Saturday, February 28, 2015

Beyond Survival

Grove Lake Lutheran Church, Pelican Rapids
March 1, 2014/Lent 2
Mark 8:31-38

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

It’s good to be with you this morning.  Over the years I’ve gotten to know some of you, and this morning I hope to become acquainted with even more of you.

Without even knowing all of you, though, I’m going to make a guess about you folks here at Grove Lake Lutheran Church.

I’m guessing that some, perhaps many of you, are survivors.

You have been up against something—raising challenging kids, losing a job, dealing with addiction, being abused, facing cancer, weathering divorce, farming the land, you name it…

You’ve been up against something that could have done you in—but it didn’t.  You survived!

And for that, I say:  “Hats off to you!”   Surviving is good, because life is good!

If you’re a survivor—I thank God for you.

Surviving is good.  But as good as surviving is, it’s not the greatest good in the universe.

That’s because tucked inside every survival story there is a seam of danger we dare not ignore.

The danger in hunkering down, getting focused and doing whatever it takes to survive….the thread of danger in that is that we become so focused on ourselves or our little circle, our “tribe,” that we can easily lose sight of others.

It’s just in the nature of the beast.   To survive is to pull in, focus on ourselves or our group, and for at least a while to shut out everyone else….so that we allow nothing and no one to distract us from the challenge of surviving.

We may all have survival moments or “episodes” in our lives—I think we do—but we’ll be smart  to avoid making “survival” the main theme, the entire story of our lives….because, truth be told, if all we’re about is surviving we could get pretty lonely.

I think this is where  Jesus is pointing us in this morning’s gospel lesson when he says:   "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (vv. 34-35)

Jesus’ wisdom flies in the face of human wisdom, the wisdom that says:  sometimes you have to buckle down and do whatever it takes to survive, to make it through the day.

Jesus doesn’t specifically use the word “survival” here, but he comes close when he talks about denying ourselves and losing our lives rather than trying to save our lives.

What’s that all about, anyway?

It’s about the thing that’s even bigger and better than surviving.  It’s about staying connected with, related to others….being open to God and the whole human family in ways that are simply at odds with focusing all our effort on surviving.

This is the kind of life God has always intended for us and for all people.

We see signs of that in our Old Testament lesson, where Abram and Sarai are promised descendants without number and new names to boot.   Abram and Sarai had pretty good lives, just the two of them, but God had much more in store for them—God had the whole world in mind when he called Abram and Sarai to be blessed so that they could be a blessing to all nations of the earth.
We see that in Jesus, the greatest descendant of Abram and Sarai, as well—we see it in Jesus’s life and ministry, his awful death and his awesome resurrection.    Jesus lived in a way that showed he knew that personal survival is not the greatest good—not even close!

Karoline Lewis, who teaches at our seminary in St Paul, puts it this way:  “To ‘deny yourself and take up your cross’ invites us into what the cross can also mean -- not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be certain of our connectedness.”[1]

We also see this openness to the whole human family, this refusal to focus on personal or tribal survival, in the lives and witness of Jesus’ followers down through the ages. 

In January my wife Joy and I were privileged to be part of the ELCA Bishops Academy in Germany, as we got in touch with our roots in the life of the German monk Martin Luther and the Reformation he started….and as we traced the development of the Lutheran church over the last five hundred years.

One of the sites we visited was the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald.   A quarter of a million persons deemed “undesirables” by the Nazis were imprisoned here, and over 50,000 of them died in this stark, barbed-wired concentration camp.   Two of the persons who were imprisoned at Buchenwald were German Lutheran pastors and martyrs--Paul Schneider and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, into a highly-educated, well-to-do German family.  A brilliant child, he was groomed for the life of a university professor of theology.

But then along came Adolf Hitler, his insane pursuit of power, and his maniacal hatred of the Jews and others he deemed “undesirable.”   Quickly grasping the danger posed by Hitler’s Nazis, young professor Bonhoeffer knew he could not stare at his shoes and hope the whole situation would go away.  

In the 1930s, Dietrich studied in the United States and made friends in England.  He considered “sitting out” World War II in a safe place—doing whatever he needed to do to survive.

But instead Bonhoeffer decided that he belonged in his native Germany.  He had to bear witness to his Lord Jesus Christ—in bold word and costly deed.

So Bonhoeffer returned home, served as a pastor while participating in a plot to assassinate Hitler, was arrested and three weeks before the liberation of Germany—was hanged  by the Nazis in 1945.

For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed at the tender age of 39, the question came down to this:  “Who is Jesus for us?—in this time, in this place?”   And the answer that kept haunting Bonhoeffer was this:  “He—Jesus—is the man for others.”   

It was only a short hop from that answer to what Bonhoeffer knew he needed to do—NOT to survive at all costs….but to be part of a true church for others, in obedience to the Man for others.

