Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Perils of Always Speaking Your Mind

Nowadays a segment of the American public seems so enamored with allegedly straight-talking politicians who simply blurt out whatever happens to be on their minds.  The sheer act of “saying what’s on your mind” is praiseworthy, regardless of the quality of the words that are thereby unleashed.  Whole swaths of the populace are sick-and-tired of well-modulated, thoughtfully- measured discourse—often labeling that as “politically correct language.”

There are still good reasons for not always “speaking your mind.” Most of us possess internal editors that shape what we say and veto our tendency to give voice to every stray thought that rattles around inside our heads.   For example:

    1.      Many of our thoughts reflect immediate visceral reactions—not seasoned, reasoned reflections.   The first thing that pops into our heads about something is rarely the last or best thought we’re going to have on that topic.  Lightning-quick reactions feel real at the time, but “counting to ten” gives us time to think more deeply. 

    2.      “Always speaking your mind” short-circuits the opportunity to check out what we’re thinking with other people.    We can become so monological—listening only to the echo chamber inside our own heads—that we miss out on the chance to discuss ideas with others whom we respect and whose opinions we value.  

    3.      Quite a few of our thoughts--if hastily spoken—will simply offend others and tear at the fabric of society.   Our internal editors serve the common good by preventing us from spewing forth words that are patently disrespectful, bigoted, or abusive.

    4.      Our minds are the playgrounds both for our better angels and our darker demons.   Much of what simply pops into my head represents that part of my personality that is captive to sin and cannot free itself.   (“Where did that come from?” I frequently ask myself.)  My internal editor, though not flawless, rescues me from regularly putting my sinful self on public display.

My goal is neither to protest freedom of speech nor plead for hyper-self-censorship.  It's not about refusing to rock the boat or risk disagreeing with others.  There is a time and a place for speaking up and speaking out.   And there is such a thing as contrived, confining, supercilious “politically correct speech” that simply obfuscates reality.

But too much of what is mislabeled “politically correct speech” nowadays is something else.  It is precisely the kind of speech we need more of:
    ·        Speech that is fact-based
    ·        Speech that reflects both heartfelt emotion and rigorous reasoning
    ·        Speech that arises out of deep conversation with others, including those with whom we disagree
    ·        Speech that serves the common good and builds up society 

  • Speech that illuminates, never attacks, those with whom we speak.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Opening Up Sacred Space

Pathways Summer Splash Worship Service
Camp Emmaus, Menahga, MN
July 23, 2016
Luke 10:38-42

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“Let all who enter be received as Christ.”  

Those words, from the Rule of St Benedict, adorn the welcome sign that greets visitors to your sister camp, Shetek Lutheran Bible Camp near Slayton, MN.

“Let all who enter be received as Christ.”

This brief statement describes the primacy of hospitality in all communities of faith, all the places where Christ’s faithful people come together.

Receiving and offering hospitality is foundational in the Way of Jesus Christ, because it takes seriously the fact that you and I are always depending on the kindness and generosity of others.

This brief gospel lesson from Luke 10 focuses our attention on such hospitality.

And we’re not just talking about a Miss Manner’s brand of hospitality, either.   We’re talking about the deep, dependable hospitality that was such a staple of daily life in the ancient world.

In a world without convenience stores, budget motels, ATMs or highway rest-areas, ancient travelers staked their lives 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.

So here in Luke 10 Jesus shows up in the home that Martha and her sister Mary shared, and it seems at first blush that Martha is the one who offers lavish hospitality worthy of a guest like Jesus.

But Martha had a sister, and that sister, Mary, was of no apparent use to Martha…choosing instead to loll at Jesus’ feet, hanging on his every word.  

Even though she tried to look past it, Martha was doing a slow burn while she served.  It ate at her— the burden of all that hospitality falling disproportionately on Marsha’s shoulders, to the point that she finally blurted out to Jesus:  "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, 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 mostesst”:   “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”

New Testament scholar Elisabeth Johnson points out that in the original language of this text, the word translated distracted “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 in the 21st century, does that to us:  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” fall woefully short.

