Monday, July 2, 2018

Bishops' Statement on Immigration

Bishops’ Statement on Immigration

As bishops charged with responsibility for over 500 parishes across our region, we write to share our deep concern about the current debate over immigration in the United States.   As we observe the unfolding situation along our country’s border with Mexico we are troubled that this debate seems to be driven more by rancor and political partisanship than by the deep moral and spiritual dimensions of the issue at hand.

Our communities of faith share three foundational principles regarding the issue of immigration:

First, we assume that people have the right to migrate in order to sustain their lives and the lives of their families.  This assumption is based on the ancient biblical teaching that the goods of the earth belong to our Creator who intends them to be shared with all people.  While defending the right to private property, our churches teach that individuals do not have the right to use private property without regard for the common good.

Second, we assume that a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration.  While people have the right to migrate, no country has the duty to receive so many immigrants that its social and economic life are jeopardized.   The vast majority of our parishes were established by immigrants to America.  So we realize that most persons migrate-- not simply to enhance their standard of living--but to embrace safety, freedom, and opportunities that don’t exist in their countries of origin.  Our immigrant heritage has also contributed to our churches’ strong commitment to assisting immigrants and refugees.

Third, we assume that a country must regulate its borders with both justice and mercy, both fairness and generosity.   This third principle supplies the proper context for understanding the first two principles.  It is only in the interplay of pursuing both fairness and generosity that the best discussion of immigration will take place.

It is precisely such discussion of immigration that is so sorely needed in our nation at this time.   So we urge members of our parishes along with all our neighbors to embrace the gift of respectful conversation as we sort out this perplexing, critical issue of immigration.  In that spirit we invite you to consider the following possibilities:
  • ·       Re-commit ourselves to fact-based reasoning, a free press, and free speech;
  • ·       Insist upon civility in our public discourse—starting with ourselves;
  • ·       Resist the urge to do all our “talking” via social media;
  • ·       Sit down regularly with persons who hold opinions other than our own and listen more than we speak;
  • ·       Urge our members of Congress, Senators and the President to pursue comprehensive immigration reform that is both compassionate and just; 
  • ·       Invite others to join us in pondering what it means to balance care for ourselves with care for the common good; and
  • ·       Avail ourselves of the resources of our faith communities--principally the gift of prayer.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son.  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred that infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and through our struggle and confusion, work to accomplish your purposes on earth; so that, in your good time, every people and nation may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.  (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 79)

Bishop Terry Brandt, Eastern North Dakota Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Bishop Michael Hoeppner, Roman Catholic Diocese of Crookston
Bishop Lawrence Wohlrabe, Northwestern Minnesota Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Note:  this statement draws upon Catholic Social Teaching On Immigration and the Movement of Peoples (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)[1] and A Message on Immigration (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America).[2] 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

God's Grace Changes Everything

Sermon for Synod Day--June 30, 2018
“God's Grace Changes Everything”
ELCA Youth Gathering, Houston, Texas
Acts 8:26-40

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

What have been some of the most significant days in your life thus far?

I’m not asking you to recall the day that was most fun or exciting or unforgettable.

But rather:  what are the moments that have had the biggest impact on your life? 

I can think of three of them in my own life…

There’s August 6, 1977 when I married Joy. 

There’s  April 8, 1982 when I became a father

And then there’s June 15, 2003—when I was NOT elected bishop of the SW MN Synod…a "defeat" that opened me up to ask, “So where’s God calling me now?”   [I include this day, because our most significant days are not always our happiest days…]

What have been your most significant days…your “this changes everything” moments?

Here in Acts 8 we meet a fellow who’s having the most significant day of HIS life.

We aren’t told his name.

All we’re told is that  he was from the East African nation of Ethiopia;  he was a eunuch (whatever that means); he was his queen’s treasurer; and he was traveling between Jerusalem and his homeland.

Just a few scraps of information—that speak volumes  about this man:
·       He was a foreigner of a different race from a different country…
·       He was a eunuch—a slave who (like other slaves in the ancient world) had been castrated early in life so he could be completely devoted to his owner….
·       And he was his queen’s slave, in charge of all her money: a lowly slave with lofty responsibilities.

But why was this black man from East Africa traveling between Jerusalem and his homeland?

