Saturday, June 27, 2015

Discovering Hope

Devotions at Discovering Hope Event 6/27/2015

Mark 4:35-41
“On that day, when evening had come, [Jesus] said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’”

Sometimes when people ask me what my parents did for a living I reply:  “They were professional gamblers.”

That’s one way of talking about farming, “dirt farming” (to be specific), which my dad and mom did together for over 30 years in southern Minnesota, from 1943 through 1974.

Farming the land has always been akin to an annual high stakes poker game— predicated on a host of assumptions about soil fertility, favorable weather, dependable machinery, unflagging human energies and an at least “good enough” economy.   Every growing cycle, each crop year entails risks and unforeseen twists in the road that could make or break a farming operation.

I think there is something paradigmatic about this way of “framing” the enterprise of agriculture that still impacts all of us who care about and serve the gospel small towns and rural areas across the upper Midwest.   That gamblers’ sense of “living on the edge” marks so much of our approach to life on the Great Plains.

And perhaps that’s why it’s so easy, for small town and rural folks and their congregations to see themselves always hanging on, dangling from a precipice, wondering if they can make it one more growing season, one more year….

How effortlessly we jump to the worst possible conclusion, like the disciples in their little boat, about to be swamped:   “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

I used to think that what STaR churches (small town and rural churches) needed most was more money and people…but then, along the way, I realized that people and money mean nothing without a healthy dose of imagination fired by hope!

So we are always hankering for hope, which is what got us all out of bed early on a Saturday morning in the summer.   We hunger and thirst for hope--hope that is usually already present, right under our noses—the way the disciples discovered Hope comfortably snoozing on a cushion in the  hold of their small ship!

May that be the hope, in Christ Jesus, that discovers us today and in all our tomorrows!

Lord Jesus, it is so easy to hit the panic button, so natural for us to assume the worst.   Surprise us with signs of hope that will stir up our imaginations.   Teach us how you are always right beside us, out ahead of us, calming storms, renewing your creation, making us new, and tuning us to sing your praises. Bless this day and all that we will learn together, as agents of your Hope.  Amen.     

Saturday, June 20, 2015

In the Same Boat

Northwestern Minnesota Synod Council
June 20, 2015
Mark 4:35-41

One of the reasons I find the Bible so that it includes all sorts of stories one wouldn’t expect to find there. 

The Bible wasn’t edited by some public relations spin doctor who wanted to round off all the rough edges....make every character appear admirable....or include only episodes with proverbial happy endings.

Garrison Keillor likes to say that all of us carry around a back stage view of ourselves—a side of ourselves that we go to great lengths to keep others from seeing.

But the Bible has no such pretensions.  The Bible lets it all hang out.  The Bible airs all the dirty linen of its leading characters.

Take, for example, this story from Mark 4. 

This is hardly the disciples’ shining hour.  They come off here like something of a cross between the Three Stooges and a troop of Cub Scouts in the woods on their first overnight camp out.  The disciples’ foolishness here seems matched only by their fear.

Although at least four of the disciples were fishermen by trade--stalwart men of the sea!-- you wouldn’t know it from this story.  They venture out onto the unpredictable Sea of Galilee as darkness is coming on, apparently without checking the horizon for storm clouds.

Then, when a storm does blow up....they quickly forget basic rules of seamanship--like lowering the mainsail or tossing out excess baggage.  Instead, they do the last thing seasoned sailors should do: they panic!

In the pandemonium, the disciples frantically shake their sleeping leader and confront him with a question: “Teacher, don’t you care if we perish?  Don’t just lie there--do something!”

Then, at the conclusion of the story....after Jesus has handled the situation, effortlessly commanding the storm to cease....the disciples aren’t much farther along than they were at the only to stammer the question: “Who then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?”

What a bunch of duffusses! They can’t sail, can handle a storm, can’t see Jesus for who he obviously is.

Like so many other episodes in the gospels where the disciples are blind or doubting or slow to see the obvious or just plain mixed up....this story might have been one they’d have preferred to forget.  It could have been discreetly edited out of the final draft of Mark’s Gospel--but it wasn’t.


With all the other tales that could be told...why did Christ’s first followers cling so tightly to a story that made them--its tellers--look so bad?

The short answer to that question is that this story of the stilling of the storm wasn’t merely a “once upon a time” event. 

This story was treasured in the early church.....because it was the kind of thing that kept happening to the fledgling community of the crucified and risen Christ.

The first Christians held on to this story because they saw themselves “in the same boat” as the disciples out on that windswept evening on the Sea of Galilee.

Tradition has it that Mark’s gospel was written in Rome, a vast empire,  ruled in the first century by tyrants like Domitian and Nero--who not only fiddled while Rome burned, but who blamed the Christians for striking the match.  As one ancient Roman author put it: “If the Tiber river rises too high, or the Nile too low, the cry goes out:  ‘The Christians to the lions!’”

Mark’s gospel was, in all likelihood, written in Rome, by one who hoped to proclaim Jesus’ story in such a way that his persecuted sisters and brothers would be strengthened by it....even as they prepared themselves to be baptized with Christ’s own baptism of suffering and innocent death.