But that was not Mary’s problem here.   And contrary to what Martha assumed, Mary had not neglected hospitality--because Mary’s hospitality consisted 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 this, my dear friends, is a word made to order for us, living in this time and place. 

We still, of course, pull off that surface-level, inch-deep hospitality.  We ready the setting, prepare the food, pour up the drinks, create the ambience—we do that with as much panache as our budgets and schedules will allow.

But what about the deeper hospitality, the Mary-like laser-attentiveness to the other person, our guest?   What about our capacity truly to attend to, to listen to, to be fully and physically present with one another?

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]

That article, written by a neuro-scientist, suggested that with our over-focusing on “virtual relationships” by means of 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.

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 the greatest encounter with the greatest Person in our lives.

And we might miss the most wondrous 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 for Mary--that we have in Jesus a 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” to us again and again and again.

Dr. Andrew Root of Luther Seminary, contends that “relationships…in ministry are the place, the very space created, to encounter the living Jesus.”[3]  

Let me say that again:   “Relationships…are the place, the very space created, to encounter the living Jesus.”

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 still 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. 

Jesus draws near to us and sits with us, fashioning soul-restoring relationships in the sacred space that God opens up between us.
And the one thing needful for us is to be there and be aware in that sacred space where Jesus shows up among us.  

One of the great gifts of outdoor ministries like Pathways is that our camps and retreat centers open up sacred space in which we meet Jesus Christ and encounter others as “little Christs” in our midst.

In a world that doesn’t always feel safe, a world that makes our heads spin, a world filled with cacophony of endless noise and distraction, a world that too often has us sitting side by side yet separated by a thousand miles of digital space…

In a world that leaves us feeling the way Martha was—distracted by many things, even good things like offering hospitality…
In this world as we know it….outdoor ministries like Pathways beckon us to step back, to turn aside, to pay attention to what matters most, to come into fresh awareness of God, God’s wondrous creation, God’s diverse people and God’s transforming Word.

I believe we need to think of places like Camp Emmaus and Camp Minnewakan as oases in our 21st century wilderness….oases where we and those we care about can tune out the distractions and tune into the heartbeat of the universe, in the God we know best in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This morning we pause to pay attention to this reality…and to affirm and bless those who do so much to fill this sacred place with rich relational space….where folks can meet Jesus Christ and encounter those in whom we behold the face of God.

This Mary-like focus on the One who matters most—Jesus and his Way—truly grounds us and energizes us for the Martha-like service this world so desperately need.

Thank God for this outdoor ministry that we love and share and support.   In places like this Jesus meets us and our fellow way-farers.   God opens up space between us where there is room for Jesus, room for you, and room for me….to be deeply attentive to one another and God-with-us…and thus, to have our lives restored again for service in God’s world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen. 

[3] Andrew Root, The Relational Pastor:  Sharing in Christ by Sharing Ourselves (IVP, 2013), p. 158.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

No Turning Back

100th Anniversary of First Lutheran Church, Karlstad, MN
June 26, 2016
I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

What is it like, to emigrate from—to leave behind--the only home you’ve ever known? 

What is involved in pulling up stakes, boarding a ship, turning your back on the land of your birth, and heading off to a land you’ve never visited--fully intending to live the rest of your days in that new country?

That’s a good question for us to ponder as we celebrate the Centennial of this congregation. 

It’s good to reflect on the experience of immigration, because the Lutheran church did not originate here in North America.   We are a transplanted, immigrant church.   Most of our Lutheran ancestors arrived here on boats from northern Europe—the birthplace of Lutheranism.

Today we celebrate the fact that in November of 1916  fifteen immigrants from Norway—14 men and one brave woman—voted  to organize a congregation they would call the Karlstad Norwegian Lutheran Church.

To fully understand what motivated them we need to recognize the profound difference between tourists and immigrants.

Tourists, always carry round-trip tickets with them.  They travel abroad, but always with the intent of returning to their homeland.