I think it’s because he was a spiritual seeker like so many folks nowadays—especially youth and young adults.  Though presumably raised in the religion of his homeland, somewhere along the line he was drawn to the Jewish faith…he honored the God of the Jews, traveled to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals and read the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament.

…which is exactly what he was doing, as he rode in his chariot through the desert, from Jerusalem back home to Ethiopia. 

And fortunately, the eunuch wasn’t alone on that desert road.  A Christian named Philip was there, too, encountering the eunuch just as he was reading from the prophet Isaiah about a mysterious “Suffering Servant” who faced humiliation, barrenness, and death.

This Bible passage was getting under the eunuch’s skin….causing him to wonder:   “Who in the world was Isaiah writing about?”

I wonder why this question bugged him so much.  Was it because the eunuch saw something of himself in this passage? 

After all--like Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant”—the eunuch had been “sheared”—shorn of his manhood.  He had tasted the bitterness of humiliation.  He had been cut off from having a family of his own.

“Who’s the prophet writing about?” the eunuch pleads with Philip….and Philip responds by telling him “the good news about Jesus”

Just exactly what Philip said next, we aren’t told.   But maybe it went something like this:
This mystery person, this suffering servant who experienced all the crummy things you’ve experienced…he has a name and it’s Jesus.  He was born, taking the form of a slave.   He spent his whole life serving others in the lowliest of ways.  When his enemies hoisted him up on a cross, his life was cut off.  His body was thrown away, discarded like so much garbage, buried in a borrowed grave….

…a grave that could not hold him!  After three days Jesus burst out of his grave—alive again, nevermore to die again!

And Jesus went through all of that so that he might now live his unending life through you.  As a fellow Christian friend of mine likes to say:   “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal.2:19b-20)

As surely as Philip shared with the eunuch “the good news about Jesus”…God’s grace, God’s undeserved riches in Christ were poured over the eunuch when he was baptized.  

That was his “this changes everything” turnaround moment.

Nothing that people were always noticing about him—his skin color, his status as a sexual minority, his “foreignness,”  his lowly status as a slave, his lofty responsibilities as the Queen’s chief financial officer—nothing that people might have known about him held this man back from going on his way rejoicing….

…and, as an ancient church tradition suggests, when the eunuch reached home, he too (like Philip!) told others “good news about Jesus” and thus helped plant Christianity in Ethiopia.

My young friends, you belong here--even though you might think there are 101 reasons why God could never choose you to love and embrace and forgive and send into his service.

But when God thinks of you, God comes up with 101 reasons why you are JUST the kind of person God needs, a beloved child through whom Jesus chooses to live and move and have his being.

None of the ways we get all hung up on “sorting ourselves out” in this world matters, none of it matters one little bit to God.

God’s grace calls dibs on you and everyone else who has ears to hear.

God’s grace in Jesus Christ changes everything.  

God’s grace send you to tell others “the good news about Jesus.”  

God’s grace calls you is as surely and as certainly as anything could ever be.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen. 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Reconciliation: Unbinding Hearts

Reconciliation:  Unbinding Hearts
NW MN Synod Assembly—Saturday, June 9, 2018
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Moorhead, MN
Mark 3:20-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

When I was a lad growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota, there was one unforgivable sin.

The worst thing I could do on our farm, especially in the spring as we tilled the soil to prepare for planting--the unforgivable sin was getting a tractor stuck in the mud.

Why was that so bad?  Because if you get a tractor “good and stuck” in the mud, you can’t get it unstuck.  Someone—namely my dad--would have to stop what he was doing and come with another tractor and the heaviest-duty log chain he had, to get me unstuck…

…and if my Dad happened to get too close to the same mud I was stuck in, he might get stuck, too.   And then we’d have to call a neighboring farmer or the local tow-truck guy to come out to our farm and get us BOTH unstuck.

When you’re really stuck, you’re stuck, and you can’t get yourself unstuck. 

Here in this story from Mark 3, all sorts of folks seem stuck.

First there’s a restless crowd that seems stuck in their sheer fascination with Jesus—so bound up in their determination not to miss a second of “breaking news” about Jesus—so bound up that they can’t even eat!

Then there’s Jesus’ nervous family who seem stuck in their fear that he’s off his rocker, and if they don’t spirit him away and get him some help, the shame of his delirium might somehow cling to them, making them look just as crazy.

