Thursday, December 26, 2019

Awkward: A Christmas Devotion

“Frank and Nikki sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.  First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”

This old children’s rhyme bespeaks a bygone era when it was widely assumed that families are created in predictable ways—following a recognizable sequence of events:   courtship, marriage, parenthood.

Although the biblical witness assumes, more or less, this ordering of domestic life, the pages of the Bible are replete with variations from the norm—nowhere as vividly as in the Nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke.

Hearing these well-worn texts again this Advent-Christmastide, I’ve been struck by the awkwardness of it all, as the Holy Spirit visits Mary and Joseph to clue them into the mysterious workings of God.

When Gabriel surprises young Mary with news that she is to become a mother, she blurts out the obvious question:  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) 


This awkwardness is compounded for Joseph, who learns of Mary's delicate condition along with the rest of her gossipy neighbors:  “When…Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  (Matthew 1:18)  


Having resolved to end their engagement quietly, Joseph receives in a dream his own angelic marching orders:  “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”   (Matthew 1:20)  

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.   That may be the customary order of things, the conventional sequence in ordinary times….but with the birth of Jesus, all of that is upended, because God is afoot, messing with Mary and Joseph, disrupting their lives and in so doing intervening in “business as usual” across the whole world.

Which is precisely the point.  Ordinary time has been eclipsed by extraordinary time.  Mary’s pregnancy, with its mysterious interweaving of divine and human DNA signals the end of business-as-usual. 

If all of that seems jarringly awkward, we dare not be surprised.   Awkwardness goes with the territory when Incarnation (God becoming enfleshed) is happening.

Awkwardness is about more than momentary embarrassment or annoying discomfort.  Derived from the Middle English word awkeward, “in the wrong direction,” (from awke “turned the wrong way”) awkwardness signals a reversal of course.

And precisely that is what unfolds in Bethlehem’s manger: a blessed reordering of the whole fallen creation.   Where sin, death and the devil have held sway…a new dawn breaks forth with gifts of faith, resurrection and God’s own never-ending Reign “on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Almighty God, you gave us your only Son to take on our human nature and illumine the world with your light.  By your grace adopt us as your children and enlighten us with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.”   (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, collect for the Nativity of our Lord, p. 20)

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

They're ALL Our Children

They’re ALL Our Children
Note:  this post was originally published in Northern Lights, the e-letter of the NW MN Synod ELCA in April of 2011.  Some statistics reflect 2011 realities, not 2019 realities.

“[Jesus said], ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”   Mark 10:14-16

When it comes to words, the smallest ones are often the most important—prepositions and pronouns especially.   In the Next Generation vision it’s critical that we define “our” very carefully.   Just who, exactly are “our” children?

Let’s resist our natural tendency to narrow the definition of “our.”  “Our” children must be more than the kids in “our” homes or “our” congregations.    What if we considered all members of the next generation with whom we have any relationship whatsoever “our” children?   What if we accepted radical responsibility for all of these children? What if we drew the circle as big as we might imagine it to be?

Starting with the Inner Circle

To talk this way is not to deny our responsibility for the children in our innermost circles of kinship and relationship.   Surely we will think of the children we have birthed or adopted as “our” children.   When a child comes into our lives the whole world changes for us.   As followers of Jesus we will avoid spiritual child abuse or neglect;  we will assume a profound responsibility to “help [our] children grow in the Christian faith and life.”  (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 228)

But such “inner circle” responsibility cannot be borne alone by parents.   For good reason the entire Christian community faces the baptismal font, everyone promising “to support [the baptized ones] and pray for them in their new life in Christ.” (ELW, p. 228)   In Holy Baptism, all children—whether they are carried to the font or walk on their own two feet—become God’s children and “our” children.   Several years ago, during a presidential election, folks asked: “Which does it take to raise a child—a family or a village?”   What a silly question!   It takes both a family and a village (or congregation) to raise a child in Christian faith and life.   They’re all our children!

This has profound implications for our priorities.   The older generation has always borne a special responsibility for the next generation.   We undertake sacrifices, commit resources, and make huge investments in all our children.   We do this together, cognizant of the fact that all Christian adults are also Christian parents.   Our care for the children in our homes and churches is foundational for all the ways we tend the other children whom God entrusts to us.