Immigrants, are something else.   Immigrants carry one-way tickets.

To be an immigrant is to decide that your future is no longer in the land of your birth.  To be an immigrant is to set your face toward a new future, in uncharted territory.

What motivates immigrants is usually pain—the pain of war or poverty or dispossession.  To be an immigrant is to hurt badly enough that you honestly consider leaving your homeland for good.

To be an immigrant is to leave the land of your birth because you know your destiny lies in a home you will build in a land you will adopt, for the rest of your days.

Some ancient Vikings symbolized such radical relinquishment by burning their boats on the shores of whatever country they were conquering.   Burning their boats was a way of saying:  no turning back.   

To be an immigrant is to travel light…to bring along just enough—the bare essentials--so that you can build a new life. Our Lutheran immigrant ancestors packed their travel-trunks very carefully--and invariably they included three books:  a Bible, a catechism and a hymnal or songbook.

To be an immigrant is to start all over again in your adopted homeland.   And integral to that “starting over” was the decision by our immigrant forebears to band together for worship, confirmation instruction, and evangelical mission in the wilderness of North America.  

Sometimes our ancestors even erected a church building before they had finished their own homes on the prairie.  

It’s as if our immigrant forebears knew that among the necessities of life in this New World was the essential act of gathering together regularly to hear God’s Word of life, freedom and forgiveness in Jesus Christ…to center themselves around the Baptismal font….to kneel at an altar and feast together on the Lord’s Supper….and to be sent to serve in God’s world.

To be an immigrant is to be moved more by the promise of your future than by the memories of your past.   To be an immigrant is to “set your face” toward God’s tomorrow, to cast your lot with the New Creation that God is always calling forth in Jesus Christ.

This immigrant experience is the true “backstory” of your centennial celebration.  And, when you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing backstory!!

But there is precedent for this.

This is how God operates, as we behold here in our lesson from I Kings 19.    The God we know through the story of Israel and Israel’s greatest son, Jesus—this God embraces our past, our present and our future.  

This God calls us and empowers us to do the same:  to embrace our past, where we have come from….our present, the urgent problems and possibilities of this moment….and our future, God’s unfolding tomorrows that beckon us forward.

Here in I Kings 19 we see the prophet Elijah having come through a rough patch in his life.   After he triumphed over the prophets of the false god, Baal, on Mount Carmel—Elijah was forced to flee from those who wanted to kill him.  

Elijah grew so weary of running away--like a refugee!--that he finally pleaded with God to take his life.

But God would hear nothing of that!  God still had too many plans for Elijah.  God let Elijah know that even if he felt that he (Elijah!) was at the end of his rope, God was just getting off to a good start.  

God’s unfolding future included some assignments for weary Elijah.  God shook Elijah out of his anxiety and depression by giving him a daunting “to do” list—there were kings to anoint and a successor for Elijah who needed to be called. 

God was doing what God is always doing:  looking to the future and convincing folks like Elijah to do so, as well.

Indeed Elijah’s successor, Elisha, was proof positive that God wasn’t finished yet.   Even after Elijah finished his assignments, there would be more work to do.   Elijah’s casting of his mantle on the shoulders of Elisha his successor signified that God was still at work on the earth.

For Elisha the successor, it would be a kind of immigrant experience.  

Elisha, after all, had a pretty good thing going.   He had 24 oxen—no small investment in livestock!  Elisha had the means to cultivate the land on what was probably a pretty successful farm. 

That was the life Elisha had known—the future he thought was his--until Elijah came along and tapped him on the shoulder….granting Elisha a new future—a calling as prophet that Elisha embraced, signified by his generous offering to God of those 24 oxen, served up on a fire kindled from the wooden yokes that would no longer be needed. 

It’s hard for me to envision this part of our text from I Kings without also picturing the timbers of those old Viking ships burning on the shores of their new homeland!

