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…..you 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:   http://nwmnsynod.org/?post_type=ministry-partners

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 http://store.augsburgfortress.org/store/search?ss=The+Mission+Table&c=-1&x=52&y=14 .




[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.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

From the Mountain to the Sea

Salem Lutheran Church, Hitterdal, MN
August 10, 2014
Installation of Pr. Ruth Popkin
Matthew 14:22-33

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I love a good story—and I bet you do, too!

I love to lose myself in a good story.  I crave the “escape” that reading a good story brings.  I’m glad when a good story allows me to step back from my too-small world, in order to perceive a larger, more intriguing, different world.  

Three things go into a good story:  plot, characters and context.  

  •    The plot, the “action” is what most of us focus on first.  
  •    But a good plot can only take us so far, without compelling characters whom we care about.  
  •    Context usually is third in importance—providing as it does the frame within which plot and characters interact.
Here in this good story, in this gospel text, the context is what we definitely should notice first.   The context in time is that this story comes hot on the heels of the Feeding of the 5,000.   The context in space is focused on two places:  the mountain and the sea.

After the Feeding of the 5,000 Jesus needs to get away and pray.    So he sends everyone away and he climbs a mountain to be alone with God.  

That makes sense within the narrative arc of the biblical story—mountains are places of encounter with God, ideal places to speak with God and hear from God.   In the three-story universe that was assumed by the biblical writers, a mountain was literally a location on earth that was closest to heaven, closest to God.

So Jesus goes up, to a very good place, a holy place, a mountain…..and Jesus’ followers go down,  to a very bad place, a scary place, a place that made them nervous (even the fishermen, perhaps especially the fishermen!).   The disciples climb into a boat and head out onto the notoriously treacherous, unpredictable Sea of Galilee—a body of water on which squalls could blow up just like that.

Jesus goes up to the mountain, and the disciples go down to the sea….not by their own choice, we need to notice.    Jesus “makes” them do it—Jesus compels, Jesus forces them to go where they’d probably rather not have gone.

And for good reason…because the little sea voyage Jesus sends his followers on takes a suddenly disastrous turn…their little boat is battered—literally “tormented”—by nasty waves.   The wind is against them, making it virtually impossible to follow the course Jesus had laid out for them.

This dangerous tug of war between the beleaguered disciples and the contrary winds and waves drags on for hours, until  the “witching hour” (between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.) when everything always seems most dire, most hopeless, most fear-filled.
Only then, when the chaos of the sea seems to be winning, when the disciples have exhausted all their energies rowing against the wind….only then does Jesus come to them, in the most direct way that he could, walking across the water…..not to put on a show, mind you….not to “demonstrate his divinity”….but to comfort them, to assure them that God was in charge of this storm.
So beside themselves with anxiety are the disciples that at first, when they perceive a dark shape moving toward them across the troubled waters, the disciples assume that a ghost has shown up to heighten their torment….

….until the ghost speaks to them, in a voice that is utterly familiar to their ears:   “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Jesus descends the mountain and glides across the sea—not to wow his followers with an amazing parlor trick—but to do what Jesus does best:  to save them, to revive their courage, to be God’s rescuing presence, to steady their fears.

Dear friends in Christ, and especially Pastor Ruth:  we have before us in this splendid story from Matthew’s gospel, a paradigm, a template for what life and ministry together for you will be like here at Salem.

Although we live in a part of the world where mountains are scarce (!), I dare say that these folks and others regard this wonderful stone edifice in Hitterdal as a mountain to which they’re drawn, time and again, because they meet God here….they come into God’s presence in the Word, the Bath, the Meal, the community and the mission that are tended in this place.

As pastor and people you will have mountaintop moments together in this place, I pray, for a good long time.   All of us would be the poorer if we never had such times of awareness and encounter with God!

But only some of your life in Christ, actually only a slender slice of your walk with Jesus, will play out here in this “mountaintop” place.

Most of life happens on the treacherous sea of daily experience, filled with tormenting waves and treacherous winds.   Much of what pastors do, what we most need and want our pastors to do, is to be with us in the hardest parts of daily life…..to sit with couples whose relationship is unraveling, to pray at sickbeds, to comfort the grieving, to lead in times of uncertainty, to guide a questing people into fresh ways of listening to God, one another and  our neighbors as we make our way along a challenging path.

This will call forth, Pastor Ruth, all your faith, hope and love….along with all your best gifts.

But one thing—let me assure you!—one thing you do not need to do is “walk on water.”   

I’m happy to inform you that this congregation doesn’t expect that of you.   I know—because I checked!—the call committee did not list the “must walk on water” option on Salem’s Ministry Site Profile.