That raw experience of brutal oppression left the community for whom this gospel was first  written feeling small and alone and helpless against the might of a cruel empire....whether they were waiting in dungeons or being carted off to the arena to become appetizers for lions. 

The believers in the church of Mark could easily imagine themselves adrift on a raging sea, tempest-tossed, threatened with certain, slow, agonizing death.  They might well have wondered where their Lord was when they needed him the most.

Why was this unflattering portrait of the disciples kept in the New Testament by the early church? 

Because it was a mirror which, when the members of the early church looked deeply into it, saw themselves--their peril, their danger, their doubts, their fears.

Perhaps that is why this text has burned its way into our consciousness as well....even as it has found its way into our own churches, especially in the art and architecture of our church buildings.  
There’s a reason why we call the place where the congregation sits on Sundays the “nave,” as in “navy.”  The place we gather on Sundays is like that little craft on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee!

There’s a reason why the altars in so many of our synod’s churches include paintings of Peter sinking in the waves....or of Mary crying at the tomb....or of the disciples adrift in a storm in their wind-swept little boat.

Those paintings adorn our altars because they are mirrors which--when we look into them deeply--allow us to see our predicaments, our perils, our doubts, our fears, our faithlessness....faithlessness which seems to go hand in hand with faith itself.

This morning it is hard not to think of our sisters and brothers in Christ at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC—a church where I had the privilege of worshiping (with Joy and our daughter Kristen) in the spring of 2003.  

What is it like today for the members of Emanuel—who have good reason to wonder whether it is safe to attend a Bible study or a prayer meeting as their fellow members were doing this past Wednesday evening?  

This is America in the 21st century, not Rome in the 1st century, for crying out loud!   And this is not the first time an African American congregation in our country has been targeted by racist extremists.
I’m guessing that our friends at Mother Emanuel church are clinging to stories like this one, of Jesus stilling the storm, rescuing the infant church once again.

But there is more here in Mark 4 than a “mirror” showing ourselves as we truly are.  There is Someone else here in each of these embarrassing pictures of ourselves.

We see Another who is always there in these pictures, standing alongside us in our perils and fears, sticking with us in our faithlessness.

Jesus is there--in each of these unflattering portraits of ourselves as believers.  In our treasured altarpieces, Jesus is always there, yanking the sinking Peter out of the water….drawing near to the inconsolable Mary Magdalene at the tomb…peacefully asleep in the hold of a boat that’s likely to be swamped at any minute.

These snapshots of the faith community—Jesus is in all of them!

These same scriptural images that cast us in a most unflattering light…make Jesus look awfully good.  Stories like this one say lots about us, but also speak volumes about Jesus.

…and that’s the real reason we’ve come to treasure these stories.  For each of them tells the same story: when we are weak, he is fact, our weakness, magnifies his strength.

Jesus is not ashamed to be found among fearful doubters who panic at the drop of a hat.  Jesus does not withdraw from the company of folks whose fickle faith can turn to mush--just like that.

Jesus hangs in there with you and me and the whole human family....ready always to rebuke our faithlessness even as he admonishes all the forces of evil that cause us to lose faith.  Jesus hangs in there with us, in the bottom of every sinking ship we find ourselves order to keep opening our ears to hear his own sovereign Word: “Peace, be still and know that I am God.”

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Majesty Mercy Mission

Sion Lutheran Church, Lancaster, MN
May 31, 2015
Sunday of the Holy Trinity
Isaiah 6:1-8

This may come as a surprise to you, but many pastors fear this day, Trinity Sunday.   They get so nervous that they avoid preaching today because the doctrine of the Trinity spooks them.

So some pastors even schedule their vacation to be gone on this Sunday (though I’m sure that’s not why Pr. Melodi headed home to Ohio!)  

Or they let this be the Sunday we recognize our graduates or our veterans or our quilters.  Anything to sidestep preaching a sermon on the Holy Trinity!

Why is that?   

I think it’s because some preachers have gotten it into their heads that they need to EXPLAIN the doctrine of the Trinity. 

“If I don’t understand the Trinity for myself,” a pastor might well wonder, “what makes me think I can explain the Trinity to others?”

Earlier in my own ministry I shared this same nervousness about Trinity Sunday, until it dawned on me that Trinity Sunday isn’t about explaining the Trinity as much as it’s about adoring the Trinity. 

Trinity Sunday is more about praising the Triune God than it is about diagramming the Triune God!

And with a text like this one from Isaiah 6 before us, how can we not stand in awe of our astounding, mysterious God….who meets us in his majesty, his mercy and his mission?

Here in Isaiah 6, the prophet finds himself suddenly transported into God’s heavenly throne room.   The vast space is filled up—just with the hem of God’s royal robe!   There’s smoke in the air, the foundations are shaking (as in an earthquake), and a band of  seraphim--monstrous six-winged creatures are flying around and crying out:  “Holy, holy, holy!” (v. 3)

Encountering God in God’s “Godness”—in God’s majesty—produces a sense of awe, an awareness that God is God and we are not! 

