Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Healthy Congregations Leaders Provide Immune Capacities

“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” I Corinthians 15:58

This column’s title is curious. “Now what’s he talking about?” you might wonder. Immune capacities? Say what?

Let me be clear: this is not hard to understand in the cold and flu season. Some of us, myself included, have already wrestled with one “bug” this autumn. It’s miserable, right? And those viruses sure can hang on!

So here’s the question: What causes infections? The quick, obvious answer is: germs or “bugs”—right? But that’s really only half of the reason. The other reason is that we are vulnerable hosts. We get sick when two things happen: a virus attacks AND our immune capacities are “down.”

Our bodies are always being assaulted by viruses, germs, cancer cells. If that’s all that caused illness, we’d be sick all the time. But fortunately our bodies have wondrous defense systems that ward off the bugs. And, thankfully, most of the time our immune systems are strong and sturdy. But when they weaken—when we grow weary or malnourished in any way—opportunistic invaders can gain a foothold.

The same holds true in congregations. Congregations face multiple threats every moment of every day. Some of these are large and easily identified: demographic decline, economic recession, a neutral if not hostile culture, etc. Other threats come in the back door, though. The “cells” (members) of the Body of Christ can act like viruses, attacking the host.

I’m not just talking about specific individuals in the church—although there are persons who fit the bill. “Persistent troublemakers” can be found in every congregation.

But even more seriously, there are virus-like traits that all of us display from time to time. We all have moments when our anxieties overflow into the Christian community. We’re all tempted to form “triangles,” bypassing the person we need to speak with and conversing instead with a third party. We all, on occasion, operate secretly rather than openly and above-board.

There are enough obstacles and viruses assaulting the congregation to make it sick most of the time. But, thankfully, our congregations are not sick all the time. Why is that? It’s because God protects us from such viruses, largely through the leaders God raises up in each congregation.
Leaders provide immune capacities in the Body of Christ. Leaders resist forces that undermine a congregation, forces that take our eyes off God’s mission, forces that tempt us to act in under-handed ways. God graciously gives us leaders who are “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord” (I Cor. 15:58).

But “immovable” doesn’t always sound like a good thing, does it? We associate being immovable with being inflexible—and that’s not always good in a leader, is it? The kind of immovability the apostle Paul speaks of, though, is about holding the line against forces that threaten Christ’s church. In I Corinthians 15 Paul is defending the reality of the resurrection in the Christian life. It doesn’t get more basic or foundational than that! Leaders provide immune capacities when they are clear and “immovable” about what God’s word and God’s mission is for us—and when they’re willing to resist any and all forces that threaten that. That’s a wonderful sort of “immovability.”

But what does such “immovable” leadership look like or sound like? Imagine some brief exchanges between a virus-bearer (V) and an immovable leader (L):

V: “Some of us are having a secret meeting to talk about problems with our church staff.” L: “Isn’t that why we have a Personnel Committee. Why don’t you take your concerns to them, or better yet, speak directly to the staff members who trouble you?”

V: “If our congregation starts this new worship service, I know some members will leave.” L: “I’m sad to hear that. But we’ve been carefully considering the new worship service for a long time. It will enhance our ministry, and as a congregation we have decided to do this for the sake of our witness in the world.”

V: “I’m so worried about the economic recession! We need to cut our spending and stop giving away so much money to missions beyond our congregation.” L: “Now is not the time to panic. God has not abandoned us. God is still blessing us. We need to act out of our hopes, not our fears.”

Do you see how, in each of these examples, leaders increase the “immune capacities” of congregations? It’s amazing! Thank God for leaders who know when to be flexible and when to be “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord.”

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

1. Reflect on your own experience with illness and your immune system. When are you most vulnerable to a cold or flu bug? How do you shore up your bodily immune capacities?

2. Recall a time when you or someone you know acted like a “virus” in your congregational system. What was the outcome? Did the “virus” encounter a steadfast, immovable leader—and, if so, what happened?

3. Why is it challenging for leaders to provide immune capacities in the congregations they serve? How can we encourage such leadership in our communities of faith?

This is the ninth of an 11-part series of articles, based on the Healthy Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke. Bishop Larry encourages church councils and other leadership groups to use these articles for devotions/discussion as they meet together.

Monday, November 17, 2008

High-Roller Stewardship

Grace Lutheran Church, Ada, MN
November 16, 2008
Stewardship Sunday—Pentecost 27
Matthew 25:14-30

One Sunday morning, about this time of the year, Pastor Olson told his congregation that he had bad news, good news and bad news for them.

“First, here’s the first BAD NEWS,” said the pastor. "Our church’s furnace has died and needs to be replaced immediately."

“But now the GOOD NEWS,” Pastor Olson continued: "We have more than enough money to do the job!"

Then he offered the second bit of BAD NEWS, though: "All that money is still in your pockets!”

Now as I look at it--this story makes for good humor, but lousy theology.

This story is good for a chuckle–but it’s at least two-thirds wrong when it comes to theology–when it comes to helping us make sense out of things in light of the Word of God.

That’s why I like to re-tell this story--not as a BAD NEWS/GOOD NEWS/BAD NEWS story--but as a GOOD NEWS/GOOD NEWS/GOOD NEWS story!

I prefer to think of this as a GOOD NEWS story: good news times three!

GOOD NEWS: "The furnace has died and needs to be replaced immediately." Which is to say: God is sending us a challenge, an opportunity…

God’s got some more work for us to do, to keep us out of mischief while we await his New Creation. God’s got another job for us to tackle while we get ready for the final coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Broken furnaces, third graders needing Bibles, hungry bellies, ears itching for the gospel—all those "problems" that confront us are also always challenges to ministry, opportunities for mission.

Hidden beneath every problem we encounter is the call of God to go deeper, step up, move out, and forge ahead!

So, this morning here at Grace, what are the problems that are on your minds?

How about: “Entering a time of staff transition, getting used to an interim pastor, and calling a new pastor?”

What else troubles you right now? Are you concerned about the crops our farmers are still trying to get out of their fields? Are you worried that church offerings might not keep up with expenses? Are you wondering how the global financial crisis might impact us all?

There are, to be sure, plenty of problems out there—plenty of good reasons to lose sleep.

But the faith question is this: how do we think about these problems? Do we imagine them to be only problems—or are they something else?

“GOOD NEWS—we have to replace our church furnace.”

Good news? How could that be? It sounds like a problem—surely not an opportunity!

That’s how the third slave in this parable from Matthew 25 would have seen it, I think.

His buddies–the first two slaves--were tickled pink to be given chances to turn a big profit with their master’s money.

But the third slave saw all that as nothing but trouble–trouble that paralyzed him into inaction, burying his master’s money rather than taking any risks with it.

When we see only problems or calamities, we miss out on how in and through those circumstances God might be calling us to something bigger.

One of the very wise pastors in our synod made a comment recently that I will not soon forget. He said that when Jesus told his followers that we will always have the poor with us—Jesus wasn’t complaining about a problem or making a dire prediction….but rather: Jesus was uttering a promise!

Jesus promised you and me that there would always be poor folks among us, so that we’ll never run out of opportunities to respond to them as children of a God who frees us to be generous.

So—“GOOD NEWS: the furnace is busted.” Or, if you prefer, complete that sentence any other way, inserting whatever problem is foremost on your mind.

But that’s just the beginning…

“GOOD NEWS: We have more than enough money to fix the furnace,” as Pastor Olson told his congregation. Whatever the challenge or opportunity that’s out there, the resources are here–in abundance!

That’s because God is the source of all that we are and all that we have–and God doesn’t know the meaning of the word “stingy.”

In the Parable of the Talents, this breath-taking abundance of God is represented by the fabulous sums of money the master leaves behind with his three slaves.

For example, before he goes away on his long journey the master leaves five talents with the first slave. That’s 75 years of wages or nearly $3.3 million[1] in our day, here in Norman County.

Such overflowing wealth in this parable–it’s like a bell going off! It’s a clue, a sure sign, that the master in this parable represents none other than God!

For no one is more generous than God.

God has held back nothing from us–not even the precious life of his only beloved Son, given up to death on a Cross for you and for me.

If God has given us Jesus, God has given us the very best–and then some! God has given us Jesus. And God has given us everything else--with Jesus!

God has given us everything we need to do the work God has called us to. I really believe that–and I hope you do, too.

Dear friends of Grace Lutheran, you can meet and exceed your goals for financial stewardship, all in the service of God’s mission for you. God has lavished on us all the time we need, all the abilities we need, all the resources we need to get God’s work done.

The first GOOD NEWS: "The furnace is dead and we need to replace it—God’s given us this opportunity to invest in our life and ministry.”

The second GOOD NEWS: "We have more than enough money to meet all our goals in mission and ministry—because God knows only one way of giving: abundantly, lavishly, unreservedly!

