Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Walking Each Other Home

Faith at Home….At Home in Faith
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 16, 2014
Philippians 1:21-30

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…” (v. 29)

Lately I have been pondering the role of affliction in the 
formation of faith.

My pondering was triggered by a presentation I heard at a recent conference on “Rethinking Faith Formation” at Luther Seminary.
The speaker who captured my attention more than all the rest spoke about “The Virtual Body of Christ,” how digital communications and social media are reshaping the ways faith is formed.  

This speaker (a young Lutheran professor at Hamline University) made me rethink my assumptions about “virtual reality.”

But what really caught my attention was when early in her presentation she quietly “dropped” the bombshell that several years ago she’d been diagnosed with stage IV cancer.

When she uttered the awful “c” word—I sat up, tuned in and could not be distracted.  For, as intellectually stimulating as her presentation happened to be, her personal journey with affliction, her facing of a grievous, potentially-fatal disease “transfigured” everything she said.

It was clear that this dreadful disease, rather than knocking the wind out of her sails—had in an amazing way stirred her imagination and driven her fresh thinking about how Christian faith is planted, shaped, and formed.

It seems at first counter-intuitive, to imagine that affliction could help shape or form faith.   Usually we assume that affliction, is an affront to faith—it calls faith sharply into question—makes it hard to believe in or ponder the things of God.

Nowadays it seems that whenever something terrible happens in the world—folks who may otherwise rarely think about God are suddenly ticked off at God…wondering in the first place how a God of love could allow such tragedies to take place…..and all too often, that’s about as far as anyone delves into the topic. 

But what about those souls all around us, not to mention the soul inside of us, that experiences affliction not so much as an affront to faith as it is a kind of flint or foil that sharpens our faith, tunes our attentiveness to God and opens us to experience the divine life in fresh ways?

A while back Rahm Emmanuel, when he was chief of staff in the Obama White House, popularized the notion that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste….to which I’m tempted to add that we in whom Christ is being formed dare never squander our experiences of affliction, either.

Paul certainly seems to have thought so, as we over-hear his musings in this text from Philippians.  

The pallor of death and loss hangs over this passage.   Paul is in prison….he anticipates the very real possibility of death, his death, taking him away from this veil of tears.  Paul speaks about feeling caught betwixt and between, hanging on to this life in order to keep pursuing his ministry, or letting go of this life, in order to live in the fullness of God, to be with Christ and live by sure and sturdy sight rather than the blurriness and dimness of faith.

Paul writes of affliction, not as an armchair expert on the subject, but as one who is intimately acquainted with the precariousness of this life, whether he was facing persecution for Christ’s sake (as was the case here in Philippians 1) or whether he was wrestling with his famous “thorn in the flesh”  in II Corinthians 12.   In other words, Paul ponders the existential experience of suffering, whether it is suffering for Christ or suffering in Christ.

Whatever the case may be, Paul writes here in Philippians to people whom he regards as being in the same boat with him.   Rather than assuming that affliction can only attack or deconstruct faith, Paul takes it for granted that suffering suffuses our whole life in Christ.  Indeed, suffering is a gift and a calling—“[God] has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well…”

I realize we’re on dangerous ground whenever we start talking this way.    The reality of domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse wherever it takes place, rightly makes us reluctant even to seem as though we’re redeeming suffering in any way, shape or fashion.   We are careful, oh so careful, to avoid “justifying” any pain one person might inflict upon another…and we certainly don’t seek out suffering, in some weird, twisted hunt for meaning.

Our nervousness about giving any quarter to suffering should not, however, deter us from pondering with fierce honesty the affliction that will inevitably come our way.   Make no mistake about it, affliction will find us all.  We don’t need to search it out—affliction will surely knock on our door.

And then what?   Will we become embittered by our encounter with affliction?  Will we seek to escape it, at any cost?  Or will we “mine” the moment, trusting that even when we’re falling apart, God is fashioning ways to do vital business with us?

The great 20th century radio preacher, Paul Scherer, named the nub of the matter when he declared:  “Jesus never occupied himself with the way out….To [Jesus] it was the way through that mattered.”[1]

If experiencing affliction isn’t a matter of finding a way out, but rather discovering a way through….how might such affliction contribute to the formation of Christian faith?    Let me suggest three ways:

First, affliction helps with faith formation by keeping us honest about ourselves.