And for how long do we bear such radical responsibility for all our children?   When do Christian parents get to “retire?”  Several years ago, on a Confirmation Sunday, I did something rather mean.  I preached my sermon primarily to the parents of the confirmands.   Recalling the promises they made when their kids were baptized, I asked them when they would be finished fulfilling those promises?   (I’m guessing most of them thought they were finished that day—it was Confirmation Sunday, after all!) 

Here’s the mean thing I did.  I quoted the words from the liturgy of Baptism in the Lutheran Book of Worship, including these words:  “As they grow in years, you should…provide for their instruction in the Christian faith, that, living in the covenant of their Baptism and in communion with the Church, they may lead godly lives until the day of Jesus Christ.”   There’s the end date for our Christian parenting:  when Jesus returns to usher in God’s New Creation.   We’re not finished with our responsibilities to the next generation until then!  Even if you have adult children, your calling to help form Jesus Christ in them (Galatians 4:19) is not finished until the Day of Resurrection.

The Next Generation in Our Communities

But is it enough for us to look after all our children in the inner circles of our homes and congregations?   What about all the other kids in our “mission field?”  Are they not, also in some sense, “our” children?

A pastor who used to serve in our synod loved to walk her dog through the small town where she served—attracting children who loved to pet the dog.   The pastor’s dog helped open up ways to express love and care for all the children of her town.

Aren’t we always stumbling across such opportunities in our callings to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14) in our communities?    The next generation all around us—in our communities—they are also “our” children.   And we tend to under-estimate how many of them are out there.

Question:   in the 21 counties that make up our synod, who do we have more of—children and youth under the age of 18, or senior adults age 65 and older?   Which of these cohorts in our region’s population is larger? 

When I have posed this question in congregations up and down western Minnesota, almost always I have heard this answer:  “Oh goodness, we have lots more old folks than youth in our community!”  And almost always this answer is dead wrong!   Here’s what we discover in the latest demographic data regarding the territory covered by our synod:

Age category  Numbers of such persons       Percentage of such persons
Under age 18               93,566                                     23.5%
Age 65+                       67,603                                     17%

Nearly one-quarter of the almost 400,000 residents of our synod’s 21 counties are under the age of 18.   This holds true in 17 of the 21 counties of the synod.[1]   Truly, the next generation is all around us!   And they are, in a sense, all “our” children:  children to treasure, know by name, pray for, and invite into the Christian life.

What if our synod became known as “the church that cares passionately for all God’s children?”    What if we bent over backwards to invite the children, youth and their families to all the good things God is doing in our congregations?  

What if, when issues of public policy were being discussed, we Lutherans became identified as those who consistently stand on the side of what’s best for the next generation?  Part of our callings in Christ entails our citizenship.   Periodically we are faced with stark choices about our common life today and the kind of future that we can anticipate.  

School referendum elections determine whether our education system will remain strong and vital—but often these turn into battlegrounds that divide communities.   Empty-nesters and other older adults say things like:  “I don’t have any kids in the schools” or “my kids have graduated—we’ve paid our dues.”   But, my dear friends in Christ, are not all the kids in our communities “our” children, regardless of our own age or circumstances?

In an article that recently appeared in Newsweek magazine, Fareed Zakaria wrote:  “American politics is now hyperresponsive to constituents’ interests.  And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future….There are no special-interest groups for our children’s economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now….That is why the federal government spends $4 on elderly people for every $1 it spends on those under 18.   And when the time comes to make cuts, guess whose programs are first on the chopping board.  That is a terrible sign of society’s priorities and outlook.”[2]

Once we start asking who are “our” children, the circle just keeps expanding.   It becomes only natural for us to claim as “ours”   
          All the children and grandchildren of our homes and congregations who may have moved to other locales but who are still tied to us by bonds of kinship and care;
·         All the children of Minnesota and the United States;
·         All the children of God’s world, including the amazing youth of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in southern India.

Before I close this article, I need to address a question you may be wondering about.  Does all this attention to the next generation mean that we no longer care about the “elders” in our homes, churches and communities?   Far from it!   One of my seminary professors liked to say:  “Preach to the eighth graders, and everyone else will listen.”   