Here is, finally, a word for you and me on this anniversary celebration.   You didn’t invite me to preach this morning so that I would simply tell all the old stories of this congregation that you never tire of hearing.  You have your elders, old-timers who can regale you with tales of your history.

You invited me to preach today because it’s my job to point you toward God’s promised future in Jesus Christ.  

In your anniversary booklet there’s an interesting tidbit that almost passes unnoticed:  for the first leg of your 100-year journey you were yoked with four other Lutheran congregations—three of which no longer exist.

It’s been happening for decades—congregations being started, flourishing, declining and closing.

Some congregations in the upper Midwest choose to close after they have made it to a milestone—like their Centennial.  Some of our prairie churches choose to say, right at the point you are at today:  Mission Accomplished!  We’ve run the race.  We’re calling it quits.   “To God be the Glory!”

But you have not chosen that path.  You believe God isn’t finished with you yet.  You still have a mission: “to be witnesses to God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ, and to serve the needs of the world in fellowship with all other believers.”

What shape might that mission take as you embark on your second century of life?   You’ve accomplished much since 1916: passing on faith to generations of children, serving your community, resettling refugees, welcoming seminary interns to your pulpit. 
But one thing I didn’t notice in your history booklet—unless I missed it—was any mention of a service of ordination for a son or daughter of this congregation who had entered the pastoral ministry.

What if that became one of your goals for the next leg of your journey?  

I remember the old hand pumps we used to have on the farm.  There was always a tin cup attached to these pumps—a cup that had two purposes.  First, you drank from it.  Second, you filled it up and left water behind for the next user of the pump—water, not to drink, but to use to “prime the pump.”

What if First Lutheran church pondered all the ways you might “prime the pump” for those who will come after you?

You can think about that, because God isn’t through with you.   God has a future for you in this good land.   God has more work for you to do. 

It is God’s work, in fact, that God will accomplish with our hands.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Jesus' Telescoping Prayer

Scandia Lutheran Church, Averill, MN
Easter 7/May 8, 2016
Installation of Daniel Stauffer, Diaconal Minister
John 17:20-26

20 "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 "Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This gospel lesson from John 17 is, for you and me, something of a flashback.  Movies and TV shows make use of this device—the flashback—to allow the viewer to step back in time, return to an earlier moment, and live in that moment once more, with the awareness of how the story ends.

So this morning, as we continue basking in the light of Easter--we flash back to the night before Jesus died.  We listen in on what Jesus was saying to his first followers—but we listen now with Easter ears that have heard how Jesus would not be held by death, how Jesus would arise from the tomb, how 40 days after that astonishing event Jesus would ascend to God’s realm, where Jesus now occupies the seat of authority over all things, still interceding for us, still cheering us on, still pulling for us as we complete our earthly journeys.

So as we flashback in this gospel reading from John 17, we notice the kind of language Jesus is employing here, on the night when he was betrayed.   

Earlier in this long discourse with his disciples (a discourse that extends from John chapter 13 through John chapter 17), Jesus had offered his disciples information about what was about to happen to him and to them.

But when we come to Chapter 17 Jesus moves from information to intercession, and that’s what we hear in our text for this morning.  

We hear Jesus praying.   Rather than telling us what we better be doing, Jesus prays for what will be happening as he takes leave from his disciples.   This long prayer of Jesus begins in the first verse of John chapter 17 and ends with this morning’s reading.

In the first part of this prayer in John 17 Jesus prays for himself—not the kind of agonizing prayer he offered later in the Garden of Gethsemane--but rather, with eyes wide open and head held high, Jesus prays:  “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you…” (John 17:1)  

In astonishingly paradoxical language Jesus faces the cross not as a dark, dreary instrument of shame but as the means whereby he, Jesus, will glorify his Father whose love for sinners knows no bounds.

Next Jesus prays for his disciples, in the verses immediately preceding this morning’s gospel lesson:   “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one….I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one….Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”  (John 17:11, 15, 17)

Knowing that he will soon be leaving them,  Jesus prays for his closest followers as a mother might pray for her children.  Is that not how many of us remember our mothers on this Mother's Day?   Mothers are persons who never stop fussing and fretting over us, for as long as we live--watching out for us, praying for us that all might be well in our lives.

