Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Healthy Congregations Focus on Mission

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Jesus, paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message (Matthew 28:19)[1]

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra[2]

Congregations are not algae or bacteria. That is to say: congregations are not single-cell creatures, concerned solely with their own survival.

Congregations are marvelous, complex, purposeful living bodies. They’re made up of many “cells” (disciples) who invariably want to accomplish more, make something new, and create fresh possibilities. Healthy congregations have a “life force” within them—the Holy Spirit--that frees them to focus on more than individual survival. Unable to help themselves, they simply have to reproduce, propagate, grow. When congregations stop doing these things, they die.

Have you noticed how when a congregation is first created we call it a mission church. If you’ve been part of a mission church you know how exciting that can be—building a congregation from scratch, rounding up seekers, forming community, starting programs and ministries, looking ahead to a first building project. There is also a keen sense of connection with the wider church—both the denomination (which may invest dollars) and neighboring congregations (which may encourage their own members to “seed” the mission church). The atmosphere is “electric” in a mission church.

Then, once the mission church is successfully planted and self-sustaining (hmmm—is a congregation ever self-sustaining?) we stop referring to it as a mission church, as if being and remaining a mission church wasn’t the goal. Now it’s one more “real” congregation that has somehow “arrived.” Over time, it may well lose the palpable sense of purpose and vibrant life with which it began. Maintenance of the status quo replaces risk-taking mission, costly service, and imaginative outreach.

What if our synod thought of itself as having 270+ mission churches? What if we kept calling congregations mission churches for as long as they live? What if we all realized that the only way to survive is to stop focusing on survival only—to turn our churches inside out, giving ourselves away as freely and lavishly as Christ gave himself for all?

Recovering a lively sense of mission is one of our most critical callings in these early years of the 21st century. Realizing that a congregation is more than just a place where religious folks gather to “do their thing,” is crucial. Reorienting ourselves to understand the church as a people sent on a mission is essential.

How does this happen? Often it’s triggered by a crisis or turning point. A tragedy forces us out of familiar patterns. The old ways simply aren’t working any longer. New opportunities rise to meet us.

Recently some of us visited Pelican Rapids, courtesy of Pastor Laurie Skow-Anderson and other leaders at Trinity Lutheran Church. This rural, “lakes country” town has been receiving many new immigrants from African and Hispanic cultures, attracted by jobs in a local food processing plant. What might seem like a problem is being perceived as an opportunity to make friends, offer care, and share Christ’s love. Mission questions keep popping up, and missional imagination is causing creative juices to flow. Folks at Trinity and other area churches are pondering what God might be calling them to do with all these new, fascinating neighbors?

It would be a mistake to suggest that “focusing on mission” is a piece of cake. No. This is hard work—clarifying and redefining God’s purposes for us in the thick of cultural transformation. Resistance from lovers of the status quo is real.

It usually helps if we at least take a stab at stating what we think our mission might be. A mission statement (or purpose statement) is simply a way for a congregation to define itself, to articulate its reasons for living and moving and having its being. Lutheran pastor and counselor Peter Steinke likes to say that a good mission statement
* Is no more than a single sentence in length;
* Is easily understood by a 12-year-old; and
* Can be recited from memory at gunpoint!
Such a mission statement can be “confessed” regularly (in worship and other places), even as it guides the leaders of a congregation in making choices and establishing priorities for the coming years.

Please consider your congregation’s mission or purpose statement a working document, though. Poke, prod and revise it regularly. It will change as surely as your mission will change in this constantly-changing world. If you’d like to help your congregation get in touch with its mission or purpose, please take a look at a book, Living Lutheran: Renewing Your Congregation (2007, Augsburg Fortress), written by Pastor David Daubert, who will be one of our major presenters at synod assembly, May 16-17 at Concordia College.

Your partner in God’s mission,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. What are some ways God has been turning your congregation inside-out for the sake of others?
2. When did your congregation experience a crisis or turning point that led you all to taking another look at your purpose for existing as a church?
3. Can disciples in your congregation articulate your purpose or mission in a single, understandable, memorable sentence? How could you help your congregation to define its purpose or mission?