And here’s the third GOOD NEWS from our friend Pastor Olson: "The money is still in your pockets!"

That’s good news–not bad news, dear friends!

The resources are at your disposal–you get to free them up.

What awesome trust God places in our hands! God lets us be trustees, the managers, the caretakers of all that God possesses.

God trusts us to make wise and generous choices with all that we have.

God could have done otherwise. God could simply extract our offerings by force. God could choose to levitate our wallets or do a little Star Trek "beaming up" of our dollars. God could do his own “automatic withholding” of a portion of our paychecks.

But instead, like the master in the parable who went on a journey and turned over everything to his slaves, God recklessly grants us the freedom in Jesus Christ to do the right thing with our cash and with everything else that we have.

God trusts us to care for our own needs and the needs of those who depend on us...

…even as God counts on us to see to it that his great rescue and renewal mission in our world moves ahead unimpeded.

GOOD NEWS: “The money (for all of that mission and ministry)—the money is in your pockets!”

God wouldn’t have it any other way.

This morning I believe God is sitting on the edge of his seat, waiting to see what we’re going to do with this abundance.

And what God is looking for isn’t just an abundant response from us. God is waiting with baited breath to catch the twinkle of delight in our eyes when we give back some of what has been lavished upon us.

God gets a kick out of that! As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “God loves it when the giver delights in the giving.” (The Message)

God gets a charge out of some of his own generosity rubbing off on us.

One of my favorite quotes in this regard comes from the late, great Eleanor Roosevelt: “Every day do at least one thing that scares you.”

Every day do at least one thing that scares you!

What an exciting way to live—like the trusting master, like the first two slaves in the parable—those “high rollers”, those risk-takers, wheeling and dealing with their master’s money!

That’s how God calls you and me to live—and how God calls us to give. “Every day, do at least one thing that scares you!”

God, who is in the risk-taking business--God who risked it all for you and me at the Cross–God continues to take the risk of leaving the money in our pockets–so confident is God that, living as his generous people, we will do the right thing with all that we have and all that we are.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.
[1] $43,814 (average household income for Norman County in 2003) times 75, i.e. 15 years wages per talent times 5 talents in the parable.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Expecting the Unexpected

New Hope Lutheran Church, Alvarado, MN
November 9, 2008
Matthew 25:1-13

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

You never know when Jesus will show up. That was, is, and always will be true….until God brings in the New Creation!

You never know when Jesus will show up. No one was looking for him or expecting him when he first showed up in Bethlehem’s stable. Most folks “miss” Jesus when he graciously comes to them in his Word and in his Supper. Jesus is always surprising us when he appears among us in the form of the lost, the last and the least.

And at the End of Days, when Jesus returns one last time, chances are just about everyone will be surprised.

Jesus comes in his own way, in his own place and in his own sweet time--and he usually catches us by surprise.

So how, then, might we want to live in the face of that fact?

This morning’s gospel reading offers at least one response. “The kingdom of heaven will be like this….” So begins this parable of the Ten Bridesmaids.

The future tense here is worth noticing. Many of Jesus’ parables are framed in the present tense: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…”

But here we’re dealing with what “will be.” Christians have taken this to be a parable about Jesus’ Final Coming among us, though I believe it imparts deep wisdom about every time Jesus comes to us in the near future, as well as in God’s final future.

The kingdom of heaven will be like this. It will be like a wedding celebration, in which ten bridesmaids were called upon to escort the bridegroom to meet his beloved bride.

Now, we don’t know everything we‘d like to know about wedding customs in 1st century Palestine. But we do know that they were big affairs involving all sorts of folks and lasting not just for a few hours but for days.

There was also a lack of specificity about just when these wedding celebrations began. They didn’t have anything like the “atomic clock” I keep by my bedside—a clock that actually syncs itself up continually with a satellite orbiting the earth!

No, far from it! People “told time” differently in the 1st century. You might receive a vaguely-worded invitation telling you the approximate day and hour of the wedding feast, but all of that was subject to change down the line. You would be summoned—you would receive a more updated invitation when the wedding was actually beginning.

This was true even for members of the wedding party. Ten young women, the bridegroom’s entourage, outfitted themselves to lead the festal procession from the bridegroom’s home to the bride’s home. Day or night, rain or shine, they would lead the wedding march—their lamps ablazing!

But the bridegroom was delayed, so the bridesmaids had to cool their heels, and the minutes dragged into hours, and pretty soon night was falling and every last one of the bridesmaids had drifted off to sleep.

At midnight they woke up with a start. The bridegroom had arrived. And not a moment too soon, either, because the lamps the ten virgins had been carrying were all burning low—their oil supplies nearly exhausted.

When five of the girls drew out reserve oil flasks to replenish their lamps, the other five girls asked if they might “borrow” some oil—they had forgotten to bring their own backup supplies.

But they were rebuffed by the wise, prepared bridesmaids: “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”

That response sounds cruel at first, but keep in mind that the bridesmaids weren’t serving themselves. They were serving the bridegroom. Their job was to light his way to find his bride. Sharing the extra oil the five wise virgins had brought along meant that none of them would do what they had been called to do.

So you know how it ends. The five foolish maidens traipsed to the oil sellers, and by the time they arrived at the wedding hall, the doors were shut and the gates were barred. They were too late—and the bridegroom wasn’t in a “let bygones be bygones” mood. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

What shall we take away from this parable? Here’s Jesus’ own conclusion: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

But is this story really about “staying awake?” All ten of the bridesmaids, after all, drifted off into slumberland. All ten of them—the wise and the foolish—fell asleep when the bridegroom was delayed.

What mattered wasn’t so much that they fell asleep, but what they did when they were awakened. And that depended on the preparations they had made before they fell asleep. The parable seems to be more about preparation than about “staying awake,” doesn’t it?

Preparation, or lack thereof, is what separated the wise from the foolish virgins here in the story. What did the wise virgins do to make them “wise?” They prepared for all sorts of possibilities. They made no assumptions about the morrow. They loaded themselves for bear, ready to meet whatever the future might hold. Rather than living for the moment, they anticipated all that might lay ahead—including, it would seem, the delay of the bridegroom.

The five foolish maidens had a flash-in-the-pan faith. They assumed the bridegroom was already on his way. Extra oil would only slow them down!

I think the question the parable poses to you and me is this: is ours a flash-in-the-pan faith, or a faith for the long haul—a faith that keeps us on the edges of our seats, every moment of every day?

Jesus will come again, of that we can be sure. Jesus will come again, every time the bread and wine of the Supper is served up, surrounded by Jesus’ own promise that he is there for us—there in the meal, there in the Word that makes the meal.

Jesus will come again, every time our neighbor in need turns to us, seeking our assistance. We’ll hear more about this two weeks from today, on Christ the King Sunday. Jesus our King will tell us, in no uncertain terms, that when we cared for the “least of these” we cared for him. Jesus meets us in the lost, the last and the least.

And Jesus will come again, one Final time, when God finishes his New Creation. This old creation, this dying age, will give way to God’s final future. The saving work God in Christ began at the cross will reach its goal, its destination, in a New Heaven and a New Earth.

The question this morning’s parable poses to you and me is this: how will we meet our Lord Jesus whenever he comes to us? How will we, how do we prepare for Jesus to show up in all the ways he shows up?

And that is the question, not of our salvation, which is sure in Jesus Christ. It is the question of our discipleship, our faithful following of the one who has fully saved us, in the here and now and in the future yet to unfold.

What does it look like to be prepared for Jesus’ coming amongst us? Maybe it looks like this.

It means practicing “sitting on the edges of our seats.” Jesus is arisen, nevermore to die again. God is alive and well and active among us. Being prepared means living in expectation that God has things in store for us right here in Alvarado, Minnesota. Your congregation, even at age 25, is still quite young in Christ. God has lots in store for you—God invites you to approach his future with hope and expectation and imagination.

Being prepared for Christ’s coming means faith-fully pondering everyone and everything that comes our way. It means persistently asking faith-filled questions, like: “What might God be trying to tell me right now? How might Jesus be meeting me in my neighbor”

Being prepared for Christ’s coming among us means tossing out most of our assumptions and living purely by faith. God alone knows when Jesus will show up next. It might be sooner, or it might be later. “Reserve oil,” for you and for me, involves patience with God’s timetable.

What does it look like to be prepared for Jesus’ coming amongst us?
It means expecting the unexpected. I know that sounds goofy—if you expect the unexpected, is it still “unexpected?” But maybe this is a truth we have to feel, more than we need to think about. Feel deep in your bones this profound truth about how Jesus comes to us: Jesus comes to us in his sovereign freedom, in moments when we least expect him, in utterly gracious encounters that always, always make us new!