Then, in the third part of Jesus’ great prayer—which is our gospel lesson for this morning—Jesus’ prayer “telescopes” through space and time to gather up you and me and everyone in the world who does not yet know Jesus and his love:   “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” (John 17:20-21)

In these concluding petitions of Jesus’ great prayer, it’s as if time itself is telescoped ahead, to encompass all the centuries that have passed since Jesus uttered these words….reaching forward right up to today, drawing us in—we who believe because of the witness of Jesus’ followers down through the ages.

This is how Jesus prays this telescopic prayer—he prays in a manner so unlike our own approach to prayer.

Truth be told, many of my prayers never get much beyond little old me and my concerns of the moment.   And perhaps you find yourself doing that too.

But when Jesus prays, the prayer just keeps growing, expanding, reaching, telescoping beyond himself… if in ever-expanding concentric circles, like a stone dropped into a quiet pond.  

Jesus prays for all he’s worth….for himself and the saving work he will soon perform on the Cross….he prays for the first circle of witnesses to that astonishing miracle of mercy….but then Jesus keeps praying outward beyond the first disciples to include all the succeeding circles of testifiers, gathering up the likes of you and me who continue to point to Christ in an indifferent, hostile world.

This is how Jesus prays….he prays a prayer big enough, wide enough, deep enough to gather into its telescopic perspective everyone who has ever lived and who will ever live….praying that all of them, all of us, would be enfolded in the rich, rich love of the Holy Trinity—the Father, the Son and the Spirit.

All of that is happening here in this morning’s Gospel lesson.

And it’s not just happening here at Scandia Lutheran, but this telescopic prayer of our Lord Jesus is reaching out right now into all communities of Christ around the globe.

That sort of puts everything into perspective this morning, doesn’t it?

Here we are in this lovely country church building….just a handful of us….but bound together in the love of God with folks in every other place of worship that is "open for business" this Sunday morning….the fullness of God’s love—the love the Father has for the Son, in the power of the Spirit—the fullness of God’s love is always expanding through space and extending through time…..spreading out, seeking out everyone.

This is why we’re here today. 

It is why you have called Dan Stauffer to be your preacher, your minister of God’s mercy, your prayer leader in this household of faith.

It is the “Johnny one note” theme of every hymn, every scripture reading, every sermon, every prayer, every celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, every act of gathering together and being scattered again into God’s world.

Jesus’ telescopic prayer blows wide open our imaginations—so that with Easter eyes we might see just how deep and wide and far-reaching our life and our love in Christ truly is.

Jesus’ prayer opens our imagination, even as it propels us back into the world, to seek out and draw into Christ’s loving embrace everyone, absolutely everyone, destined to be united in the only thing that lasts:  the unfathomable love of the Father for the Son in the power of the Spirit, always, always for the sake of the whole world.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mission on the Margins

Bethlehem/Newfolden, MN and Nazareth/Holt, MN
May 1, 2016
Easter 6/Acts 16:9-15

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Many moons ago when I was a wee little lad in Sunday School I loved stories like this one in Acts 16—stories of Paul the intrepid missionary, criss-crossing the ancient world, preaching the Good News and winning persons for Christ.

Paul, seemed like a super-hero to me:  always marching from triumph to triumph, the infant church growing by leaps and bounds…

Only later, as I began to explore the Bible more slowly and closely and in greater depth—did I come to realize these stories in the Book of Acts are more complicated than that.

The Apostle Paul didn’t always get to where he thought he was going.  He was often sidetracked, bushwhacked, pushed away, thwarted.

