Saturday, January 17, 2015

Qualified and Call-i-fied

Zion Lutheran Church, Twin Valley
Installation of Pastor Sarah Dille
Epiphany 2/January 18, 2015
John 1:43-51

I don’t know if Jesus had a “to do” list when he began his work on earth….but if he did, I’m guessing that right at the top of said list was this notation:  Get help fast!

And what a strange thing that would be!

Here he is, as we confess in the Nicene Creed:  “God of God’s, Lord of Lords, True God of True God”….but when Jesus starts his work on earth the first thing he does is seek out helpers.   Really!?   The One we call “Very God of Very God” needed helpers along his way?

I don’t think Jesus needed helpers as much as he wanted helpers—he required helpers in order to be true to himself, in order live out his mission as the one and only God-in-human-flesh.   
This old world is filled with all sorts of Unmoved Mover-type gods, self-sufficient gods who need no help and want no help.  

But Jesus came among us to be God and to “do God” for us, with us, and never without us.    And for Jesus to do and be all of that, for Jesus to get through to us in the only way God wants to reach us, Jesus had to enlist followers, friends, disciples through whom Jesus would accomplish his greatest work—bringing God’s unfathomable, unconditional forgiving love “home” to human hearts.

Here’s how the great missionary bishop of the 20th century, Lesslie Newbigin, put it: “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.  [REPEAT]   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.”[i] 

All four gospels spin that out in the way they tell us the story of Jesus.   Jesus is baptized, commissioned, sent by his Father….and right off the bat he calls others to join him, follow him, help him.

And as if that were not wild enough, it appears that Jesus was ready to go after just about anybody he happened to meet.

So here in this gospel text, Jesus puts the squeeze on Philip—and we aren’t even given a little mini-bio on Philip—only that he came from the home-town of  two other Jesus-helpers (whom Jesus had already recruited).

“Quality control” seems not to have been on Jesus’ mind as he started calling helpers.   In fact, he wasn’t even all that picky about who did the inviting….because as soon as Jesus called Philip, Philip turned around and found Nathanael (without even “clearing” him with Jesus first).  It’s as if Jesus came a calling and those whom he called just felt that they could go out right away and start doing their own calling!

Sounds a little chaotic, doesn’t it?   I can tell you—and, if you were on the call committee here at Zion, you know--that we 21st century Lutherans are much more “particular” about who gets called to represent Jesus in our midst as a pastor!

But with Jesus himself, it’s sort of a free-for-all:   it’s as if Jesus has a big vacuum cleaner that just sucks up whoever crosses his path.

So Jesus calls Philip and Philip calls Nathanael, about whom we know even less than we know about Philip….

…..EXCEPT, except that when Philip reaches out to Nathanael, it seems as though Nathanael immediately raises an eyebrow in a skeptical fashion.   Nathanael displays some “attitude” right off the bat. 

Not one to hide his true colors, Nathanael’s first instinct is too call into question Jesus’ credentials by besmirching the good name of Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth.   “Never heard of anything good coming out of THAT one-horse town!”   Nathanael, it would seem, was going to be one tough nut to crack!

And isn’t that interesting…..Jesus calls this guy and that guy, and some of the guys don’t seem all that interested in or attracted to Jesus, at first blush!

Jesus starts his ministry seeking helpers….and he doesn’t limit himself to the “easy marks.”   Nathanael falls under the sway of Jesus’ attractive powers, even though Nathanael’s going to need a little persuading.

You and I probably would shy away from a fellow like Nathanael.  If we were on the visiting committee or the evangelism committee, doling out names of folks to be visited—we might not fight over who gets to see Nathanael!

We would seek out more compliant, non-judgmental subjects…..we’d go after easier targets…but Jesus’ big disciple-capturing vacuum cleaner just brings in a whole motley crew, including folks who on the surface were hardly—hardly!—cut out to be his helpers.

And so it has always been in the movement Jesus initiated.  Jesus comes a’calling, and there’s no telling who will end up in his merry band of followers.  In fact, as the four gospels play it out, Jesus even seems to have a special place in his heart for those who are most ill-suited to following him.

And what’s that about?

I think it’s about the fact that Jesus’ “personnel handbook” reads nothing like the policies and procedures we follow when hiring workers or even calling pastors.  

We tend to put all the emphasis on being qualified.  But who, pray tell, will ever be qualified enough to follow Jesus let alone to help Jesus?  

One of my former colleagues on the synod staff  liked to say that we may not be “qualified” but we certainly are “call-i-fied” by Jesus![ii]

Which is to say:   when Jesus calls us, Jesus’ very call to us becomes the only credential we need to be numbered among his helpers.    Jesus’ invitation itself—because it comes from Jesus the Savior of lost causes, Jesus the forgiver of champion sinners, Jesus the liberator par excellence--Jesus’ invitation MAKES us, fashions us, transforms us into followers who are worthy of the One who calls us.