And that is a very good thing, because there’s only one Person who can walk on water, and his name is Jesus.

That’s the point, it seems to me, of the little coda to this story—the part where Peter thinks it would be a wonderful idea if he walked on water the same way Jesus was walking on water.  

Contrary to what many of us were taught in Sunday School, this part of the story isn’t a little morality play designed to suggest  that if Peter (and we just) just have enough faith we can do anything—even walk on water.

No, Jesus knew exactly how this final part of the story would work out.   Jesus allowed Peter to try his hand at walking on water, knowing full well that Peter didn’t have it in him—knowing that Jesus would have to rescue Peter, because that’s what Jesus does best.

For, when all is said and done, this is what the life of faith comes down to:   we sink and Jesus saves.

We sink—we sink in doubt and peril and sin and meaninglessness and death…..and it is God’s good pleasure (in Christ) to save us….always, always, always and forever.

So, Pastor Ruth, the good news is you don’t need to walk on water and you shouldn’t even try….

…but what you do need to do,  and what this congregation has called you to do is to constantly, unfailingly point people both here in this place and across your wider mission field….to point them to the only One who does walk on water--and then some!

Your job, your calling (for as long as you serve as pastor of Salem) is to be on the lookout for fresh ways to say and enact this simple, timeless but also timely message:   we sink, Jesus saves.

We sink.  

Jesus saves.   

End of story!

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Wrapped in God's Promises

Funeral Sermon for Pastor Mary E. Hansen
July 28, 2014
Calvary Lutheran Church, St Hilaire, MN
Romans 8:31-35, 37-39

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Of all the words I’ve heard used to describe Mary this last week—one word I haven’t heard is “worrier.”

Mary was a wife, mother, grandmother, sister, aunt, friend and pastor.  

She was also a lifelong learner, gifted musician, accomplished cook, lover of fine things, justice-seeker, inhabitant of a very large world—to name just a few.

But “worrier” isn’t on the list of labels applied to Mary.

To say that she wasn’t a worrier is not to say that she never worried.   Mary was human after all.  She lived all of her 73 years in a fallen world marked by sin, suffering, mortality, and irrational evil.   Worrying simply comes with the territory.

Mary no doubt worried--but worrying didn’t define her.  She was not obsessed by, consumed by her worries.

And the primary reason for that shines forth in today’s memorial service (which she planned)--the centerpiece of which is this magnificent text from Romans 8.  

Here in Romans 8, the apostle Paul meets worry head on.  Paul tackles all that could ever haunt or threaten us, confronts every “awful awful” with the powerful, effective promises of the God whom we know in Jesus Christ.

For Paul none of this was abstract, armchair theologizing.  Not by a long shot!   Paul named all the things that could dismay us, beat us down, hold us back...Paul ticked off a veritable laundry list of worries—threats that could derail everything….powers and forces that might somehow wheedle their way in between God and us.

I picture the Apostle Paul in the midst of his own anxiety-laden life--wracking his brain, combing through his memory bank,  recalling obstacles he himself faced…and then just putting them right out there:    Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

Now there’s a worry list to end all worry lists!

And what does Paul do with this fearful worry list?   He takes his pen and brazenly crosses out all those potential threats and obstacles….”X”es them right out of his vocabulary……writes all over them this word:  “NOTHING!”

NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING, NOTHING can come between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Nothing, no one, nada can veto God’s decision to be for us—not against us—because of Jesus Christ.

That’s the main reason why Mary was not a worrier.  Because very early in her life Mary was grasped by the best news ever:  that God had not withheld his only Son but had given him up for us all….that God had designs on Mary, God had called dibs on her, God was “for” her, come what may!   

Early in her life God wrapped Mary up in his promises of forgiveness for every failing, life beyond all that threatens, and a future without end in the power of Christ’s resurrection.   The wondrous grace that worked its way deep into Mary’s bones assured her that if God is for us—who can be against us?

When Mary was just a little girl, that promise first washed over her in her Baptism, that promise was planted by her encounter with God’s Word, and it was sustained by her life in the community of faith.

And this great life-altering, future-opening promise of God in Christ gave Mary a place to stand, a source of security that could not be shaken—even in the face of some of the awful-awfuls Mary herself would face.

But God’s promises didn’t just make Mary feel secure.  They also furnished her life, infused her days on this earth with meaning and purpose.

That’s the second great way God keeps us from being all wrapped up in worry.   God gives us a brand new life, filled with better things to do than worry about what might happen to us.

