Sunday, January 21, 2018

Our God is a Calling God

Epiphany 3/January 21, 2018
Installation of Pr. Terry Hagensen
New Salem Lutheran Church, Turtle River, MN
John 3:1-5, 10

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

God, our God, is a God who calls.

Let me say that again:  our God is a calling God

That short sentence speaks volumes about this God whom we trust.

It says to us, first of all, that we have a God who yearns to be in relationship with us, ardently desires to converse with us.

Our God, wants to engage us, affect us, “have words” with us….in such a way that we can respond, from our hearts, in our own unique voice.

God calls us with the expectation that we’ll respond—while knowing that how we’ll respond is never a foregone conclusion. 

God is a God who calls us--meaning that God chooses not to coerce us, but speaks to us in ways that free us to speak back to God and have an effect on God, thus being responsive to God.

And the range of our possible answers to this calling God runs all the way from the most resounding of YESes to the most stubborn of NOs.

The Bible--which might well be described as a treasury of call stories--the Bible constantly demonstrates how risk-taking it is for God to choose calling over coercing…because the Bible never tires of reminding us that people like us might well decide to ignore or sidestep or even outright reject God’s call.

Our cell phone rings.  The display identifies the caller as God.  And we hit the DECLINE CALL button.

That can happen.  In fact, that does happen—all the time.  If there’s anything predictable in this whole long narrative of call stories we call the Bible—if there’s a recurring pattern we can’t help but notice, it’s that human beings usually resist God’s call, at least when it first comes to them.

In our First Lesson we meet one of the Bible’s most spectacular “resisters” of God’s call in his life.   
When God first calls Jonah, God asks him to head east, to wicked Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s vicious enemies, the Assyrians.

“Go east young man,” God calls to Jonah, and Jonah responds by heading as far west as he can, far away from where God wants him to go.  

God says “Nineveh” in the east, and Jonah replies “No, I prefer Tarshish” in the west.

And amazingly, rather than immediately vetoing Jonah’s rebellious response, God lets Jonah go where he wants to go.  God opens up space and time to allow Jonah to head off in his own contrary direction—how surprising!

So Jonah books passage on a boat bound for Tarshish…and we all know how that went. 

The boat did not have smooth sailing, a horrible storm descended upon it, leaving the sailors no choice but to lighten the load—to toss out all the unneeded baggage, which soon included Jonah himself—thrown overboard to become fishfood.

But (as so often happens in the Bible) what appears to be the end of Jonah’s call story—being swallowed by a great fish!—turns out to be instead a “time out”-- three days to think it over in the belly of the fish, three days for Jonah to consider his situation, to remember God, pray to God, turn from his resistance…and then to find himself vomited out on a beach, where God calls him once again:  “Jonah, go to Nineveh...”

…and this time Jonah obeys God’s call.

God is a calling God, not a coercing God.   God calls us, and even though we usually resist that call, God doesn’t give up, because God calls tenaciously, God has all the time in the world and is thus willing to outwait us, God keeps coming after us, wooing and winning us over and setting our feet in the direction we need to go.

As I like to say, especially to persons trying to discern God’s call in their lives:  don’t get all hot and bothered.  God will get you wherever God needs you—but it just might happen, not on your timetable, but in God’s good time.

So Pastor Terry, what these folks may not realize is that you and I have known each other for a long time--over 25 years by my count, from the day we first met when the ink on your diploma from Wartburg Seminary was barely dry, when you were assigned for your first call to the SW MN Synod on whose staff I was then serving.

We’ve known each other for a long time, and I’m pretty familiar with the twists and turns in your long, unfolding call story—a call story that starts a new chapter, right here, right now, today at New Salem.

Your long call story is similar to but also different from the call stories of so many pastors.

Early on, during your high school years, you pondered what God wanted you to do with your life.  You’ve described that this way: “my prayer was for God to direct me towards what was best suited for me, from running the family [dairy] farm, to working in the local factory to preaching the gospel.  I believed at that time I would hear and had full intentions of obeying, but I will say I hoped it wouldn’t be one of the first two.”

You discerned a call into public ministry, first as a rostered lay minister, eventually as a pastor…and ever since you have heard God calling you deeper and deeper into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

At the same time, though, your call was challenged by circumstances in your own life but also by a big, long, lumbering discernment process your church was engaged in…a church-wide wrestling match over whether and if and how it might receive, welcome, and call forth the ministries of gifted persons who happen to be in loving relationships with persons of the same gender.