My dear friends, this “being for others,” this way of life that gives itself away for others, isn’t just for biblical characters or historical heroes.  It’s for all of us who have been baptized into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is the mode of living that our Lord Jesus  immerses us in when we go down under the water of baptism and when we confess that Jesus is indeed the only way worth following, the only truth worth confessing, the only life worth living.

This way of life is for us as individuals, and it is for communities of faith like Grove Lake.

In my ministry as synod bishop I interact on a daily basis with all kinds of congregations--233 of them across the 21 counties of our synod.

And many of these congregations are focused, over-focused (!) on their survival.

Which means those congregations are likely NOT to survive!

Here’s where the out of this world “logic” of Jesus words in our text comes to light, right among us.   What’s true for us as human beings is just as true for congregations as living members of the Body of Christ.   Hang on to life, cling to life, focus all your attention on surviving….and you will die.

Give yourselves away, focus on your neighbors and your world and all the ways God frees you to be connected to them, care for them, share your best with them….that, that is life!

Let me share an impression of Grove Lake Lutheran Church:  you may have plenty of survivors in your midst, but as a community of faith you don’t seem overly focused on survival.   I think, instead, that Jesus’ gospel logic lives here.  

One of the marks of that is your eagerness to engage our synod’s Fostering Vibrant Faith project.  I take that to mean that you “get it”—you “get” the fact that faith is the only thing that multiplies as it is divided, shared, passed on….starting with the youngest among us and the young ones who are in each of our own circles of care. 

God bless you with sturdy faith in Jesus Christ, the Man for others….whose cross represents God’s fierce commitment to the whole human family….that all might live in Christ’s forgiveness, move forward in Christ’s freedom, and live every day in Christ’s overflowing love.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.


Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Church is Leaving the Building!

Men’s Retreat
Luther Crest Bible Camp, Alexandria
February 8, 2015
Mark 1:29-39

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Jesus has some “crowd control” problems as he begins his ministry here in Mark’s gospel.

Earlier (in last Sunday’s Gospel reading) he dealt with a heckler in a very public setting, Capernaum’s synagogue:  "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God."  (Mark 1:24)

The heckler, a demon-possessed man, speaks with a voice that comes straight from hell…surprisingly, acknowledging Jesus’ identity and naming Jesus as a threat to all the powers of darkness.
Jesus dispatches this heckler by exorcising his evil spirit.

Now in today’s gospel reading, Jesus leaves the public space of the synagogue to enter the private space of a house inhabited by his followers Simon Peter and Andrew.

Here in the intimacy of a dwelling evil rears its head once again, under the guise, not of demon-possession, but of a fever afflicting Peter’s mother in law.

We dare not underestimate the danger here.  In the first century there were no anti-biotics or IV-drips, no “take two aspirin and call me in the morning” physician protocols.  Fevers frequently killed! 

So Jesus goes to the stricken woman, touches her, lifts her up off her sickbed—healed!  She is restored so immediately, so completely that she’s able to rise up and resume her vocation of serving Jesus and his traveling companions. 

News travels fast in Capernaum, though, the way news travels fast in our northwestern Minnesota communities.  Garrison Keillor likes to say that people don’t read the Lake Wobegon newspaper to learn the news as much as they read it to confirm the news!

News of the healings of the demoniac and Peter’s mother-in-law travels so fast that by sundown the whole town has turned out, engulfing the home of Peter and Andrew.  “They brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons…”

So Jesus’ “crowd control” problem now shifts from handling a heckler to dealing with the crush of a mob.   Hands grab for him, arms reach out to him, rasping voices call to him. 

But Jesus doesn’t shrink away from this swarm of sufferers.  Jesus makes himself available to all of them.

This brings to mind a familiar scene from that long-running TV series M*A*S*H.  

Remember when Drs. Hawkeye and Trapper John were in the operating room for four, five, six hours at a stretch?   

After closing up wounds, suturing lacerations, stabilizing the seriously wounded….the two M*A*S*H surgeons would come out into the sunshine, squinting, exhausted—their hospital scrubs drenched in blood, sweat and tears.

That’s how Jesus might have appeared here in Capernaum, just outside the house of Andrew and Simon Peter.

So it is no wonder that after such an exhausting day, surrounded by persons clamoring for Jesus’ touch, he steals away very early the next morning.  When it “was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”

As a little Sunday School kid I was baffled by the notion that Jesus prayed.   How could that be, if Jesus was himself God?  When Jesus prayed, was he simply talking to himself?

It’s taken me six decades just to start to get a handle on that….to realize that the praying of Jesus reflected his dual identity as truly God and truly human.   And the truly human side of Jesus needed to pray, the way you and I need to pray, because so much of our lives distract us from, draw our attention away from our God who is always as close to us as our next heartbeat.