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

In Healthy Congregations, Leaders Challenge People

In Healthy Congregations, Leaders Challenge People

“Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10:21-22

Do you ever wonder what it would be like to converse with Jesus, face to face? The gospels offer some pretty strong clues about how Jesus related to people. For one thing, Jesus seems utterly comfortable in his own skin—he knows who he is and what he is about. Jesus also is “transparent” and brutally honest with others. If I were in a conversation with Jesus I’d expect him to look me right in the eye and say exactly what he’s thinking, even if that troubled me.

This means that Jesus can comfort or challenge others, depending on what they most need. In the familiar story of the rich man (quoted above), Jesus has an extended conversation with an earnest fellow who hankers for eternal life. He knows his Bible, but he lacks one thing. Gazing deeply into his heart, Jesus challenges him to give up the only thing standing between him and full life in God’s Reign: his possessions.

Jesus did not hesitate to challenge this man on the profound subject of wealth. Jesus upset the man’s equilibrium by naming the “elephant in the room.” Did Jesus do this simply to be provocative or unnerving? No. The text says that, just before Jesus issued his challenge, he looked at the man and “loved him” (Mark 17:21)

Leaders in Christ’s church love God’s people enough to look them right in the eyes and name uncomfortable truths. Leaders of disciples don’t shirk from upsetting the equilibrium in their relationships with others—even to the point of challenging them to address issues and respond healthily to changing circumstances.

Of course, we’d never need to challenge one another if two things were true: 1. if sin and its effects did not exist, and 2. if nothing ever changed. But because sin persists, because change is relentless, and because we live our lives trying to ignore these realities—we need to be challenged to “wake up and smell the coffee.”

In healthy congregations leaders challenge people. Indeed, that is a central role for leaders—to be “challengers.” This is not for the faint-of-heart, however. Most of us (myself included) would rather avoid rocking the boat. But that “strategy” works only in a perfect world!

So in this imperfect world, where things are always changing, effective leaders of Christian communities will be “challengers.” What does that look like, though?
Such leaders realize that people naturally react to change, which usually provokes anxiety in the congregation. Such anxiety is a normal reaction to change; the issue is how this anxiety is managed.
Such leaders understand people’s natural desire to get rid of anxiety at any cost. As Peter Steinke puts it, “Instead of analyzing the circumstance, seeking clarity, exploring a number of responses, and planning new directions, the congregation is overfocused on its discomfort.”
Such leaders cultivate the capacity to tolerate pain both in themselves and in others. Rather than making decisions on the basis of other persons’ current “emotional temperature,” healthy leaders function on the basis of their beliefs and convictions.

Such healthy leaders are also able to take the long view of things. They realize that if others initially resist being challenged—things may change down the line. Mark 10:17-22 ends with the rich man walking away from Jesus “grieving.” But are we sure that’s how his story finally ended? What if our Lord’s stark challenge planted a seed in the rich man’s heart that took days, weeks, months or even years to “germinate?” We may never know the answer to that question. But we certainly do see congregations that flourish because they had tenacious, far-sighted leaders willing to issue mission-driven challenges that did eventually bear good fruit.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

Questions for reflection and discussion
1. Recall a time when you or your congregation were challenged by a Christian leader. How did you or your congregation respond to this challenge? What were the outcomes of this encounter?
2. What forces are producing anxiety in your congregation right now? How is your church responding to changes that are coming your way?
3. Assess your own ability, as a leader, to tolerate pain in yourself or in others. What impact does your “pain tolerance threshold” have on your ability to lead your congregation?

This is the eighth of an 11-part series of articles, based on the Healthy Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke. Bishop Larry encourages church councils and other leadership groups to use these articles for devotions/discussion as they meet together.

Where Will This All End?

All Saints Sunday–November 2, 2008
Dedication of Elevator
Bethel Lutheran Church, Herman, MN
Revelation 7:9-17

In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Where will this all end?
Ever ask yourself that question?
Where will this all end?
When will the two wars we’re waging in the Middle East ever end? When will we–if ever?–be able to relax once again, take a deep breath and live in peace?
Where will this all end?
All the ups and downs of the last month’s economic crisis? When will we be able to trust again–to trust that our economy is back on track?
Where will this all end?
All the campaign 2008 bickering, mud-slinging and political posturing? What good, if any, will come of it all after Tuesday, Nov. 4th comes and goes?
Where will all this end?
Where will all our successes, all our accomplishments, all our goals attained, all our achievements–where will all of that get us? To what end, toward what purpose are we progressing?
Where will all this end?
Each of us could easily add our own personal “take” on this question. Each of us has a work situation or a school predicament or a failed relationship or a troubled child or a sick relative or something else gnawing away at us, forcing us to ask: Where and when will this all end?
In the trials and tribulations that sooner or later come to us all...we wonder how things that seem so awful now can ever resolve themselves...we wonder whether anything that begins as painfully and despairingly as this or that...can ever possibly end in happiness or hope.
Where will this all end? What's the world coming to?
“Well, I'll tell you,” responds John the Seer, John the Visionary as he testifies to us in our First Lesson on this All Saints Sunday.
Where will this all end? we ask.
“I'll tell you where it ends,” answers John in Revelation chapter 7.
“It ends at the heavenly throne of God... ends in a white-robed multi-national, multi-racial, multi-lingual multitude that cannot be counted... ends in the confession that God alone deserves blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might... ends in a liturgy without benediction or dismissal... ends in a life no longer marked by the deprivations and ordeals we know here below.... ends under the shelter of the heavenly throne, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.
Where will this all end?
“It ends,” declares John here in the Book of Revelation, “it ends in God who reverses all our ends in God who brings hope out of every hurt.”
Such language has, unfortunately, become foreign in today’s church.
We have immunized ourselves against such talk about heavenly hope.
We've been taught to regard such visions with suspicion--even with disdain.
“That’s just pie in the sky in the sweet by and by," we mutter, dismissing visions like John's here in our first lesson.
"Christians are too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly use," jaded skeptics like to say.
Talk about heaven too much and something awful could happen--people might actually want to go there...abandoning prematurely the struggle for peace and justice and solidarity and a better world.
That criticism, though, gets it dead wrong.
In its valid concern for faithful life in this world...that criticism robs us of the very hope that makes faithful earthly life possible.
Having a heavenly hope doesn't encourage escapism from earth.
"Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" the elder asks of John in our text...and then the elder answers his own question: "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal..."
This great host...this mighty multitude here in Revelation 7...these are no escapists, no play-it-safe cowards, no ethical quietists who turned tail and ran, who bailed out when the going got tough.
These are the tough ones, the witnesses, the martyrs who walked through the tribulation....who made their way through the fiery ordeal...who confessed Christ faithfully, who lived the Christ-life the face of massive opposition.
They have every right to be singing: "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."
But they don't.
Instead their heavenly anthem is: "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
This multitude here in Revelation 7, these saints around the throne owe it all to the Lamb...not a warm, fuzzy, snow-white Easter lamb...but the bruised and bloodied Calvary lamb...the Good Friday lamb who was slain....the Lamb who sits now upon heaven’s highest throne!
Having a heavenly hope doesn't cause us to discount life here on earth.
On the contrary: only those with a sturdy hope in the life to come can keep faith with this creation...can continue to care for this good earth and all its we await God's new day.
Years ago, in a Christian Century magazine article....a professor of the scriptures observed how the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, standing on the verge of the exile, spent nine whole chapters of his book describing in excruciating detail the new temple, the new land and the new Jerusalem that would come some day...after the period of old Israel’s captivity had ended.
The prophet Ezekiel described this vision of what lay ahead in great detail....not to provide emotional escape for the exiles....but to give them a hope they could lean into...a hope that could draw them forward.
John's magnificent vision in the Book of Revelation does the same thing for us.
Rather than giving us a respite from the so-called “real world”....these verse draw us forward, give us a hope that we can live into....a hope that attracts us like a magnet toward God's new as we must through this world with all the ordeals and tribulations that are here.
God in Christ graciously gives us a hope that we can live into, a hope that draws us toward God’s own future.
God in Christ promises us, his beloved children, that the day is coming when it won’t matter what nation or tribe or people or language we belong to.
· That hope frees us and all people to start living now as though such unity is already ours.
God in Christ promises us, his dear offspring, that the day is coming when we’ll be utterly clean, when we’ll no longer be warped, curved in on ourselves.
· That hope frees us to start living now as though sin doesn’t have a future with us.
God in Christ promises us, his precious people, that hunger and thirst and scorching heat will one day cease.
· That hope frees us to start living already as if such fullness and plenty is our destiny and the destiny of all persons.
God in Christ promises us, his treasured ones, that the day is coming when we’ll never wander, never get lost again.
· That hope draws us boldly onto the path that is ours, enticing us to start living now as if Christ already were guiding us to springs of the water of life.
God in Christ promises us, his ransomed and redeemed ones, that the day is coming when we can forever put aside our handkerchiefs and funeral clothes.
· That hope draws us, even now, to start living as though tears are in fact becoming a thing of the past.
Now I suppose someone walking in here off the street could listen to all of this and say: All of this is just a bunch of escapism and wishful thinking and "Pie in the sky in the sweet by and by?"
Yes, I suppose someone could call it that.
But, look around you, here on this All Saints Sunday. If you’re so heavenly-minded as to be of no earthly use, I’m sure not seeing the evidence of it!
Look around. What do you see? I see people praising God joyfully, drinking in the Word that will guide you in the next seven days. I see young and old growing in God’s Good News in Jesus Christ. I see a congregation living out its hope in this world—testifying, serving, upholding one another, embracing your neighbors in this corner of the creation.
I see a congregation that has made a fabulous down payment on your future, in the form of this elevator that we’re dedicating today…an elevator that will expand access to this congregation, to your worship and to your whole life together in Jesus Christ.
Your hope in Jesus Christ has not dulled you, has not gotten you so stuck on heaven that you have left this earth behind. Far from it! Your hope in Christ is what fires your imagination and opens up your arms and makes you love and care for all the neighbors God has given to you. Your hope, in Jesus Christ, is so powerful that it’s shaping your present on the basis of all the good things God surely will give you in his great and final future.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Healthy Congregations Thrive With Healthy Leadership