[1] Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright 1993, 1994, 1995, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
[2] Quoted by Peter Steinke in Healthy Congregations training materials, p. 37.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Back to the Future

Trinity Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN
Easter 5/April 20, 2008
John 14:1-14

During this Easter season I’ve found myself thinking again and again about the old Back to the Future films that were popular in the late 1980s.

In case you missed these three movies starring Michael J. Fox, they were all about time travel. Fox played Marty McFly, a teenage protégé to a mad scientist, Dr. Emmett Brown, who had transformed a DeLorean car into a time machine that took McFly and others from the 1980s back into the past and forward into the future.

One of the problems with time-traveling from the present to the future, though is that your present self might run into your future self. In the movies Doc Brown always warned Marty McFly not to let this happen—because the consequences could be devastating. “You could disrupt the whole space-time continuum and destroy the universe,” Doc Brown warned.

That’s the line, oddly enough, that’s been rattling around in my head, time and again, this Easter season of 2008—“disrupting the space-time continuum.”

The reason that line has been bugging me is that that’s exactly what happened in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

When God raised Jesus up from the grave on Easter morning, God “disrupted the space-time continuum.” God brought the future into the present, and the world has never been the same since.

And that’s why everybody was surprised by Jesus’ resurrection. It’s not that they doubted the notion of resurrection itself. Many Jews in Jesus’ day expected the Resurrection to happen. But what they expected was a general resurrection of all the dead on the Final Day. No one, not even Jesus’ closest followers (who should have known better)….no one expected the resurrection of one person to happen before Judgment Day.

With the Resurrection of Jesus, though, God unraveled that whole scenario….disrupted the space-time continuum, bringing Someone from the future—the Risen Jesus--into the present. That messed up everything!

And that’s why the New Testament is filled with so many folks who don’t get it.

Even Jesus’ disciples were bewildered, time and again. It seems they were always trying to play “catch up ball” with Jesus. The disciples would start to get it—start to understand it—then they’d ask Jesus a question that revealed how far they still were behind him.

This happened after Jesus was raised on Easter morning. But when we read the gospels “backward,” from Easter, as we do in our appointed readings during the Easter season, we see that the whole thing was happening before Easter, as well.

Take this text from John 14, for example. We read this—as we read all the stories in the gospels—knowing how the story ends. We read about Jesus’ pre-resurrection life knowing that he will suffer, die and be raised again.

So here in John 14 Jesus is trying to lead his disciples ahead, trying to make some forward progress with them. But the going is tough. The disciples have questions.

Jesus knows where he’s heading. He’s heading into God’s future, through the suffering of the Cross, through the miracle of the Resurrection, into God’s tomorrow.

And Jesus wants his disciples to know that they’ll be making this journey, too—in their own good time. And everything will be OK! They will be cared for, every step of the way, they will be in good hands. Even if their earthly bodies die before they get to their final destination, Jesus will hold them fast, keep them in safety and care, until God’s New Day comes—until the general resurrection happens, and God ushers in the New Creation.

But Thomas--ever the skeptical “show me” guy among the disciples--Thomas says: “Hold the phone. Wait a minute. You’re going too fast for me. We’re still not crystal clear on where you’re taking us Jesus. ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’”

Thomas functions as Jesus’ straight man, here. Thomas’s question sets up Jesus for a marvelous reply. “How can we know the way?” Thomas asks, giving Jesus the opportunity to respond: “I am the way…and the truth….and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

“Hold on to your hat, Thomas, and stay close to me”—says Jesus. I have not come to give you a roadmap to the “other side.” I have come to BE the roadmap. I have come to walk ahead of you, to blaze the path where you will go, and indeed to accompany you on your journey to God’s future. Just look at me, keep your eyes on me, for (says Jesus) I am the way.