Affliction, however it comes our way, always reminds us that we do not possess life, have it under our control or within our grasp.  We are sinful, vulnerable, fragile beings, whose fortunes can change at the drop of a hat.   With all our Maker’s other creatures, we constantly look beyond ourselves for all that we need.

So affliction aids in faith formation by piercing through all our illusions of grandeur, self-sufficiency, invulnerability.   Suffering removes our blinders so that we see ourselves as we really are—beyond our denial and false pretensions. 

Second, as affliction yields recognition of our true condition, we are opened up to those around us. 

If Christian faith thrives only within a deeply communal life, suffering helps us by transporting us out of ourselves.   In her little book, Stitches:  A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair, Anne Lamott observes:  “When we agree to (or get tricked into) being part of something bigger than our own wired, fixated minds, we are saved.  When we search for something larger than our own selves to hook into, we can come through whatever life throws at us.”[2]   

What may begin as our own need to have others help us through our affliction….will morph into a more profound perception of how faith calls us to reciprocate the favor when affliction strikes others.  Again, from Anne Lamott:  “To heal, it seems we have to stand in the middle of the horror, at the foot of the cross, and wait out another’s suffering where that person can see us….ultimately we’re all just walking each other home.”[3] 

All of this, we come to realize, transpires within the economy of God….which is the third way that affliction feeds faith formation.   Suffering opens us up not just to ourselves and to one another—but to God.

And the God we are opened up to by affliction is so much more than a “fair-weather friend.”  The God we meet when affliction opens our eyes is the One who has already borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.   This God is with us when we are happy and hopeful and bright-eyed.  But the God we meet in Jesus “specializes” (if you will) in encountering us in the darkest moments of our lives.

Affliction as it inevitably finds us….affliction gives God something to work with, an emptiness and a longing God will give anything to satisfy.  

Or to put it another way:  maybe God allows affliction to find us in order to prevent us from low-balling God…and to seduce us into placing before God our biggest, most bodacious requests:  a cure for the cancer, a second chance for a shipwrecked marriage, a resurrection for every rude intrusion of death into our lives.

Just so, God addresses and heals our affliction, shows us a way through it—actually, becomes the way through it!--and enlists us to do the same for others.

“If there is a God,” writes Anne Lamott, “if there is a God, and most days I do think there is, He or She does not need us to bring hope and new life back into our lives, but [God] keeps letting us help…” thereby fashioning us into “people who help call forth human beings from deep inside hopelessness.”[4] 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

[1] Quoted from:  Love is a Spendthrift, 1961.
[2] Stitches, p. 91
[3] Ibid, pp. 10, 6

[4] Ibid. pp. 60-61, 79.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

God Calling!

We Are Called
NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
September 13, 2014—Trinity, Crookston, MN
Galatians 5:13

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“We are called.”   The logo for your convention portrays those words with simplicity and clarity:  a telephone—something we all recognize right away.

It was not always so, though. 

One hundred years ago, this symbol would have been meaningless.  “What’s this strange gadget?” folks would have wondered.  A few telephones were around a century ago, but they were hardly found in every home.  In fact, like many of the devices we now just take for granted, telephones didn’t become  widespread until after World War II.

But today we “get” this symbol instantly.  We connect it easily with our theme.   If the telephone rings, someone is calling us….someone has juicy information, wonderful good news, an earnest request or a blistering barrage of criticism for us.

Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get when the phone rings.   Not until you answer the call, not until your phone connects you with your caller, do you know if the call is one you want to receive.

At the risk of over-simplifying, let me suggest that most phone calls fall into one of two categories.

There are phone calls that weigh us down and there are phone calls that set us free.  

First, there are calls that weigh us down.  The news is bad, the complaint is shrill,the demands are heavy.

That’s why sometimes we dread even picking up the phone—and even contrive ways to avoid taking such calls (caller ID has helped us with that, right?  If someone is always and only bringing us bad news, we may not pick up the phone.)

Second, there are calls that set us free.   A little over a year ago I received one such call, actually a text message:  “Olivia Carolyn was just born—mom and baby are fine!”   Our first grandchild had arrived—and because this was happening 250 miles away from Moorhead, the phone call was essential.   It brought tears of joy to my eyes and changed my life—forever.   Some calls are like that.

But we’re not focused on garden-variety, everyday phone calls at this gathering.   We’re considering, rather, the call of God in our lives.   The telephone rings—and lo and behold God is on the other end of the line!