Healthy Congregations Thrive With Healthy Leadership

“Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?" Esther 4:14 (NIV)

The Book of Esther tells the compelling story of a Jewish woman, Esther (4th century, B.C.), who used her position in the harem of the king of Persia to prevent the genocide of her people. To do this, Esther had to risk her very life!

Esther is unique in that it’s the only book of the Bible that doesn’t explicitly mention God. And yet it’s impossible to read Esther without perceiving the guiding hand of God at work, raising up a powerful leader at the right moment, “for such a time as this.”

God is always doing that—calling forth leaders in the right place, at the right time, with the right gifts. Over the past year I have witnessed this a number of times in congregations of our synod. I recall, in particular, a couple of congregational presidents who, simply by virtue of the who they were and how they conducted themselves, helped keep parish crises from spinning out of control.

What makes for such healthy leadership? It’s tempting to think that leaders have special knowledge, extraordinary skills or magnetic personalities. But, as Dr. Peter Steinke points out in his Healthy Congregations training materials, leaders promote health in congregations primarily through their presence and functioning.

Steinke lists 26 attributes of such leaders. Let me highlight four of these attributes:

1. Healthy leaders know who they are. They are comfortable in their own skins and don’t hesitate to define themselves for others. They are anything but chameleons or “shape-hifters.” They resist being squeezed into other persons’ molds or preconceived notions of what a leader should be.

2. Healthy leaders take responsibility for their own actions. They know they can’t be responsible for how others function. They are self-aware, able to take criticism, willing to accept the consequences of their decisions

3. Healthy leaders regulate their own anxieties. They can move calmly, patiently, deliberately within an anxious church environment. They resist picking up the “virus” of worry or desperation. God graces them with the ability to weigh alternatives, think clearly, and act responsively.

4. Healthy leaders stay connected with others—including those absorbed by anxiety or those stirring up mischief in the congregation. Such leaders listen to others, creating space and time for respectful conversations. But they do not allow the mission to be thwarted or the congregation to be highjacked by persons with narrow agendas.

We’ve all seen how highly reactive persons can spread anxiety throughout a congregation—almost as if anxiety were a virus. But the same holds true for health in the congregation. Healthy leaders “spread” health throughout the system as they influence others to take responsible stands, keep focused on God’s mission, remain calm in adversity and stay connected with each other through thick and thin. Thank God for such servants in our midst!

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

Questions for reflection and discussion:
Recall effective church leaders you have known. How did they contribute to the health of the congregation through their presence and functioning?
What leadership gifts has God given to you? What are your “growing edges” as a leader?
How does your congregation identify, call forth and nurture healthy leaders?

This is the seventh of an 11-part series of articles, based on the Healthy Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke. Bishop Larry encourages church councils and other leadership groups to use these articles for devotions/discussion as they meet together.

Jesus Gets Us Unstuck

Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead
50th Anniversary—Reformation Sunday
October 26, 2008
John 8:31-36

Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free”?’

Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

When I was in high school many moons ago, I (like your own Pastor Matt the birthday boy) was a member of FFA, which according to one wag, meant “Father Farms Alone.”

One of the things we Future Farmers of America in southern Minnesota did back in the early 1970s was to raise pheasants on our farms for release back into the wild. We did that because, due to a loss of habitat, the wild pheasant population in our area had declined drastically And so we FFA members raised birds to restock the depleted pheasant population.

There was just one problem with that, though. It wasn’t hard to hatch pheasants, feed and water pheasants, and give pheasants a nice place to grow up in. The problem wasn’t at the front end of that process—the problem came at the very end.

Those crazy pheasants, you see, had a hard time catching on to that “release back into the wild” business! I still remember, one spring morning, being part of a bunch of blue-jacketed FFA boys, who had a couple of cages full of ready-to-release pheasants on the back of some guy’s pickup…..and when we lifted one of those cages down to the ground….when we opened the door of that cage, the birds just sat there.

They weren’t exactly longing for freedom. These wild creatures, who had grown accustomed to three square meals in a nice, warm, safe place….these pheasants clung to the sides of their cage and would not stride out into the sunlit freedom for which we had raised them.

So we FFA boys had to literally drag the pheasants out of their cages, shoo them away, and then run back to the pickup so the pheasants wouldn’t follow us back home.

So much for pheasant freedom, I guess!

And that gives us a picture of a broader, deeper truth…namely, that one of the crazy things about freedom is that sometimes you can’t give it away!

Jesus bumps up against that strange truth in this morning’s gospel reading from John, chapter 8.

Here in these verses, Jesus aches to give away the freedom that he has come to bestow upon the world….and yet his listeners, those “Jews who had believed in him” weren’t buying any of it. Like my old FFA pheasants, Jesus’ hearers clung desperately to the sides of their cages, they couldn’t see any good reason to step forth into the glorious freedom Jesus was talking about.

Who us? they asked Jesus….We don’t need freedom. You can’t free us from anything. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”

That last line is about as outrageous as the inflated promises we’re hearing daily in the waning days of this presidential campaign season. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.”

Such a statement could be true—only if you completely forgot slavery in Egypt, conquest by the Babylonians, exile by the Assyrians and every other episode in which God’s chosen people had CONSTANTLY been under some tyrant’s thumb. In fact, when Jesus and these Jews had their encounter, in that very moment, they were all under Roman rule, they were all in some sense “slaves” to the dictates of far-off Caesar.

Who us? Freedom? We don’t need to hear about that. “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone….”

….and denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, either!

This massive “disconnect,” this huge communication gap between Jesus and the “Jews who had believed in him”—this wasn’t just a “Jewish problem.” No, it was, and it still is a human problem.

None of us….not a single one of us….wants to imagine that we are not free. When we think of ourselves, we don’t use words like “slave” or “captive” or “prisoner.” That isn’t the self-image we carry around.

Freedom may be nice for someone else….but we don’t need any of it. We’re fine. We’re content. We’ve grown accustomed to things the way they are. What would we do with freedom?

It is precisely into this situation, into this human condition, that our Lord Jesus has come with a commission from his heavenly Father to set all the captives free. And so, right off the bat, Jesus almost always has to help us, first, see our need for freedom….just as he does here in John, chapter 8.

And so, face to face with these Jews who had believed in him, Jesus comes out and bluntly says it: “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”

Sin is something that we don’t just dabble in, from time to time, Jesus says. Sin is not a “take it or leave it” thing for us. No, but rather, sin is like eating potato chips. We tell ourselves we’re just going to have one or two or maybe three…and then just like that we’ve polished off the whole bag. Sin swamps us, sin washes over us, sin overwhelms us.

Jesus has to talk just that bluntly here because the first step toward freedom involves sizing up the cage we’re already in, perceiving how we’re clinging to the walls of a prison cell that will be the death of us.

Jesus starts setting us free by helping us first see our lack of freedom. And then Jesus doesn’t just talk about freedom. No—but rather, Jesus does freedom to us. Jesus makes us free.

Syndicated columnist Mark Steyn writes: “The other day I found myself, for the umpteenth time, driving in Vermont behind a…vehicle [proudly displaying on its rear bumper a FREE TIBET bumper sticker.] It must be great to be the guy with the printing contract for [those] 'FREE TIBET' [bumper] stickers. Not so good to be the guy back in Tibet wondering when the freeing [of his tiny nation] will actually get under way. For a while, my otherwise not terribly political wife got extremely irritated by these [bumper] stickers, demanding to know at a pancake breakfast at the local church what precisely some harmless hippy-dippy old neighbor of ours meant by the slogan he'd been proudly displaying [on his car] decade in, decade out: 'But what exactly are you doing to free Tibet?' she demanded. 'You're not doing anything, are you?' 'Give the guy a break,' I said back home. 'He's advertising his moral virtue, not calling for action. If [the U.S. secretary of defense] were to say, ‘Free Tibet? Jiminy, what a swell idea! The Third Infantry Division goes in on Thursday’, the bumper-sticker crowd would be aghast.”