That happens here at the end of this text:   despite his initial reluctance, Nathanael tags along with Philip to meet Jesus who immediately tells Nathanael that he already reads him like a book—Jesus knows Nathanael’s whole back-story….

And Nathanael is so flabbergasted by Jesus’ instant “knowing” of him that he impetuously blurts out one of the first bold confessions of faith that we hear in the Gospel of John:   "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

….to which Jesus responds, in effect:  “Nathanael, you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

So where does this all land in our lives today, here at Zion, as we install Pastor Sarah?

Well, I can tell you this much:   she certainly is qualified to be your pastor!   As you’re already learning, Pastor Sarah is extremely knowledgeable, she knows how to communicate, she’s good with people, and she has the heart of a pastor.   Pastor Sarah is qualified and then some!

But here’s something even better:  Pastor Sarah is also “call-i-fied.”    Jesus has known her for a long, long time.   Jesus has looked her in the eye, staked his claim upon her in her baptism, wrapped her up in rhythm of his overflowing forgiveness,  nourished her at his Supper, wooed and won her for the sake of a lifelong relationship marked by Jesus’ cross, illuminated by the light bursting forth from Jesus’ empty tomb.

Pastor Sarah knows this stuff, and more importantly, she believes it.  

And she “gets it”—that Jesus calls not just her but all of us to be the Christ-speakers and Christ-bearers God has created us to be.  

So here’s the upshot, the payoff:   Everything that happens here at Zion—every baptism, every Holy Communion celebration, every announcement of God’s forgiveness of our sin, every Bible study and Sunday School session and confirmation class, every church council meeting, every pastoral visit by Pastor Sarah, every caring conversation that you are part of whether with other members of Zion or neighbors in the community—everything we do is designed to pass on God’s calling, gathering and sending Word….from one person’s mouth to the next person’s ear, bringing Christ home, helping Christ find a place in every human heart.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.
 



[i] Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin:  Missionary Theologian, A Reader (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 50.
[ii] I’m grateful to Mr. Erin Anderson of Perham, Minnesota for this wonderful phrase.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Starry Night

2015 Bishop’s Bible Studies
Starry Night (Genesis 15:1-21)
Please read this passage before exploring this Bible study.



Getting In A Word Edgewise

We human beings spend about a third of our lives asleep.  It’s startling simply to say that out loud.  Our tendency is to think of “our lives” as our active engagement in the world around us; we tend to discount our “down time.”

More happens when we’re asleep than we often realize, though.   We may be “out” for roughly eight hours a night, but there is One who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4).   Truth be told, sometimes God gets through to us best when we’re not fully conscious, awake, seemingly in control of things.

During 2015 I’m offering the people of our synod a series of Bible studies on dreams and visions in the Bible.   As we consider the faith practice of creatively imagining the contours of God’s promised future we will do well to stop, look and listen to what God is doing in the world.   Where is God leading us?   How might we best align our own plans and energies with God’s dream for the whole creation?   This is what “mission planning” looks like for congregations filled with people of faith who believe God is always out ahead of us.

But it’s not easy or automatic to “stop, look and listen” for God in this noisy, busy, hectic world.   That’s why God is always on the lookout for opportunities to get a word in edgewise with us.  Often such opportunities arise when we aren’t trying to manage the universe by ourselves.   God seeks out times when we’re vulnerable and open to what God wants to share with us.  This Bible study series will lift up eleven of such “holy intrusions”[1] that marked key turning points in the scriptural story.

God Starts Over With Abram

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are often called the pre-history (or primeval history) section of the first book of the Bible.  These chapters (focused on creation, fall, and flood) set the stage for all that is to follow.

Starting with Chapter 12 Genesis narrows the focus to God’s method of choosing one nation—Israel—to be God’s chosen people, the instrument of God’s rescue and redemption of all humanity.   Even though God could have taken any number of nations already in existence and made them God’s chosen people, God decides to start afresh with a man and his wife and to fashion from them a people.

So in Genesis 12:1-3 God focuses the story on Abram, a nobody-in-particular who lived in “Ur of the Chaldeans,” probably located in present-day Iraq.   Out of the clear blue—for no reason other than God’s own free act of choice—Abram is commanded to leave his homeland and strike out for a land that God will show him.   There God will make of Abram a great nation by whom “all the families of the earth will bless themselves.”

In Genesis 15 God reiterates and expands upon this in the context of a vision that Abram receives at night.   Enjoining Abram not to be afraid, God proclaims, “I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”   God meets Abram where he is at—vulnerable, uncertain—and pours gracious promises into Abram’s hungry ears.