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”

What kind of call is this?   Is this a call that weighs us down or sets us free?   What about this call for which our caller ID simply says:  “God, number unknown.”

When God calls us, it’s always, always, always a call that sets us free!   God’s call to us, God’s claim on us, never comes, finally, to weigh us down. 

God’s call continually sets us free.

Not that it always seems that way.  Even if at first God’s call calls us up short, confronts us with our waywardness, draws attention to where we have failed or rebelled--even if at first God’s call to us has about it all the sternness of the law….even if God’s call weighs us down at first, it does so only so that we can eventually be set free.

God’s ultimate goal for us, God’s final future for us is that we be set free.

And that, my friends, is very, very good news!

It’s the news that turned the world upside down when it was first set loose in the world.   When Jesus lived out a love that started piecing back together this whole tattered creation….when Jesus carried the whole weight of our waywardness to the Cross….when the Risen Jesus danced out of the grave on Easter morning….he set us free from everything that could ever weigh us down—sin, death, the power of the devil--all of that was forever lifted from us!

This good news blazed its way across the ancient world, shaking up everything in its path, all the ways people thought they could get on God’s good side—all of it swept aside by Jesus’ tidal wave of grace!

This glorious path of freedom started in the familiar territory of God’s chosen people, the Jews….but it swiftly moved out into the strange, uncharted territory of the Roman Empire that was filled with Gentiles, non-Jews who neither knew nor practiced the old ways of Israel. 

When that started to happen the “old guard” got nervous….because freedom always brings anxiety to those who think they’re charged chiefly with maintaining law and order.

So when St Paul and company took this good news from a largely Jewish audience, into the highways and byways of the Gentile world…..these outsiders started believing and responding and embracing the fierce freedom that Jesus brings.

And the old guard told Paul and company:  “Not so fast!    These Gentile outsiders don’t get any shortcuts! They have to follow the same path we ‘first believers’ traveled.   These Gentiles need to align first with God’s chosen people Israel, their men need to be circumcised, their women need to ‘keep kosher,’ and they all need to follow the law of Moses before they can fully embrace Christ.”

And so was born the first great “church fight” –a donnybrook that focused on the question of whether Gentiles could come directly into the realm of Jesus Christ.

It was a fight that could have stopped the Christian movement dead in its tracks.   But God intervened through the bold witness of St Paul here in his letter to the Galatians, a letter that has sometimes been called the Magna Carta of Christian freedom, as Paul thunders:   “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery!”  (Gal. 5:1)

Freedom, not law, would be the framework for the new life in Christ…..and this would not be the truncated freedom that some tout—the freedom to “do our own thing, whatever that might be.”

No, St Paul held forth the full, rich freedom of Jesus Christ….a freedom that is always twofold in nature, binary in direction…..which is to say:  a freedom that is always, simultaneously a freedom from and a freedom for.

Which brings us back to our theme verse for this SWO convention:   For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.

Make no mistake about it, the freedom that Jesus always brings us is first of all a freedom from---a liberation from all that weighs us down….our preoccupation with ourselves (a.k.a. sin), fears that can paralyze us (a.k.a. the power of the devil) and deep doubts about the future (a.k.a. death).

Jesus sets us free from all that, pure and simple--no ifs or ands or buts.

But when Jesus sets us free from all that, he always simultaneously sets us free for the life God always intended us to have—a life filled with trust in God, love for our neighbors and caring for this good earth.  

When I think of you women of our church—Women of the ELCA—I imagine you, at your best, forever floating, continually swimming in this stream of freedom.

You celebrate the freedom from that Jesus brings through your deep engagement with God’s barrier-breaking, future-opening Word…..the Word that sets you free through circles and Bible studies and prayer connections…..

But you never squander this “freedom from” as if it were all that God had in store for you.

No, you also embrace the “freedom for” that Jesus brings:   freedom for telling others about the hope that is in you…freedom for serving up cups of cold water and tending to the physical needs of others in a host of other ways….freedom for a rich life of giving yourselves away as you follow Jesus out into the world.

 Jesus doesn’t set us free to make us fat and sassy.  Jesus sets us free in order for us to lace up our walking shoes and head out into the world, bearing the light of Christ and living the life we were created for!

Jesus sets us free from our fears and everything else that can weigh us down

In the same breath Jesus grants us freedom for the gracious, open future God has in store for his Son and for all (including us) who now live only because Jesus has set us free.