In the next breath, another realist, another guy who wants everything nailed down, Philip chimes in and says: “Show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Peel back the veil, Jesus….give us the kind of revelation we want to have…let us experience God the Father directly….and we’ll be good to go!

And I imagine Jesus is about ready to tear his hair out as he responds to Philip. “You’ve been with me for a while now….and you still don’t get it? I’ve been revealing the Father all along. Look at me—the Father moves in me, shines through me. If you can’t see that in my face, in who I am, see it in what I’ve been doing—right before your eyes—turning water into wine, reclaiming sinners, healing blind eyes, raising the dead. What more do you need to see to know that if you’re looking at me, you’re looking at my Father?”

Pity poor Thomas and Philip. Here they were, caught in the middle of a disruption of the space-time continuum, caught between earth and heaven, between the past and the future, between this dying age and God’s new creation—no wonder they had a hard time following along!

But Jesus is not deterred. Jesus doesn’t say: stop the train, I have to get off—I have to find some faster learners, some folks who will catch on more quickly to what my Father and I are doing.

No, Jesus does what he always does—Jesus works with those who are at hand. Jesus catches us up in God’s mission—drafts us for his service.

For in the concluding words of this gospel text we hear the most unbelievable promise of all: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

Now, how ’bout them apples? It’s not just that Jesus is in the Father and the Father is in Jesus, but Jesus’ followers—Thomas and Philip and you and me—we get into the act too. As Jesus gets ready here in John 14 to go to the Cross, to return to his Father, to go ahead of us, to leave us behind for a while--Jesus commissions us to continue his work—the work of ushering in God’s new creation now. Jesus tells us we’ll do the same things he did—in fact we’ll do even greater things.

Isn’t that amazing. If Jesus wasn’t the one speaking here, we’d call it blasphemy. But because Jesus is doing the talking here, we know that he speaks the truth. Jesus utters a promise here that itself calls us into God’s future, calls us to live now as the Body of Christ, occupying space and time in this world, even as we await Jesus’ final coming to us.

And Jesus doesn’t hold back here. Jesus doesn’t have low or realistic expectations of us. Jesus promises, Jesus assures us that we will continue his work—we can expect even to do more than Jesus did—hard as that is to believe.

You have caught a glimpse of that here at Trinity—a “life-changing, faith-stretching” church. It’s great for me to be with you today, to stand alongside your fine pastors Randy and Marsha and the rest of your church staff, to behold here in this vibrant community the unfolding of what Jesus promised: that we who follow him “will also do the works that [Jesus did]…in fact, will do greater works than these…”

But what do those “works” look like? It’s tempting to think first of the big, splashy, breath-taking NEW things that God does among us.

But what if Jesus has in mind deeds that are far more simple, basic, yet in their own way—extraordinary-- especially when they’re done by all of God’s faithful people.

I love your emphasis on discipleship here at Trinity. You, like many congregations, have been going “back to the future” by lifting up ancient, tried-and-true “faith practices that, when embraced by God’s people, carry us forward into God’s future in Jesus Christ. I can’t help but wonder if the “greater works” that Jesus predicted we would do look an awful lot like these basic, yet amazing marks of Christian discipleship:
Daily prayer…communicating with God constantly
Bible reading….immersing ourselves in God’s word
Weekly worship…being renewed by vibrant praise, gathered around Word and Sacrament
Giving generously…freely offering our financial gifts—our money or (as I like to call it) “portable, storable love”
Claiming our gifts…identifying all the ways God calls and equips us
Serving in ministry…living the Jesus life, pouring ourselves out for the poor among us
Sharing faith stories…bearing witness by naming the ways we see God alive and active among us and beckoning us forward into Christ’s tomorrow.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Leaning Into Our Hope

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls, MN
Dedication of Rebuilt Organ
April 13, 2008/Easter 4

Philippians 4:8
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

When God raised Jesus from the dead on Easter morning, a whole new creation began to dawn upon this tired, old world.

