away to other children who matter to you, the young ones who are all around us.

That’s what this Vibrant Faith Weekend is all about, here at Redeemer & Black River.   Your parish is declaring that you intend to order your whole life around the one thing that matters most:  passing on the faith….recognizing the height and breadth and depth of this overflowing gift (the way the three servants in Jesus’ parable must have been blown away by the magnitude of the investment their master placed in their care.  Each talent, you see, was the equivalent of about fifteen years wages—about $855,000 in this town!)

We recognize, we see what fabulous wealth has been handed over to us, like the servants in the story.  It takes our breath away!    “We’ve been given all of THAT?”
We recognize the value of God’s greatest gift to us, the gift of our faith…..and then we do with that gift what the faithful servants in this story  do:   we invest it, we scatter it around, we give it away, confident that faith, hope and love are the only things that multiply as they are divided—shared with others!

This isn’t rocket science, my friends.   We know that it works, passing on the faith….and we know who does this best, most compellingly, most effectively.

Who passes on faith most effectively?   Parents…..parents in homes…..and other caring Christian adults who act like parents in the circles of care and concern we’re all part of.

This may sound hokey, but it’s true:  “Studies have shown that this works”—works amazingly well.

The National Study of Youth and Religion (abbreviated NSYR) just crunched the numbers.[1]   Here they are:

  • 1% of teens ages 15-17 raised by parents who attached little importance to faith were themselves highly faith-oriented in their mid- to late 20s.
  • In contrast, 82% of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults.

Don’t breathe a word about God to your kids and maybe 1% of them will grow up to be faithful, vibrant disciples of Christ.

Talk about Jesus at home, “marinate” your offspring in the love of God, share the faith that’s been given you, and 82% of your children will themselves show forth a vibrant, living faith in Christ when they’re older.

Two takeaways from our parable and this hard data from the NSYR:  

First, parents and other loving Christian adults trying to pass on faith to the next generation are a force to be reckoned with.   The connection between faithful parents and faithful children is, according to Dr. Christian Smith who led the NSYR, this connection is “nearly deterministic.”   Nothing else comes close to having the effect that parents and other caring adults have on the children in their lives—not youth ministry or pastors or service projects or Christian education efforts in parochial schools or churches—those all pale in comparison to the far-reaching influence of parents and other loving adult mentors to youth.

Christian Smith says that nothing else “comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth….Parents just dominate.”

The second takeaway from the parable of the talents and this NSYR research is this:  whatever you do, leave your shovel in the toolshed!

The third servant in the parable, when he realized the awesome gift and the amazing responsibility his master had plopped down in his lap…the third servant was paralyzed rather than energized.   His hope faded and his fear kicked in—“What if I mess up???”

So rather than investing his talent in the stock market, the third servant found his trusty shovel, dug a huge hole, and buried his talent for safe-keeping in the soil of his backyard.

Whatever he might do, he surely wasn’t going to lose his master’s wealth…
….even though that’s exactly what happened.

When the master returned  to hear how his three servants handled the talents entrusted to them, he was so overjoyed with the over-the-top, reckless investing the first two servants engaged in—that he gave them even more money to take out and invest!

But when the shivering, sniveling third servant haltingly stepped forward, admitting that he decided simply to bury his talent so that none of it would be lost—his master had a fit, giving that third servant his walking papers and turning over his talent to the first two servants.

And why?  Because the master in the parable is the God-figure, and God is the quintessential “high roller!”  

God gambles, God takes enormous risks with everything God has made.   God gives stuff away, willy-nilly entrusts way too much to scrawny little creatures like us…and God grants us the freedom to do the same—to give away what God has first given to us, trusting that the gifts will multiply as they are divided.

But shovels, and holes in the ground, and nest eggs hidden away:  God has “zero tolerance” for any of that.   God doesn’t want to see you or me or anyone else digging a hole in our backyard to hide what we have.   Keep your shovels in the toolshed!

Not everyone in our churches has learned this.   The NSYR found that while 2/3 of teens raised by black Protestant parents and 50% of teens raised by conservative Protestant parents remained faithful in young adulthood….but 70% of teens raised by mainline Protestant parents had minimal or lower levels of religiousness as young adults.

In other words, mainline Protestants like us ELCA folks, have a problem.   We’re too fond of our shovels!  
Here’s one final quote from Christian Smith:  many mainline Protestant parents said they “feel guilty if they think they are doing anything to direct their children toward their religion as opposed to any other possibility.”  They question if they should tell their child “what I believe is right.”

Too many of us in our ELCA seem to think it’s heavy-handed, or even coercive, to share our faith with our kids.   We’ve become so open, so broad-minded that we won’t even argue our own position in a good debate!