This is what happens when God comes ‘a calling:  we are set free from all that is killing us….free for all that restores hope and opens up Christ’s tomorrow.

What a phone call!  What a calling!   What a life!

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Jesus' Homing Device"

Christ the King, Moorhead
September 7 & 10, 2014
Rally Day/Installation of Pr. Aaron Suomala Folkerds
Genesis 37:1-28 and Matthew 28:20

This week, as I was preparing my sermon, I think I finally figured out something about Jesus--about what makes Jesus “tick.”

It is as if Jesus has deep inside himself a kind of “homing device”….a microchip in his brain—or is it his heart?—…a microchip that causes Jesus to be drawn toward persons who are “left out,” avoided, for whatever reason “on the outside looking in.”

You can open up any of the four gospels, and almost wherever you look….you’ll find Jesus making a beeline toward someone whom we’d call an outsider.

Jesus was attracted to folks on the edges, on the outs, alone and abandoned….for whatever reason.

So sometimes Jesus’ homing signal draws him toward sick people, especially invalids whose illness separates them from the community….with diseases like leprosy.

Other times Jesus seems to be attracted to persons who are discriminated against, like the Samaritans with whom Jews like Jesus usually had no dealings.

Other times Jesus’ homing signal pointed him toward people who were caught in illicit lines of work or risky lifestylesor people who had made bad decisions…prostitutes, tax collectors, rabble-rousers of one sort or another.

It’s as if something inside of him compelled Jesus to seek out, come alongside of and stand with folks who—for whatever reasons—were left out by others.

So, as today’s worship theme proclaims:  Even when you're left out, Jesus loves you.

Even when you’re left out (for whatever reason or for no reason in particular), Jesus loves you, because it’s as if Jesus has inside of him a “homing signal” that drives him to seek out those who’ve been left out.

And this isn’t just Jesus’s “thing,” either!    This is God’s thing, and it’s always been God’s thing….to be drawn toward outsiders.   We see this not only in the gospels and the entire New Testament….but we witness this reality all the way back to the beginning of the Bible, in the Old Testament book of Genesis.

In our lesson for today, we meet Joseph, the 11th  son of the patriarch Jacob’s twelve sons…..and Joseph is in a world of hurt.  

Here in Genesis 37, Joseph is stuck in a hole in the desert, a pit he can’t get out of….and as Joseph languishes in that scary place he hears his ten older brothers arguing among themselves… they try to decide whether they should just flat out kill him, or sell him to human traffickers, or just let nature takes it course, letting him rot in that pit.

Talk about being an outsider!    Joseph is about as “left out” as anyone ever could be!

This amazing saga of Joseph illustrates the astounding, surprising realism of the Bible.   The Good Book never presents to us a slick, sanitized, detached view of the human condition.

No the Bible tells it like it is.   The Bible is God’s book—true enough!—but it’s a book that’s also literally covered with fingerprints…the very human fingerprints of the living, breathing human beings God inspired to preserve these stories for future generations.

And the Bible, in its cold and sober realism, doesn’t gloss over the ugly stuff, doesn’t round off the sharp edges of life.   The Bible exposes us in all our waywardness, all our God-forsakenness, all our lostness!

So just how did Joseph wind up in that pit in the desert?

One honest answer would be that this is where parental favoritism, personal arrogance, and murderous envy all lead—all of those things, within a highly dysfunctional family system!
·      For Joseph was, you see, the favorite son of his father Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.
·      And Joseph seems to have let his favored status go to his head.
·      And, also, not surprisingly Joseph’s ten older brothers harbored an envy toward him that seriously led them to consider fratricide!

And that’s just the start of a saga about Joseph that occupies another whole 10 chapters in Genesis (a saga that I encourage you to read when you get the chance!)  

Throughout that long, twisting, turning tale….Joseph is time and again “on the outside looking in,” rescued and abandoned, rescued and abandoned….until finally in Egypt—far away from his home and family—Joseph is promoted from a dungeon to a castle, from being a prisoner to becoming prime minister, Pharaoh’s right-hand man.

If ever someone tasted what it was like to be “left out” and left behind in the biblical story, it was Joseph…..but that left-outness was never the “end of the story for him.”   For Someone else was always there for Joseph.   Someone (Someone with a capital “S”)…Someone else was always hot on his trail, out ahead of him, guiding Joseph’s story to an amazing, transforming conclusion that you can read about in Genesis chapter 50.