When we undertake the great generational task of raising up our children, when we make our young ones our priority—lo and behold, all of society and all of the church is blessed.   It’s about those of us who have walked long in faith leaving the best legacy for the ones who will replace us in serving God’s mission.

Your Brother in Christ,
Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:
1.       How do you and the disciples in your congregation keep the promises you make every time you participate in a Baptism?  What more might God be calling you to do for the baptized?
2.      What are some implications of the notion that Christian parents/adults never really “retire” from their responsibilities to the next generation?
3.      Why do we tend to under-estimate the number of children and youth in our communities?
4.      Besides school referendum elections, what are some other public policy issues that have a direct effect on the next generation?

[1] U.S. Census Bureau data available at  (accessed on 3/26/2011)
[2]  Fareed Zakaria, “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us?” in Newsweek (March 14, 2011), p. 30.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

The Wonder, Abundance and Promise of the Creation

World Ploughing Competition
Blessing Service, August 27, 2019
First Lutheran Church, Baudette, MN
Texts:  Amos 9:13-15; Psalm 104; II Corinthians 5:16-21; Mark 4:26-32

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

When I was invited, a year ago, to preach at this ecumenical service of blessing for the World Ploughing Competition here in Lake of the Woods County….I knew in a flash that I had to say YES!
And why was that (you might be asking)?  

What made this soon-to-be retired Lutheran bishop so eager to trek up north to Baudette, MN….for this unique global agricultural exposition?

What was the attraction?

It’s very simple, really:   I attended the FIRST World Ploughing Contest to be held in Minnesota, 47 years ago on the Bert Hansen farm just ten miles north of the farm where I grew up near Amboy, MN.   That historic event in 1972 was also the first FarmFestUSA—a celebration of agriculture that’s still going strong near Redwood Falls, MN in southwestern Minnesota where I lived out most of my pastoral ministry.

But I didn’t merely attend that first World Ploughing Contest to be held in our state.  I was also deeply involved in it in my capacity as the regional vice president of the Future Farmers of America—FFA.   As the photo on the back of the bulletin shows, I helped sell the first two tickets to the 1972 event to Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson.   During the event our family hosted two national FFA officers, and the three of us with our blue corduroy FFA jackets often represented the face of YOUTH at the 1972 Ploughing Contest.  In fact, we were the ones who unveiled the Cairn of Peace on the final day of that first Farmfest:  September 17, 1972.

[As a side note, just for fun I dug out my old FFA jacket, hoping to wear it while I was here..but alas, my FFA jacket has shrunk over these past 47 years!]

So the first reason I agreed to speak here this evening was the flood of memories that washed over me….

…But even more so, I wanted to come here to share with you the profound meaning of this global celebration of agriculture—a time for us all to remember how it is that tillers of the soil have such an astonishing, “front row seat” to behold the age-old wonder, the perpetual abundance, and the enduring promise of God’s amazing creation that’s all around us and right under our feet every day of our lives.

I was introduced to the wonder of God’s splendid creation almost before I could even walk or talk….because my parents taught me well.

On Sunday mornings, my mom (who was the Sunday School superintendent in our little church)…my mom made sure that every week the Bible was cracked open for me and my classmates, the biblical story thus woven deeply into our own stories…

….and this compelling biblical message was reinforced by my dad who was the “superintendent” of the Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday/Friday/Saturday “school” of farming.

It was my father’s wide-eyed sense of wonder that grabbed my attention as a child...whether we were basking in the glow of our stunning prairie sunrises and sunsets….or whether we were kneeling down between rows of soybeans to behold a killdeer’s nest with 5 buff-colored eggs, waiting to be hatched….or whether we were simply scooping up and inhaling the unmistakable aroma of the rich, black, loamy soil on our farm….or whether we were pondering the miracle of germination, as described by Jesus in our reading from Mark:  “the Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how…”

Tillers of the soil live “up close and personal” to such wonder on a daily basis, God’s creation never ceasing to amaze…. especially when we experience the breath-taking abundance that mother earth is always bringing forth.