All of us have times in our lives when our sense of call is challenged….but you, Pastor Terry, have had your call challenged in one of the longest, most painful and protracted of ways.  It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that your struggle to follow your calling has dragged you through a kind of hell (or: through the belly of the beast?)…and yet here we are today, together, to celebrate this new chapter—a chapter that you and many others have wondered whether it would ever happen.

Thanks be to God, and thanks to the daring and heartfelt discernment of call that happened here at New Salem, today we are welcoming and installing you as pastor of this congregation.   That’s a tribute both to your tenacity--with the support of your family, your spouse Kevin and these good folks of New Salem--and it’s also a tribute to God’s tenacity in calling you.

So now, inasmuch as you’ve been coughed up on the shore of the Turtle River Lake, how will this new chapter in your call story unfold?

I’m pretty sure, Terry, that you will do far, far better than Jonah did here in our text for today.

Coughed up by the great fish, given a reprieve by God, setting off finally for Nineveh, Jonah—it would seem—obeyed God’s call, but in a way that was carefully calculated to fail.

Jonah concocts a scheme to be the most lackluster, unsuccessful preacher he could be.   He ventures only a third of the way into the huge, sprawling city of Nineveh.   Jonah doesn’t bother to find an interpreter, but he utters a single one-sentence sermon (in Hebrew, not Assyrian):   "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 

One line, in a foreign tongue, uttered just once on the edge of  a huge city, filled with nothing but a threat of doom and gloom, calculated to drive the Ninevites to utter despair…

But astonishingly, amazingly…“the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth….[And] when God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and [God] did not do it.” 

God got Jonah where God needed Jonah to be—and through Jonah’s brief, inarticulate, awful “sermon”—God accomplished precisely what God always wants most to do:  to have mercy on people who did not deserve it.

Pastor Terry, you have been called here to New Salem because you’re a fine, gifted pastor.  Since high school you’ve been trying to follow God’s call: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, for us and for our salvation.

If I know you, you will not preach sermons calculated to fail or to thwart God’s great sinner-seeking, mercy-shedding rescue mission.

Not that you’ll always get it right—no pastor does.  But I’m sure you will try harder and bring more gifts to bear on your sharing of Christ—especially for the sake of those who are forgotten, marginalized, and seemingly on the outside looking in…

And you have God’s word on this—and you people of New Salem also have God’s word on this:  that the barrier-breaking, future-opening Word of God will always be the last Word:  you are forgiven, you are free, and you are sent into the world for the sake of Jesus Christ to bear God’s creative and redeeming Word wherever God calls you. 

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Monday, January 15, 2018

A Statement From the ELCA Synod Bishops of Minnesota

A Statement From the ELCA Synod Bishops of Minnesota

In the church’s way of telling time January is the season of Epiphany, when Christians remember the Magi—travelers from the east who followed a star to the infant Jesus.  Not by accident these mysterious wayfarers are often depicted as reflecting the wondrous diversity of the whole world.  The Christ child is thus honored as Lord of all, regardless of race or gender or class or nationality.

In this season of Epiphany (“revealing”) we bishops speak with one voice in professing that we believe all people are loved by God, priceless and full of amazing potential. We rebuke our nation’s president for the vile, bigoted language he reportedly used on January 11th to describe certain countries in God’s beloved world.   

This episode far transcends the “politics” of the moment.  It speaks to the very soul of our nation and touches upon some of our dearest American values:  deep respect, loving care, and welcoming hospitality toward others—especially the marginalized.    We are not just grieved by the unfortunate language that was used.   More troubling to us is the president’s assumption that our country should only care about and receive the gifted and successful of the world—along with the presumption that he knows which countries provide such.   Our disagreement with the president arises from both our faith and our personal experiences with neighbors from around the globe.

We bishops call upon all Minnesotans to join us in repudiating racism and all other forms of bigotry.   We implore all ten members of our state’s U. S. Congressional Delegation to ask the president to apologize for his unfortunate remarks, to engage with international partners in seriously addressing the global refugee crisis, and to work in bipartisan fashion toward truly comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform in our own country.