Nearly a century ago a book appeared entitled, God is My Co-Pilot.  That title later inspired a bumper sticker that read:  “If God is Your Co-Pilot, You’re Sitting in the Wrong Seat!”

There is a vast distance between us and God—a distance that you and I cannot traverse.  We can’t get from here to there, we can never grope our way to God—God is that high, that mighty, that “beyond” us!

Such a sense of awe is healthy for us.   We need such awe in our lives, because awe “locates” God in God’s place and puts us in our place, cuts us down to proper size, humbles us in God’s overwhelming presence…

…..and, in fact, awe does even more than humble us! 

Encountering God in God’s majesty magnifies our awareness of our sin.

So Isaiah cries out:  “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”(v. 5)

When Isaiah beholds God in his holiness and majesty, he can only confess how it is with him:  Isaiah has to confess his sin—both Isaiah’s own sinfulness, and the collective sin he shares with his people.

A man once requested an appointment with his pastor because he had some sins to confess.   “What’s troubling you,” the pastor asked.  “What have you thought, said or done that’s so sinful?”
“Oh, I didn’t come to confess my sin,” the man replied.  “I’m here to confess my neighbor’s sin!”

Sin-talk in the Bible never lets you or me off the hook.   It’s always less about “them” and “their” sin—and always more about me and my sin, our sin. 

My lips, my heart, my hands are unclean….and I live among a people who’re all in the same boat!

Awareness of God’s majesty magnifies our unworthiness….and opens us up to the second characteristic of God that shines through here in Isaiah 6:   God’s mercy.

Sinners deserve to die, as Isaiah acknowledges, but God never takes pleasure in the death of even one sinner.  God’s majesty could easily have snuffed out scrawny, sinful Isaiah….but God desired not to kill Isaiah, but to forgive him.

So one of the seraphim, who moments before terrified Isaiah, suddenly becomes an instrument of God’s mercy:   “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”

God’s preferred path isn’t to catch people in their sins or keep a ledger of their sins or punish sinners—but to forgive sins and rescue sinners.

And there’s a reason for that:   God saves us in order to send us.
As soon as Isaiah’s sin is blotted out, he has ears to hear what God is saying.   

In like manner, when God deals with our sin, when God gets us uncurled—out of the perpetual fetal position sin puts us in….when God liberates us from the self-absorption of sin, when God finishes off the navel-gazing that sin induces in our lives…..when God’s forgiveness gets us looking outward and upward for a change….we become open to the work God wants to do through us…..which leads us to the third reality about God that’s lifted up here in Isaiah 6:   God’s mission.

God is on a mission, a mission that God insists on involving you and me in carrying it out!

God’s mission is to make you and me and all things new.  

God’s mission is to reign over his kingdom, not as a tyrant or a dictator, but as the self-giving, self-emptying Lord of Unfathomable Love.

So the seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal from the altar of God….and as Isaiah’s sin is burned away, his ears are opened up to hear what God has to say:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

There were all those folks whom Isaiah had already mentioned when he confessed he was a man of unclean lips who lived among a people of unclean lips.   What about them?

God the King of heaven and earth needed someone—God needed a human being who would represent God and seek out all those sinners.

And why, we wonder?    Why doesn’t God just deal with all those sinners himself, directly?

The great 20th century missionary to India, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, liked to say: “God’s purpose is precisely to break open that shell of egotism in which you are imprisoned since Adam first fell and to give you back the new nature which is content to owe the debt of love to all [people].  And so God deals with us through one another.  One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people.  Each of us has to hear the gospel from the lips of another or we cannot hear it at all…Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”[1] 

One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people.

Here in our text that one was Isaiah.   The whole reason God caught Isaiah up into God’s heavenly throne room….had Isaiah’s sinful lips cleansed with that hot coal...asked his heavenly court, “whom shall I send?”…..the whole point of all that God did here was to get Isaiah’s feet ‘a-moving, away from himself, out to his neighbors, to share with them the best news ever:  that God is making us and the whole creation new!

On this Trinity Sunday 2015, we know how this saga has played out and how it continues to play out in the realm of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We experience the awe of standing always in the presence of God the Father Almighty.  We behold the majesty of God that puts God in his proper place and us in our proper place.

Standing in awe of God’s majesty, we confess all the ways we and everyone else fail to measure up.  We confess our sin only because in Jesus Christ we have come to know that the God of majesty is also the God of supreme mercy, who would rather die for us (as Jesus poured out his life on the Cross for us!) so that our sin might be blotted out, our guilt burned away by the refining fire of God the Son.

And the point, the goal of all that, is that God the Holy Spirit who saves us from sin, might send us as Isaiah was sent.   You, my dear sisters and brothers, are the way the mission of God encounters your neighbors to make them and all things new in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


[1]   Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin:  Missionary Theologian, A Reader (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 50.

Mission: Imaginable

Mission:  Imaginable
NW MN Synod Assembly
May 17, 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

"How do I figure out God's will for my life?" is one of the questions people ask most often.[1]

“How do I figure out God’s will for my life….for my family….for our church?”

Where is God taking us—and how might we best become aligned with God’s direction?

