Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Danger Zone

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

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which, of course, is not true….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how does that happen?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about currency deflation!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

How To Destroy Your Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, something far deeper was at work here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sounds easy enough—doesn’t it?

No—nothing could be farther from the truth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Overflowing Fountain of Forgiveness

Messiah Lutheran Church, Fargo, ND
Pentecost 15/September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

So, what’s so special about the number 77 in this morning’s gospel lesson?

Here, Peter asks Jesus a very good question:  “If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?”

Then, like an eager-beaver, impress-the-teacher student, sitting in the front row of a classroom, straining to be noticed….Peter suggests an answer to his own question.   “Should I forgive someone ‘as many as seven times?’”
It may not be readily apparent to us in the 21st century, but Peter was being pretty generous here….  

..because the great rabbis of Peter’s day taught that Jews owed one another three gestures of forgiveness.

But Peter had been hanging around Jesus long enough to suspect that Jesus would want to raise that number--so Peter doubles the rabbis’ “three” and adds one more for good measure.

Seven!   Is seven the number of times I should forgive someone who does me wrong?

Though Peter comes off like a neophyte seeking to impress his teacher…the teacher quickly deflates Peter’s ego, by upping the ante elevenfold!

“Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Some ancient manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel substitute:  seventy times seven).

Wow!   Peter sure missed that one by a country mile.   Forgiving someone seven times—really quite a feat, when you think about it—but it doesn’t even come close to what Jesus was angling for here.  Jesus multiplies Peter’s seven by eleven—amazing!

So I ask you, what’s so special about the number 77?  

We could, I suppose, come up with all sorts of answers, most of them having to do with seven being the perfect number in Jewish thinking…

…but I really doubt that this particular number—77--matters all that much.  It’s not a password or a PIN number or an access code to deep mysteries.

I think Jesus hit upon 77 as the number of times we need to forgive someone, because if you actually try to do that—to forgive someone exactly 77 times--sooner or later you will lose track…you’ll forget “the count.”

And when that happens, you’re probably going to chuck it all and stop bothering to keep score at all.

Then you’ll understand that the number “77” is a placeholder for “countless.”

“If another member of church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Peter asks.

And Jesus, in effect, replies:  “forgive count-lessly….forgive so many times you lose track of the score….forgive as God forgives….anything less than that will never do!”

In this manner Jesus shifts the conversation away from math and toward the very essence of forgiveness.   And as that happens we hit pay-dirt, because at its core, the biblical notion of forgiveness has to do with freedom.  Forgiveness is about setting someone free, and, in the process, being set free yourself!

In the Bible, you see, the root-word for “forgiveness” is closely related to the word for untying a knot.  

When was the last time you were mired in frustration, stuck dead in your tracks, trying to untangle a pesky knot in a shoelace, a power-cord, or a rope?  

Whenever that happens, time stands still.  Everything grinds to a halt until that pesky knot is undone.  

Only then are you free--free to move on with whatever you were doing--free simply to “be,” once more.

THAT’s the picture God wants to imbed in our brains, imprint on our hearts, and burn into our souls this morning.    

Forgiveness is about getting unstuck, it’s about breaking out, moving into a free and open place, into a wide zone of freedom. 

No wonder weekly worship often begins with confession and forgiveness.   We come here to church all tangled up in waywardness and worry…we arrive all tied up in knots….and before our worship even gets going, God sets us free!

We start our weekly worship the same way Martin Luther urged us to begin each day: by making the sign of the cross…invoking the name of the Father, Son and Spirit…returning to our baptism…reclaiming our freedom in Jesus Christ.

Then, we can embrace the day, because we are free!

More than anything else, God wants us to be free from everything that might hold us back, keep us stuck, leave us all tied up in knots.

And this freedom that comes from forgiveness—this freedom is meant to be shared.  

That’s the point of the parable Jesus tells next in our gospel text—the parable of the two debtors.   

To understand this parable, we need some background.

It’s most likely that both the first and the second servants in the parable worked for the king.   Their job was to produce and convey wealth to the king’s coffers, so that the king’s balance sheet will always show a profit.