Easter—the resurrection of Jesus—was the down payment, the appetizer, the promissory note, the first fruits of a whole New Creation that even now God is surely bringing about.

Today, right now, even in this very moment…God is making you and me and all things new. In Christ Jesus the risen one, God is setting all things to right. God is unfolding a New World overflowing with light and truth and beauty and goodness.

But, of course, that’s plain to see—isn’t it?

Well, as a matter of fact--no it’s not plain to see.

There are, to be sure, bursts of beauty all around us. The Grand Canyon at dawn, the delicate wings of a monarch butterfly, the experience of compassion or forgiveness, the birth of every child. Beauty surprises us somewhere, somehow, every day.

But alongside all that, in the very next moment, something ugly steals the scene. An x-ray reveals a growing cancer, a crude remark flies through the air, a busload of teenagers flips over on I-94, parents bury their precious teenage daughter.

How do we hold those things together—the bursts of beauty that take our breath away, alongside the instances of ugliness that make us question whether there even is a God?

How do we, as people of Christian faith, hope and love….how do we live in a world that we believe God is renewing day by day….how do we live with the “one step forward, two steps backward” experience of evil’s stubborn unwillingness to surrender?

How do we live on the basis of our highest hopes, rather than our most gnawing fears?

We do that, I believe, by leaning into our hopes, by living every day as if the Final Day, God’s Day, God’s future is already moving in upon us.

Let me say that again, in a slightly different way: we live, as Christian disciples, as if the bursts of beauty all around us aren’t just “flukes” or mere accidents….but as if that beauty will finally be all that is. We live as if the ugliness that meets us now and then, has no future really—as if its day is surely passing—as if God in Christ will finally be all in all.

In short: we live as if what’s worth thinking about, what’s worth focusing on, what’s worth investing ourselves in are the good and true and beautiful things of God alone.

The apostle Paul, writing to beleaguered believers in ancient Philippi, writing to them from a jail cell no less, saw beyond all the dire circumstances that surrounded them and audaciously invited them to live in this way: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The gutter, and life in the gutter, might seem like your destiny….but now in Christ, your destiny lies somewhere else, in Someone Else. Get up out of the gutter and live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of Christ, your King.

But how, just exactly how, does that work? What precisely does that look like?

I think of the time about 15 years ago when I and a bunch of other Lutheran pastors all worshipped at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia—the church that Martin Luther King and Daddy King before him both served.

We were quite a bunch—lumpy, pasty, white folk—mostly from the frozen northland. We all had our sport coats on, we wore our hush puppies, we arrived on a bus in various shades of tan…

And we were met by the African American members of Ebenezer Baptist—all of them looking like a million bucks. When Sunday comes, you see, black church folks put on the ritz! The men were all spiffed up in white shirts, bold ties, polished shoes, dark suits with those little white handkerchiefs spilling out of their breast pockets.

And the women—my goodness, the women all looked like queens….all of them in flowing dresses, high-heeled shoes, and bouncing colorful hats. They wore golden jewelry that sparkled in the morning sun and not a few of them sported corsages, the likes of which we see only on prom weekend.

Even the youth, the teenagers who were ushering that day—even they looked like somewhat smaller versions of their extremely well-decked-out-parents….and each of them, each of the kids wore bleached white gloves on their hands as they handed us our bulletins, cheerfully showed us to our seats and then led us in worship that was well-planned, dignified, yet awe-inspiring, especially as they started “cooking” in the way that only African American worshippers can “cook.”

We lump, pasty, white northern Lutheran “spectators” looked and felt like a bunch of schlumps that morning….even though our average income was probably higher than that of most of our fellow worshippers.

How could that be? Someone told me later that it’s like this: in the African American church community, six days out of the week you may be someone’s cook, maid or laundress. Six days out of the week you may clean restrooms, you may work your fingers to the bone, doing stuff that white folk don’t want to do.

But on Sunday, on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, you are sons and daughters of the King, children of God—and you best look the part. On Sunday, you lay aside your ragged working clothes and put on your party clothes, you don the garb of your true identity. You live into the future you have in Jesus Christ—you lean into God’s tomorrow and act as though that tomorrow has already come.