As if the restless crowd and the nervous family members aren’t enough, there’s a gaggle of religious experts,  know-it-all scribes from the head office in Jerusalem, who’re watching Jesus like hawks, all the while voicing their foregone conclusion—that Jesus isn’t on God’s side, but that he’s in league with the devil.   He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” (v.22)

So stuck are these spiritual pooh-bahs that they can’t even absorb a simple, logical question that Jesus asks:  Why would someone allied with the Prince of Demons get rid of demons instead of “multiplying” demons wherever he could?

Everyone’s stuck here: the fickle crowd, the anxious relatives,  the suspicious scribes…they’re all really stuck and can’t get themselves unstuck.

…which is exactly what Jesus encountered throughout his earthly ministry…

….and it’s what we, who are the Body of Christ, also experience in our own day.  

Think about it—all the ways we and those around us are stuck nowadays….

So many Americans seem stuck in resentment, fear, incivility and prejudice against neighbors who look, speak or act in ways different from us.

Our society is stuck in an opioid epidemic that could kill half-a million Americans over the next decade…[1]

Our children are stuck wondering every day if their school will be the site of the next mass shooting…

Our culture seems gripped by gridlock…shackled by uncertainty over what we believe or whom we trust…unable to tell whether facts are real or “alternative” or simply fake.

Our churches feel rudderless, stuck in decline, unable to pass on the faith, bereft of the youthful energy we crave so much.

“Stuckness” describes to a tee the condition that prevails in our world, even now in this present moment…

….which is why we constantly find ourselves uttering some of the most honest words that ever fall from our lips:   “We are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.”

Think of it:  there’s hardly any other encounter in which we speak with such brutal honesty about how it is with us, than when we confess our utter “stuckness” in sin…when we throw ourselves on the mercy of almighty God who alone can get us unstuck, with God’s liberating word of forgiveness, God’s resurrecting power of reconciliation.

Smack dab in the middle of this story in Mark 3, Jesus speaks this striking one-sentence parable:  “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”  (v.27)

Jesus told that parable to the know-it-all scribes, in order to get them unstuck…to propose another possibility:   that Jesus came not to side with Satan, but to subdue Satan….to plunder Satan’s crumbling kingdom?  

That, my dear friends, is exactly what Jesus did and is still doing. 

With every exorcism he performed, Jesus was setting loose another one of the devil’s subjects.  With every sickness he cured, every withered limb he healed, every blind eye he opened Jesus was unbinding those in the clutches of the Evil One.

With every good-news-promise he uttered, Jesus was staking out God’s claim to a world Satan mistakenly thought belonged to him.

What we witness here in Mark 3 is God reasserting God’s rightful claim to all that God has made.

It’s what Jesus was always about—in his amazing life, through his bitter death, in the surprising power of his resurrection—in all of that Jesus was unbinding sin-stuck hearts.

And this same risen and living Lord Jesus Christ continues to do so even today, through the ministries he has entrusted to us, Christ’s church.

By rights, we who are the church really ought to think of ourselves as a 24-hours-a-day/365 days-a-year tow truck service.   We—the church--exist to get folks unstuck from sin, death and the power of the devil.

We bypass this truth at our peril, according to Jesus when he speaks here about blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which is (according to Jesus) an unforgivable “eternal sin.”

The trick here—when we hear such scary talk about an “unforgivable sin”—the trick here is to realize that Jesus wants to wake us up and shake us loose.  

For there is sin that can’t be forgiven—not because God is stingy to forgive it—but because we can become so stuck in this sin that we don’t even desire or seek God’s forgiveness.   It doesn’t get any worse than that:  getting stuck so deep in sin that you no longer know or care how deeply you’re stuck in sin.

What hope is there for poor souls who’re that far gone, that  deep into sin?

There is only one hope:  the hope that Someone will come along who isn’t stuck—

Someone who is utterly free enough, strong enough, brave enough, and merciful enough to pull us out.

There is such a Person.  His name is Jesus. 

Jesus’ own family got part of this right—he is “out of his mind” in the sense that Jesus is not operating completely under his own control.  

And the suspicious scribes also got some of this right—Jesus is “possessed” all right--possessed by the Holy Spirit so completely that he’s always “ready, willing and able” to pull us out of whatever mess we get ourselves stuck in.

This One, this Stronger One, our Lord Jesus, has gone down to death and the grave for us…to drag us out of the muck and mire of our waywardness….and to set our feet on a dry, level, wide and free place once again.