God so loved the world that God didn’t shower down on it a billion bumper stickers that say FREE SINNERS!

God so loved the world that God sent his Son, who came among us to do something about our servitude, that is, to make us free. And…“If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Jesus came among us, not just liking the idea of freedom, but bringing freedom, doing freedom, marching into Satan’s stronghold and blasting open the doors of his dark dungeon. Such freedom was precious enough to our Lord Jesus, that he was willing—more than willing—to shed his blood for it, for you and for me.

And that’s what we’re about, dear friends. We’re about setting people free, in Jesus’ name.

When we’re at our best, we Lutherans know that and we do it “in spades.” On this Reformation Sunday, every year, we recommit ourselves to being agents of God’s freedom, just as Martin Luther did 491 years ago, when he nailed that manifesto to the door of the Wittenberg Church—a declaration of independence, a charter of freedom for generations to come.

You’re about that here at Christ the King. You’re in the freedom business. Folks come here, not fully realizing how they’re stuck in some cage, stuck in an addiction, stuck in a revolving door of rotten relationships, stuck in the illusion of respectability, stuck in “affluenza,” stuck in whatever it is we’re stuck in.

We come here stuck—and Jesus gets us unstuck. Jesus makes us free. Jesus frees us from our past. Jesus frees us for God’s future, and the grand mission that God is forever calling us to serve.

That’s what you’ve been doing so well for the past 50 years, it’s what you’re about, after all: setting sinners free in the name of Jesus. Mending lives back together again through the grace of Christ the King.

Two weeks ago I was at another 50th anniversary celebration, down at United Lutheran Church of Elbow Lake. And during the children’s sermon that morning I asked the kids whether 50 years was old or young. Most of the kids thought 50 years was pretty old…but one bright young man raised his hand and said: “Fifty is old….but in ‘church years,’ fifty is still pretty young.”

You’re still pretty young here at Christ the King. In fact, you’re far closer to the beginning than to the ending of your days. God has lots more in store for you. You aren’t going to run out of things to do anytime soon.

Because as long as anyone—anyone!—is frantically clinging to the wall of some cage or prison cell….as long as anyone is still stuck in sin, Jesus, the savior from sin, Christ the King in our midst, will be at work, setting us all free.

In the name of Jesus.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

No Empty Seats

United Lutheran Church, Elbow Lake, MN
50th Anniversary--October 12, 2008
Matthew 22:1-14
In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Lambeau Field in the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a holy place of sorts. Since 1960 every seat in Lambeau Field has been sold out for every Green Bay Packer home football game. Some 74,000 persons are on the waiting list for Green Bay Packer season tickets. The policy at Lambeau Field is: no empty seats!

So imagine a man who had waited a lifetime to go to a Packers home game, and when he finally got to do so (courtesy of a season-ticket-holder who couldn’t attend one Sunday afternoon), this man observed that the seat just in front of him was empty.

How could this be—an empty seat in Lambeau Field! At half-time the man finally worked up the gumption to ask the fellow sitting right next to the empty seat if he knew who normally sat there.

“Oh, that,” the man replied, “that was my late wife’s seat.”

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” the newcomer mumbled, feeling like a heel.

But still it bugged him….to have a single empty seat in Lambeau Field! It bugged him so badly that he spoke to the widower once again. “I know that you might want to remember your departed wife by leaving her seat vacant, but couldn’t you honor her memory just as well by inviting one of your dear friends to occupy that seat?”

“I suppose I could,” the widower replied, “but right now all my closest friends are still at my wife’s funeral.”

“No empty seats,” is the motto at Lambeau Field, and it clearly was the policy of the king in this parable.

His son, the crown prince, was getting married. A week’s worth of wedding festivities had been planned, and the invitation list had been painstakingly put together. Invitees were given advance notice of the days they should set aside.

And yet, when the hour of the wedding feast came, when the festivities were about to begin, all the invited ones turned out to be no-shows. Here it was a royal wedding, no less—people should have been falling all over each other to get in, but instead they all offered lame excuses when summoned to the wedding hall. Some were even downright offended by the intrusion of the king’s messengers, and a few of those messengers were-shockingly!—killed.

So the wedding feast was ready, the food was piping hot, and no one was showing up. The king was infuriated. After avenging the murderers of his messengers, he sent out his servants one more time, gathering up anyone and everyone they could find—“the good and the bad,” our text says.

And this time all the guests came—all the last minute invitees showed up, and the banquet hall was filled.

“No empty seats” was the king’s obsession and his goal, and he reached that goal—by hook or by crook.

And that tells us something about God, dear friends. God wants there to be “no empty seats” in God’s glorious kingdom. God is fiercely determined to fill every available space with his people, his chosen ones. God wants an SRO—standing room only—crowd around his throne.

And how about us? How do we feel about empty seats, say, in this sanctuary? Across the 270 congregations of our Northwestern Minnesota Synod only about 26% of our members are in worship each week. Imagine that: a church that seats 100 folks, drawing only 26 persons—that’s a lot of empty seats that the janitor needs to keep dusting off!

And worse than those empty seats is our complacency, our lackadaisicalness about them. We 21st century Lutherans have “made peace” with all the empty seats, we have acquiesced to that, we have accepted it much too glibly.

Think of it this way: what if we imagined each worship service as a sumptuous banquet, a veritable feast? What if (following the trajectory of this parable) we pictured Sunday morning worship as our own Old Country Buffet time? How would we feel if we regularly prepared food for 100 and 74 of them failed to show up? That’s a lot of Tupperware containers of leftovers we’d need to squeeze into the fridge! Wouldn’t it kill us to let all that good food go to waste?

And that, dear friends, is what’s happening all the time. For 50 years God has been serving up, each week in this congregation, a feast of mercy and grace and lovingkindness in Jesus Christ our Lord. God has been feeding you and those who came before you here at United Lutheran. The food that is served up here is nourishing, piping hot and delectable. It restores us and give us life.

But on a typical Sunday here in northwestern Minnesota, when the weekly banquet is ready—74% of us Lutherans are AWOL. 74% of us prefer starvation.

What if, dear friends, we rested a little less easily with that? What if we determined not to have anyone miss that meal? How might that fire our imaginations and move us out, like the king’s royal messengers, to invite and plead and cajole hungry people into eating the bread of life?

What if, dear sisters and brothers here at United Lutheran, what if you moved into the next 50 years of your congregation’s life, simply telling yourselves that you will no longer tolerate empty seats in God’s house? What if that even became part of your mission statement: No more empty seats?

But there’s another shorter parable tacked on to the parable of the wedding feast here in Matthew 22, a codicil of sorts, that at first seems awfully puzzling.

As the king surveys his filled-to-the-gills banquet hall, he spots a man not properly attired. Here’s what I think happened. The king invited all the wedding guests, made it possible for them to come, and even fitted each of them out with an appropriate wedding robe, as they entered the banqueting hall. It didn’t matter how dirty or filthy or tattered they were—the king would cover over all of that with a beautiful wedding robe, at no extra charge!

But one man brazenly snuck in in his old duds, the rags in which he felt most comfortable. He was making a “fashion statement” of sorts. It was his way of saying, in terms of his manner of dress, “take me just the way I am or take me not at all.”

And the king, to our great surprise, bounced the guy out into the street!

What’s going on here? Does this king want “no empty seats,” or not? Why would we invite this guy, only to evict him from the party? Was the king, after throwing open the doors to everyone, suddenly getting snooty?

Not at all! The king wanted to have mercy, wanted to share his generosity with all, right down to supplying them with a garment suitable for the occasion.

God accepts you and me, just the way we are—this is true. But God never leaves us “just the way we are.” God welcomes us to the banquet, and we can expect that that banquet will transform us, will make us new.

The man who turned up his nose at the offer of a free-rent wedding robe was, in effect, saying: I choose to enter and remain in my rags, my sin, my waywardness. And the king said: “Nothing doing. I want all of you—lock, stock and barrel. I want you and I intend to make of you a new creature.”

God wants no empty seats in God’s kingdom. God wants to fill all the seats in the banqueting hall. God welcomes you and me to the wedding feast—which is to say, God welcomes us to the transforming, renewing power of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

We will be changed by that. We will not be content to remain in our dirty old rags. We will long to wear the robe of righteousness, wrapped around us in our baptism. We will be glad—we will be overjoyed to wear the king’s gracious robe that covers over all our sinful brokenness and makes us clean and bright and new in God’s sight.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"Rhyming" Word and Deed

Dilworth Lutheran Church
60th Anniversary Celebration, “Growing Disciples”
September 28, 2008
Matthew 21:23-32

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I’d like to do something sort of strange this morning. I’m going to start by telling you how this sermon ends. It ends with this line: “God loves to wrap words in flesh and blood. God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

Let me say that again, the conclusion to this sermon: “God loves to wrap words in flesh and blood. God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

OK, that’s the end of this sermon. Now, back to the beginning.