Think of it as a first-century Middle Eastern multi-level marketing arrangement—also known as a “pyramid scheme!”[1]

The king was at the apex of the pyramid, and he had hundreds of “worker bees” laboring beneath him.

The first servant was a middle-manager, perhaps even the CFO (chief financial officer) of the whole operation, given the astronomical size of the man’s debt to the king.  

The first servant moved around scads of the king’s wealth, sometimes mixing in some of his own resources, sometimes winning big for the king, sometimes taking foolish risks on the king’s portfolio.

In Jesus’ parable, it’s definitely a “down” day for the first servant.   His personal balance sheet is dripping with red ink.   He’s so far in the hole he can’t even see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

So, knowing that his own avalanche of debt is insurmountable, the first servant threw himself at the mercy of the king—begging that his humongous debt be written off…

….which is exactly what the king does! 

Whew!   What a relief…the first servant’s thorny knot is untied.  

He can breathe once again.

But the unimaginable mercy he receives from the king doesn’t last long.  

No sooner does the first servant leave the chamber of the merciful king, but that he encounters one of his own underlings in the pyramid scheme, the second servant, who has his own debt crisis—though it’s of a magnitude far smaller than the first servant’s debt.

When the first servant gets a chance to emulate his master, the merciful king who had graciously forgiven him…when his chance comes to do the same thing for someone who was in his debt--the first servant comes down with a bad case of amnesia.

He refuses to write off his own underling’s debt.  In fact he removes the second servant from his position in the king’s pyramid scheme, tossing him into debtor’s prison.

When word of this reaches the king, he calls in the first servant and reads him the riot act:   "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  (Matthew 18:32-33)

So the king imprisons the first servant where he will be tortured until he repays everything he owed the king….which means he would be tortured forever.

What’s going on here?   What made the king turn on a dime, from lavish mercy to bitter retribution?

This isn’t about an emotional outburst by the king.

No—something far bigger was at stake.  When the king forgave the first servant’s astronomical debt, the king turned his entire business plan upside down.

Where formerly the king’s pyramid scheme was designed to send money upstream, toward the top of the pyramid…..the king—by forgiving the first servant--reversed that “flow,” bathing the first servant with more mercy than he could possibly “absorb,” so that he would have to pass it on all those who were beneath him in the pyramid.

In like manner…because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ…you and I have received more forgiveness, more mercy, more second chances than we’ll ever manage to “absorb” or just keep for ourselves.

God’s gift of freedom, that comes from God’s forgiveness, is something for us to receive—but never to keep for ourselves.  

You and I were created to be conduits, not holding tanks, for God’s merciful forgiveness.

Try to hang on to it selfishly, and it will melt in your hand.

But share it, as freely as God forgives you, and all that mercy keeps coming back to you, eleven-fold, a full measure heaped up, pressed down, and overflowing, right in your lap.

Freedom.  It’s what you and I were created for.

And today and every day, Jesus Christ is recreating us, to bask in but also to pass on this freedom….the freedom that perpetually springs forth from God’s overflowing fountain of forgiveness.
In the name of Jesus.

[1] For this understanding of economic arrangements in kingdoms around Mediterranean Sea in the 1st century, I’m indebted to Stanley Saunders, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3393

Friday, September 8, 2017

Getting Skin in the Game

Installation of Deacon Jon Micheels Leiseth
September 6, 2017/Concordia College, Moorhead, MN
John 15:9-17

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

God chooses to do nothing without us.

Let me say that again:  “God chooses to do nothing without us.”

Please hear me clearly, friends.   I’m not saying that God can’t do anything without us.   I’m saying that God chooses to do nothing without us.

This is God’s modus operandi, God’s M.O.   God imagines, speaks and acts always with people and the creation, with you and me, with human flesh clearly in view and very much “in play.” 

God chooses to do nothing without us.

So, when God creates, as Genesis tells it, the culmination of the whole creation is God’s fashioning of human beings who alone—among all creatures—bear God’s spitting image, reflecting God in all that has been made.  

God chooses to do nothing without us.

When God acts to rescue us, when God intervenes to bring us back from our waywardness, God doesn’t bypass creation or humanity, but rather enters more deeply into creation, takes on human flesh, comes right alongside of us, for us and for our salvation.  