Bishop Thomas Aitken, Northeastern Minnesota Synod
Bishop Jon Anderson, Southwestern Minnesota Synod
Bishop Steven Delzer, Southeastern Minnesota Synod
Bishop Patricia Lull, Saint Paul Area Synod
Bishop Ann Svennungsen, Minneapolis Area Synod
Bishop Lawrence Wohlrabe, Northwestern Minnesota Synod

Thursday, December 21, 2017

On Keeping Christmas Well: A Meditation

“…And it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us Every One!”   (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol[1])

Amidst the soaring prophecies of Isaiah, the tender Nativity narrative in Luke 2, and the bracing “Stir up” prayers of Advent, some of us take time in December to reread Charles Dickens’s masterwork, A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.

This story has woven its way into our cultural imagination, not only as a book to be read but through all its dramatic and cinematic retellings.   What an amazing metamorphosis of that miserly curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge:  “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner![2]

Through a series of ghostly encounters with the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future the old coot was transformed—all in one night!—into an endearing soul, of whom it was said:  “he knew how to keep Christmas well.”

Just what is this “keeping Christmas” business, though?

Nowadays one might conclude that “keeping Christmas” is all about attitudes, policy positions and words of greeting.   So we vow to “keep Christ in Christmas” (as if that were really up to us!)   We take sides in our culture’s “War on Christmas,” whether by defending creches in public squares or by lamenting the dearth of sacred songs in public school concerts or by emphatically countering “Happy Holidays” with “Merry Christmas.”

But “keeping Christmas” is about so much more than posturing or preening, words that we say, and righteous (self-righteous?) positions that we defend.

Remember again, how a renewed Ebenezer Scrooge “kept Christmas” on the first day of the rest of his life:
·      +  He began noticing the “little people” he’d been ignoring…starting with a neighbor-boy on Christmas morning.
·       +  He plotted ways to subvert the poverty of his faithful employee Bob Cratchitt, the whole Cratchitt family, and especially the invalid Tiny Tim.
·       +  He pledged an eye-popping donation to the community chest for “the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.”[3]
·        +  He  mended fences with those from whom he had been estranged, starting with his own nephew Fred.

To be sure, the repentant Scrooge did go to church on Christmas morning, and offered greetings to others, with a hearty “Merry Christmas.”[4]  Words do matter, after all.

But what made all the difference in the world was Scrooge’s repentant resolve to keep Christmas by keeping faith with those for whom Jesus Christ came into this world (see Matthew 25:31-46).
And, in Dickens’s own words:  “May that be truly said of us, and all of us!”

Let us pray:   Gracious God, teach us how to “keep Christmas” in all the ways that really matter.   Help us notice those whom it would be easy to ignore—persons who don’t look like us, refugees who simply want a fresh start, newcomers who desire to become our neighbors.   Teach us to plot fresh ways to subvert poverty in our troubled world.   Stir us to embrace eye-popping generosity.   And give us courage to build bridges, mend fences and relentlessly pursue the reconciliation for which the Christ-Child was born among us.  In the strong name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace.   Amen.

Merry Christmas, my dearly beloved ones.   God bless us, every one!

Bishop Lawrence Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

[1] Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (NY:Bantam Books, 1966), p. 88
[2] Ibid., p. 4.
[3] Ibid., p. 9.
[4] Ibid., pp. 85-86.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Together in Hope

Lutherans and Catholics Together in Hope
Joint Reformation Worship Service
Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, Fergus Falls, MN
November 5, 2017
Photo credit:  Matthew Zelie
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Forty-four years ago, when I was a freshman in college, I took a course entitled “Religious Bodies in America.”

For a farm boy, having his first experience of city life…for someone reared in a conservative branch of Lutheranism…this class on “Religious Bodies in America was eye-opening, assumption-challenging, and horizon-expanding.

As I recall, that class was structured around discovering how those other religious bodies alldiffered from my branch of Lutheranism.

Indeed that’s how such classes in comparative religion have often been structured:  identify the differences in order to understand more clearly why “my” church is the one and only true church.

Well, my dear Catholic and Lutheran friends, a lot of water has gone over the dam since I took that class in 1973.  During these four decades relationships among Christian churches—and especially among Catholics and Lutherans, have experienced a sea-change in our understanding and our relationships.

We have received an ever-deepening awareness that—despite our differences—far more unites us than divides us.  