When the human authors of the scriptures cast about for images that would do justice to God’s overflowing generosity, it was only natural for them to focus on the fertile earth right under their feet…and sometimes when these ancient writers rhapsodized about such abundance they got a little carried away, as did the prophet Amos in our first reading:   “The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who ploughs shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it….”

The image here is of an impatient ploughman, nervously drumming his fingers, straining at the bit to turn over the sod in preparation for the next crop…

….but this ploughman has a serious case of “ants in the pants”  because he’s being forced to cool his heels, dealing with the fact that the current harvest is so plentiful it’s taking forever for the reapers to “bring it all in.”   All of them—the ploughmen and the reapers alike, are overwhelmed by the astonishing abundance of God, the surrounding mountains and hills dripping sweet wine, like so many waterfalls.

Such cascading biblical images drawn directly from the realm of agriculture reveal a God who knows only one way of giving.   The adjective “stingy”, you see, isn’t even found in the Creator’s vocabulary.  God just gives and gives and gives, always with an open hand, forever laying on us more abundance than we can handle.

But if God’s abundance is so breath-taking, why do so many persons go hungry?  How is it that too many of us stuff ourselves, while others waste away?

The simplest explanation is that though God is in charge of production,  you and I are called to tend the distribution of the earth’s bounty.

Truly there is enough for our need, but not for our greed!   The fact that so many of our fellow inhabitants of planet earth go hungry, naked, or homeless is a mark not of our Creator’s failure, but ours--our brokenness, our self-centeredness, our distrust of God, our sinfulness…

But that will never be the final state of affairs.  God’s undefeatable love for the whole creation will not be thwarted…which is why in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…our Creator has stooped down to enter this Creation, to be born into it, to walk upon it, to suffer for it, and finally to be buried in it…all for the sake of rising again to fashion a New Creation.

Rather than ending with a wan hope that things will somehow work out in the end—the biblical story builds to this crescendo in Revelation 21:   “Behold,” God declares, “behold,I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5)

The wonder and the abundance of the creation point us inevitably to the promise of the Creation:   God’s own promise never to abandon all that God has made…

Creation, you see, isn’t a science experiment God cooked up, thinking he’d try it for a while—until something better might come along.   

No!   Creation is God’s long-term, God’s eternal strategy:   “As long as the earth endures (the Creator promises, after the Flood)…As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” (Genesis 8:22)

Our Creator is so deeply invested in the Creation, that he never tires of restoring, refreshing, renewing it….enlisting even the likes of you and me to do our parts, undertaking our callings, our vocations to be steadfast caretakers of the earth and trustworthy co-creators with God.

That, too, was a lesson I learned young—as perhaps you did, too—that the creation is itself the original “renewable resource”…its fragility always surpassed by its resilience…leading us to realize that God’s long-term vision must be ours as well, of a living, breathing Creation that is always being made new. 

So we plough the soil with tender care…we avoid treating mother earth like dirt…we gaze beyond the current crop…and we never stop expecting more goodness to flow from our wonder-filled, generous God--our steadfast Creator who always has the final Word:  “Behold, I am making all things new.”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Friday, August 16, 2019

100 Years....And Counting!

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Kelliher, MN
Centennial Celebration/August 18, 2019
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I love church anniversaries.   Celebrating with you the centennial of your beloved congregation—it’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about serving as bishop!

And why?  It’s that anniversaries afford us a rare opportunity to step back and take a good look at ourselves.

Since most of the time we simply live in the church or as the church…we seldom look at the church….

…But anniversaries invite us to pause, step back and look again at our church.   And we do that chiefly through telling stories and looking at pictures that depict how our church developed over time…

…and as we do so, we typically begin with stories about church’s origin.

“Origin stories” are often both fascinating and memorable…and your particular origin story is particularly gripping. 