What’s maybe most striking about this 11-chapter novella tucked within the book of Genesis is that God is always at work (though hardly ever mentioned in the narrative itself)…and that Joseph perceives and names God’s loving, saving presence only at the end of the story.

And here, I think is where  Joseph’s story and our stories intersect and interpret each other.  

For we, too, live out our lives often unmindful of the fact that God is walking with us every step of the way.   We—even people of faith like us—can, so easily live out our days as if we were all alone, as if God were not woven into every step of our journey, as close to us continually as the next breath that we take.

And when we do become aware of God’s presence and God’s love---isn’t it often only at the end of a chapter in our life….only as we stop, listen and look back over where we have been….does it become apparent that we were never “left out,” never truly alone, but that God was alongside us always, walking with us every step of the way?

So, in Genesis 50 Joseph is finally reconciled to his treacherous brothers.    Joseph, who has indeed (just as his youthful dreams predicted!) risen in rank to the second place of authority in the Kingdom of Egypt….Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, not in a spirit of revenge but with a heart full of reconciliation….because Joseph has caught wind of what was really happening all along:   “Joseph said to [his brothers], ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”   (Genesis 50:19-20)

Just as Joseph needed the perspective that only time and reflection can provide, we too are often most aware of God’s abiding, loving presence only when we look carefully in the rear-view mirror of our lives….when it dawns on us that in the times of life when we felt most alone, most left out, God was still there, always present….and God will always be there, right beside us.

And here’s where you come in Pastor Aaron (I bet you were wondering if I’d ever get around to you!).

You have been called and today you are installed to be part of the pastoral team of Christ the King, along with Pastor Matt and your other staff colleagues.

That means, as you well know, all sorts of things….but for now let me draw attention to these privileges that are yours.

·      You are here to remind these dear people that even when they feel left out, Jesus still loves them—to do that reminding in a host of ways and under an array of circumstances.

·      You have great material to work with in this regard, because it will be your privilege to crack open the Word of God, time and again.   You don’t have to make stuff up, Aaron….all you need to do is hunker down behind this Word of Jesus who has a sort of “homing device” inside him that draws him, like iron filings to a magnet, draws him toward down and outers and anyone who has messed up badly enough to wonder whether God is still in the equation.

·      You are here to let both the divine inspiration and the deeply human, realistic expression of the Bible come to light—always focused on Jesus, who is at the center of it all.

And perhaps most intriguingly, most invitingly for a man of your gifts and interests in listening to people and guiding them toward a richer life….you are here to help people detect the stirrings of God within their seemingly earth-bound lives.   You are called to help them look back, in the rear-view mirror of their lives to perceive all the ways that just when they thought they were most alone, Someone with a capital “S” was always there, always guiding, always saving, always opening up a gracious future in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.


Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Truth Shall Make You Odd

Eagle Lake Lutheran Church, Battle Lake, MN
August 31, 2014
Pentecost 12/Baptism of  Aiden Curtis Haugerud
Matthew 16: 21-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”[1]

That line comes from the great American author, Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic from the deep South.  Her words are a riff on something Jesus says in John chapter 8:  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

But, as Flannery O’Connor would have it, the truth….the truth of God’s Word…will make you odd.

The first time I heard this line it made a deep impression on me.   It got under my skin and would not let me go.

And the reason, I think, is that Flannery O’Connor’s version is so jarring, so unsettling, so wrong.

Who wants to be “odd” after all?

As soon as we’re born we begin a lifelong quest NOT to be odd or “off kilter.”

Before we’re even a minute old, a nurse is checking us out to make sure we’re normal.

It’s called the APGAR test which stands for five things: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration.
 Appearance (is the newborn “baby pink” all over?), pulse (is baby’s heart beating at least 100 times a minute?), grimace—(does baby grimace when poked, are her reflexes normal?)...activity (are baby’s arms and legs “on the move”?), and respiration—(is baby breathing regularly and crying vigorously?)

Think of it, before little babies are even five minutes old, someone has already assigned them a “normality number”--a number that compares each of us to every other baby that’s been born, telling our parents whether we’re normal or whether we’re odd.

Now, even though the APGAR test is given to newborns for important medical reasons, it is our first experience of being tested against a norm, compared to everyone else, examined for any signs of abnormality.

Starting with that first APGAR test, we’re off….pushed out into a lifetime of trying to fit in, attempting to seem like everyone else, avoiding “oddness” at all costs….