Let me suggest just three examples…

First, we are firmly united by our profound, shared focus on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.   The cross is crucially central in both of our churches.  We unabashedly keep our eyes on Jesus Christ--crucified and risen for the life of the world.

Second, we all “do church” in ways that reflect a deeply sacramental perspective.   We Lutherans and Catholics firmly believe that the incarnation—the Word of God taking on flesh in the child of Mary—drives all the ways God seeks to get through to us.   We are convinced that the finite truly bears the infinite—that God always comes to us garbed in water, bread, wine, syllables, beauty, song, and all the rest of the best of this good creation—thus delivering to us faith and forgiveness and a future without end.

Third, in our Catholic and Lutheran ways of peering out at God’s creation, we are forever being summoned into  globe-spanning mission, ministries that seek out everyone, and service that that refuses to deny God’s love to anyone fashioned in God’s image.  It is not a coincidence, therefore, that both Catholics and Lutherans are communions that are global in scope.  Nor should it surprise us one bit that our two faith families tend two of the most wide-reaching networks of social service agencies on the planet.

More, so much more unites us than divides us, my brothers and sisters.  And perhaps that’s why folks frequently mistake us for one another…especially why some of us Lutherans are often acknowledged and sometimes accused of being “too Catholic.”

Years ago, on a snowy Christmas Eve, I was out on the road late in the evening.   As I longed to be home with my family, I recall catching a Christmas Eve worship service on my car’s radio.  The worship was lovely, with music and a spoken Word that fed my faith.  As I made my way across southern Minnesota that Christmas Eve, I tried to guess what Lutheran church that was hosting this worship service….until finally the announcer interrupted the broadcast to thank us all for joining this broadcast of the midnight Mass from the great Abbey Church of St John’s University in Collegeville.

May that—and all the other times we Catholics and Lutherans are mistaken for one another—draw us into even closer communion, as we celebrate how God is revealing to us that what we share in Jesus Christ, in the sacramentality of life, and in our mission in the world, God is continually weaving us together as one.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

We Are God's House of Living Stones

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Parkers Prairie, MN
October 29, 2017—Reformation Sunday
I Kings 5:1-5; 8:1-13 (Narrative Lectionary)

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If I were to utter the word “church” what image would pop into your head first?

If I said “church,” your Pavlov’s-dog-reaction would be to imagine a building….perhaps the building that we’re in right now, or maybe the first church you belonged to, wherever that might be.

It’s entirely natural for us to hear the word “church” and immediately conjure up in our minds the image of a building.

And, frankly, that speaks volumes about us, our place in the world and our time in human history.  It is hard, if not impossible, to think “church” without picturing a building, a house, God’s house, to be specific.

In my time as bishop I have read scores of congregational histories, and almost without fail these records of local church history have emphasized two things:   the church buildings they erected and the pastors they called….as if those particular “markers” were the main things in the story of our churches.

But isn’t that what we’re taught growing up?   Didn’t our parents or whoever nurtured our faith—didn’t they say to us:  “Get up—get dressed--we’re going to God’s house this Sunday morning?”

I say “church,” you picture a building:  it’s the most natural, understandable reaction…

….even though we do know better!

For in the same breath that we teach our little ones to call this building “God’s house”—equating “church” with “building”--we also teach them songs that convey a different message….

….a message that goes like this: 

“The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!”[1]

Truth be told, there are competing, even conflicting messages we give our kids about the church….and this fact exposes a longer, deeper debate we find right in the Bible itself.  

There’s an argument, a back-and-forth debate right within the scriptures, about whether God wants, let along needs any sort of dwelling or building.   

In short:  how can God be “located”?

There are traces of that long debate right here in this morning’s lesson from the book of I Kings.   A transition has taken place within Israel’s royal family, the throne having passed from King David to his son, the newly crowned King Solomon, who immediately sets out to do something his famous father was not allowed to do:  “…  my father David could not build a house for the name of the Lord his God because of the warfare with which his enemies surrounded him, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet.  But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side; there is neither adversary nor misfortune. So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God….”

But was good King David forbidden to build a temple solely because he had too much “blood on his hands?”  

In the seventh chapter of II Samuel God himself offers a different answer to that question:  “Are you [David]  the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (II Samuel 7:4-7)

Here we encounter a God who is extremely reluctant to have any permanent structure, or temple, or “church building,” if you will.   