As wonderful as it is to receive such mercy and grace, we can’t help but want to pass this on to those who are still stuck all around us.

God in Christ saves us in order to send us to our neighbors.   God invites us to use—not a tow truck or a winch or a heavy-duty cable with a big steel hook on it--to get others unstuck.

No, the tools for rescuing others that God entrusts to us are entirely different.   God invites us and authorizes us to help others get unstuck with
  • A Word of liberation,
  • Water for washing away the mud, and the
  • Bread and Wine of the New Kingdom that God is establishing even now, in the midst of Satan’s crumbling stronghold.

As God calls, authorizes and equips us to partner with God in helping others get unstuck, we behold first-hand how wide and far-reaching the scope of Jesus’ astonishing mercy truly is.

At the very tail end of our gospel lesson, there’s a sentence that’s often misunderstood. 
It can sound as though Jesus is setting aside his own earthly family….when in reality, Jesus is radically expanding his family…opening the door so widely that anyone and everyone can gain a foothold in God’s Kingdom: 

“Here are my mother and my brothers!,” declares Jesus.  Whoever does the will of God”—whoever is no longer stuck!--“is my brother and sister and mother.”

That whoever here in Mark 3:35…that whoever includes anyone and everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear.

No exceptions!  

No exclusions! 

No one ineligible for God’s reconciling power that never ceases to unbind human hearts.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Pentecost: Another Easter!

Peace & Grue Lutheran Churches, Ashby, MN
The Day of Pentecost/May 20, 2018
Acts 2:1-21

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Christ is risen.   He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Happy Easter to you all!   What a joy it is to gather on this festive day to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

What? (you’re you’re maybe wondering)--what’s with this guy?  Hasn’t he looked at the calendar lately?    Easter is long gone.   We celebrated it on April 1st.   Easter is old hat—we’ve moved past it.

Today is May 20th, after all.  It’s the Sunday between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day weekend….the day after Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding.     

And on the church’s calendar today is Pentecost—not Easter, for goodness’ sake…

But still I say to you:   Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

And I am bold to repeat to you:   Happy Easter.   Happy resurrection day!

I’m saying that, not just because EVERY Sunday is a little Easter (which is true….we celebrate the resurrection on the first day of every week, 52 times a year…)

No—I’m wishing you a happy Easter, because this festival day of Pentecost itself is really “another Easter.”    It’s not so much the start of the long Pentecost season as it is the climax, the culmination of the Easter season.  
Pentecost is itself “another Easter.”

Here’s what I mean:   the Pentecost story in the first chapters of the Book of Acts “echoes” the Easter story in some amazing ways.

First, both stories begin in a tomb.   Both stories start with death.

In the Easter story, of course, it’s Jesus who’s dead--dead as a doornail dead—that’s what “three days in the grave” meant back in the first century.   You’re dead and you’re not coming back.   Jesus was crucified, dead and buried.  His story appeared to be over.   Jesus’ body was lying, stone-cold in a borrowed grave.  Jesus wasn’t going anywhere!

And in the Pentecost story, we also start out in a tomb of sorts—“the room upstairs where [the disciples] were staying” (Acts 1:13)—the hideout where the disciples shut themselves away, in fear and bewilderment, for the ten days following Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

It was as if Jesus had died all over again.    He had died on the cross—but three days later was raised, walked among them, visited with them for another forty days.   Amazing.

But then, as we’re told in the first chapter of Acts, Jesus left his disciples AGAIN—left them in the lurch.  One minute Jesus was there, speaking with his followers, and the next minute Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

It was as if Jesus had been taken from his disciples twice—once on Good Friday, and a second time on Ascension Day.    It left the disciples dumbfounded.   Acts chapter one tells us that it took not one, but two angels to get the disciples to stop staring off into space, after Jesus ascended into heaven.

These baffled disciples returned to Jerusalem and they waited—waited for what, they weren’t exactly sure.   The disciples sealed themselves in to their upper room.  It became a kind of “tomb” for them.   They turned in on themselves.  They weren’t going anywhere.  Their story appeared to be over.

Both Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday begin in death, both stories start out in “borrowed tombs.”  And then, in both stories, God does something breath-taking (or should I say, breath-giving?) 

