Saturday, April 11, 2015

God is the Cook!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, we saw it happen just moments ago.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Recognizing and Responding to New Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lift up the Next Generation Vision—handout.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.