Questions like these point us to the faith practice of discernment….imagining the contours of God’s promised future and how that future affects the ways God is calling us to step forth right now.

When you think about discerning God’s guiding will—where does that best happen for you and your congregation?

·       Discernment sometimes happens in a retreat setting, with balloons bouncing around, post-it notes plastered over a wall, sheets of butcher paper covered with chicken-scratched notes from brainstorming exercises, as leaders of a church try to puzzle out goals and how to pursue them.

·       Discernment sometimes takes place in contemplation—in silence, in darkness pierced only by candlelight, in centering ourselves, in praying--new insights emerge…

·       Discernment sometimes happens in meetings of chosen church leaders who’ve been reading good books, working with consultants, studying demographic trends, interviewing church members, conversing with neighbors, trying to distill the finest honey from all that rich “pollen.”

·       And then discernment sometimes happens in the midst of chaos.  Discernment can bubble up in clutch moments, when a crisis suddenly emerges and action must be taken.   Even in times of chaos –when everyone’s asking “what do we do now, for heaven’s sake?”….discernment happens, albeit by the seat of our pants!

This peculiar narrative in Acts 1 was a discernment moment—the first time members of what would become the first church engaged in communal discernment together. 

And the eleven apostles seem to have employed various pathways to discernment…in the midst of a crisis, with a wing and a prayer, in the confidence that God can and will work through just about any means.

This story--truly a discernment story!--has a shape that starts to sound familiar as we listen to the story with care:

First, there was an elephant in the room--the “elephant” being the absence of one of the Twelve.   One of them had disappeared, not by accident, but by treachery, betrayal and a gruesome death (described here in Acts 1 with more graphic detail than most of us prefer!)

The reason why Judas’s death posed a problem to the remaining eleven disciples is that Jesus had very intentionally chosen Twelve (not eleven nor thirteen) disciples to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, the whole people of God, whom Jesus was reconstituting through his self-emptying  life, saving death, and surprising resurrection.

The defection of one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, the Betrayer, diminished the potency of that symbol of the Twelve constituting a New Israel, the vanguard of the whole people of God.  So what should be done about that?
Discernment of God’s will for people and faith communities often begins with the reality of “elephants in the room”—uncomfortable truths that aren’t being talked about openly, honestly.

        So I ask you, dear friends:   what “elephants” lurk in the     shadows of your church building?   What uncomfortable        truths do you tend to dance around?   What hard realities         tempt you to look away and whistle in the dark, hoping no       one will notice?  Pause.

Back to our text….

Aware of the “elephant in the room” here in Acts 1, the second thing that happens is that someone breaks the silence.  

A pastor-friend of mine says:  “When you realize there’s an elephant in the room, please introduce it to everyone else!”[2]

In this story it’s Peter who names the elephant in the room.   And that’s noteworthy for two reasons:
1.    It’s the first time after Jesus’ Ascension that one of his followers stands up and starts exercising servant-leadership in the emerging church; and
2.   It’s the first time here in Acts that Jesus’ followers start looking forward, not backward!  

Exercising servant-leadership  isn’t for sissies!   When you’re in a discussion at church, it takes gumption to speak up—and even more guts to join a leadership team, not to mention serve its convener. 

But the church of Jesus Christ needs such brave, willing, imaginative servant-leaders….now more than ever!

Peter stepped out and invited the early church to dance with the Risen Lord in his ongoing mission of reclaiming the whole creation, starting with the Cross and the Empty Tomb, moving not backward but forward, into God’s promised future in Christ.
        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your faith community        form and call forth servant leaders?  How do you support    the leaders you have?  What obstacles are sometimes put in     the way of such leadership?   And which direction is your   church facing—backward, or forward?  Pause

Back to our story in Acts 1…

There’s an elephant in this room filled with about 120 followers of Jesus.   Peter gets up the gumption to name this elephant and propose that they do something.   In so doing Peter points the fledgling church forward, not backward.  

Judas Iscariot’s gory death has diminished the apostolic ranks by one.   Somehow that must be addressed, so that when the Holy Spirit falls upon them they are poised, ready to move out into the world at full strength.

The third thing that happens here is that the disciples generate possibilities for a successor to Judas.  They had no succession plan, no governing documents to rely on, no workshop on leadership replacement they could all go attend, no “apostolic head-hunter” they could hire to conduct a nation-wide search. 

Instead, the eleven relied on their sanctified common sense, focusing on just one criterion for replacing the 12th disciple: “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

Thus was convened the first nominating committee in the history of the church!   The group soon surfaces two candidates for the open seat in the apostolic circle:  Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.”

        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your congregation      invest imagination in generating possibilities for serving       God’s mission in this time, this place?   How do you give       yourselves the gifts of time and prayer and reflection on the   things that matter most?  Pause

Back to our text…

Fourth and finally, the disciples acted.   There’s no record of them conducting a Minnesota Statute 604.2 background check on Joseph or Matthias.  The eleven didn’t declare 40 days of fasting…didn’t spend time second-guessing themselves. 

Instead they decided, by praying and casting lots.  