This “first day of school” time of the year is such a great example of that.   Although it’s been years since my children headed off to school in early September….I remember well all the pressures, all the back-to-school purchases, clothes and shoes and backpacks and lunchboxes and other stuff our children begged for so they would fit in, not seem strange or peculiar or odd.

And so it goes for so much of life.   We avoid “oddness” like the plague.

So Flannery O’Connor’s little phrase seems, at first, to go against the grain:  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

This same sentiment, though, is quite in keeping with whole swaths of the New Testament, including our gospel lesson for this morning from Matthew 16…

No sooner had Simon Peter correctly identified Jesus as God’s Chosen One….no sooner had that happened before Jesus was spelling out what, for him, Messiah-ship would mean:   betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection!

And Peter, who had just come up with the right answer, suddenly turns on Jesus and tells him how wrong he is---“No, no, no, Jesus… can’t mean that!   Messiahs conquer, Messiahs drive away enemies, and Messiahs set things right.  The Messiah does not get arrested, tortured and executed….you’ve got that all wrong…..”

But now it’s Jesus’ turn to shake things up as he sharply rebukes Peter, putting Peter in his place and making it clear that his way (Jesus’ way!) will be an odd way—odd to all our business-as-usual approaches to living in this world.

“Get behind me, Satan….stop being an obstacle in my path….stop clinging to human ways of doing things, Peter!”

And then Jesus lays out why his path, his way of living out God’s chosen-ness, will look so abnormal, so different, so odd, so contrary to the way things normally go in this world.

Jesus tells Peter, and us, that his path must be (indeed it will be) our path as well….the path of denying ourselves rather than indulging ourselves, the path of giving our lives away rather than clinging to life with a white-knuckled grip, the path of following Jesus completely—hook, line and sinker.

This is an odd path.  It goes against the grain, it has us swimming against the current.  There is nothing normal about it in terms of following the human way of living in this world into which we have been born.

Indeed, the only way to make any sense of what Jesus is after here is to think in terms of another birth into another world….a second birth, into a new world that is fashioned not after us and our image….but a new creation that comes purely as God’s unexpected gift to us.

And that new birth, that new creation is what we’re here for this morning!

In fact, this new birth will happen in a few short moments for little Aiden Curtis.

He has already lived through his first birth, which took place at 11:49 a.m. on July 1.  Aiden has already passed his first APGAR test for life in this world, the world of his first birth, the world that takes its cues from the human way of doing things.

But now, in just a few minutes, Aiden Curtis will embark on his second birth journey…..down the birth canal of the baptism font….out into the world of his second birth, a world that is shaped in God’s image, fashioned for the sake of living into God’s ways of doing business.

This second birth, the birth of baptism, if it “works”---this second birth will make Aiden “odd” all the days of his life!

That may not be exactly what you want to hear this morning, Neil and Ali (“you got a really odd kid, there!”)….but it’s the gospel truth.   Aiden’s baptism into Christ, his putting on of Jesus, will make him forever “odd” in terms of what would otherwise be the normal “human” way of living life.

And what will such “oddness” look like?  

Let me describe that with another little APGAR test—not just for the first five minutes after his baptism, but for all the days of Aiden’s life…..

….and, if you haven’t figured it out by now this sermon isn’t just for Aiden—it’s for all of us who have been baptized into Christ, all of us in whom Jesus is being formed and shaped for as long as we live.

The APGAR test for our second birth, our baptismal birth looks something like this:

A stands for Appearance:  As we live into our baptismal life, Jesus shows up and we even start looking  like Jesus.  Rather than being all curled up, turned in on ourselves, God daily “uncurls” us and opens us up to a new way of living in which we trust God, love our neighbors and care for this good earth.

P is for Pulse:  As we live into our baptismal life we come to realize that this life isn’t something we made happen.  We are not self-made, self-directed beings….but rather because God’s own heartbeat, God’s own lifeblood, the “circulatory system” of the Body of Christ courses through our veins, we are given all the oxygen and nutrients we need to live into the new creation of our second birth.

G stands for Grimace:  As new creatures in Jesus Christ, whenever we encounter the hurt, the pain, the need, the injustice of others….rather than turning away or looking past it, our baptismal reflex is to grimace and to respond with the love Christ has already poured into our hearts.   It becomes natural for us to think and speak and act as people who reflexively respond in care and compassion.