It goes like this:
“In 1919 a lively mission minded young pastor, A.O. Odegaard, came to the Blackduck parish.  He also served the congregations at Saum, Foy and Shotley.  One day, in the latter part of the summer of 1919, Pastor Odegaard was on his way to Shotley and stopped in Kelliher to have his horse shod.  [As he later recalled], “Standing in front of the blacksmith shop I felt a hand upon my shoulder.  Looking about I saw a man…none other than Sam Dolgaard…..[who] wanted to know why I did not start [some] mission work in Kelliher.”  When Pastor Odegaard explained that he had been told there were no Lutherans in Kelliher, Mr. Dolgaard took over.  They spent the rest of the day calling on 18 Lutheran families…..That [very] evening, after a good dinner at the Dolgaard home, plans were laid for the new congregation in Kelliher.  On September 19, 1919, Our Savior’s Lutheran church was organized with 52 souls as charter members…”

What first grabs my attention here is the fact that Our Savior’s almost didn’t get started!   What if Pastor Odegaard’s horse hadn’t needed new shoes?  What if Mr. Dolgaard hadn’t stopped by the blacksmith shop?   What if Sam hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask why the local Lutheran pastor wasn’t working in Kelliher?   What if the two of them hadn’t had time to head out and actually visit those 18 Lutheran families?

Make no mistake about it:  Our Savior’s Lutheran Church came real close to not happening!

But purely by the grace of God Our Savior’s was birthed 100 years ago, starting out with those 52 souls.  Your congregation—like every congregation!—was an unanticipated, undeserved, sheer gift from God.

And that’s how most origin stories go.   I know that from my own origin story.

You see, my parents were quite a bit older when I was born—my dad having been born in 1914, five years before your congregation began.    Lawrence and Robert Wohlrabe had two daughters in the early 1940s….and then a decade later—ten years during which my mother endured a series of miscarriages!—finally a son came along on September 11, 1954.

My origin story reminds me that even though the odds were against my parents having that third child—it still happened, I happened, which means God must have wanted a world with me in it.   My life—like your life and Our Savior’s life—all life is an unforeseen, unexpected, sheer gift from God.

The stories we tell on anniversary days point us beyond the “wouldas, couldas and shouldas” of human history….shining the light of God’s grace on all the wonderful that DID happen and are still happening because God had another idea.

So Our Savior’s was founded...and three things stand out in the story of your church’s earliest years:
1. First, like nearly all the congregations in our synod, your church lived as a faith-community (in whatever space they could find or rent) for a long time before you actually had a church building of your own.   Though established in 1919, construction of Our Savior’s building didn’t get started until three years later, under the direction of August Thorpe—he’s the daredevil in the circle on the cover of your anniversary booklet (showing us a construction site that was definitely in the pre-OSHA era of American history!!!)

2.   Second, while the men were doing most of the grunt work in construction, the women were just as busy—cooking up a storm, hosting church dinners for local lumberjacks whose contributions bought the building materials.   I dare say the women in their aprons were likely “the push” behind the men with their hammers and saws and scaffolding.  Your foremothers here at Our Savior’s may not have “gotten the vote” until 1927, but I bet they were calling the shots from the get-go!

3.   Third, the building that was finally dedicated in 1928 had an amazing steeple—that reached way up above the treetops!—with a handmade cross fashioned and installed by another daring steeple-climber, your first pastor A.K. Vinje who declared:  “I hope the cross was symbolic of what I was trying to do in a spiritual way, namely holding the Cross of Christ high that men [and women!!] might be attracted to that Cross and find their Savior there.”

My dear friends, we just don’t tell juicy stories like these on regular Sunday mornings….but on banner days like today, we eagerly dig into our treasure-chest and remember how graced, how gifted, how wonderfully Holy-Spirit-serendipitous it is that congregations like yours were started and grew and formed people in faith whom God called to serve their neighbors and their world.

And this morning, as we step back and take good look at ourselves through the lens of history, we also are reminded about how all our stories are actually reverberations of stories that came long before us…

….which is what makes our Second Lesson from Hebrews 11 & 12 so appropriate this morning.

The great eleventh chapter of Hebrews regales its readers with stories about how God has been calling people to faith for centuries….inspiring all manner of persons to live out their trust in God in ways that have made a difference in God’s world!

So this morning—as we tell stories about Sam Dolgaard and Pastors Odegaard and Vinje and the Ladies Aid that actually pre-dates the founding of your congregation!....