In short, we’ve gone for the shovel, buried our gift….when what we should be getting out of the tool shed is the planter, the cultivator, and that big bottle of Miracle-Gro!  

Don’t worry about faith-sharing by Christians being “heavy handed!”   Our kids will figure out how to doubt and be skeptical and drift away all on their own (and they’ll get plenty of encouragement to do so!)

But before our children can raise questions about their faith, they need to have a faith worth questioning, and that is where we Christian adults come in.   Our calling is to plant, not bury, Christian faith….to give away the best of what we’ve been given, as lavishly, lovingly and recklessly as God has given away God’s very best:  Jesus Christ our Lord and the faith, hope and love that Jesus always calls forth in us.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] David Briggs, “Parents No. 1 Influence in Teens Remaining Religiously Active as Young Adults,” Christian Century (Nov. 5, 2014).  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Ants-In-The-Pants Expectation

Trinity Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN
Pentecost 22/November 9, 2014
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Think for a moment about what you spend most of your time thinking about.

What occupies your attention in most of your waking hours?

Three possibilities come to mind.

  • Perhaps you reflect primarily on things that are past.  Memories of bygone days can be foremost on your mind.
  • Or you can be caught in the present.  The relentless tug of the here-and-now can consume you.
  • Or you can spend your time pondering the path ahead.   Your imagination can be captured by the future and all that it might bring.

I would have to confess that the present moment, the stuff that’s right under my nose, consumes most—actually too much of-- my time, energy and attention.

And I’m guessing I’m not alone.   If the hectic pace of modern life, the busy-ness of it all, the never-ending “to do” lists, demand most of our energies—we may agree that “present tense” concerns gobble up most of our attention.

What we spend most of our time thinking about is what’s right before us, this present moment, this “now.”

Such ruminations naturally lead us into this puzzling parable of Jesus about the ten bridesmaids waiting to welcome the bridegroom, so that the wedding party can begin.

Unlike so many of Jesus’ other parables, the characters in this story have weighty adjectives hung around their necks.    There are ten bridesmaids, but they are not all carbon copies of one another.  The Storyteller tells us, right up front, that five of them are wise and five of them are foolish….which immediately makes us wonder how we’ll be able to tell the difference.

Because in the actual unfolding of this story, that difference is not readily apparent.   If we follow how the story plays out…

  • We see ten bridesmaids, all known and loved by the bride and the groom.  
  • We see ten young maidens all chosen to lead the bridegroom in festal procession, as he meets his blushing bride. 
  • We see ten bridesmaids all with lamps to light the bridegroom’s way. 
  • We see ten young women who all grow drowsy when the bridegroom doesn’t arrive on time—all ten of them getting heavy eyelids and dozing off.  
  • We see ten bridesmaids, all waking up with a start at the stroke of midnight when the bridegroom finally shows up.

In the unfolding of this story only at midnight does it become fully apparent which ones are wise and which ones are foolish…..because often who we are becomes clear only in light of what we do, especially in the clutch moments of life, when our true character is revealed.

Not until midnight is the curtain lifted, because only when the clock strikes twelve do we come to see that although these ten bridesmaids all seem so similar, five of them are living in one time zone and five are living in another time zone.

Five of the bridesmaids are deemed “foolish” because at midnight, it’s revealed that they were living as if the only time that mattered was the present moment.   They might have been the classiest dressers, the most “with it” bunch of bridesmaids, even though they couldn’t apparently see beyond the ends of their noses.   They were so enthralled by the “now,” that it never occurred to them that things might not unfold “on time.”

So the five foolish bridesmaids were caught completely off guard by the tardiness of the bridegroom!

The other five bridesmaids were the “wise” ones, even though they might have appeared frumpier than the other five—frumpier, because along with their lamps they were also lugging along those ungainly jugs of extra oil.   The reserve oil might have slowed them down, and in the group photo, they might have appeared less stylish….but they were the “wise” ones because they already inhabited the future.

And, being daughters of the future, the five wise bridesmaids were already living differently in the present.   The day before the wedding celebration (instead of getting manicures with the five foolish ones) they were out buying extra oil, because you know how men can be--some of them are never on time--like this bridegroom, whom they’d been invited to serve.

The five wise bridesmaids may well have been the uncool bridesmaids, because like good Boy Scouts, their motto was “always be prepared” for whatever the future throws at you.  They were “belts AND suspenders” kinds of folks, so aware that surprise might be just around the corner that they were forever anticipating, always getting ready for unforeseen possibilities.

In short, the five wise bridesmaids inhabited a bigger world than their five foolish counterparts.

And here’s where this parable intersects our lives in this time and place.

Because life in general, and modern life in particular, is always locking us into the narrow, suffocating space of this present moment.  