Jesus is in the hot-seat here in Matthew 21, as he often is in the gospels. Jesus has been making a stir among the people, riding into Jerusalem like a king, angrily clearing all the merchants out of the Temple, cursing a fig tree so that it withers at once.

Jesus is making a scene, and the religious leaders of his people are understandably nervous. Like the dithering school board members in that old Broadway play The Music Man, always trying to get Professor Harold Hill to fork over his “credentials,” the Jerusalem religious establishment demand that Jesus show his ID and tender his resume.

“By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they ask, and it is a very legitimate question. It’s the kind of question they should be asking, even as we wary voters, in this presidential election year are only smart to ask the same thing of Senators McCain and Obama. Show us your credentials, please!

But Jesus isn’t answering this question, at least not directly. He seems to dodge it by asking his own question: What did they make of the now-dead John the Baptist? Where did he get his authority—from God or from human beings?

It’s a no-win question for these religious leaders. If they say that John represented God’s authority, everyone will wonder why these religious leaders opposed John. But if they say that John was just another ordinary human being, they’ll risk upsetting the common folk for whom John had become a hero whose image continued to shine long after his martyrdom.

So Jesus’ accusers back off. Staring nervously at their feet, they mumble: “We don’t know where John’s authority came from”—basically the equivalent of: “No comment!”

Jesus knew they’d answer that way. And so Jesus uses his accusers’ “no comment” to justify his own refusal to answer their question. He wasn’t about to tell them how he got the power to do and say what he’d been doing and saying.

It seems like Jesus was ducking the question his accusers posed. Or was it that Jesus simply didn’t want to TELL his accusers about the source of his authority. For Jesus had another way of dealing with that. Jesus almost always preferred to let his actions do the talking for him.

…which is the point of the little parable Jesus tells next. It’s about as simple and straightforward as any of Jesus’ parables.

A man has two sons. He asks one to go work in the family vineyard, and the son replies: “Bug off, old man. I’ve got better things to do!” (You’ll notice, I’m taking a few liberties with the text…)

But this first son, after a while, feels crummy about what he said to his dear old dad, and so heaving a big sigh, the son puts on his work clothes and heads out to the vineyard. He does the opposite of what he said he’d do.

Meanwhile, thinking he struck out with his first son, the father turns to his second son and asks him to go work in the vineyard. “Sure, Dad, I’ll get right on it as soon as I finish this video game…” (I’m still taking a few liberties with the text…)

But the video game (or whatever else was distracting the second son) takes longer than he imagined, and by that point he has lost interest in obeying his father, and in fact he never makes it to the vineyard. Like the first son, the second son also does the opposite of what he said he’d so.

And so Jesus asks the Jerusalem religious elite: “Which of the two did the will of his father?” And the answer is obvious: only the first son actually did his father’s will.

And with that answer still on their lips, Jesus nails the religious authorities of Jerusalem with this inconvenient truth: “You guys are just like the second son. You talk a good line, but your actions betray you. You say a loud YES to God, but your lives are a huge NO. And meanwhile, the scum of the earth—the ones you look down your long noses at!—they are ‘getting it.’ Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

What is Jesus after here? What is he seeking?

Jesus is seeking a congruence, a correspondence, a “rhyming” of word and deed. That’s because Jesus is speaking for God, indeed Jesus is speaking as God here. And God just “loves to wrap words in flesh and blood…God loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

But wait a minute. We Lutherans love words and make much of faith—faith that grasps God’s promises. We’re skittish about doing stuff, leery of “works.” We know that nothing we do can make us right with God, after all.

So, we Lutherans are queasy about what Jesus is up to here in Matthew 21, because Jesus almost seems to de-value our words, our verbal professions of faith.

And yet, and yet, must we pit words against works, faith versus deeds in order to be good little Lutherans? Martin Luther himself once said of faith that it is “a living, busy, active, and mighty thing” (LW 35:370). And Luther himself showed again and again how God’s Word is always more than letters on a page, always more than mere talk. God’s Word is living and active, forgiving our past and forging our future. God’s Word is always, always more than syllables.

In Jesus, after all, God’s Word—God’s “I love you”—became flesh and lived among us (John 1). In Jesus, God’s grace and truth came alive in energy and action….going all the way to the Cross and the Grave for you and for me. God could have mailed us a love letter, but instead God sent us Jesus.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, God sends us, to be his own continuing “love letters” to a hurting, hungry world. We call that discipleship—hence your anniversary theme, “Growing Disciples”—and discipleship involves correlating, “rhyming” words with deeds in the most natural, indeed inevitable way.

When Martin Luther called faith a “living, busy, active, and mighty thing” it’s as if he were saying that faith is hyper-active. It’s in the nature of faith to snap, crackle and pop with life and vitality. God is forever taking our words and wrapping them in flesh and blood:
God wraps our longing for a fresh start and a new creation in the flesh and blood of fervent prayer.
God wraps our awe at the wonders of the universe in the flesh and blood of inspiring worship.
God wraps our pain at the hurt and heartache of this world in the flesh and blood of self-less service.
God wraps our gratitude for all good things in the flesh and blood of overflowing generosity.
God wraps our longing that others might know this Great News in the flesh and blood of winsome witness.

When God wrapped himself up in the flesh and blood of Jesus, born of Mary, we called that incarnation.

When God wraps himself up in our flesh and blood--in where we show up and what we do with our bodies and our being--we call that discipleship.

All of it—all of it—is God’s doing in our lives. God bids us go into his vineyard, and however we may at first answer him, the proof of the pudding will be in what actually happens, what results there—in the vineyard, that is, in God’s glorious world.

So dear friends at Dilworth Lutheran, today as you give thanks for 60 years of life and ministry, you are wisely and appropriately committing yourselves to “Growing Disciples”….which is just another way of saying that you’re opening yourselves up to God who “loves to wrap words in flesh and blood, who loves to make faith come alive in energy and action.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Line Starts at the End

2008 Fall Cluster 6 Gathering
Women of the ELCA
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead
September 25, 2008
Matthew 20:16
“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Have you noticed how in Matthew’s gospel, which we’ve been reading in worship this year, there always seems to be a “lineup” of one sort or another?

Jesus is always lining up his disciples, inviting them to follow him….or else he’s telling wild, reckless stories about lineups—like the laborers in the vineyard we heard about last Sunday, whose boss lined them up for payroll, starting with those who worked just one hour and going down to those who worked a full, day-long shift.

When Jesus lines us up, or when Jesus tells stories about lineups like last Sunday’s parable….he is always up to something, turning upside-down and inside-out all our cherished notions about who’s first, who’s on top, who’s at the head of the line.

I’m convinced that Jesus loves fruit-basket-upset…..because the only way he can reach us with the astounding claims of his glorious and gentle rule over all things, his coming kingdom, his new creation…the only way Jesus can get through to us by reversing all our notions of authority and glory and pre-eminence.

And the best, shorthand summary of what Jesus is up to in this regard, comes from the 20th chapter of St. Matthew, verse 16: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last….”…..or as I’ve paraphrased it for our consideration this evening: With Jesus, “the line starts at the end”…..with Jesus, the line forms at the rear.

What is this all about, this strange, upsetting, disorienting reversal of the ways we usually choose up sides, form lines or establish pecking orders?

What it’s all about is this: when Jesus comes into our lives he shakes everything up and reverses all the arrows. Up is down, and down is up….forward is backward and backward is forward…front is rear, and rear is front….first is last and last is first.

And that isn’t just something that Jesus lays on us, that Jesus expects of us or asks us to embrace. It is how Jesus himself lives and moves among us. Jesus leads us in the way where he would have us go.

· So, instead of us climbing our way up to heaven, Jesus descends, comes down from heaven to meet us and redeem us where we’re at.
· Instead of seeking advantage or authority over us….Jesus drains himself of conventional power and might…Jesus empties himself, becomes a slave, allows us to edge him out of the world and up onto a cross.
· Instead of grabbing first place through sheer force…..Jesus heads for the lower position, goes to the end of the line—seeks out the lost, the least, the last—and places himself utterly at our disposal, completely in our service.

Jesus leads the way in his topsy-turvy kingdom by forming an amazing line of followers…..and this line is formed at the rear, on the bottom of the heap, in last place.

And this same Jesus invites us to follow him, to travel where he has already gone for us…setting aside all power and privilege, emptying himself out completely, giving himself away for you and for me, thereby freeing us to do that for one another.

Jesus invites you and me to join his line of followers….and this line forms at the rear, this line starts at the end.