God condescends into our lives, “gets skin in the game.” And then this God-with-human-skin-on lives our life, bears our guilt, dies our death, and comes back from the grave lest we ever wonder whether God is “for us”—come what may!
God chooses to do nothing without us.

And, when God’s astonishing victory in the Resurrected Christ bids to become the story of the world….the vibrant heartbeat of the universe….once again God doesn’t step out of the creation to do all that, but rather God stoops down once again, breathing the Spirit into us, stirring us up with a Pentecost-tempest, and praying within us in sighs too deep for words. 

God chooses to do nothing without us.

And that remains true right now and for all the future “nows” God will yet grant us, until the New Creation finally dawns in all its splendor.

So, today also, my friends, here at Concordia College and now, at (give the time), my beloved ones, God chooses to do nothing without us.

That is true for all of us—no exceptions. 

It is true for you, Deacon Jon, true for you everywhere, all the time, in your own life of faith, hope and love…

You are not, in any way, shape or fashion called as Minister for Faith and Spirituality in Action—you are not called to carry out this ministry for us somehow, so that we’re off the hook…but you are called to do it with us, sometimes ahead of us, often behind us, but always alongside of us.

C.S. Lewis was once asked, by an earnest Christian:  “What if I don’t feel like loving or serving my neighbor?”  To which Lewis, without skipping a beat, responded:   “Pretend that you do.” 

He could have added:  “Fake it ‘til you make it,” because he knew the elementary truth that we don’t simply think our way into faith, but often we act our way, serve our way into faith.

Deacon Jon, you are called and installed to be among us as one who always reminds us of what we could too easily forget:   that God chooses to do nothing without us.
Such a “tall order,” this is!   It’s more than any of us could ever do, under our own steam, out of our own imagination, with our own strength and verve.

Whatever could that involve, in the “moment-by-momentness” of life?

Here’s the best guidance I can come up with:  just keep paying attention to Jesus who declared “I am among you as one who serves.”  (Luke 22:27) That is who I am.   That is what I do. That is what I will keep doing through you.    

It all comes together in Jesus.   So, here in John 15 Jesus seamlessly weaves together things we sometimes try to keep separate: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  Life-giving love and commandment-keeping costly service are all of a piece.

Where we perceive dichotomies, Jesus creates synergy.   Asked, in another place, to name the greatest commandment, Jesus seems, at first to fudge (like a wily election-year politician!)—Jesus seems to say two things, articulate two commandments.  

But not really.  The one commandment, the only commandment worth our time and attention is about loving God BY loving our neighbor, not so much as step one and step two of a little dance—but more like “heads and tails,” the two sides of a single coin.  You cannot have one without the other—God and our neighbor welded, melded together, for time and all eternity.

That’s because God chooses to do nothing without us, don’t you see?  

God is always finagling new ways to climb into human skin, in Jesus, and now in the community that is the Risen Jesus, for the sake of “getting at the world,” saving, restoring, renewing, transforming, making you and me and all things new.

God labors over, God aches for this whole groaning creation, this whole struggling human family….and the way, the main way God “gets at” us, is through us—our voices, our hearts, our feet, our hands.

You already are living that and have been living that for years, Deacon Jon. 

Today this graced community formally invites you to continually remind us of that, to help us discover fresh ways of embodying it and living it every day, in all sorts of ways, always in Christ Jesus.   Amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Conduits of God's Overflowing Goodness

Western Minnesota Steam Threshers Reunion
September 3, 2017/Rollag, Minnesota

Our gospel text is Luke 6:38:   [Jesus said] “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

The other day I received an email from a friend that started out like this:

“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that while Texas is underwater, Montana has gone up in flames.  While 50 inches of rain fall in Texas, Montana is experiencing record drought, heat and high winds, all of which combine to make it a record fire season….Thousands of people are being evacuated in the west, as fires sweep through the mountains.  And in the east, range fires have consumed anything the cattle might eat….Fire danger in [Montana] ranges from Severe to Exceptional.  Last night lightning started 40 new fires….Smoke is everywhere, even hundreds of miles from active fire.  There are severe health warnings about any kind of exertion outside, even for healthy people.”  (email from Bishop Jessica Crist, Montana Synod ELCA) 


What a powerful reminder that, as Houston and Hurricane Harvey have captured almost all of our attention…other disasters in far-flung corners of the world also are playing out…whether we’re talking drought and wildfires in the western United States…or the devastating flooding in the Bihar state of India, half a world away!