It’s as if God realizes—and he wants his people to realize—that a temple like the temples other ancient peoples built, would always be a mixed blessing.  Certainly, a Temple could provide a focal point, a point of contact between God and God’s people…..but it could also convey other, less flattering, less faithful realities.

A Temple, after all, could represent an attempt to “contain” God, to lock up God in a box, to put God at the beck and call of God’s people.

By erecting a temple where people could find God, Israel was simultaneously flirting with the possibility of trying to restrict God’s fierce, wild freedom to travel wherever his people might go, to constantly encounter them in all their meanderings—in the sheer dailiness of their lives—and to arrive at their destination always, always ahead of them.

In other words:  is our God a God who can be pinned down, hemmed in, put in his place?

Or is our God a “traveling God,” who always accompanies and guides his people on their pilgrimage through life?

In short, is the church a place or a people?
Centuries after King Solomon built Israel’s first Temple, in the midst of the Reformation of the church that Martin Luther started 500 years ago this week, the Great Reformer himself had this to say about the church:   “Thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”[2]

In other words, while the church might be a building, it is always a people!

So what shall we make of this Old Testament story of Solomon’s building of the Temple?

I believe it reflects a heartfelt desire to honor God, to glorify God for all of God’s goodness.

The Temple would be a point of contact for people—both the people of Israel but also foreigners who would hear about the God of Israel—a location on earth to which people could turn and pray to God who fills all time and space.

One thing Solomon’s Temple could never be, though, was a “container” for God.   The people of Israel could never “contain” God or keep God under wraps in the Temple. 

God is too wild, too fierce, too free for anything like that.

Notice again what happened when Solomon’s temple was “open for business:”    “When the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.”  (vv. 10-11)

God may meet us in our holy places, to be sure, but God’s freedom can never be circumscribed by whatever walls or “boundaries” we erect.    God will always, always, always be bigger….wilder…and freer than any structures that we construct.

And there is powerfully good news in that fact, because even though we crave holy places where  God is accessible to us, holy places like this lovely church building...the temples we put up are never our final destination.   

Rather, I invite us to consider the buildings we call churches not so much as resting places or destinations as they are mission outposts, way-stations on our pilgrimage through life.

When all is said and done, it’s what happens in spaces like this that matters the most. 

It’s our gathering together, our baptizing, our remembering of our baptisms, our eating and drinking at the Lord’s table, our praying and pleading and praising, our hearing of the Word, our speaking with one another, our fellowshipping together, our planning and dreaming for mission and ministry in the world, it’s in all those things happening that God is made known and that God’s true church becomes visible---not in brick or mortar, but in lives transformed by the freedom, forgiveness and a new future through which God is always beckoning us forward toward the day when God in Christ will be our all in all.

Today we sing two great Reformation hymns.  
We’ve already sung A Mighty Fortress….which isn’t a hymn of praise for a building, mind you, but a poetic confession that God is our refuge, our sanctuary, our place of safety and nurture and sending….

And then, in a few moments, we will sing these words, which truly put this morning’s lesson in proper, faith-engendering, future-opening perspective:

“Christ builds a house of living stones:
We are his own habitation;
He fills our hearts, his humble thrones,
Granting us life and Salvation.
Where two or three will seek his face,
He in their midst will show his grace,
Blessings upon them bestowing.”[3]

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[2] Smalcald Articles, Part Three, Article XII.
[3] Build on a Rock, ELW #652, stanza 3.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Danger Zone

Risky Business:  Always Reforming
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
September 19, 2017/Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
Matthew 20:1-16

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“We are a modest people
And we never make a fuss
And it sure would be a better world
If they were all as modest as us.
We do not go for whooping it up,
Or a lot of yikkety-yak.
When we say hello, we avert our eyes
And we always sit in the back.
We sit in the pew where we always sit,
And we do not shout Amen.
And if anyone yells or waves their hands,
They’re not invited back again.
I’m a Lutheran, a Lutheran, it is my belief,
I am a Lutheran guy…. I’m a Lutheran ‘til I die.” 

These lines of doggerel come from a silly little song written by Garrison Keillor, entitled:  I’m a Lutheran.

