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. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Building A Bigger Table (Opening Worship 2019 Synod Assembly)

Building a Bigger Table
NW MN Synod Assembly/June 7, 2019
Acts 1:1-8 and Ephesians 3:20-21

Dear friends in Christ—grace, mercy and peace be multiplied unto you through Jesus our Risen Savior, who sends us out as his witnesses, to the ends of the earth. 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

You and I are creatures of time and place.

We’re thoroughly embedded in time….always living out our days within a single, slender slice of history….forever moving from our past through our present toward our future….

We’re embedded in time….and we’re also hemmed in by place.  We simply cannot be in more than one place at a time…..

You and I, creatures of time and place, can’t really conceive of any other way of living...

…which is why it’s virtually impossible for us to wrap our minds around God.

For God, you see, is not a creature of time or place….because God is the Creator, and therefore the Lord of time and place.   As we confess in the Nicene Creed, God is “the Maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.” 

God fills all of time, occupies the totality of space, and therefore is not in the least bit limited by the boundaries that contain us.

In these opening verses from the Book of Acts, Jesus’ followers ask him an utterly time-and-place-bound question:    "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

Now that’s not really a bad question.  It’s the kind of question creatures of time and place are always asking, especially when they’re bumping up against realities that baffle them.    It’s a question that popped into the heads of Jesus’ disciples quite naturally, caught (as they were) between Jesus’ miserable death on a Roman cross and his surprising reappearance three days later, in the power of the Resurrection.

Jesus was dead….but he’s alive again….so now what?  

The disciples try to squeeze this dead-but-now living Jesus into their time and their space:   “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The question suggests that they were hankering for a little political payback:  It’s high time for the Roman occupiers to be put in their place. Their Empire needs to go so Israel can be returned to the fleeting glory it knew back when David was king.   

Notice the verb that the disciples use here:   “Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”  

Such is often our fondest hope as well--to return, to be restored to whatever our preferred version of “the good old days” might happen to be!

There’s just one problem with the disciple’s question, though. And that problem isn’t that Jesus’ followers were expecting too much of him, but that they were ready to settle for too little.

….which is how Jesus quickly responds, as paraphrased by the late Eugene Peterson:  “ [Jesus] told them, ‘You don't get to know the time. Timing is the Father's business. What you will get is the Holy Spirit. And when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be able to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all over Judea and Samaria, even to the ends of the world.’”

And just what might that look like—when the disciples start bearing witness to the One who has death behind him and nothing but a wide open future ahead of him?

The disciples ask a very constricted, limited question…and what they get is an expansive, mind-blowing answer--because the One they’re dealing with has an imagination as huge as the whole universe….and a perspective that encompasses both time and eternity.

The disciples are wishing that Jesus might make Israel great again—but what Jesus wants is to make all things new again, to usher in a brand-spanking-new creation!

And it’s all going to start soon, when the Holy Spirit swoops down upon Jesus followers on the Day of Pentecost…fills them with fire, untangles their tongues and places on their lips amazing news that will change everything.

It all starts as Jesus’ followers become witnesses to his life, death and resurrection….first “in Jerusalem” where it all began….then fanning out into the wider neighborhood of Judea and Samaria—the launching pad for these testifiers to start traversing all the conventional boundaries of time and place, propelling them to the very ends of the earth, toward a future that will keep unfolding forever.

This is what happens when human beings are gob-smacked by the Resurrection.   All at once they find themselves living in a new day, inhabiting the fresh creation that the Risen Christ is always opening up.      

Wow!   Isn’t that amazing!??

But wait--it just keeps getting better!....

….Because this same risen Lord Jesus Christ meets you and me today--discombobulating us, as well.

For whenever we’re with this Jesus, all our working assumptions about how life works will be called into question.

When the Risen and Living Christ meets us anew in the Pentecost power of the Holy Spirit, everything that limits us (like our sin), and everything that thwarts us (like the power of the devil), and everything else that holds us back (like our mortality), it all goes off the rails!

And when that happens the last thing we want to do is expect too little of our living, agitating God who “by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”   (Ephesians 3:20-21)

Our synod’s theme for this year—and thus, our synod assembly theme is Building a Bigger Table…..or, as I’ve starting saying to myself:  “Building an Infinitely Expanding Table.”