On Easter Sunday, God raises up the dead Jesus—puts death behind him.  And on Pentecost Sunday, God raises up the “dead” disciples—gives them all a new lease on life, in the power of the Holy Spirit.    The Holy Spirit (whom we also call The Lord and Giver of Life in the Nicene Creed!)….the Holy Spirit moves through the dead bodies and the dry bones of the disciples, and the Spirit animates them, as surely as God animated the crucified Jesus on Easter morning.

Easter and Pentecost are BOTH, you see, resurrection stories!   They begin in the dead-end of the grave, and they end--well that’s just the thing:  neither story really “ends.”   The conclusion to both the Easter story and the Pentecost story--the conclusion has yet to be written.

All we can really speak about is how these stories begin, and how they KEEP ON “beginning” all over again, even today and on every tomorrow still ahead of us!

What we do know is this:   when God raises the dead, God reverses chaos, God undoes confusion, God clarifies his gracious purposes, God re-establishes all connections, God replaces cowardice with courage—with the result that the Body of Christ is turned inside out and set loose in the world.

On Easter Sunday that happened—quite literally—with the body of the crucified Lord Jesus Christ.    Jesus’ corpse didn’t follow the normal route toward decomposition.    No!  Death was reversed—death was “undone” decisively.  

On Pentecost Sunday, the same sort of thing happened with the whole company of disciples.   They were, in those ten days between the Ascension, on their way toward “decomposition.”    They were all bound up in themselves, turned in upon themselves.

But then the Spirit rushed in with a mighty wind and tongues of fire.  These ingrown disciples got turned inside out.   The Holy Spirit goosed them out of their “tomb” by letting them speak in languages they’d never spoken before….languages that others, just outside, were waiting to hear.

What emerged from Jerusalem’s upper-room-tomb was the resurrected Body of Christ, the communion of Jesus’ loved ones, now transformed from disciples (which means “followers”) into apostles (which means “sent ones”).    On Pentecost, the Body of Christ is set loose in the world, once again.    And the members of this Body just can’t stop talking about Jesus!

You could say that Pentecost “completes” Easter.    The body of the crucified Jesus had to be raised first, of course—like the explosion that detonates a whole subsequent chain reaction.  

But not until Pentecost do we see the whole thing.   Indeed, Christ is not fully raised until the entire Body of Christ is raised with wind and fire and prophetic proclamation on the day of Pentecost.   We see, here in Acts chapter two, the beginning of that story…

….and in our own lives of faith, hope and love….as a people sent in God’s mission, you and I are inspired by God to live out the rest of the story, the end of the Pentecost story.

You know what I’m talking about—because our own personal stories echo the Pentecost story, don’t they?

Our stories begin with death—the death of our sin, our waywardness, our brokenness.   Something kills us, and we’re all turned in on ourselves, all locked up in a tomb (usually a tomb of our own making).   We aren’t going anywhere!

And then God in Jesus Christ the Risen One….God in the power of the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life…God raises us up, holds our heads above the water, unbinds us, puts a Word on our tongues and gooses us, to get us out into our world.   

The Body of Christ is still being re-animated by the Spirit of the living Lord Jesus.

It happens here in this congregation, in much the same way it happened on Easter and Pentecost.   It starts in dismal death, but moves toward boundless life.    Bracing baptismal water wakes us up.  Nourishing bread and wine revive us.   The Word snaps us to attention.

And we are moved from death to life, from confusion to clarity, from cowardice to courage, from self-absorption to self-emptying love, from dis-connection to re-connection in the Body of Christ.   It’s all here in Acts chapter two
·       The deathtrap where the disciples at first lie hidden;
·       The surprising, reviving intervention of the Spirit;
·       The “these guys must be drunk” confused first reaction of the crowd who hear the disciples’ preaching;
·       And then the clarity of God’s Word to us.   “Let me tell you what’s happening…let me spell it out for you (Peter preaches):   this was all foretold, this was all in the cards, this was, is, and ever shall be God’s work among us….freeing us to speak plainly about God alive and at large in our world.”

You and I, dear friends of the Peace-Grue Parish….you and I are still living out this Pentecost story.  

God is still seeing to it that the story of Jesus, the miracle of Pentecost, the truth of the gospel keeps getting proclaimed, keeps being played out here so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 1:21).

And what will be the outcome of all of that clarifying, courageous gospel truth-telling?   

The outcome will be another Resurrection--the Body of Christ, all of  us!—animated for prayer and praise and service and mission, turned inside out, and set loose in the world!

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.