St Augustine, a fourth century bishop in northern Africa, said:  “Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.”[3]   The eleven disciples seemingly anticipated Augustine’s approach—putting themselves in God’s hands through prayer; then doing the “work” of casting lots.

The result was that Matthias was chosen to assume the position of 12th disciple, restoring the “apostolic strike force” to full strength.

And once Matthias was elected—he was never heard from again, at least in the pages of the holy scriptures!

It’s as if Matthias’s only job was to “be there,” to be chosen, to transform the eleven survivors of Good Friday….into the Twelve missionary-witnesses to the Resurrection.   That was enough!

If that seems a little anticlimactic to you, just remember that the Book of Acts itself concludes its 28 chapters in sort of an inconclusive manner.    As books go, Acts is something of a cliff-hanger…

….and I think that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit intended! Some books aren’t supposed to tie up all the loose ends.

God, you see, is still writing the ending to the Acts of the Apostles through the likes of you and me, latter-day successors to the apostles, whom God is still calling and sending forth as witnesses to the Resurrection, people who point unceasingly toward God’s promised future in Christ.

As God crafts the conclusion to God’s great story, we take our places, play our parts, in ways that may wind up seeming as obscure as the rest of the story of St Matthias, the blessed replacement.

And that’s OK.  It is enough, more than enough, simply to be swept into this Story of how God is making all things new in Jesus Christ.

It is enough that we get to repeat and stake our whole lives on  the greatest “lines” in our episode of God’s Mission Imaginable:   Christ has died.   Christ is risen.   Christ will come again!


[1] Richard Jensen, Working Preacher (2009), accessed April 5, 2015 at
[2] Pastor Paul Rohde, campus pastor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, said this in a sermon I heard several years ago.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Welcome to the Heart of God

Trinity Lutheran Church of Moorhead, MN
May 3, 2015; Easter 5
Installation of Pastor Tessa Hansen
Acts 8:26-40

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)

These are the last recorded words of Jesus before he ascended into heaven, as the author of Acts has it, in chapter 1, verse 8.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

There is here a trajectory, an “itinerary” that the Risen Jesus sets before his followers.   They will tell his story first of all in the city where Jesus was crucified, Jerusalem, at the heart of it all.  And then they will move out into the world….starting in the regions right around Jerusalem (“Judea and Samaria”)…and eventually they will travel every which-way, “to the ends of the earth.”

This noble vision, this stirring commission with its soaring view of the world and its expansive perspective on a vast future….this lofty vision played out (as it were) in a markedly step-by-step, down-to-earth, often messy fashion.

So, the Holy Spirit fell down from heaven at Pentecost….the community of Christ grew by 3000 baptized souls just like that….a fresh way of living out faith flowed forth…obstacles emerged and were overcome….all in the context of a brewing threat from the same mad mob that sought Jesus’ death…..until one of the Christ-followers, Stephen, was brutally stoned, triggering the first outbreak of persecution that compelled Jesus’ followers to leave Jerusalem and head out into the surrounding regions.

From Acts 1:8 to Acts 8:1, the spreading of the Christian movement happened--motivated by fear and necessity, the followers of Jesus fanned out in every direction, having all sorts of adventures as they put distance between themselves and the epicenter of it all in Jerusalem.

So one fine day, a follower named Philip met up with a traveler on a desert road…and came face to face with what this new life in Christ-crucified-and-risen would look like.

What Philip encountered that day, what all the followers of Jesus ran into as they moved out, beyond Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria and finally “to the ends of the earth”—what they met up with was all the messiness of life.

This messiness met Philip in the form of a stranger who had at least three strikes against him:  he was a foreigner, from Ethiopia….he was dark-skinned, a man of another race….and he was a man who wasn’t fully a man, his masculine identity having been marred, likely at an early age.

This unnamed Ethiopian eunuch was someone Philip might otherwise have shunned or simply ignored, pretending not even to notice him….were it not for the insistent demand of the Holy Spirit who told Philip:  “Go over to this chariot and join it.”

Pastor Tessa, this story speaks volumes about what it might mean for you to bear the title:  Pastor of Hospitality….

…Because this story says, first of all, that hospitality in the community of Christ is about so much more than smiling a lot, being nice, always looking for novel ways to welcome folks, and displaying the best of manners and decorum.

Hospitality in the name of Christ is first and foremost about meeting people in the extreme messiness of their lives…..finding ourselves drawn toward perhaps the very last persons we might want to meet.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that three of the markers that created distance between Philip and the Ethiopian still contribute to the messiness of our lives in this time and place: race, ethnicity, and sexual identity.

Hmmmm—is this ancient story really all that ancient?

I wonder, Pastor Tessa, whether this text might be asking you and all the followers of Christ here at Trinity:  how widely are we willing and able to open up the doors of this faith community?   As you engage that kind of messy, complex question you will come close to the heart of what we mean when we speak of Christian hospitality.

If saying this ups the ante a little too high, please remember two other things.

God wants us smack dab in the messiness of peoples’ lives.   The ministry of hospitality involves inviting us to do what God already ardently wants us to do!  God is on your side here, Pastor Tessa, because God is the minister of hospitality par excellence!