At any moment somewhere persons are suffering in this world…somewhere, someone is beset by forces that diminish life and stifle hope….somewhere people are hurting right now…eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, famished by scarcity.

And it’s always been that way.  

The pages of the Bible make that clear.  One of the reasons why the Bible “rings true” is that it consistently portrays all the hard edges of life as we know it.   The Bible sugar-coats nothing.  The Bible supports the notion that life is “nasty, brutish and short”—anything but a bed of roses.

So the children of Israel in the Old Testament endure harsh slavery in Egypt for generations…

…And the Jews whom we meet in the four gospels labor under the harsh thumb of Roman occupation troops….

…And the earliest generation of Christians, the first century church draws into its orbit some of the poorest of the poor.

Our Bible does nothing to hide those sobering facts.

And why is that?   Why is this framework of scarcity so evident  in our Holy Book?

It’s about more than being “real” or “true to life.”  

The Bible puts on full display all the things persons hope for and wish they had….so that we can see how God deals with this predicament, how God reverses the fortunes of folks “living on the edge.”

Did you hear that red thread, coming through loud and clear in the scripture lessons that were just read?

There is a lushness, a richness, a lavishness, to the way God bestows his gifts.  God doesn’t dole out anything sparingly.  One adjective that’s never used to describe God is “stingy.” 
Instead God is always getting carried away—continually giving gifts with a full heart and an open hand and an abundance that leaves us breathless.

So, in the 8th chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses really overdoes it as he describes the future God has in store for the wandering Israelites after their escape from Egyptian slavery. 

Standing on the border into the Promised Land, Moses rhapsodizes about a landscape with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where [God’s people will] eat bread without scarcity, …[and] will lack nothing….

And then the singer of Psalm 103 quickly jumps in, babbling on about the Lord whose mercy and grace spills over, “abounding in steadfast love” with generous doses of forgiveness that drives sin away, “as far as the east is from the west….”

And then St. Paul has to chime in, shining his apostolic spotlight on the amazing Macedonian Christians--poor as church mice!--but recklessly giving, way beyond their means, for the relief of the beleaguered saints in Jerusalem…

And finally our Lord Jesus himself, in his Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, describes God’s life overflowing in terms of a trip to the local granary where your bushel-basket is “super-sized” to-the-max…where newly-harvested grain is poured out generously, “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, [and plopped down, right] into your lap.”

When it comes to our God, the God of Good Friday and Easter, the Lord of the Cross and the Empty Tomb, the Creator of all our yesterdays and tomorrows….the scarcity that pinches us is always being overcome by bountiful generosity.

It’s a holy mess when God gets into the act, giving us all good gifts.   Watch out!   Have your scoop shovel, broom and dustpan handy--for when God gives gifts, there’s a lot of “spillage” needing to be cleaned up!

That’s because God knows only one way to give gifts:  abundantly, lavishly, overflowingly…

So, my friends, when you take your seat, with your morning coffeeshop crew and effortlessly join in their “ain’t it awful” chorus…

When you find yourself sighing and shrugging your shoulders, because of headlines that seem so bereft of good news… 

When signs of danger, wickedness or scarcity capture your attention, focusing your gaze on storms like Hurricane Harvey, or political turmoil in Washington, or declining rural populations,  or stagnant wages, or low commodity prices, scarce dollars, receding hope….

Remember then that scarcity isn’t an illusion—not one bit.    

Deprivation, abject poverty, utter emptiness—that’s our lot in life, apart from God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

Scarcity is real.  

But it is never our destiny. 

In God’s new creation—for which we ache with longing!—scarcity will be a thing of the past—forever. 