To say that Lutherans are known for keeping a low profile in the world would be an understatement.   We avoid making a fuss about ourselves.   We’re little known outside our tribe—we don’t exactly dominate the worlds of entertainment, industry or politics.  No Lutheran has ever been elected president of the United States--yet.  

Even when we Lutherans did find ourselves in the spotlight  for a season, thanks to the popular success of Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion show on public radio, what image of Lutherans was projected?  

As oxymoronic as it sounds, we became famous for our modesty (or, as former Concordia College president Pam Jolicoeur liked to say, militant modesty )!  Keillor’s weekly depictions of Lutherans as taciturn, bland purveyors of hotdishes laced with cream of mushroom soup soon produced predictable giggles from audience members whenever Keillor merely uttered the word “Lutheran!”

Although I have enjoyed such humor as much as anyone, I have come to the conclusion that the storyteller from Lake Wobegon has done us no favors.  His homespun monologues have portrayed us as rather inconsequential folks, always hanging back, refusing to make a fuss over ourselves and, come to think of it, refusing to make a fuss over much of anything.

So then, why have we been talking about Risk-Taking Lutherans this year?  

Risk-Taking Lutherans.  Really?   “Are you ‘for true’?” as someone’s grandma might say…

Yes, there is such a thing as a risk-taking Lutheran, my friends.  In fact, they’re all over the place…dotting the pages of our history, if we keep our eyes open.  

Starting with old Brother Martin who lived most of his adult year with a price on his head, we come from a long line of rabble-rousers, gadflies and adventurers.

Because we scarcely remember their names, I’ve been writing some monthly columns about some of them this year, in  Northern Lights.   These consequential Lutherans are quite a bunch…with names like
Onesimos Nesib, an Ethiopian Lutheran whose pen was mightier than the sword
J.C.F. Heyer, a missionary who journeyed to India three times, the last time at age 77
Eivind Berggrav, who convinced 90% of the Lutheran pastors in Norway to resist the Nazis;
Norman Borlaug, who saved about a billion persons from starvation…
Leymah Gbowee, who mobilized strong women to insist on an end of the civil war in Liberia

As much as I appreciate recovering our history and telling such stories, there’s a pitfall in lifting up these notable Lutherans—namely, the impression that you have to be listed in Wikipedia to be considered a risk-taking Lutheran.

Which, of course, is not true….

Lord knows we have all sorts of everyday risk-taking Lutherans in our own congregations and communities….

…and what about us—pastors, deacons, SAMs and other ministers?   Aren’t we also risk-taking Lutherans?

You bet we are.  And I trust that we realize how risky it is simply to step into a pulpit.

Do you realize the kind of “danger zone” you enter each week, when you stand up in front of the Christian community to proclaim God’s Word in Christ?

Years ago I heard a guy chide some Lutheran pastors because he said that much of their preaching seemed like being “nibbled to death by a young duck.”

Comments like that nag at me when I’m preparing to preach….disturbing questions like:  “Did Jesus Christ have to die on a Cross so this sermon could be preached?”

But the one that really gets me is the challenge I heard articulated by former SD Synod Bishop Andrea DeGroot-Nesdahl who said:  “When you preach, be sure you write checks offering promises so huge only God’s bank account can cover them.”

None of us aspires to preaching that is inconsequential.  We aim to be risk-taking proclaimers of God’s radical grace and mercy.

But how does that happen?  

I think it’s rather obvious:  keep your eyes on, attune your ears to Jesus.

Take your cues from our Lord, who was always agitational in his proclamation…who was forever trying to get a rise out of his hearers.  Remember that Jesus uttered promises so audacious that they killed him for making them.

Just pay attention to the biblical text and keep your eyes glued to Jesus, and you won’t go wrong.

Many of us will preach this coming Sunday on one of our Lord’s most agitational parables, from Matthew 20, this story of the workers in the vineyard.

Here you have this wild, type-A vineyard owner…who’s having one of those bumper crop years, when the grapes all ripen –literally!--on the same day, so’s the harvest can’t wait a second longer….

So the boss keeps trotting back to the pool of day-laborers huddled in the marketplace.  He makes five—count them!--five trips to keep rounding up workers….from the early-bird-catches-the-worm the slackers who showed up late and still hung over, still unemployed as the sun was sinking low in the sky.