Notice, please, how utterly God-guided Philip was here, directed by God to the right road, drawn by God to the Ethiopian’s chariot, prompted by God to ask the right questions and empowered by God to speak the right words at the right time.

The Book of Acts takes pains to show God being utterly in charge as the nascent Christian community stretches its boundaries, crosses ancient barriers, and embraces the heretofore untouchable!   God is no less here, present, effectively guiding you and those you serve, Pastor Tessa.

And second, the one who is welcomed, often shows us the way, if we but have ears to hear and eyes to notice.

There is something about this story in Acts 8 that seems a little too easy, as if the dice were loaded before the game began:   Philip goes to this particular road, finds this particular God-fearing man, reading this particular passage from Isaiah 53, wondering just who it was who was “led like a lamb to the slaughter.”  

Talk about a slow ball pitched right over the plate!!

No wonder Philip can step right up and “proclaim to him the good news about Jesus!”

And then, as if all those coincidences hadn’t piled up a little too neatly, some water appears—water, in the desert, mind you!--just as the Ethiopian wonders about being baptized!

Tessa, things may not always come together that neatly in your ministry of hospitality here and out in the community, on behalf of Trinity...

But please never underestimate the ways those to whom you seek to minister will minister to you.   The ones we would welcome often show us the way—simply by the questions they ask and the ways they ask them.

"About whom,” the Ethiopian asked Philip, “does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"

Why did the eunuch inquire about the identity of the suffering one in Isaiah, the one who had been cut off, whose life had been taken away from the earth?

It was because this was the Ethiopian’s own heart-felt life story.   He had been cut off.  His life—his future guaranteed by descendants—had been taken away.   The Ethiopian was fervently fixated on this passage from Isaiah, I dare say, because he was trying to find himself in God’s story!

So also, in all the ways we welcome one another into fullness of life in Jesus Christ, we encounter persons who are already trying to discover their place in God’s story.

Their questions, their longings, set us up to do what Philip did:   to “proclaim…the good news about Jesus” who for our sake was cut off, so that we might never be cut off from the forgiveness, the freedom, the future God has in store for all of God’s children.

So welcome to Trinity, Pastor Tessa!   Welcome to being Trinity’s Pastor of Hospitality!  Welcome to the adventure of  meeting others in the messiness of their lives and welcoming them—not just into this community of care—but into the depths of Jesus’ own story—into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us and our salvation.

Which is to say:  Welcome to the delight of welcoming folks into the very heart of God.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

God is the Cook!

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls, MN
April 12, 2015
Second Sunday of Easter
John 21:19-31

If faith was something you could cook up in a kitchen, how would you do it?   What equipment would you use—a microwave oven?  Or a crockpot?

I know that sounds silly, but play with me for just a few moments.  Is faith an instant micro-wave thing or a slow-cooking crockpot thing?

It’s tempting to say that faith is obviously a microwave matter.   It comes as a sheer gift from God, transforms us at our core, makes the lightbulb come on—just like that!  

Here in John 20, Thomas (who was absent when the Risen Jesus first appeared to his disciples Easter evening)…..Thomas, having voiced his doubts about the resurrection, shows up with his fellow disciples one week later…..Thomas is there, he sees Jesus with his own two eyes (doesn’t even have to touch Jesus’ scars as he said he would)….and Thomas just blurts out:  “My Lord and my God.”

Set the microwave on 10 seconds cook-time and out pops the grandest confession of faith in the whole Gospel of John!

And that’s how it happens, or seems to happen, for many folks.  

It’s an especially American thing, this predilection for imagining faith as a micro-wave, all-at once-reality.   

American Evangelicals, long before Billy Graham, championed the revival meeting as the best means for evangelizing and bringing persons to faith. 

Lay down some sawdust, pitch a huge tent, bring in a fiery preacher, round up all the local sinners, sit them down in the front row for a rip-roaring sermon, plead with them to “make their decision,” help them pray the sinners’ prayer, and convert those lost ones!  Usher them from sin to salvation, from death to life, right here, right now—just like that.

We may roll our eyes when we hear stuff like that, but honestly, don’t we Lutherans have our own take on “microwave-faith?”

In fact, we saw it happen just moments ago.  

Sienna and Oliver were brought to the baptismal font, and in the twinkling of an eye they were rescued by the water of their Baptism into Christ, transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, signed, sealed and delivered into the loving arms of God forever.

Set the microwave on 10 seconds—and the deed is done!

And we really and truly do mean that.   Baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus….being buried with Christ and raised with Christ in baptism…..this “baptism now saves [us]” as it says quite clearly in I Peter 3:21.

So there you have it:  whether you’re an American Evangelical or a true-blue Lutheran….faith is clearly a microwave thing.   Faith comes to us from heaven above, faith changes us and makes us new, just like that!

Except that it doesn’t always happen that way….or, more accurately, faith doesn’t happen only in that way.

There is this another way.  Faith and dwelling in faith often seems more like a slow-cooking, long-stewing crockpot.

So here in John 20, it’s not the first time we meet the disciple Thomas.