What this morning’s reading from Acts fails to mention is that before Paul had his famous vision in the night—a vision of a man from Macedonia, pleading with Paul to “come over to Macedonia and help us”—what might be easy to miss here is that the invitation into Macedonia was preceded by two failed attempts to reach other destinations—to Asia first, but that didn’t happen….and then to Bithynia, but that was a bust, too! (Acts 16:6-8)

Paul in the power of the Holy Spirit, understood these two failed attempts as ways that God was in fact directing him elsewhere….which is a good reminder that missionaries like Paul encountered obstacles and closed doors at least as often as they were welcomed with open arms.

Nevertheless, the point is worth pondering, that missionaries like Paul had to take “No” for an answer, more often than we might guess.

Only after hearing a “No” or even a series of “No’s” did the mission proceed….and where exactly did Paul end up?

In the most unlikely of places:  down by the riverside outside Philippi, surrounded by a bunch of women.

THIS was the journey’s goal that God had in mind for Paul?  Really?   Who’d have ever imagined that Paul had to bypass Asia and skirt around Bithynia, just to get to Philippi and a gathering of women in prayer—women trying to make their way in a man’s world!

We must take the full measure of all the borders that Paul and his entourage were crossing here.   Pious Jewish men in Paul’s day often prayed a prayer of thanksgiving that went like this:  “I thank you Lord that I was not born a slave, a Gentile or a woman!”    

And here was Paul—risking life and limb on the Mediterranean Sea just so he could hobnob with a bunch of Gentiles who also happened to be women.

But this is exactly how it was meant to be.   God directs Paul and company to persons on the margins of life in that day, women who are often left out of the historical record, women eager to hear the Good News about Jesus…women who, in fact, became the foundation of the church in Philippi.

One of these women is actually named here--Lydia, who seems to have done rather well, living in a man’s world.  Lydia was an entrepreneur, a dealer in expensive textiles, high-end merchandise that favored the rich, rich color purple.   Lydia, whoever she was, was a businesswoman who headed up her own household.

And when she heard Paul speak about Jesus, she believed what she heard and was baptized, along with her whole household….and then (as Eugene Peterson puts it in his wonderful paraphrase[1] of Acts) “in a surge of hospitality” Lydia invited Paul and his fellow missionaries to stay with her for a while.

In other words:   Lydia’s house became the mission center for the Christians of Philippi who became the most beloved of all the churches Paul founded.

Who would have guessed?   That after facing obstacles and closed doors, Paul’s missionary meanderings would lead him to Lydia’s doorstep, starting a church with the women’s group first—women living very much in a man’s world?

But really—isn’t that just like God, to work in such a fashion!?

God, the God we know best in Jesus Christ, never shrinks back from obstacles.   God loves maneuvering around or walking through closed doors.  God in Christ is just no good at taking “No” for an answer.   God prefers, really prefers “the scenic route.”  

And God gets the biggest kick out of working with the most unlikely of characters.   If some group is living on the edge of human society, if some persons hang out there on the margins—God in Jesus Christ is always making a beeline for them, seeking them out, finding them, taking up residence with them, working in them/with them/through them.

We see this right in the story of Jesus.   As the gospels tell that story Jesus is always on the move, forever encountering strangers, most often heading straight towards all the wrong crowd.  It’s as if they—the pitiful sick ones, the most notorious sinners, the accursed outsiders—were the objects of Jesus’ most ardent affection.

We see this in the long, long story of the church.   Rodney Stark, a sociologist of religion, contends that one of the reasons the Christian movement grew in ancient times was that Christians didn’t hightail it and flee when plagues were killing off people in droves.   Early Christians stayed with the sick, cared for the dying, risked catching the same disease with them—and the world took notice!

We see this in the global church, especially in places like our companion synod in India.  There is a reason why so many members of the Untouchables, the Dalits—those below the lowest rung of India’s social ladder—have embraced Christ and his church.   It’s because the Dalits see in Jesus a kindred spirit, a fellow Dalit, despised by the world, good-for-nothing, edged out of society and hung on a cross.

We see this much closer to home, right here in northwestern Minnesota.  Folks in the great coastal cities who make up the bulk of the U.S. population consider us “flyover” territory—that vast midsection of our continent that busy folks are forced to fly over to get from crowded New York to sprawling Los Angeles.   