But just what does this look like? What difference does it make in our daily lives and in our corporate life in the church?

Let me suggest three of the many ways that Jesus’ fruit-basket-upset, his topsy-turvy new way of living engages you and me in our lives of faithful following.

1. First, when we join Jesus’ lineup of followers, we’re invited to trade our “respectability” for the privilege of serving those on the margins and edges of life.

We Lutherans, don’t you know, are a respectable bunch—and that’s not all bad. We are not known for rocking the boat, making waves, mixing things up, creating a scene.

If anything, we Lutherans have respectability and predictability and steadiness down to an art form. Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame--all he has to do is say the word “Lutheran” and the audience chuckles….because they picture us: steady-as-she-goes, bland, some might even say boring people who are utterly respectable.

But Jesus whose line starts at the end—Jesus frees us to surrender our respectability in service to the lost, the last and the least.

The easiest way for me to talk about this is to share with you what I’ve learned about a place in our Northwestern Minnesota Synod where that happens every day. It’s called Peoples Church and it’s located in Bemidji.

Peoples Church offers radical hospitality to all in the name of Jesus. Anyone and everyone is welcome, and those who are destitute are consciously recruited. Because Bemidji is located near three major tribal communities, many who come to Peoples Church are Native Americans—but there are at Peoples Church all colors and sizes and shapes of people.

When folks come to Peoples Church, whether for worship or the Sunday feast or an AA meeting or a “wisdom circle” discussion or a chance to pick up some clothes or bedding or other necessities of life…..when folks come to Peoples Church they are treated with respect and compassion. They hear the stories of Jesus and receive his body and blood…..their children are baptized, their dead are buried, and their dignity is honored. Those who usually find themselves last, are moved to the head of the line at Peoples Church.

That all sounds good, doesn’t it? But it comes at a cost. Peoples Church is a risky “gospel enterprise,” because it welcomes even people who have made bad choices, persons living with the consequences of mistakes and folks who have been and may still be in trouble with the law. (Just this past week I heard that 25% of all Native American men in our state are incarcerated in the prisons and jails of our state!) Peoples Church has many supporters—but it also has its detractors.

Because it is a mission congregation of our synod, I believe that Peoples Church—warts and all—is one of the ways we are all lining up behind Jesus, following our Savior who sacrificed his respectability for the shame of the Cross.

2. Here’s another way Jesus’ all-bets-are-off, inside-out way of living engages you and me in our lives of discipleship. When we become part of Jesus’ lineup of followers, we find that embracing faith doesn’t prevent us from walking with doubters.

Jesus certainly leads the way here. Jesus loved doubters—Jesus was always ready to listen to them, hear their questions, and tune in to their longings.

So also, you and I, because we know God holds us in the palm of his hands—we have the freedom to wear our faith with a light touch, that opens us up to questioners and seekers all around us.

Nowadays one of the biggest segments of these questioners and seekers are young adults between the ages of 20 and 40, often identified by pollsters as the most unchurched cohort in the U.S. population.

There are some 45,000 such young adults in the Fargo-Moorhead area, many of whom have yet to be embraced by a believe-able, life-changing faith in Jesus Christ. Over the last year there’s been a conversation about these young adult seekers here in our wider community—a conversation among ELCA folks who believe God calls us to new ways of sharing the good news.

Out of these conversations has come a proposal to start an “emergent church” in the greater Fargo-Moorhead area, and this proposal has now gained approval from the ELCA and the two local synods. For now we’re simply calling it “The Project,” and our first step will be to call an organizer or “minister of listening” to spend time simply meeting with young adults, listening to them and allowing their questions and longings, their hopes and dreams to shape a new form of church—a church that may not look like the churches we know and treasure, a church that will open up pathways to faith for a generation that might otherwise be lost to the cause of Christ.

3. Here’s a third “take” on following Jesus, getting into line behind our Savior—a line that forms at the rear. When we fall in step with Jesus and get behind him, we start flirting with a reckless, break-the-bank generosity. Such generosity flies in the face of our natural inclination to grasp and hold on to what we mistakenly think is ours to keep.

Lately I’ve been sharing a strange dream with people in our synod. I’ve been wondering out loud what it would be like if Lutherans became so notorious for their generosity—especially their financial generosity—that the IRS routinely audited Lutherans’ tax returns, because they appeared to be giving to church and charity way beyond their means.

I know that sounds wild and foolhardy, but it is possible. I have a friend, a dear friend who was audited by the IRS precisely for that reason.

You see my friend is a tither….you might call him a fanatical, industrial-strength tither. He always tithes on all of his income. Years ago when my friend’s mother died and he received a small inheritance, he and his wife insisted on tithing on that as well—all in one year. And when they filed their federal tax return, their charitable contributions looked all out of whack….so the IRS audited them.

Imagine that sort of thing regularly happening to us Lutheran disciples of the Lord Jesus! Why should the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists have all the fun of tithing and double-tithing? We Lutherans can easily outdo them in telling of God’s grace and abundance—why shouldn’t we start outdoing them in terms of the way we allow that same grace of God to wash over us and flow through us to others, for the sake of God’s mission in the world?

What does it look like when we follow Jesus—when we line up behind our Lord, for whom the last are first and the first are last?

It looks as though Jesus has upset all our applecarts and reversed all the arrows in our lives….
· Trading our “respectability” for Christ’s own radical hospitality to all…
· Embracing faith in ways that keep us open to doubters, questioners and seekers…
· And saying goodbye to our natural tendency to hang on to stuff for dear life…setting that aside to risk becoming so generous that the IRS might grow suspicious of us.

Does all of this sound a little wild and out of bounds? Does it even sound like a way you Women of the ELCA might “act boldly on [your] faith in Jesus Christ,” as your mission statement puts it?

I think it does.

And that’s why I find it so exciting….following the Lord Jesus who is always “reversing the arrows” and calling the first to be last and the last to be first.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Grace in Your Face

NW MN Synod

Theology for Ministry Conference

Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 17, 2008
Matthew 20:1-16

Will Willimon, Methodist preacher and now bishop, tells about a time he preached on this text in the magnificent Chapel at Duke University. He writes:

She came up to me at the end of the service saying, “I was really troubled by the service today.” She was wearing a Duke blue usher’s robe. “Where do you get these stories that you tell in your talk?” she asked. “Stories? I guess I get them from growing up in South Carolina,” I said. “Well I was really bothered by the one today,” she said. “I just don’t think that’s anyway to treat people. I mean, if you work longer than other people, you should get paid more.” “Wait a minute,” I said. “That’s not my story, that’s from Matthew.” “Matthew?” she asked. “It’s in the Bible,” I said. “Why are you ushering here?” I asked. “Well that tall guy over there, I’m dating him. And he needed somebody to usher today so he called me and here I am,” she said. “Next question,” I said, “what is your religious background?” “We went to church some when I was a kid, but I’m not anything really,” she said. “Well let me tell you something. Just for your information. There is a sense in which you are the only person who got the story this morning. You found it offensive to your notion of justice. Right? Outrageous. Right? Well, just for your information, the man who told that story was later murdered for telling it. You got it. It really is an offensive, outrageous story. You got it.”

SOURCE: William Willimon, “Defining Justice with Jesus”
Sermon preached in Duke University Chapel 9/19/1999

You could say, I think, that Will Willimon had a “post-modern moment” with that young usher in the Duke Chapel. She wasn’t buying what he was selling. Just because it was in the Bible, just because Jesus said it—she wasn’t swallowing it.

And that can be unsettling for us preachers—can’t it?

I think I had my own “post-modern moment” a few Sundays ago. I was in a congregation of our synod, preaching on Matthew 18:15-20…..and about midway through the sermon it’s like I was losing about a third of my hearers. A massive, simultaneous glazing-over-of-eyes seemed to be taking place. And I don’t think they were responding to me as a preacher as much as they were responding to Jesus and his hard word about treating folks who refuse to be reconciled as if they’re Gentiles or tax collectors.

It all came to a head when I uttered the e-word: “excommunication.” Right then, I thought one or two persons were ready to get up and walk out, and a whole bunch of others had pained looks on their faces that said: “You’ve got to be kidding!”

In that moment I thought to myself: “I’m not making this up. Jesus made this up and said it and (most of all) lived it and the evangelist wrote it down so that we can keep saying it….even though some folks, maybe many folks aren’t buying it.”

We’ve been pondering what it’s like to preach and “do church” at the post-modern turn, and, no offense to our great speakers, but I’m not sure I’m leaving this conference any smarter than I came. I doubt I’m going home any better equipped to preach and share Christ with a generation that reserves judgment about truth claims that used to be taken at face value, but now have to be defended, argued for, and (most importantly) lived out with greater and greater authenticity.

Part of me—a pretty big part of me—will never buy into this “post-modern” stuff….but this much I do know: it’s in the air we breathe, and we best remember that as we venture out to proclaim the truth that has met us in Jesus. We may not like the post-modern mindset (just as some days we may not like gravity!)…but we best learn how to deal with it.