That’s a snapshot, a taste of what it means, my fellow lumpy, pasty, white Lutherans of Fergus Falls….that’s a taste of what it means to think about, to focus on, to invest ourselves in the good and true and beautiful things of God.

And, all kidding aside, I’m guessing that that’s how you ARE already living your lives, whether or not it always strikes you that way.

So, you believe, you hope against hope, you trust that Jesus is risen and God is making you and me and all things new. THAT, in Christ, is now your “default position.”

And so you act on that hope, as well. You give yourselves to God’s global mission of rescue and renewal. You tell others about Jesus. You live the Jesus life, serving the lowly, giving yourselves to the poor.

And so that your believing and your acting might be more than mindless “activism,” so that it might have a basis that is constantly renewed in God’s hope, you worship, regularly, joyfully, lavishly—giving of your best to stake out space and time today that leans into God’s tomorrow.

Which brings me, finally, to this wonderful rebuilt organ, these fine pianos and other musical instruments and equipment that we are dedicating this morning.

Why do this? Of all the things you could invest yourselves in, why spend good money on a church organ, on pianos, on worship equipment? Why is that a priority for us?

It is, I think, because part of God’s mission among us is to create loveliness, to bring forth music that soars, to add to the bursts of beauty that God already sends our way.

Indeed, the loveliness, the beauty, the harmony God co-creates through us beats back the ugliness of this old world that surely is giving way to God’s New Creation.

The loveliness, the beauty, the harmony God co-creates through us….makes space and time for us to live now, with one foot already in God’s future. It allows us to live now on the basis of the new life that awaits us in Christ Jesus the risen one…as surely as we also do that when we tell others about Jesus, when we care for the poor, and when we strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Worshiping God in the beauty of holiness might seem “worthless”—surely not worth all that we put into it, all that we invest in it. When we end our worship service—we may not have filled one hungry stomach, we may not have converted one sinner to Christ, we may not have reclaimed one young adult for God’s mission. Worship may seem, in that sense, “worthless.”

Except that worship always has value, in and of itself. For it lifts up God who is the Treasure of priceless worth….and worship lifts us up to this Beautiful Savior, our Lord Jesus. And if nothing else seems to have changed when our worship is ended, well then WE have changed, once more, changed “from glory to glory” as the old hymn puts it.
We give God our very best in worship, we invest in things like organs and pianos and “worship equipment,” simply because God the object of our worship, is worth our highest and our best.

It is because Paul enjoined us all when he lovingly commanded the Philippian disciples: Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Hanging Out With Skeptics

Bethel and Zion Lutheran Churches, Bagley, MN
April 6, 2008
Easter 3/Luke 24:13-35

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

One of the things that the four gospels all agree on is that when Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter morning, he didn’t stay put.

No, when Jesus was resurrected, he was up and out and on the road. And he didn’t just trot a victory lap around the cemetery, either. No--Jesus took off. With death behind him and nothing but life—nothing but God’s future—ahead, Jesus was running in the power of his resurrection.

And what’s even better is this: Jesus doesn’t run alone—He runs with us—Jesus leads a whole pack of folks who have been caught up by God in the power of the resurrection.

What exactly does this Resurrection Road Race looks like, though? What is this post-Easter marathon Jesus is running, with you and me in tow, trying to keep up? What is this race all about?

This morning’s gospel fleshes that out, suggesting at least four ways that connect powerfully with God’s mission for us.

1. First, in this Resurrection Road Race, Jesus hangs out with seekers and searchers. He goes looking for doubters, walks with the confused, takes time to listen to skeptics.

I love how this Emmaus road story begins. It starts with two bewildered disciples, “getting out of Dodge,” leaving Jerusalem to travel to nearby Emmaus—trying to figure out all the things that had happened to Jesus in the preceding week.