Even here on the territory of our synod, I know what folks say about your part of our territory, the area north of Highway Two.   I visit with pastors from other parts of the country and seminarians eager for their first calls, and I point out this very area on the map—and many of them look at it and say:  “You want me to go way up there?   Why, there’s nobody up there—on the maps it doesn’t even look inhabited!”… which I love to respond:  “Yes, indeed, there are people up north of Highway Two….fine people, good salt-of-the-earth folks you could come to love—and they could come to love you…..and guess what:   there’s another whole country called Canada just north of us!”

This missionary journey of Paul that we get a brief glimpse of here in Acts 16—this missionary vocation to which Paul was called “worked on him,” profound shaping his faith and sharpening his proclamation.   By constantly calling Paul to the edges, the very margins of society in the first century, by plopping Paul down in places like that prayer gathering of women just outside Philippi….God made Paul see that God allows no obstacles to stand in his way, that God has a thing for those living on the edges of life, those who for all the world look like losers—they, they are the special objects of God’s deepest affection.

Which is why, in one of Paul’s greatest epistles, he could write words like these:   “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”  (I Corinthians 1:26-31)

In the name of Jesus.


[1] The Message, paraphrase of  Acts 16:15.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

My Sheep Hear My Voice

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes
April 17, 2016
Easter 4/Year C/John 10:22-30
Commissioning of Suzie Porter, Associate in Ministry

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

No doubt about it, we’re smack dab in the middle of the most interesting, contentious presidential campaign in years.

Since 1972 when I first voted, I can’t recall a time when the major parties were as splintered as they seem to be this year!

The campaign rhetoric is hotter and heavier than ever, and some of us are sick to death of it….even though the election itself is still over six months away.

What this campaign seems to make clearer than ever is that political campaigns are always about both ideas and personalities.  

By rights, we should be focused on the ideas and issues before our nation—and some of the time that’s what the candidates are paying attention to.  

But this election of 2016 is also very much about personalities—how we feel about and react to this array of candidates who are all trying to gain our trust and garner our votes.

Issues vs. personalities:  it’s tempting to think this is something new, but it’s not.   Politicians have always had to BOTH put forth their ideas and showcase their personalities….because, come Election Day, we voters will make judgments about both of those things:  the reasons we lean toward one candidate over another, but also the relationships we hope to have with those who would lead us.

And truly, this interplay of “reasons and relationships” goes on in other parts of our lives as well, including our lives of faith.

Even here in this gospel lesson from John 10 we some of these dynamics playing out.

Jesus has been teaching and working wonders almost nonstop throughout the first ten chapters of John’s gospel, and everywhere he goes the reactions of those around him are mixed.   Some are drawn to him, others are repulsed by him, while others are still trying to make up their minds.

Such wonderment about Jesus finds voice here in “the Jews”--which in John’s Gospel usually is code language for the Jewish leaders who oppose Jesus at every turn…. 

…These Jewish leaders have had enough with hearing Jesus teach and watching him perform signs and wonders—they want answers.  They crave a conclusion:   “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

Jesus’ opponents demand facts, answers and evidence.  They want Jesus to give them reasons why they should take him seriously.

Nothing has changed.  People still want reasons for aligning themselves with Jesus.  Folks are still saying to Jesus: “give me what I’m looking for–some evidence to meet my criteria–and then I might buy into what you’re all about.”

But what Jesus does, in response to his Jewish opponents, is to give them anything but plain, black-and-white answers.   

Instead Jesus engages with them on his terms, responding with:  ‘‘I have told you, and you do not believe. You’ve got more than enough information about me.  The problem isn’t my willingness to speak plainly–it’s your unwillingness to grasp it, or (more accurately!) to be grasped by it.”

“Let my actions do the talking,” Jesus continues.  “Watch what I’m doing–read the signs.   There are persons who are catching on, being grabbed by the awareness of who I am and what I’m up to.”