Folks ain’t necessarily gonna buy the truth that we have to sell.

And maybe that’s just as well. There could be one thing worse than post-modern skepticism or post-modern relativism….and that’s the over-familiarity of the faithful, who nod encouragingly, look at us sympathetically while we preach, and then quickly glance down at their watches to see how many more minutes remain before the Vikings’ kickoff.

This young woman that Will Willimon talked about, all dressed up in her Duke Chapel blue ushers robe….this audacious young woman was at least grabbed by the truth enough to struggle with it and push back against it.

She got something other hearers missed—the sheer, “in your face” offensiveness of this story and its implications.

Here you have this wild, type-A vineyard owner. It must have been one of those years when the grapes all ripen –literally!--on the same day, when the harvest can’t wait another second longer….

So he keeps trotting back to the day labor pool that gathered in the marketplace….he makes five, count them, five trips to keep rounding up workers….from the early-bird-catches-the-worm crowd...down to the slackers who showed up late and hung over, still unemployed at the end of the afternoon….the vineyard owner just keeps snagging them all, putting them to work, promising them each a fair wage.

This vineyard owner…you just know he’s “up to something!”

And sure enough, at the end of the day, he stages—stages, mind you!—a most unusual method of doing the payroll. He has his manager line them up in order (something that’s always happening in Matthew’s gospel—have you been noticing that??)….the manager lines them up from last-hired down to first-hired, and he insists that they be paid in precisely that order.

The vineyard owner, in short, WANTS to be provocative here….as the one-hour workers each get a denarius and all sorts of eyes that line bug out! “Amazing! If those slackers each get a whole denarius, we’re going to receive even more. Happy days are here again…”

But then (cue the sound of a giant balloon slowly deflating), as that same denarius keeps getting paid to each of the workers, right down to the first-hired who started working at dawn—they now felt like fools—and worse, they felt cheated. And, in that frame of mind, they gave voice to envy, surely one of the ugliest of human emotions.

Here, right before their eyes, they had watched the value of the denarius drop. 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, he says nothing that might soothe the troubled waters. In fact he actually 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, you see, is the Vineyard Owner’s “in your face grace.”

When we get the preaching of it right—which may not be all that often—when we say it right, somebody is going to be torqued off, someone’s going to get up and leave, someone will refuse be embraced by the truth of it.

And there, perhaps there, the post-modern mindset crowd does us all a favor, by giving voice to the skepticism that itself may be the strongest testimony to the truth of the gospel!

The Duke chapel usher giving the preacher a piece of her mind—she was pitching a slow ball, right over the plate to Will Willimon! She got it—that that Vineyard Owner with his Donald Trump attitude—that he was indeed “up to something,” getting right in the face of his most faithful employees—the ones whose blue ribbon work ethic was keeping them from“getting” their master’s amazing generosity.

The Duke chapel usher, in her skepticism, was so precariously close to faith…so frighteningly close to realizing how God is “up to something” in Jesus Christ. She was about a smidgin away from “catching” God’s “in your face grace.”

I wonder what happened to her, this earnest young coed in Duke Chapel. Did God’s in-your-face-grace finally wash over her? Did she become the president of the Duke Chapel ushers society and go on to the divinity school? Is she perhaps serving a three-point parish out in western North Dakota?

Or is she still searching for a believe-able God…still accosting preachers, keeping them humble, and demanding from them utter authenticity?

Hard to say! And it’s even harder to say which of those two paths might finally render greater service in God’s mission…

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Listen! God is Calling

Installation of Pastor Sherry Billberg
September 14, 2008
First Lutheran Church, Alexandria
I Samuel 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. 4Then the Lord called, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’* and he said, ‘Here I am!’ 5and ran to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call; lie down again.’ So he went and lay down. 6The Lord called again, ‘Samuel!’ Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ But he said, ‘I did not call, my son; lie down again.’ 7Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. 8The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, ‘Here I am, for you called me.’ Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. 9Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” ’ So Samuel went and lay down in his place.
10 Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ And Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

You’d think that being called by God wouldn’t be so hard. Hearing the voice of God speak—that should be easy, shouldn’t it? If God can’t communicate clearly—who can? If you and I can’t hear God talking to us—who will we hear?

And yet, it seems, hearing God is anything but easy. For all sorts of reasons, picking up the phone when God decides to call is fraught with difficulty.

Take young Samuel in our Old Testament lesson for this afternoon. Young Samuel has at least three strikes against him when God comes a calling.

First, the timing is all wrong. When Samuel is trying to go to sleep in the temple where he’d been serving under the elderly priest, Eli…..when Samuel was first called by God, Samuel had nothing to compare that with. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread” (v. 1).

The timing was all wrong for Samuel to “get it.” God came calling in the midst of a veritable drought—a long dry spell when no one was hearing God speak with any degree of frequency or familiarity. No wonder Samuel missed his cue; no one was expecting God to speak—folks maybe even thought that sort of business was a thing of the past, never to be repeated again.

Second, Samuel himself wasn’t exactly well-suited for hearing God. Our text says that “Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”(v. 7) Samuel was just a boy, after all. He brought no seasoned wisdom, no depth of spiritual experience, no training in recognizing the things of God. The conventional wisdom of that time was that God didn’t bother with one so young—God did vital business with elders, those long past their salad days.

The timing was wrong….and the recipient of God’s call was most unexpected….

And then, to make matters worse, Samuel’s guide, old Eli was over the hill, way past his period of useful service to God. Eli was on the way out—God was removing from him the mantle of leadership. Eli’s days were numbered—his sins of omission, his failure to deal with his two rascally sons, were catching up with him.

And yet this flawed vessel Eli was the only one available to coach young Samuel in the ways of God. It had been a while, a long while, since Eli transacted business with the Almighty One…..and yet even the passage of years, maybe decades hadn’t totally dimmed Eli’s recollection of what to do.

Slowly it came back to Eli what was happening here. Gradually, gradually it dawned on Eli what was transpiring with the nocturnal pesterings of his young apprentice.

Eli—flawed vessel that he was!—Eli was the only one who could help Samuel—help him hear the rare and precious Word of the Lord. So Eli coached Samuel, giving him the words, the formula to utter next time he heard the voice that was disturbing his fitful slumber: Next time you hear him calling say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (v. 10)

Amazing. You’d think hearing God call you would be easy as pie—like falling off a log. But nothing could be farther from the truth. The timing: all wrong. The hearer: way too young and untested. The guide, the coach: a has-been, a leader in the process of losing his position, “for cause” no less.

All wrong—all of it wrong—but still God’s voice gets through.

And isn’t that, dear friends, how it always turns out to be?

Hearing God call, perceiving God’s intervention, receiving God’s invitation—it’s always fraught with difficulty…..which (when you think about it)makes God’s call all the more astounding, all the more precious.

Somehow, somehow God gets through to us…..and when we think about it, when we look back on it, we’re glad, really, and thankful that it came through some struggle.

Sherry, you have been listening long and hard for the call of God in your life. You have pondered for many years what God has wanted you to do, where God has wanted you to be. These last few years, in particular, have been filled with testing and waiting and wondering about where God might be leading you.

I know—in the midst of all that—that one of your gifts, a gift that has served you well, is the gift of patience, monitoring your natural anxiety, giving space and time for God to get you where God has wanted you.

Sherry, the struggles you have known in hearing God call you, listening to God speak to you—those very struggles are a wonderful, equipping gift for the ministry that is now yours here at First Lutheran….a ministry of creating the spaces, the times and the conditions for letting God speak to his people in this congregation. You have been called to a wonderful, yet challenging ministry of helping others listen for God’s insistent voice, a ministry of assisting folks to discern the claims God is making on them.

None of that comes easily or automatically. At times, everything seems to be wrong—the timing, the hearer, the guide….none of them are what we were expecting them to be.

And yet maybe, just maybe, those times—when everything seems to be wrong—will be when God speaks most clearly and insistently. That should, by rights, not surprise us. For we follow and belong to the God whose presence and identification with us came through most memorably in that cry of divine absence, our Lord Jesus on the cross, crying out to the heavens: “My God, my God where are you? Why have you abandoned me?”

God is faithful, and God will get through to us. Of that we can be sure.

The God who visited young Samuel in the Temple, the God who visited this world decisively in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, the God who called you in your baptism and who keeps calling us in all the circumstances of life…

This same God has called you here and now, to bear his Word and help others hear it. The timing will not always be perfect. The hearers of the Word will often be distracted. And you, Sherry, would-be guide that you are, you are better than Eli….but even you are not perfect….

And that will be fine, because what we’re counting on is that nothing, nothing will ever stop God from doing vital business with us, cleaning the earwax out of our ears, naming and claiming us in Christ, and calling us to be and to go where God wants us to.

In the name of Jesus.