And as they walk, a stranger falls into step with them, asking questions, listening to what they have to say—hearing them, really hearing them—not just the words they speak but the deep emotions that surround those words.

Imagine that. Jesus who knows better than anyone how the story ends—Jesus doesn’t just blurt out what he knows. Jesus doesn’t “butt in” and take over the conversation right away. No: he walks, he asks questions, he listens FIRST.

I think that’s why more and more congregations are seeing themselves as places where doubters can get their doubts out in the open. As we run with our Risen Lord, we don’t shy away from skeptics or seekers. Indeed—we treasure them, we make room for them, we open up safe spaces for them to scratch the itch that stands between them and faith.

2. Second, as Jesus runs with us and ahead of us in the power of the Resurrection, he is always cracking open the Scriptures. The risen Lord Jesus leads Bible study! Jesus looks back (to the Old Testament) to interpret current events and to point to God’s future. You could say that Jesus points “back to the future.”

When Jesus, the stranger on the road to Emmaus, has listened for a good long while, he speaks—but not on his own authority. Rather, our gospel lesson says that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.“

Along the Resurrection Road-Race we also follow Jesus “back to the future,” taking our cues from the Scriptures, drenching ourselves in the world of the Bible, developing among ourselves a kind of fluency in “Biblese” as if it were our first language.

Our church, the ELCA, is involved in something called the Book of Faith initiative. Its goal is very simple: to get us all reading the Bible, every day, for our strengthening in Christian faith, life and witness. For the next five years you’ll be hearing about all sorts of ways you can become “fluent” in the first language of faith, the language of the Bible.

3. Third, just as he did before his crucifixion, burial and resurrection….the Risen Jesus lets his actions do the talking for him. This is a nice counter-point to leading Bible study which, important as that is, always runs the risk of becoming a “head trip.”

So, in addition to cracking open the scriptures for them, the Risen Jesus grants the two disciples, after they arrive in Emmaus, an experience of his real presence. When evening comes “[Jesus] took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…”

Jesus speaks the Word—but he also re-enacts the Word, he does the Word! Jesus utters truth, but he also grabs visual aids that were handy—a loaf of bread, a cup of wine. Jesus communicates both symbolically and concretely—wedding syllables to elements, message to means, word to sacrament.

We Lutheran disciples believe that the preached Word is best accompanied by actions, experiences that bring Christ home to our hearts. So we regularly wash babies, children and adults in baptismal water. And we routinely fall to our knees (as we shall do this morning) to eat the Bread and drink the Wine, to “take in” Jesus our risen Lord.

4. Fourth, as a result of rubbing elbows with Jesus, people are changed. Jesus never leaves folks the same way he found them. Persons don’t stay “onlookers” or “inquirers.” Jesus runs the race in such a way that others can’t help but be caught up in the excitement—they strap on their own running shoes and get moving, moving with Jesus.

Even though darkness has fallen and Cleopas and the other disciple were ready to turn in for the night—even though the road between Emmaus and Jerusalem (like most roads through open country back then) was hardly safe—they cannot contain themselves. Once Jesus was revealed to them—they set aside all ideas of hitting the hay! Rather, they put their traveling clothes back on, tie on their sandals and run all the way back into Jerusalem yet that evening—because they have been altered, changed—they aren’t the same “Sad Sacks” they were earlier in the day.

So also, we today expect Jesus never to leave folks the same way he found them. We anticipate that Jesus will matter in our lives. We expect change, transformation, and yes, even growth in God’s grace.

So—that’s what the Easter season marathon—that’s what the Resurrection Road Race looks like. It’s not “holy smoke” or “smoke and mirrors.” This race has a shape, a content, a direction, an itinerary to it. As Jesus the Risen One catches us up in running with him, he leads you and me
To hang out with skeptics and doubters
To go back to the future by cracking open our Bibles
To do the Word in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper and
To expect change and transformation as God goes to work in our lives and the lives of others who have gotten caught up in Jesus’ Resurrection Road Race.

So--have a good run!

In the name of Jesus. Amen.