The vineyard owner just keeps nabbing them, hustling them to his busy vineyard, promising each of them the customary daily wage.

Follow the arc of this masterful story and…you just know this vineyard owner is “up to something!”  

And sure enough, at day’s end, the boss stages a most peculiar method of handing out the payroll.  He has his workers line up from the last-hired down to the first-hired, and he insists that they be paid in precisely that order.

This vineyard owner WANTS to be provocative here….as the one-hour workers each get a full-day’s wage and all sorts of eyes bug out, especially the eyes of those who worked the whole day:   “Amazing!   If those slackers each get a full day’s wage, we all-day workers will receive even more.  Happy days are here again!”

But then (cue the sound of a giant balloon slowly deflating!), as that same daily wage is doled out to each of the workers, right down to the first-hired who started working at dawn—they now feel like chumps—chumps who’ve been cheated.  

Talk about currency deflation!

Or was it?   Each of the end-of-the-line crowd had agreed--had they not?--to work all day for a standard day’s wage?   Wasn’t that the deal?

But we’re always noticing, aren’t we?   We’re always situating ourselves in relation to others—and it’s those others and how they get treated that rankle us here.  

When the Vineyard Owner catches wind of the grumbling in the ranks, he just makes matters worse.   He gets in the face of the grumblers--reminding them that he did the hiring, he promised the fair wage, and he would pay them with his money—money he could do with exactly as he pleased, even if that meant being lavishly, extravagantly, breaking-the-bank-generous with those last-hired.

What’s offensive here is the Vineyard Owner’s “in your face grace.”

It was parables like this one that got Jesus strung up.

When we preachers have the gumption to just let it fly as Jesus does here in Matthew 20—someone’s gonna get torqued off, somebody may stalk angrily out of the church and there will be those who refuse be embraced by the truth of it….

….at the same time that someone else will have a lightbulb going off in her head, and someone else will finally get it through his thick skull that this stuff is for real, and someone else will at last be saved!

My dear friends, risk-taking preachers of the law that lays us low, and the gospel that raises us up, God has entrusted to us a Word that snaps, crackles and pops with life and hope and the new creation in Jesus Christ.

It’s in the very nature of Christian preaching to be risk-taking to the max, always pressing the edges, forever leading us preachers to wonder:  “Can I really say this?  Can I actually push it this far?”

To which our Lord responds:  “Go for it!  Take my promises as far as you can, then get out of the way…for the risen Christ is afoot here, and the Gospel is having its way with us…making us and all things new.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

How To Destroy Your Enemies

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
September 15, 2017
Matthew 5:43-48
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If this sermon had a title it would be:  How to Destroy Your Enemies.

This title is inspired, in part, by one of my favorite stories about Abraham Lincoln.

Once, a close friend of Lincoln offered him a piece of unsolicited advice.   The man chided Lincoln for his tendency to forgive and seek peace with those who criticized or offended him.   “Rather than befriending your enemies,” the man declared to Lincoln, “you should use your political power to destroy them!”…

….to which Lincoln responded:   “But isn’t that exactly what I’m doing?  
Do I not destroy my enemies, when I make them my friends?”

This was more than just a pithy quotation from Abe Lincoln, though.

It was a nugget of wisdom that that he actually lived out.  Lincoln’s irenic spirit carried through into his approach to political leadership. 

Lincoln had to climb over all sorts of political rivals in order to win the presidency in the election of 1860.

But after he was elected, rather than shunning or shutting out his rivals, President Lincoln embraced them, even inviting a number of them to join his cabinet.   Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote about this in her 2005 best-selling book:  Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

This was hardly a cynical ploy on Lincoln’s part.   It wasn’t just that he adhered to the old rule of thumb:   “keep your friends close, and your enemies even closer.”

No, something far deeper was at work here.

For Lincoln--though he may not have been conventionally religious in terms of church membership or worship attendance—Lincoln was thoroughly steeped in the scriptures.

In fact, I believe he understood the life and teaching of Jesus in a profound way.

In 1865, when the tide of the Civil War seemed to be turning in favor of the Union, Lincoln did not support a campaign of retribution against his secessionist enemies, but rather (in the iconic words of his Second Inaugural Address) he declared:  “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds…”

Don’t these words resonate with other, far older words, from the Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord Jesus says to us:  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous….”?  (Matthew 5:43-45)

Jesus pioneered a new way to destroy one’s enemies—undoing those who are hostile to us by suing for their friendship.    Jesus set forth this novel, alternative approach to thwarting, eliminating, destroying our enemies.