The second A stands for Activity:  This new life that flows forth from the waters of Baptism sets our hands and feet in motion….because in the Body of Christ we are God’s hands and feet and voice.  The faith that claims us doesn’t leave us like lumps on a log—but as Luther liked to say this faith is “a living, busy, active thing”….faith active in love, and finally

R is for Respiration:  The new creation into which God delivers us in our second birth is animated by the oxygenating breath of the Holy Spirit.   Every moment we depend on the divine CPR, the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of God’s grace that enlivens us, gives us breath and lets us communicate!

This, my dear friends is the truth of God about the way of God that makes us look odd in this me-first, self-indulgent, curved-in-upon-ourselves world.

It is the oddness of people whom Christ has set free—people who know that the only future that matters is God’s future—and that future is God’s gift to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mission Table Leadership

2014 Bishop’s Monthly Columns
Mission Table Leadership (Part 1)

Note:  quotations in italics are from The Mission Table by Stephen P. Bouman (2013, Augsburg Fortress), pp. 71-80.  .

“ As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”  (Matthew 4:18-22)

“The only constant is change.”  This statement, which sounds oxymoronic,[1] sums up so much about how life “feels” nowadays—perhaps especially life in the church.

Almost nothing that used to work still works.   The culture, rather than supporting faith and communities of faith, seems indifferent if not hostile to the things of God.   Patterns of “doing church” that sustained us for decades, if not centuries, seem outdated, ineffective.   We grow weary from trying to rethink just about everything.

Stephen Bouman captures the dynamic at work well when he writes:  

The decline of institutional religion is calling us into ministry in a new context here in North America.  Yet the United States remains unique in the world when it comes to spirituality.  Eighty percent of the US population is still convinced that God is real.  So here is our context: institutional forms of religion are collapsing while most people still believe in God.  We are awash in spiritual hunger.  In this in-between place, we do not yet know what forms will emerge.  All things are possible.  In such a time as this, what kind of leadership can come alongside congregations, communities, and spiritual seekers, helping them to imagine new mission tables, revised old ones, and learn from what they see emerging?

Not For Sissies

I’m struck, as I work within our synod, how difficult it can be to surface leaders for mission tables.   Folks are willing to sit around the circle and participate—but don’t ask anyone to serve as chair or convener (thankfully this doesn’t happen all the time!)  It is as if people sense that leadership, too, has changed in the church.  And leadership nowadays is definitely “not for sissies.”

Yet there has never been a time in the whole long life of God’s people when leaders have not been called forth—when leadership has not emerged.   And even today, the need for leadership has not diminished.  Despite the ways that church leaders in the 21st century may need to learn how to lead differently from the way leadership has functioned in the past, some bedrock realities about leadership have not changed:

Leadership in a missional church is spiritually-grounded.   Leadership at its best emerges from men and women of God who pray, worship, dwell in the Word, serve, give and struggle for justice.  Writes Bouman:  “Mission leaders build tables that are spiritual oases of service and solidarity with the lives of communities in this secular yet believing context.”

Such spiritual leadership doesn’t produce Supermen or Wonder Women leaders, though.    Bouman draws attention to the biblical picture of humility in leadership that characterized Moses and Jesus himself.   Such humility “wears well” in our 21st century context, in which the church is often on the margins, no longer at the center of things.   “The church’s mission needs leaders infused with the presence of God, confident in the promises of God, and filled with the hope that comes with being humble before God.  In that humility is strength, integrity, resolve and a single-minded embrace of the possibilities the risen Christ makes present.”

Leadership in a missional church is baptismally-endowed.   When I preach at ordinations or installations of pastors, I often remind them, “You didn’t get yourself into this mess!  God has called you!”  

The same goes for the whole people of God, not just pastors.    When God saves us through our baptism into Christ, the Lord simultaneously sends us to serve Christ’s mission of reclaiming the whole creation and making all things new.   Therefore, “we cannot talk about leadership in the church without talking about the call every Christian receives at baptism to be part of God’s mission in the world, to be part of the priesthood of all believers.  The church today needs leaders who are committed to agitating and winsomely engaging its members and neighbors around that call.”

So, what does such spiritually-grounded, baptismally-endowed leadership look like today?

A Mission Leader is Relational

Every year, on Pentecost Sunday, we read from the second chapter of the Book of Acts.   I wonder, though, if we always notice both the public and the relational sides of this amazing story.    The public side is what we’re most familiar with:   the Holy Spirit descends in a fiery public demonstration of evangelical power, leading Peter to preach a sermon that immediately draws 3,000 persons to be baptized into Christ.   Wow!