The hectic pace of life, all the demands that forever crowd our days, the frantic busy-ness of today, the multiple distractions we’ve fashioned for ourselves—they all conspire with one another to whittle our world down to just living for “now.”

And that’s a problem for us, especially as people of Christian faith, because God has created us and in Christ God has re-created us to inhabit a much, much wider world.

The grand sweeping story of God’s love affair with us--culminating in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ--all that God has been, is now and intends to keep doing in our midst is fashioning us into people destined to live today as if God’s promised future were already dawning among us.

God intends for us to be sons and daughters of God’s preferred future in Jesus Christ….which means that God’s fondest dream for us is that we live every moment of every day, wide awake, keenly alert, sitting on the edge of our seats, anticipating eagerly our next encounter with God, the One who made us, who travels with us and is (at the same time) always out ahead of us!

In short, God in Christ, invites us to live in this world as “time travelers,” inhabitants of another world.   God calls us to live now in such a way that we have one foot in this present moment and the other foot already in the life of the world to come.

God intends for us to live in God’s own world, the world for which we were made!

And that world--God’s world--is always bigger than our puny “now.”   God’s world encompasses past, present and future.   God’s world is going somewhere, because God is active in it, moving, taking us and the whole creation along on a wild, amazing journey.
The God we know in the story of Israel and Israel’s favorite son Jesus is a God who is always going somewhere, always encountering us, always snatching us up into God’s own life.

This means that living with God is about living in a  world of surprises, for we never know ahead of time exactly where and when God might meet us next….which is to say:  we’re never sure just when we’ll wake up to God’s constant, abiding presence with us

  • So God comes to us whenever God’s Word switches on the light-bulb in our heads, captures our attention, shakes us out of our drowsiness.
  • God comes to us whenever Water and Word birth a new beginning, a death and resurrection in the midst of our ordinary time.
  • God comes to us whenever it dawns on us that food and drink are always holy gifts, especially the Meal we eat at tables like this one.
  • God comes to us in the darkness when we feel completely overwhelmed, utterly bereft...
  • God comes to us in the blazing light of a sunrise or a mountaintop moment...
  • God comes to us in our neighbor who helps us or our neighbor who needs something from us, offering us a chance to love as Jesus loves….
  • ….and because God always finishes what he starts, we expect God to come for us all, one last time to finally make us and all things new in Jesus Christ.

So we live, as the five wise bridesmaids lived, in ants-in-the-pants expectation for the next time God shows up.

The other day I heard about one way such edge-of-the-seat mindfulness might be lived out.   There’s this woman who always keeps, on the front seat of her car, some baggies—each of which contains a new pair of socks or a couple of granola bars or a $5 gift-card from the local grocery store.   She wants to be ready, you see, for the next time she meets someone along the highway who’s holding up a sign that reads:  “Homeless—anything will help.”

This woman is prepared, you see, for the next time God comes to her, wearing the mask of a neighbor in need.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Story Dwellers Who Become Story Tellers

Ordination of Kate Longtin Johnson
October 19, 2014
Grace Lutheran Church, Hallock, MN
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; I Corinthians 12:4-11; Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

My goodness, Kate, what a ride you’ve been on these last few years!  And what an amazing collection of titles you been accumulating along the way!

Not all that long ago you acquired the title MRS, when you and Frank married--though I suspect that (like most young women nowadays) you hardly ever call yourself “Mrs. Johnson”….

Then you picked up another title, MDIV.    Now that’s a strange one, especially when you say it out loud:  you’re a “Master” of Divinity, how’s that for weird?  And so audacious, too:  a “Master” of Divinity, a “Master” of God and the things of God—really??

And now in a few moments you’ll receive another title:  REV.   You’ll walk away from this worship service with that weighty, awkward word “Reverend” hung around your neck.  Even though you might not use it very often, others will--so, get ready for that!

MRS….MDIV….REV…..and oh, yes (how could I forget?), there’s one other new title you’ve acquired recently:  you got your MOM degree!  The arrival of baby Natalie, I dare say, has changed your life as much, if not more so, than all those other titles you’ve been acquiring….

….and, I hasten to add, your experience of being a MOM will shape how you live into this REV-business, more than you might imagine!

For, as you start to engage with the people of God in the New Beginnings parish, as you labor among them and with them so that Christ might be formed in them (Galatians 4:19)….you will do so as one who is fussing with and finagling ways to form this same Lord Jesus Christ, in dear, sweet little Natalie.

It is as if God bestowed on you your own little hothouse experiment, when God gave you Natalie.  

Please excuse the crassness of that—Natalie is surely more than an “experiment” or a Petri dish for faith formation….but she does embody in miniature (literally “in miniature”) what God is always up to as God implants Christ, nurtures Christ, forms Christ in all of God’s people, all of us, all the time.