But Jesus went beyond—far beyond—simply teaching this way of destroying enemies by making them one’s friends.

Jesus lived this way, literally to the climax of his life on earth, bearing a cruel Roman cross on his own bleeding back, allowing himself to be nailed to that cross by his enemies, hoisted to the sky for all to revile him in his shame and misery, dying for them, even as, with his last gasp, he pleaded:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Years later, St Paul plumbed the depths of our Lord’s astounding, mercy-delivering work on the Cross, when he wrote in the fifth chapter of Romans:   “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies,--let me read that again:  if while we were enemies--we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6-10)

To put this a little differently, drawing upon the theme for your convention:  at the Cross Jesus killed the enemy, the sinful one inside of all of us….Jesus laid us all low, killed us with kindness, infinite, unfathomable kindness….amazing grace!

And that is the way of life, the pattern of being in the world, that Jesus now imprints upon us, writing it on our very hearts. 

If you want to destroy your enemies, here’s the Jesus way—kill them with kindness, overwhelm them with forgiving, seeking, saving love.   Destroy your enemies by making them your friends.

That sounds easy enough—doesn’t it?

No—nothing could be farther from the truth!

The Jesus’ way of destroying enemies is anything but easy.  Honestly, it’s the hardest thing imaginable.

Killing our enemies with kindness—what does that actually involve?
It involves venturing into behaviors that go against our very grain.

Killing with kindness means laying aside our natural inclination to fight fire with fire.

Killing with kindness begins with admitting that other persons’ lives are as valuable as our own.

Killing with kindness starts when we suspend judgment, set aside rancor, resist the urge to spew the hurtful words that are right on the tips of our tongues.

Killing with kindness entails absorbing our wrath—“stuffing” our natural inclination toward revenge.

Killing with kindness undoes us—even as it opens up a way to be restored to our enemies.

If we head down this path toward “the Jesus way” of destroying enemies, we best know where that path will take us.

It will take us to our death:  the death of the proud, self-righteous Old Adam or Old Eve who lives inside each of us.

Would you like to kill your foes with kindness, destroy your enemies the Jesus-way?

OK, then--just as long as you realize that doing so will be the death of you!

Last month, I was fortunate to be among the 900 pastors and deacons of our church who gathered in Atlanta for four days of learning, serving, and being together as rostered ministers of the ELCA.

It was a little like an ELCA youth gathering, only for adults!

In the lineup of outstanding speakers, the one who stood out most memorably was surely Dr. James Forbes retired minister at New York’s historic Riverside Church.

Dr. Forbes, a Holy-Spirited, African American preacher, did something I’d never witnessed before:  he “died” right there on the stage.

As he preached about death and resurrection, Dr. Forbes actually, slowly, “died”….went from standing up ramrod straight….to slowly descending to the floor beneath him, until he was lying there, flat on his back, as if he were dead.

But this dead man was still preaching to us…describing for us a death we all must die…. “not the graveyard kind of death” Dr. Forbes hastened to say….but the unique, unprecedented death we die in our baptismal union with Jesus Christ….a death that instead of spelling the end for us, actually opens up for us what comes next:   the resurrection from death, described by Dr. Forbes as God’s “reconstruction of the infrastructure of [our very] being.”

That’s what I want to convey to you this morning.

My dear friends, sisters in the faith, our Lord Jesus Christ died for us and for all sinners—but it was more than “a graveyard kind of death,” a death marked only by doom and gloom!

Our Lord Jesus Christ died for us and all sinners, to open up for us a new way of dying that leads to living the life we were always meant to live.   

That is what God has in store for us:   a death that ushers us into a Life in which death shall be no more.

When we try on the Jesus-way for size, when we entertain the possibility of destroying our enemies by making them our friends (as the dying Jesus did!)…well then, God has something to work with!

God gets in the act and graciously, amazingly “reconstructs the infrastructure of our being.”

God raises us up to the life we were always intended to live, a life in which it starts to become second nature to us, to live kindly, graciously, forgivingly, mercifully…a brand new life that reveals who we really are:  spitting images of “our Father in heaven…[who] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.