So we intentionally take time to place ourselves consciously before God, to attend to God, to listen to God even as we speak to God.   Nowadays our culture lifts up the idea of “mindfulness”….and for Christians, the best form of mindfulness is prayer.  

Isn’t that why you decided to escape your workaday lives and retreat to Luther Crest for 48 hours?

So Jesus “retreats” here, he escapes the crowd (or so he thinks) to get in touch with his heavenly Father….but even there, in his prayer place, the crowd finds him once again.  “Simon and his companions hunted for [Jesus].  When they found him, they said to him, ‘Everyone is searching for you.’”   The crowd is on the prowl!

But Jesus’ brief time of pre-dawn respite has apparently crystalized something in his thinking and planning. 

Jesus’s path has become clear to him in the darkness of his praying.  "’Let us go,’” Jesus announces to his companions…”Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.’ And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.”

Let us go, Jesus responds.   Let’s get on the move, let’s travel, for we have miles to go, a journey to pursue.

The previous day’s experience made it clear that Jesus could have stayed in Capernaum, just set up shop (or erected a shrine) where he could sit like a guru and hold audiences with those who had the time and resources to come to him.

Something in Jesus’ prayer time that early, early morning clarified for him that his vocation was not to stay there….but to keep moving, to keep encountering the crowds that would forever be nipping at his heels.

Jesus articulated something crucial about how he discerned his calling, his vocation.   Jesus’ vocation would take the shape of a journey, a pilgrimage through this weary world that would finally bring him to the Cross and the Grave “for us and for our salvation.” (Nicene Creed)

That destination shaped the calling for Jesus, every segment of his journey from the first step to the final step.

Jesus made it clear that his was a peripatetic ministry, a walking-around ministry, with a starting point and an endpoint.

And as it was for Jesus, so it would be for his followers.   They would follow, meaning that, like Jesus, they would be on the move, out into the world—this is the shape their vocation would take, as well.

Only in such a fashion would Jesus make it unmistakably clear that God is a moving, sending God who is who is always calling persons not to sit still but to keep on the move.  “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”  (Luke 19:10)

My dear friends, Jesus’ words here in Mark 1 still have decisive bearing on our callings, our vocations as baptized followers of our on-the-move Savior who says to us:   “Let us go…”

Our vocations, our callings are dynamic, not static.   We follow a mobile Savior who came to preach God’s strong and gentle Rule over all things.  As Professor Matt Skinner of Luther Seminary puts it:  “It is this preaching’s nature not to stay settled and rooted in a single place among a fixed audience but to seek new settings and opportunities to express itself.”Working Preacher

One of the most fateful decisions Christians made centuries ago was to erect church buildings—some of them magnificent cathedrals like the ones my wife and I visited in Germany last month.

When that happened, the church embraced a grave risk:  the risk of being planted, settled, sedentary, “nailed down” to a specific location.   I fear that the movement began by Jesus often became immobilized when we started investing so much of our identity and way of life in bricks, mortar and real estate.  

And now in this 21st century, as many are wondering whether it’s time to become more of a movement and less of a club with a clubhouse….we are rethinking the ways buildings and real estate may have stifled the dynamism of vocation and ministry as Jesus imagined it and lived it.

Now please, I am not suggesting that you go home and light a match to your church buildings—far from it!—but I do believe we need to reimagine, in fresh ways, how we might get better at leaving our buildings and institutional structures and hitting the open road with Jesus who always goes before us.  

At the conclusion of our weekly worship services, after we’ve heard:  “Go in peace, serve the Lord”…instead of responding with just:  “Thanks be to God!” what if we added something like:  “Watch out world—the church is leaving the building!”

When we talk in such a fashion we claim the great gift that comes with the whole notion of vocation as we’ve pondered it this weekend.

Truly, our vocations are dynamic, not static.   We may begin by naming our vocations:   son, brother, husband, father, friend, worker, citizen, neighbor…

But those names, those statuses take us somewhere, send us out into the world, deliver us to our neighbors…

So, where is your vocation leading you, where are your feet taking you?   To ordinary places?  Yes, most of the time…to ordinary places, including places you never pictured yourself going.

Our feet will take us to wherever the next generation is hankering for accompaniment and maybe even open to a bit of our wisdom.

Our feet will take us to wherever the lost, the last and the least are hungering for life’s necessities including the staple of life we call justice

Our feet will take us into public spaces, sometimes even into the hurly burly of political conversations about the common good.

Our feet take us to nursing homes, homeless shelters, hospitals, even cemeteries--wherever ears are longing to hear some word, some touch that restores faith, hope and love in Christ.

Through our vocations (which Luther sometimes called the masks God wears out in the world) through our vocations God’s work is done:  the Good News of Jesus is voiced, the neighbor in need is loved, the earth itself is cared for until God’s New Day dawns.

And we get to be part of that simply because God has called us to it.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

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
[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.