“But you do not believe, “ Jesus tells his opponents--“You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Here, Jesus’ opponents want to talk about reasons, but Jesus shifts their focus more toward relationships.   Believing, for Jesus, can only go hand in hand with belonging. 

Believing isn’t likely to happen in a safe, armchair discussion about Jesus.   But believing just might happen in a face-to-face encounter with Jesus.  Suspend your disbelief long enough to hang around Jesus—and belief might grow on you, faith might overtake you and never let you go.

But how does that actually play out?

Jesus offers a clue that is both plain-spoken and poetic.  Jesus gives his opponents a metaphor, a word-comparison, one of the most beloved in all the Bible:

My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.   

I have known two fathers in my life.   Both were southern MN farmers who kept sheep.

My own father, Lawrence, was with me for the first 21 years of my life.  He kept a small flock of sheep because they were cheap lawn mowers.

You see, our family rented farms on shares, and there was often an unoccupied farm-site that went with the deal.   So my dad would haul that little flock of sheep from farm-site to farm-site to keep the grass short and the weeds down-to-size.

These sheep knew my father and they heard his voice.   If my dad needed the sheep to come to him he’d just put two handfuls of shelled corn in the bottom of an old steel pail, shake the corn a little, simply call: “Sheep”—and they would come.   As easy as that.

For the second 21 years of my life I had my second father, my father-in-law, Kenny.

He also kept sheep, but he used a much more colorful vocabulary around them.  Kenny probably knew sheep better than Lawrence did—Kenny knew just how ornery sheep could be, so when he called them he usually tossed in a cuss-word or two, the kinds of words you don’t want me using in the pulpit.

Kenny—even though he used more colorful language than Lawrence did—Kenny still called his sheep, and they still heard his voice and responded.  The cuss-words didn’t seem to bother them.   The sheep came anyway.

Because sheep are like that.  They become so familiar with their shepherd that just one syllable from the shepherd’s lips sets their feet in motion.  Sometimes all it takes is the farmer’s hand on the latch of the barn door–sometimes you don’t even need to say anything.

My sheep hear my voice, Jesus says.   And all at once he’s speaking in a whole different realm here.  Jesus lifts up a relationship of deep familiarity, of intimacy--a relationship forged over time, a relationship that can mean life or death for members of the flock.

That’s what Jesus is after with you and me. 

That’s what Jesus wants to give us.  Not reasons that will let us make up our own minds, according to our own set of standards.  

No.  Jesus hankers, rather, for a relationship.  Jesus wants to “get” us–to gain us and keep us forever.

And Jesus will do whatever it takes to “get” us, to make such a relationship happen.

Jesus woos us, Jesus wins us for such a relationship by speaking to us lavish promises—promises that sound too good to be true.  Jesus wins us over by standing behind those promises, even if it means death for him—a death he willingly dies, so that you and I might live forever in his forgiving freedom.

My sheep hear my voice.
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.
No one will snatch them out of my hand.   

I seriously doubt that anyone ever gets argued into or convinced into the kingdom of God.

But I do believe Jesus “gets” us, that God wins and woos us, in much the same way that a shepherd finesses the flock.

Sometimes with just a little corn in the bottom of a steel pail.

With provender, in other words–provisions and promises that win us over, draw us in, keep us safe for this life and secure for the life to come.

God wins and woos us this day once again, with a splash of water, a taste of bread and wine, and with just a few words–words in which we hear the unmistakable tones of the Shepherd’s own voice.

God wins and woos us this day once again…

…and God uses us in his flock—the flock called “church”—God uses us to be his shepherd’s voice in this world of lost lambs. 

And truly isn’t that what this congregation is all about?  Isn’t that the goal of all the ministries of Trinity?  Isn’t that why we’re focusing especially today on youth and adult education ministries, as we commission Suzie Porter as an ELCA Associate in Ministry?

The only way folks can get close to Jesus is by getting close to those who already belong to Jesus.   

And there’s never an end to that good work.  Surely it’s what can keep us wandering sheep out of mischief for another week, don’t you think?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.