Because God made a deal with Mary—to bear all the things that might ever dismay her—God thereby opened up space for Mary to live the life he intended her to live….to live now in this world as if God’s promised future was already hers.

So Mary carried that awareness into all of her life….living as if God’s new creation was already dawning.

So Mary studied and grew and developed a hunger for lifelong learning…

And Mary sang and led others in song and cultivated a love affair with the great music of the ages….

And Mary was given the gift of family….Dawn, Heather and Kevin…and an adoring, faithful husband named Carl…

And Mary was given a heart full of care for her neighbors, especially those most in need of compassion and justice, including neighbors across the whole globe….

And God also gave Mary a fulfilling life of service in the church…service through which she could live out her passion for the Good News of Jesus that had claimed her.

When Mary was just 12 years old, she first head God calling her to become a pastor…..and that was a pretty tall order to fill because back when Mary was a young girl women weren’t getting ordained.   

So certain was Mary of God’s compelling persistent call in her life that she declared that if God wanted her to be a pastor, God would have to figure out a way to open up ordained ministry for women like her to do just that.  Young Mary said she was ready to wait until God made that happen—which God finally did!

So twelve years after marrying Carl, Mary embarked with him on the adventure of pastoral ministry together….serving congregations for 30 years in Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa, South Dakota and finally here in northwestern Minnesota.

Mary’s work as a pastor didn’t just provide her and her family with a living—it also offered them a life, a way of wedding work with the Word of God that had first laid claim to Mary years and years ago.

And now Mary’s rich life has come full circle.  She has been buried deep in her baptism into Christ.  She has been removed from this fallen world and all the potential sources of worry that it brings.   Mary is wrapped up, finally, not just in the promises of God, but in the arms of God--the fullness of God’s own unending life is hers as well.

So we say:  thanks be to God for giving us Mary to know and to love.   Thanks be to God for calling Mary to be a pastor and then making good on that promise!    Keep us wrapped up in your promises, O God…free us to live as though your new creation was already dawning…and make us ready, as Mary was ready, to die in Christ as we have lived in Christ.

In the name of Jesus.
Amen.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Parabolic Pyrotechnics

Bethel Lutheran Church, Herman, MN
July 27, 2014
Installation of Pr. David Hanssen
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This morning’s gospel lesson feels like the grand finale of a 4th of July fireworks show.

When we gather, on lawn blankets, to watch the fireworks every Independence Day…the show always starts slowly (have you noticed?)  

We wait and wait, willing the sky to turn dark enough, and then one wimpy little rocket goes off.   Was this it?  Or did one of the firemen or Lions Club members in charge of things just jump the gun?

But then there’s another rocket, yielding a bigger display of light in the sky….and a pause, and another rocket that produces a big, ear-tingling boom….and a pause….and another rocket, this one like a gigantic dandelion in the sky…

…..and so it goes for 15 or 20 minutes until at the very end of the evening, the guys in charge of the pyrotechnics gleefully set off a whole array of fireworks, all at once—colorful ones and cannon boomers all together—an exciting, breath-taking coda displayed against the gorgeous backdrop of a starlit summer sky.

This morning’s gospel lesson feels like that grand finale of a July 4th fireworks display.   The last few Sundays we’ve been lounging on our lawn blankets, taking in the earlier portion of the fireworks here in Matthew 13….savoring the Sower and the Seed two weeks ago….and struggling with the shocking parable of the Wheat and the Weeds last Sunday….

Those earlier parables offered us both story and interpretation by Jesus.  We watched the rockets go up and then heard some “color commentary” on what was going on….

But now, this morning….the fireworks display is over, with a rat-a-tat-tat of five quick bursts of parabolic dynamite.   The finale makes the whole show worthwhile….and then it is over.

Except that it’s not over, really, because at this point our little analogy breaks down.   Fireworks displays are always too short—great experiences, but entirely fleeting, over way too soon.

But these parables that come at us here at the end of Matthew 13….these are not flashes-in-the-pan, momentary “eye candy.”   No, these are deep, deep stories that will carry us through our whole lives of faith, hope and love.

And they come to us—appropriately enough--on this long-anticipated Sunday morning, as we welcome Pastor David Hanssen to serve here at Bethel.

Where are you in this gospel reading, Pastor David?  I think you’re named in the last verse where Jesus says:  “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."

You, David, are the scribe here….not one of the bad-guy scribes we read about in the gospels (usually in cahoots with the Pharisees and priests), out to “get” Jesus.  

No, here, Jesus speaks of another kind of scribe, who has been trained for the kingdom….not the old kingdom of this world, not the kingdom of old Israel….but the kingdom of heaven.   You are a scribe, one who tends the things of God, for the sake of the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ, the bringer of God’s new creation!