But Abram is not utterly passive in this vision.   He responds honestly to God, naming the obstacle that seems to block his path:  “I continue childless.”   God, it seems, has chosen an empty vessel, ill-suited for becoming a “great nation.”

So God beckons Abram out into the night and directs his gaze toward the heavens:  “Number the stars if you are able….So shall your descendants be.”    Abram drinks in God’s promise of fertility-in-the-face-of-barrenness, and in this fashion Abram’s trust in God is “reckoned to him as righteousness.”   That is, God counts Abram’s assent to God’s promises as constituting a life-giving relationship with God.

Then, in a somewhat bizarre scene of slaughtered animals and a floating fire-pot and flaming torch, God enters into a solemn agreement (God literally “cuts a covenant”, v. 18) with Abram in which Abram is promised
·       A land that he will possess (the boundaries of which correspond to the extent of Solomon’s kingdom at the period of its greatest extent, cf. I Kings 4:21),
·       A deliverance of his descendants in the distant future, after a time of sojourning in a “land that is not theirs” (i.e. a reference to the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt and the Exodus), and
·       A long life for Abram that will see him “go to [his] fathers in peace…buried in a good old age.”
What’s remarkable about this strange dream is that in it “God himself enters a communal relationship with Abraham under the forms which among men guarantee the greatest contractual security.”[2]  In other words, God “comes down” to earth, via this covenant with Abram, and is bound to Abram in the same way humans in that time made covenants with one another.

Holy Intrusions—Then and Now

God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12 and the vision of Abram in Genesis 15 illustrates well some of the characteristics of God’s “holy intrusions” throughout the Bible and in our own lives:

1.     “Holy intrusions” always reflect God’s surprising initiative in our lives.   There isn’t even a whiff of a hint that Abram did anything to deserve God’s intervention in his life!  God simply seized the moment to start something new in the world, when Abram and his wife Sarai[3] were singled out for a great and glorious future.
2.     “Holy intrusions” often come when things look dark or uncertain.   Abram is keenly aware of a huge problem that makes God’s promises seem so improbable:  his wife Sarai is barren.   In his vision (Genesis 15:2-3), Abram is not passively mute but gives voice to the predicament God’s promises must confront:  “I continue childless…a slave born in my house will be my heir.”   Abram may have been asleep or in a trance-like state, but in his mind’s eye he was still trying to work things out, make things add up.   God seeks out times like this to get a word in edgewise with Abram—God is always looking for such opportunities to address us, too.   As Walter Brueggemann observes:  “We do well in our management while we are awake, and we keep the light, power and control on 24/7.  Except, of course, that we must sleep…Unbidden communication in the night opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day…[and] this unbidden communication is one venue in which the holy purposes of God, perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come to us.”
3.     “Holy intrusions” mark key turning points in the story of God and God’s people.  Starting here with God’s call to Abram, the biblical story transitions from pre-history to the history of God with the people Israel.   An unexpected future is opened up.   From our perspective as Christians, the remainder of the Bible tracks the twisting, turning but always progressing adventure of how God made good on his promises to Abram and Sarai.  This adventure continues beyond the pages of the Bible, into the ongoing history of God’s people in Christ.  To cite an example closer in time to our own day, Brueggemann calls Martin Luther King Jr. “perhaps the greatest dreamer of the mid-20th century,” whose famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 “was a gift of imagination from beyond the realm of political realism…the product of study, of suffering and of long-term nurture in the black church.”

In these holy seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, we recall with great joy all the ways God has made good—and continues to make good--on his promises to Abram and Sarai.   Through them and their greatest descendant Jesus the Christ, “all families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe serves as bishop of the
Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


For reflection and discussion:
1.      1.     When is the last time you had a sense that God was “getting in a word edgewise” with you?
2.      2.     Recall a time when things looked dark or uncertain for your congregation (or another congregation you’ve been part of).  What was that like?   How did the congregation come through that time?  How do you think God might have been involved?
3.      3.     Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad says, regarding Abram’s call by God, that “one must always remember that to leave home and to break ancestral bonds was to expect of ancient men almost the impossible.”[4]  Are there any ways in which your congregation might need to “leave home” to travel to a place God wants to show you?  How might God be calling your congregation to leave its comfort zone and change for the sake of a new way to “be church” for the sake of God’s mission?

This is the first in a series of monthly bishop’s Bible studies during 2015 on the theme, Holy Intrusions.  These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use each column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.  



[1] I’m indebted to Walter Brueggemann for this pungent phrase.   See his wonderful article from the June 28, 2005 issue of The Christian Century at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=3218
[2] Gerhard von Rad, Genesis:  A Commentary, Revised Edition (1972, Westminster Press), p. 187.
[3] If the names “Abram” and “Sarai” sound strange to you, see Genesis 17:5, 15.
[4] Von Rad, p. 161.

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 https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2266

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).