God allows our cup to become empty occasionally—just so God can fill it up again with life overflowing….only so that God can draw us ever deeper into the rhythm of living in anticipation of the new creation God is already bring forth, through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When the bad news of this world becomes overwhelming...let us see it for what it really is:  the fading echo of a creaky, dying world—a tired old age that is passing away.  

Scarcity, which can seem so real!--has no ultimate claim upon you.  

Deprivation is not your destiny.

The biblical story points us toward anything but a life of pinched, stingy scarcity.   The biblical writers go nuts trying to describe the only way God knows how to give. 

And then things always get out of hand…because God’s way of giving is like a river overflowing its banks, gifts piled upon gifts, life abundant.

And what’s even better:  God’s life overflowing doesn’t stop with us.  

No:  God’s abundance is intended to flow not just to us, but through us to others.  We’re more like conduits than holding tanks when it comes to receiving God’s goodness—which is wonderful news to folks in Houston and Montana and India…and a whole lot closer to home as well!

Which makes a guy wonder what it might look like if people like us started to resist all the ways we’re tempted to fixate on the dark side of life?

What would happen if you and I imagined ourselves infiltrating our homes and faith-communities townships and neighborhoods with another word:  the great good news about God’s astounding and utterly gratuitous abundance in Jesus Christ?

What would result if we routinely obsessed over how God always gets a kick out of giving gifts--with a full heart, an open hand and a generosity that sweeps us up in its tide?

What if…we dreamed and deliberated and decided and lived as though wherever we are, whoever we are, we have all that we need in order to do God’s work?  

What if we were to bet the whole farm on the fact that all of God’s gifts to us come “super-sized,” like that bushel basket of grain Jesus described for us: “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, [right] in your lap?”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Responding to Hurricane Harvey

From Bishop Larry Wohlrabe, NW MN Synod ELCA
August 30, 2017

As we watch the daily news reports coming from the Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey, it's natural for us to want to respond. What's crucial, though, is to step back from that initial impulse and learn more about how we can truly help our sisters and brothers without making their situation worse. Here are some things I've learned over the years in helping coordinate disaster response efforts in two ELCA synods:

First, pray for the victims, the first responders, the representatives of government and non-profit relief agencies, and all sorts of caregivers (including spiritual caregivers)....pray for their safety, their well-being, their faith, and their physical/mental/spiritual health. For the public prayers of the church, check out worship resources for times of disaster at http://www.elca.org/Resources/Lutheran-Disaster-Response#Worship

Second, send financial contributions to reputable disaster response agencies. PLEASE DO NOT start collecting cleaning supplies, tools, clothing, blankets-tangible items that must be packed up, shipped to the disaster area, then unpacked and (in many instances) stored somewhere until they are actually needed for the cleanup phase of the disaster. Money is far, far better! It's easier to "transport" to the disaster area. And sending money helps stimulate the local economy in the disaster area-because monetary gifts will be spent locally at a critical time when the local economy is itself another "victim" of the disaster. See below for the best ways to share financial gifts with disaster victims.

Third, resist the urge to gather up a troupe of volunteers, rent a bus or van, and simply head down to Texas or Louisiana. That's the best way to add to the disaster rather than offer the relief that is needed. Ask yourself: "Whose needs am I trying to meet? The needs of the victims? Or my own needs to 'be helpful' or 'do something.'" STOP. LOOK. LISTEN. BREATHE. AND WAIT until the time is right and the disaster area can receive your gifts of time, energy and expertise.

Here's what our friends in the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA are telling us TODAY: "When the time comes for response and clean up work, if your church would like to send out muck-out teams, we will be helping to coordinate efforts when that time arrives."

Fourth, stay informed about what's actually happening "on the ground." I advise you (or someone your congregation designates) to check the following websites frequently in the months to come:

TEXAS-LOUSIANA GULF COAST SYNOD ELCA: https://gulfcoastsynod.org/hurricane-harvey/

SOUTHWESTERN TEXAS SYNOD: http://www.swtsynod.org/

Thank you for your deep care and concern for all the folks affected by Hurricane Harvey. God bless your faithful, heartfelt, thoughtful, timely efforts to make a difference!