In a world seemingly hemmed in by time and place, the very thought of that seems ridiculous, undoable, impossible….

But in the disruptive, sin-forgiving, death-defying, future-opening power of the Living Christ who transcends both this finite world and God’s infinite Creation….what seems utterly impossible turns out to be a piece of cake.

And that’s exactly what God’s been doing for centuries:   taking small, warped, seemingly useless building materials and refashioning them into realities beyond even our wildest imaginings….

…an ancient couple gifted with land and family in their old age…
….a tongue-tied refugee speaking truth to the power of Egypt’s Pharaoh…
…exiles restored to their longed-for homeland…
…a tiny little Baby shivering in a manager….
…a crucified man, lying stone-cold-dead in a borrowed grave….
…a terrified band of women and men huddled behind locked doors, prayerfully waiting for Whatever’s Coming Next….

This is what God’s always been up to:  upsetting all our applecarts, messing up all our assumptions, fashioning something breath-taking out of next-to-nothing!

And, bringing it all closer to home, this is what God has been doing for years, here in our little corner of the vast Creation--our synod:   planting faith-communities with one foot in time and the other foot in eternity….establishing and sustaining congregations, each of which is a sign, foretaste and instrument of Christ’s in-breaking Reign over all things.     

If all our lives, put together, amount to little more than the thinnest slice of eternity….these last twelve years have been barely a blip on a radar screen…

….and yet, looking back over my two terms of serving as your bishop, I can scarcely count up all the ways God has been building bigger tables in our midst—with us, through us, sometimes even despite us!

God has been opening up fresh ways to welcome all believers—including our gay and lesbian siblings in Christ—not just to sit at God’s bigger table, but also to serve at that Table.

God has been stirring up in us a passion for passing on the faith, ever more winsomely, particularly with those in the first third of life.

God has been helping us see in the wider world how our Lord is building bigger tables through ventures like YAGM--Young Adults in Global Mission—a host of whom have come from our synod.

God has been deepening and enriching our relationships with table-mates in the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church of India, our companion synod.

God has been nudging us toward re-encountering our oldest neighbors, the first inhabitants of this good land, our beloved native neighbors.

Most of all, God has been building bigger tables through our 226 congregations and dozens of ELCA-related ministries—vehicles through which sins are forgiven, Baptismal water is poured out, soul-satisfying nourishment is served up:  God’s Word and sacraments and mission making all things new right in our midst.

All these thanksgivings—and countless more that we could add—stir not just our gratitude, but also our hope.

I can’t think of any reason why God would not finish in us, all that God has already begun in us.  

Especially this Pentecost weekend, as our synod calls a new bishop and a new vice president, we can confidently expect to see bigger tables being built until God’s New Day surely comes.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Remembering Pastor Art Rimmereid

July 1, 2019

On behalf of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod, where Art served both as an assistant to our first bishop Harold Lohr, and later as our synod’s second bishop….

and on behalf of the ELCA Conference of Bishops and its chairperson Bishop Bill Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod…

and on behalf of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I greet you—family and friends, as we remember, give thanks for and commend to almighty God’s care our dear brother, Pastor Art Rimmereid.

I will never forget the first time I met Art, in November of 1991 when we were together at the annual regional retreat for ELCA bishops and bishops’ assistants at Luther Crest Bible Camp near Alexandria, MN.

In that first time with Art, I will never forget two things.   First, how the two of us “hit it off” almost immediately, both of us loving stories and humor and good fun….and often thereafter Art and I sat together at such confabs…sometimes almost on the verge of misbehaving, though—thank goodness!--we were never placed on detention.    Art loved laughter, funny stories, teasing and joy—and just being with him was always a delight!

The second thing I’ll never forget from my first time with Art is that he never, ever treated me like the the 36-year-old kid I happened to be.  Rather, even though Art was more than two decades my senior, he always regarded me as a peer. Utterly comfortable in his own skin, Art never thought too highly of himself, whether he was with his fellow bishops or the people of God whom he loved to serve.

Lastly, in the words of an old English collect, let us remember before God Art and all others “who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no [one] can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.”[1]

Bishop Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA

[1] From the Bidding Prayer in the liturgy for A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, U.K.