Although he’s mentioned in all four gospels, Thomas only speaks here in John’s Gospel.  Thomas has four brief “lines” in John’s dramatic script—and when Thomas speaks, it’s always with the voice of cold, hard realism.

In John, chapter 11, when Jesus tells his disciples that his friend Lazarus has died and they must go to him, Thomas--always Mr. Sunshine!--glumly responds: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

In John 14, just after Jesus tells his disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going, Thomas the Realist begs to differ: “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”

And then, here in John chapter 20, we see Thomas in all his skeptical glory.  Demanding certified proof--visual and tactile evidence--that Jesus is really alive again:  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

You gotta love a guy like Thomas--unvarnished skeptic that he is.  His story didn’t get edited out of the Scriptures! –it didn’t wind up on the editorial cutting-room floor.

What this string of brief Thomas-sayings in John’s Gospel suggests is that Thomas had been stewing on matters of faith, believing in Jesus THROUGHOUT his whole time of following Jesus-in-the-flesh.

Thomas’s last and greatest word here “My Lord and my God!”—DIDN’T just pop into his mind like a bag of microwave popcorn!    It was, rather, the product of a long, twisting, turning pilgrimage with Jesus, a conclusion formed and shaped by the Holy Spirit who had been brooding over Thomas for years!….

…..and Thomas’s bold confession here wasn’t the end of his story, either!

Although the Bible doesn’t tell us how Thomas’s life later unfolded, historians of the earliest church tell us that all of Jesus’ closest followers proclaimed the Good News, started Christian communities, were persecuted for their faith, and were scattered across the whole world.

A pious legend, believed to be true by many, holds that Thomas traveled all the way to India, where he bore witness to the Crucified and Risen Christ and was martyred on a hillside near the city of Chennai, close to our companion synod alongside the Bay of Bengal.

Six years ago my wife Joy and I visited the purported site of Thomas’s death and paid homage to his memory in the Santhome Cathedral where a part of Thomas’s body is enshrined.   When we were there we learned that there are still Christians in the Mar Thoma Church who claim St Thomas as their founder and spiritual father in faith.

So, in this telling of the story, Thomas’ faith wasn’t just a one-shot microwave experience.   Rather, it was a long, low, steady “cooking” process.   Thomas was marinated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the rest of his life.  His was more of a crockpot faith than a microwave faith!

So too, with precious little Oliver and Sienna this morning….and so too with our own lives of faith.

We pray, and we have promised to help shape for Sienna and for Oliver a long, slow, steady unfolding of the faith in Jesus Christ into whom they have been baptized.    We have publicly declared that, in both the peaks and the valleys of their faith journey, we and other Christians will always, always remind one another of our Baptism in Christ, as together we follow Jesus toward the open future he has brought into our midst when he stepped out of the Grave on Easter morning.

Oliver and Sienna were baptized here this morning—just like that!
But it is equally true to say that Oliver and Sienna BEGAN their baptism this morning….inaugurated their baptismal life, right before our eyes.   

And this baptismal life will continue for them….until their days on earth come to an end and they begin the next chapter in the story of all that God has in store for all the baptized:  the life of the world to come!

The point isn’t whether faith is a microwave thing or a crockpot thing.

The point is that, thank goodness, God is the Cook!    And God calls us to help out in his “kitchen”….so that Christ might be formed in everyone whom God calls, however God calls, into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Recognizing and Responding to New Opportunities

Synod Theological Day
“From the Field, For the Field”
April 9, 2015--Fargo, ND

As I prepared these remarks I took seriously the fact that the first word in the assigned topic is "recognizing”….because “new opportunities” may, at first glance, look like anything BUT new opportunities.   They may—rather—strike us as really steep mountains, scary obstacles or huge piles of manure.

So the question is:  out of what sort of orientation toward reality do we approach this world and life as we know it?   It’s easy as pie to operate out of a default “problem orientation,” a way of looking at things that comes naturally for upper Midwestern Lutherans. Such realism-run-amok can shoot down any fresh idea, any new way of thinking—in an instant!

What happens, though, when we look at things from the vantage point of the Empty Tomb on Easter morning?   What happens when God opens us up to embrace a “promise orientation” that steps out of the gloomy house of death into the sunshine of Christ’s resurrection, cracking open God’s promised future in Christ?

“Recognizing new opportunities” involves willingness to reframe just about everything that comes our way—especially the “awful awfuls”—in the light of Christ the crucified and living one.   Such reframing involves looking again at the problems that seem so self-evident, and perceiving within them the possibilities God has tucked inside them.

I want to share two examples from our life in the NW MN Synod over the last five years—realities that seemed at first like anything but “new opportunities”
1.   First, a nagging sense that we’re an aging, declining church with an uncertain future.
2.   Second, the loss of over 10% of our congregations due to disaffiliation—effectively redrawing the very map of our synod.

We could not perceive “new opportunities” in these realities without first staring right at them, taking them in, and wrestling with them—the way Jacob wrestled with God (or was it a demon?) by the River Jabbok--wrestling until Jacob extracted a blessing from his opponent.