Your Old Testament lesson from Deuteronomy 6 shows how that happens, how God goes to work on us.   It reveals God washing over God’s people, and drenching them in God’s sin-forgiving, identity-bestowing, hope-engendering, faith-forming Word.

Think of it as “saturation education” in the Word of God--being soaked in the scriptures, “marinated” by the biblical story so completely that even if we aren’t always walking around with a Bible in our hands, we start to  “smell” and even “taste” like people who’ve been soaked in God’s goodness.

On the cusp of entering the Promised Land, after forty years of wandering in the Wilderness of Sinai, Moses is concerned here in Deuteronomy--concerned that the Children of Israel not forget.   Moses wants to make sure that when the good times roll, when there are two chickens in every pot, when peace and prosperity descend upon them—Moses wants to make sure that his people not forget where they had come from and Who had brought them all those good things.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

God’s vision, here in Deuteronomy 6, is that we be surrounded, washed over with, saturated in God’s story…and that that happen so comprehensively, so completely that God’s Story becomes eternally entwined with our story.

And that’s critical, because if God’s Story doesn’t define us, other stories surely will!
David Lose, one of your teachers at Luther Seminary, puts it this way:
In recent years, the presence and influence of the Christian story in contemporary culture has shrunk considerably. The proliferation of different and competing stories about reality—some of which are religious, while many more are about material wealth, nationalism, or ethnicity—has occupied more and more of our attention.  We may see these stories proclaimed on the front covers of magazines or more subtly hidden in the logo of a powerhouse brand, but they are all around us, each inviting us to subscribe to a particular understanding and worldview about what is good, beautiful, and true. Taken as a whole, the proliferation of all these different worldviews has crowded out the biblical story as the narrative by which to make sense of all others and rendered it just one among a multitude of stories.[1]

We who bear the Word of God, we who seek to center ourselves and others in God’s great Story, do so mindful of all the other stories that try to crowd their way in, take us over, define us.

And so the ministry to which we give ourselves, all God’s people but especially pastors of the Church, the cause that claims us is about re-centering lives in the only Story that is big enough, deep enough, gracious enough to do justice to God and to all of reality and to us--the Story of God’s love in lavishly creating us…..and graciously liberating us through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection….and continually renewing us through the reviving breath of the Holy Spirit.

So, Kate, as you hold your child, your Natalie, in your hands….you see that happening.   At times it can seem so subtle, so imperceptible.   My grand-daughter, Olivia, (at 17 months) is now regularly starting to act the way Christians act.   When we gather around the table for a meal, we all clasp our hands together to pray—and Olivia has discovered that she too can fold her hands—and that when she does that all the adults around her go nuts!

We could write that off as mere habit, I suppose….like Pavlov’s dogs, Olivia is being positively reinforced by her family members.    But we dare not under-estimate the power of such habits, such responses.  These are the rudimentary ways faith is practiced for all of life…it’s how faith practices begin…practices that allow God’s story to shine forth, faith practices by which other, puny, ultimately ineffectual stories are crowded out.

You’re doing that at home, with Frank and Natalie, day in and day out.   You’re taking your daily dip into God’s great, all-encompassing Love Story right here in the parsonage of Hallock….

And now, as you start to trek down south to Alvarado and Oslo, you’ll be doing the same things….placing yourself at God’s disposal in order to submerge the people of the New Beginnings parish in this same story of God the Creator, Jesus the Savior and the Spirit who gives life.

Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the little ways that happens….be on the lookout for God’s Story shoving aside all the trifling, bogus, dead-end stories that would claim us and those we serve.

As you take up this grand calling, that comes with the weighty word “Reverend” that we’re hanging around your neck this evening, please remember three things:

First, Kate, all your life, all your own story within God’s encompassing Story, has brought you to this point.   You didn’t sign up for this—God has shanghaied  you, called you, and set you apart for this.  If you feel as though you’re in over your head, that’s entirely normal!

Second, Kate, God has showered upon you all the gifts you need for this business.   And God hasn’t just given you enough of the gifts of the Spirit either.  God has given you the right complement of such gifts which, as our lesson from I Corinthians reminds us, always come with just the right degree of diversity within the unity in which the Holy Spirit operates.

And third, Kate, don’t forget that God’s goal in all of this—the outcome God aims for is that we and the whole people of God not just live within God’s Story….but that we share this story with others.   Lutherans have all too often downplayed how God always saves us in order to send us, as the stirring words of the Great Commission from Matthew 28 remind us this evening.  

In short, God is after Story Dwellers who can’t help but become Story Tellers!   And your ordination, Kate, places you smack dab in the middle of that for the rest of your life.
In the name of Jesus.   Amen.       

[1] David Lose, “Stewardship in the Age of Digital Pluralism,” in Word and World, Rethinking Stewardship special issue (2010), p. 112.