But the relational side of the Pentecost Story is just as amazing (see Acts 2:42-47).   Immediately those who are baptized enter into relationship with one another!  The impulse to gather together seems to be intrinsic to being joined to the Risen Christ.   Community—the first church—is formed and takes shape.   The public event of Pentecost produces the relational reality of the church-in-mission.

We live in a time when the relational side of the church’s life needs to come to the fore.   This might come as a surprise to us as we’ve watched life in the 21st century unfold.   Doesn’t it seem as though life has become more “atomized” as persons seem mesmerized by their precious digital devices?   We watch people walking down a sidewalk, each one focused on his or her iPhone or Droid—it’s amazing that they don’t run into one another more often!

But look more closely.    Our hi-tech world carries with it a hunger for hi-touch encounters.   The implication for a church in mission is that leaders will “put in the time and energy needed to build relationships within the congregation and in the community….Relationships are the synapses[2] of mission.”

A Mission Leader Pays Attention to Institutional Relationships

In other words, a mission leader cannot afford—ever!—to be a lone ranger.   Writes Bouman:  “Studies of new mission starts have shown that where local networks and relationships are strong, and connected to the wider church, so is the fledgling ministry.  It takes a village of tables to nourish and raise a new one.”

For this reason our synod continues to provide a means whereby we cultivate connections with new ministries.    I invite you to ponder and pray for the ministry partners we support together through our life as the Northwestern Minnesota Synod:

A Mission Leader Has an Entrepreneurial Spirit

Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence, observes that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale….about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace[3] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”[4]

If we are living through one of these 500-year-rummage-sales, and if new forms of “doing church” are emerging, chances are the leaders God is calling forth will seem similar to entrepreneurs in the business world.    Entrepreneurs aren’t shopkeepers or minders-of-the-store.   They have no knack for conducting “business as usual.”   They are the visionaries who dare to try new things—and to risk failure in the process.

But entrepreneurs in the church can make us nervous.   They color outside the lines.   They try things that don’t always succeed. Their imaginations sometimes lead to flights of fancy.   We worry they might “throw the baby out with the bath.”

In truth, though, the church of Jesus Christ has always been blessed with such reckless risk-takers.  Many of us sense that we need them now more than ever.   If entrepreneurial leaders make us nervous, perhaps we need to all get in our cars and visit a mission start church.    Starting new ministries is just as much a part of our DNA as “preserving sacred traditions.”   As Bouman reminds us:  “In the past, planting churches has generated a restless excitement.  Our communal memory of excitement and bold risks for mission will be a path to the renewal of our beloved tables for the life of the world.”

A Mission Leader is Clear About the Power of Money

Because we are creatures of time and space, seeking to serve God’s mission in the real, tangible world all around us—nothing we set out to do in service to God’s mission will happen without financial resources.   Even though our patterns for how Christians live out the spiritual gift of generosity are changing—along with everything else!—we will continue to need mission leaders who
·        Cultivate in themselves and others a sense of stewardship that is wide and deep;
·        Built strong, sustainable financial models for ministry; and
·        Courageously ask for sacrificial support.

In next month’s column we’ll continue to look at characteristics of mission leaders.    Feel free to read the rest of Chapter 5 in The Mission Table, as you ponder your own gifts and passions as a missional leader in a changing church.

God bless you for being the mission leader God, in your Baptism, has called you to be!

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

For reflection and discussion:
  1. As you ponder your own calling to be a mission leader, how have faith practices and your baptism into Christ shaped you?
  2. What’s noticeably healthy about the relational life of your congregation?   What could enhance your relational life together?
  3. What connections does your congregation cultivate with any of our synod’s partners in ministry?  
  4. What sometimes holds back mission leaders from boldly asking for sacrificial support?

This is the eighth in a series of monthly bishop’s columns during 2014 on the theme, The Mission Table.  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.   Readers are encouraged to purchase and read The Mission Table:  Renewing Congregation & Community which can be ordered at .

[1] An “oxymoron” is a  figure of speech in which two words with opposing meanings are used together intentionally for effect.
[2] In the nervous system, a synapse is a structure that permits a neuron (or nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell (neural or otherwise).
[3] A carapace is a hard shell on the back of some animals (such as turtles or crabs)
[4] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence:How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker, 2008), p. 16.