So if all we look at is “who shows up on Sunday mornings,” the narrative of aging and declining seems readily apparent.   But when we actually delved into the demographics of our region, another story emerged:  in 17 of the 21 counties of our synod, children and youth age 18 and younger outnumber senior adults age 65 and over.   And between 2008 and 2012 three-quarters of the counties in our synod showed population increases, not population decreases.

Shored up by this “second look” at our mission field; proud of our heritage as a child-friendly, youth-loving synod; aware of our people’s hunger for an alternative narrative to define us—late in 2010 we responded by surfacing and claiming a vision for our life together that would fly right in the face of the story we’d been telling ourselves about ourselves.

Lift up the Next Generation Vision—handout.

We have found that this Next Generation vision “has legs.”   
·       When our synod downsized its staff in 2010, we sought out a way to sustain our long-standing commitment to bringing together middle school youth and high school youth for faith-nurturing mass gatherings that are integral to the youth ministries in many of our congregations.  
   We retained our synod LYO board as one of the ways we not only sustain these gatherings as youth-led faith experiences, but also as one of the ways we train up younger leaders.
·       We set forth the Next Generation vision in a series of bishop’s Bible studies in 2011.
·       Our spring 2013 EEEvents, a.k.a. church council training events, featured breakout sessions on topics related to the theme:  “Living into the Next Generation Vision.”
·       And at last year’s synod assembly we agreed to partner with Vibrant to offer training and coaching for congregations hungering to help homes and families reclaim their role as primary arenas in which faith is formed.   Share brochure.

Regarding the other problem we had—the loss of over 10% of our congregations since 2009 due to disaffiliation—a generative discussion began at a retreat for our ten conference deans held in February of 2013.  

We talked first about the pain and disruption caused by losing 33 congregations to disaffiliation--leaving one of our conferences a shadow of its former self, and significantly altering the landscape in two other conferences.     Clearly, we didn’t need to maintain our 25 year old ten-conference structure.   Isn’t it time to “redraw the lines” to come up with a smaller set of larger conferences, giving each conference a critical mass of congregations to live and work together as near neighbors?

But then the deans shifted to a more basic question:   why have conferences at all?   What are they good for?   What is the purpose of the conference in our way of being church?   As we pondered that deeper question, mindful of all the ways neighbors help neighbors, one of the participants dared to recast the whole issue by asking—what if we had 20 smaller conferences rather than 7 or 8 larger conferences?  

In that moment, when we took a second look at what at first seemed like a little map-redrawing exercise, we knew we were looking at something bigger.  We recognized that we actually had, not a math problem or a geography conundrum, but a “new opportunity.”

So our synod council invited a group of about 20 folks from across the synod and its varied constituencies to gather and do more than redraw a map.   We named this group our synod “Rethinking Conferences” Task Force.

The group met regularly throughout 2014 and did several things.
We learned some of the history of how our old 10-conference structure came to be.   An older member of the group recalled a time long ago when every pastor and congregational president went to conference gatherings because that’s how you got the “stuff” for the coming year—the paper resources and “hard copy” curricula—that fed congregational programming.

We learned that if you go all the way back to 1988, the synod had actually diminished in size by 67 congregations—from 300 in 1988 down to 233 in 2014.

We pondered all the realities that fed our earlier pattern—where county lines were drawn, where school district boundaries were set, where local phone service was a factor.  Revisiting this history, all the changes that have happened since 1988 came into sharper focus—especially the overwhelming influence of the Internet, cellular phone technology, and “virtual reality”—a phrase not even in our vocabularies in 1988.

As we rediscovered our history, we examined again, with great care the one small paragraph in the ELCA Constitution for Synods that describes conferences.  Two things captured our attention on the Rethinking Conferences Task Force:   the varieties of configurations mentioned and the missional purpose for such ways of connecting with one another.

So, having recognized we had a new opportunity on our hands, we responded by doing some cooking and stewing.   We shifted from thinking of this as a microwave oven project, to realizing we had a crockpot project on our hands. 

We took our time, talked and listened to one another, dreamed together as people among whom the Holy Spirit was moving--and out of all that,  a proposal emerged (described on the handout) that is now before our synod, to move in three directions simultaneously—involving clusters, conferences and networks.
   To invite congregations to be parts of 26 clusters  of churches and ministry agencies in close geographic proximity to one another.
·       To form these clusters into eight conferences to choose leaders, gather at least annually (perhaps on the same Sunday afternoon, perhaps with some shared programing developed in collaboration with the synod), and to tend legislative functions such as supporting conference shared ministries, nominating persons for synod council and CWA voting members, and surfacing resolutions for consideration at synod assembly.
·       To open the door to non-geographic networks, using social media platforms like Facebook…networks of folks coming together around shared affinities and ministry priorities, e.g. networks of Vibrant Faith congregations, multi-point parish leaders, a congregations developing relationships with congregations in our companion synod in southern India.

Postscript:  My remarks, obviously, are retrospective in nature.   In truth, we did a lot of “wandering around” before noticing the possibilities tucked inside these two problems.   That’s what the church is always doing, which is why the most honest way to describe God’s guidance is to say: I’m not sure right now--but I’ll get back to you, after enough time has passed that God’s fingerprints have become visible!