….as we tell these Our Savior’s stories…we do so against the backdrop of God’s great history-enfolding, world-redeeming Story…filled with colorful characters like Rahab the prostitute of Jericho…and judges of Israel like Gideon, Barak, Samson, and Jephthah….along with kings like David and Solomon…not to mention a host of other women and men whose names have been forgotten but whose faith-inspired deeds live on.

My friends, we add some “Our Savior’s stories” today to the scores of biblical faith-stories that played out long before us….stories of nameless ones who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight”….

We remember and give thanks for the heroes and heroines of Our Savior’s story, who lived through hard times like the Great Depression and World War II….alongside much older stories of anonymous souls who “ suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment….destitute, persecuted, tormented” but buoyed up, always, by faith, just as our forebears and you and I are still sustained for witness and service today, in 2019!

But why—why “pull out the stops” and retell these old, old stories?  

Surely not for the sake of losing ourselves in a gauzy, sentimental cocoon of nostalgia!

No, my dear friends!   If we look back today, it is only so that we can look forward--anticipating and leaning into God’s tomorrow in Jesus Christ.   

That’s why I just love your catchphrase:   “Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, 1919-2019…100 Years and Counting!”

For all our stories would be worthless, without the central Story, the shining witness of Our Savior himself, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”

We gaze at the old photos and we tell our ancestors’ stories today, only because our lives are completely bound up in the salvation story of Jesus our Savior….who goes before us, beckoning us to follow him out into God’s 21st century world, “laying aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” all so that “looking to Jesus” we might “run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

So this morning, it’s “100 Years And Counting!”  

Christ isn’t finished with you here at Our Savior’s—far from it.   There are still souls in need of a faith-home, still neighbors who are hurting, in a world desperate for hope, longing to lay their eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Pastor Vinje’s cross is still calling us out.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

God Shows Up

First Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
Pentecost 6/July 21, 2019
Genesis 18:1-10a and Luke 10:38-42

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
This morning--appropriately enough!-- as we celebrate the 102nd birthday of this congregation we also celebrate the baptismal re-birth-day of one of our children, Boden Brooks Tommerdahl.

One of the great gifts of having infants in our congregation is that all of us “mature adults” are reminded of how we were once helpless babies, utterly dependent upon the tender care of others.

But this is true not only for infants.

All of us—whatever our age—we all depend on one another.   We all live off the kindness of relatives, neighbors, and even strangers.
That notion is woven through the scripture readings from Luke 10 that we’ve been pondering these last few Sundays…

Two weeks ago we saw Jesus sending 70 disciples to fan out across the countryside and declare to all with ears to hear that God’s reign is happening now.   Those roving ambassadors were to travel light and keep on the move—relying purely on the kindness of others along the way.  

Then last week, we witnessed the victim of a brutal mugging brought back from the brink of death thanks to the kindness of a stranger who noticed, stopped, and helped him in his time of need.

It’s about hospitality—the hospitality that meets us again this morning, in the home of Mary and Martha.

And we’re not just talking about a surface-level, “Miss Manners” brand of hospitality, either.   We’re talking about the profound, dependable hospitality that was such a staple of daily life in the ancient world.

In a world without cell phones, convenience stores, budget motels, ATMs or highway rest-areas, travelers in the ancient world counted on the hospitality of others along the road….in the awareness that next time, you the host (today) might be a needy guest (tomorrow) in someone else’s home. 

Hospitality centuries ago was about more than politeness and comfort….hospitality in the ancient world…was a matter of life or death!

In our First Reading from Genesis 18 we see such hospitality on full display.   Three strangers arrive at the tent of Abraham and Sarah right when the sun was highest in the sky, right when the heat of the day made life unbearable!

…which is why Abraham immediately offered his unexpected guests a place to sit in the shade, along with “a little water…[and] a little bread.”  

But when the strangers are out of earshot, Abraham orders up a feast for them—with fresh, abundant bread…a tender veal calf roasted on a spit….and a generous bowl of fresh curds and milk.
(Makes me think Abraham must have had some Scandinavian Lutheran blood in him--to promise so little but deliver so much!)

But such was the nature of hospitality in the world of Abraham and Jesus.

And then here in our gospel lesson from Luke 10 Jesus shows up in the home that Martha shared with her sister Mary…a home in which Martha was taking her cues from Abraham and Sarah—offering lavish hospitality worthy of a guest like Jesus.