So what sort of stuff have you been called to tend here in this outpost of the kingdom of heaven?   What old and new things is Jesus calling you to bring forth from your treasure chest?   Conveniently enough—this is a Lutheran sermon after all!—there are three treasures God is placing in your hands.

First, you are a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, called to draw attention to the utter giftedness of God’s rescuing, renewing work in Jesus Christ.

As you listen and learn and teach and preach, you’ll find yourself speaking in this vein:  “You lucky stiffs!   Before you knew what hit you, you stumbled across the best gift imaginable, fallen into the largess of your Creator, had showered down upon you –like pennies from heaven—the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—all of it, ‘for you!’”

As a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, you will develop the art of pointing that out—to yourself and to others—all the ways in which the buried treasure, the pearl of great price has found you.  In fact the defining fact of your life and everyone else’s life is that “while we were still sinners” (Rom 5:8) Jesus flat out died for us, though we have done absolutely nothing to deserve him.

I picture the man in the parable stumbling over, maybe stubbing his big toe on the cache of treasure buried in that field.  I picture the pearl merchant, bug-eyed and so weary from shucking oysters, that he was almost dozing off when his eye caught the sparkle of the pearl he’d been looking for all his life!

The encompassing enormity of this treasure we have in Jesus—life, freedom, forgiveness and a future without end!—the enfolding reality of that treasure is seen in the crazy, stupid thing the treasure-finder and the pearl merchant each do.  Instead of getting that field assessed, that pearl appraised, they both simply “sell all” to make the precious thing their own.   That’s what God is after:  all of us—lock, stock and barrel!—and the way God accomplishes that is to give us all of Jesus—crucified, buried, raised again for us and our salvation.

You’re called to point that out, Pastor David, the sheer giftedness of all that we are and have in Jesus Christ.

Second, God wants you to help folks perceive the amazing hiddenness of God’s ways.   Mustard seeds and granules of yeast are virtually invisible, after all.   But these substances aren’t just minuscule—they’re also despised.   Mustard is more like a weed than a stalk of wheat.  The “leaven” in the parable was really a musty lump of stale bread—a source of corruption in a fastidious kitchen—hidden by the baker in an enormous barrel of flour.  Out of sight, out of mind…

But both of them—the mustard seed and the tiny bit of leaven—both of them grow and change and transform in amazing ways.
So, Pastor David, as a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven, God calls you not to miss, and to help others not to miss the wondrous ways God works in the tiniest, most despised things.   Ernst K√§semann, the great German scholar of the New Testament, once said that the kingdom of God is “made up of stuff that in and of itself is fundamentally unusable.”   Never forget that.  

Never let these dear sons and daughters of God forget that, either.   We are Minnesotans after all.   As Garrison Keillor points out, we’re all brought up to believe that we shouldn’t ever become too proud of ourselves…..so we cultivate a militant modesty that is reluctant to believe that God might be at work in our midst.  
But the God we have on our hands is the God who takes mustard seeds and covers the planet with mustard plants, big enough for birds to find nesting places.  The God we know in Jesus takes old moldy bread and leavens fresh dough with it in order to bake loaves that feed a multitude at the Table of Grace.

Finally, Pastor David, you are called to work faithfully in the messiness of the church’s life.   That’s the burden of the parable of the dragnet—like the weeds amid the wheat, the dragnet draws in “fish of every kind” (v. 47).   That’s how it is in the church, how it is here at Bethel.   Our admission standards are pretty low—we’re just looking for sinners who have an inkling that God knows what to do with sin!

That opens the floodgates to “fish of every kind”—some prize walleyes and northerns right alongside sheepshead and carp—all of us in the same barrel, this odd kettle of fish called the church.   

You will notice that, from time to time, the thought will be voiced that we should get more selective, attend more carefully to the holiness of the church by welcoming some in and keeping others out.  But one of the great things about being Lutheran is that we really like (and I would say we really “get”) Jesus’ parables about weeds growing up with wheat, and a dragnet big enough to haul in “fish of every kind”—trusting that God and God alone is qualified to do any sorting that needs to be done--and that only at the End of God’s story.

So, Pastor David, as you serve now here at Bethel, a “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven,” tend the holy things and the holy people of God:  never tiring of sharing the sheer giftedness, the astonishing hiddenness, and the surprising wideness of God’s mercy in this messy place we call the church.

That ought to keep you out of mischief, for what we hope will be a good long time!

In the name of Jesus.
Amen.