But Martha seemed to have no use for Mary…who instead of helping chose to sit starry-eyed at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word.  

Mary’s apparent “uselessness” made Martha do a slow burn while she served.  It annoyed her— the burden of all that hospitality falling disproportionately on Marsha’s shoulders--to the point that she finally blurted out:  "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me."

As Martha dumped all that on her guest, she became quite inhospitable, both by drawing Jesus into an intra-family squabble and by making her problem her guest’s problem--in fact accusing her guest in the process:  “Lord, do you not care….?”

But in fact, Jesus did care—he cared primarily about what Martha was doing to herself, trying so hard to be the “hostess with the mostest”:   “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”

New Testament scholar Elisabeth Johnson says that the Greek word translated as distracted here “has the connotation of being pulled or dragged in different directions.”[1]

…which is to say that in her intense focus on hospitality Martha had completely lost her focus!

Life, especially the busy-ness of life, does that to you and me as well:  we try so hard that we blow it, we focus so intensely that we lose all focus.   In the process, our best efforts, even our attempts at “being hospitable” often fall woefully short.

But that was not Mary’s problem here.   And contrary to what Martha assumed, Mary was being hospitable--her hospitality consisting of her attention, her focused listening to what Jesus their guest had to say.

Again, in the words of Elisabeth Johnson:  There is no greater hospitality than listening to your guest. How much more so when the guest is Jesus!”

And herein, my dear friends, we encounter a word made to order for us, living in this time and place. 

We know how to pull off that surface-level brand of hospitality.  We decorate the table, prepare the food, pour up the drinks, create the ambience—with as much panache as our budgets and schedules will allow.

But what about the deeper brand of hospitality, the Mary-like attentiveness to the other person, the guest?  

Several years ago a provocative article in the NY Times asked:  “Can you remember the last time you were in a public space in America and didn’t notice that half the people around you were bent over a digital screen, thumbing a connection to somewhere else?”[2]

The author of that article, a neuro-scientist, suggested that with our over-focusing on “virtual relationships” using all our hand-held digital devices, we may inadvertently be stunting “our biological capacity to connect with other people” face to face, skin on skin.
Just so, we may be missing—as Martha did—the “one thing needful,” the “better part” that Mary lived for. 

God could show up in our midst, garbed in flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, and we might be pulled or dragged in so many different directions that we’d be oblivious to a wondrous encounter with the greatest Person in our lives.

And we might miss the most amazing miracle of all:   not that a gentle soul like Mary would sit still for Jesus in her living room….but that Jesus would sit still with Mary--that we have in Jesus the God who graciously seeks us out, enters our space, continually pays deep attention to us, looks us right in the eyes to speak his “I love you and I forgive you” to us again and again and again.

What happened so long ago in Mary and Martha’s home still happens among us in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus draws near to us.  Jesus sits with us.  

And like a good host—Jesus brings all sorts of gifts with him: clean water to wash away all our dirt, fresh bread with rich wine to restore and reinvigorate us, and soul-restoring relationships--moments, spaces, opportunities through which Jesus shows up among us.  

It is here that Jesus still meets us and others, in the holy space God opens up between us where there is room for Jesus, room for you, and room for me….to be deeply attentive to one another and thus to have our lives restored once again.

This amazing reality—that our God is constantly showing up among us, in his Word, in Holy Baptism, in the Lord’s Supper, and in the eyes of others whom we meet—including the strangers we encounter….

This amazing reality has so many, varied implications for how we live our lives in the world—Monday through Saturday—including how we think about even touchy subjects like welcoming immigrants and receiving refugees.

My friends, these contemporary hot-button issues must not be side-stepped or written off as “politics” and nothing more!  

For truly these are profound faith issues, as well!   After all, it is OUR Lord Jesus who in Matthew chapter 25 declares:  “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

Listen to one of those phrases again:  “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”   An even more accurate translation of the original Greek text is: “I was a foreigner (xenos!) and you took me in.”

This isn’t some 21st century political hack speaking.  This is our Lord Jesus talking directly to us--the same Jesus who regularly meets us in unexpected ways, even in the faces of strangers.   

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.