Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Seeking, Saving, Sending Place

Dedication of Church Building
Bethany Lutheran Church, Nevis, MN
Third Sunday after Pentecost/June 1, 2008
Matthew 7:21-29

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

When Pastor A.J. and I discussed the scripture texts that would be read today, we both thought it only natural to use the appointed lectionary lessons, including this familiar gospel from Matthew 7.

A “house built on a rock,” after all, SOUNDS like something worth pondering as we dedicate a brand, new church building.

But then, as this day grew closer, and as I dug deeper into this text, I wondered if it might also sound like a building committee’s nightmare…..especially that part about the rains falling, the floods coming, the winds blowing and beating against that house…”and it fell—and great was its fall!”

Yeah. That’s just what your building committee wants to think about today! Our brand new church building fell—and great was its fall! Not exactly a happy thought on this banner dedication day.

If you’re on the building committee or the finance committee, or if you’re one of the many, many volunteers who worked on this building, do you want to imagine it in terms of a house built on sand falling flat as a pancake? It’s a little late in the game to be sitting here, trying to listen to this sermon, all the while wondering: “Let’s see now. Did we miss something? Did the geologist bore down far enough, did we pour those footings deep enough, did we build the foundation sturdy enough? Oh—and are all our insurance coverages updated for—you know—things like the rain falling, the floods coming and the winds blowing?”

Uffda! We don’t need this. Today is dedication day, after all—celebration day. Please—let’s not think about multi-peril building collapses.

And so—we won’t. OK?

These verse from Matthew chapter 7, although they use the language of building and construction, are not about bricks and mortar and natural disasters, after all.

This text isn’t really about your church building. It is, rather about your church, Christ’s church, the people who are the church, you and me.

Matthew 7:21-20 is about us, about being put together by God, into a strong and sturdy faith community that will be genuine, that will have integrity and inner strength, so as to withstand any onslaught that might arise against us. This text is about hearing Jesus’ words and acting on them (v. 24)--having faith and life wed together so intimately that they are as one—our believing and our living, totally congruent with one another, together pointing us toward God’s future in Jesus Christ.

What I think Jesus is after here is being genuine, staying true, being strengthened in the faith and life that is built on Christ who is our Rock, our sturdy foundation. This text points us not to this building per se, but to what will by God’s grace happen here, for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

And because I’m a Lutheran preacher who thinks in threes, let me suggest to you three core activities that God intends to do here in your midst, under the shelter of this new roof, all of it for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

God in Jesus Christ intends for this new church building to be a seeking place, a saving place and a sending place. God in Jesus Christ intends for you, his beloved church, to be a seeking, saving, sending people.

And here’s what that might look like.

1. First, God has built here a seeking place. God has called you to be a seeking people.

Seeking is what God loves to do. Before you and I ever decide to go looking for God—God in Jesus Christ has already hunted us down and found us. If we think for one milli-second that we have found God, come to God, given ourselves to God—God has already beaten us to the punch.

Which is to say that God is always, always, always taking the first step toward us. Our seeking God calls us to be a seeking people.

We Lutherans haven’t always seen ourselves that way. We’ve usually thought of church as a “you come to us” enterprise. We’re here, we’re open for business, our doors are unlocked—and visitors are surely welcome to look for us, seek us out, come to us, join us—and who knows?--when they do, we might even be nice to them!

I doubt that approach has ever worked all that well. And I know it isn’t working in today’s world. Our seeking God is calling his Lutheran disciples to grow as a seeking people.

So dear friends, how are you going to turn this gorgeous new building “inside out.” It’s not just enough to make sure the doors are unlocked so others can get in. No. God calls us to match our faith with our actions by continuing God’s seeking work among us.

Just the other day a pastor from another “lake country” congregation south of here told me how he and some lay leaders put together a 1200-piece bulk mailing to all their neighbors, many of whom live on lakeshore property. Lo and behold, six new families have started coming to that congregation which is clearly growing into its identity as a seeking church.

2. God has built here a seeking place which is also a saving place. God calls you and me to be a saving people
That’s because saving is what God does best. It’s God’s specialty. We mess up, we get out of line, we sin—and God is always finagling ways to save us, rescue us, piece our sorry lives back together. God does that chiefly through the work of Jesus Christ—coming to us, living among us, dying for us, rising again for us, and coming back some day to finish his new creation.

And God calls you to continue this good work. Bethany Lutheran Church is a saving people. You’re in the salvation business. What does that look like, though?

Let me suggest this image: when God saves us, God de-fragments our lives. Nowadays we are always becoming “fragmented,” aren’t we? Sin makes us go to pieces. Families seem more ragged, more torn up than ever before. Life itself feels like frantic fragmentation, 24 hours a day.

What if, what if Bethany Lutheran Church got the reputation for being a community where fragmented lives get pieced back together, “saved” and made whole again? What if Bethany specialized in giving families excuses to come together, pray together, play together, work together? What if Bethany was where folks instinctively turned when they wanted God to “de-fragment” their tattered lives?

3. God has built here a seeking place, a saving place and also a sending place. This new church building is a launching pad of sorts. Another way that Jesus calls you to hear his words and act on them is to grow into your identity as a sending people.

Once again, we Lutheran followers of Jesus haven’t always seen ourselves as a sent and sending people. But I believe it’s been in our DNA all along. When God seeks us out, washes us, feeds us, saves us through his Word….God always also propels us, back into the world. God is forever transforming disciples (followers) into apostles (sent ones).

God seeks and saves us, not just so that we’ll go “Whew! That was a close one”….but so that we’ll say “Wow! Come and see what God has done.” God saves us in order to send us.

God calls you, here at Bethany Lutheran Church, to be a sending station, a missionary outpost in this corner of Hubbard County. God calls you and me to learn and practice here how to tell about God’s love out there. We drink in Jesus’ gracious words and we spend ourselves learning how to act out and speak Jesus’ gracious words—“out there.”

My friends, did you really know what you were getting into when you embarked on this fabulous building project? Did you realize that what God was doing in your midst was helping you, giving you the muscles and the energy and the wherewithal to erect, and now to dedicate this seeking, saving, sending place?

What a turning point for you here at Bethany! Here, you may have thought the heavy lifting was over….and lo and behold, God is just getting a good start with you.

On behalf of all your brothers and sisters in Christ across our synod, I am delighted to congratulate you—and to bless your moving into this wondrous new space—a seeking place, a saving place, and a sending place—all for the sake of God’s work in our world.

In the name of Jesus.


Friday, May 30, 2008

Healthy Congregations Respond to Anxiety

NW MN Synod Bishop's Letter

June 2008

The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of perdition assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me.
In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help….He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me. Psalm 18:4-6, 19

Thank God for the gift of anxiety! If we had no anxiety about anything, we’d never climb out of bed in the morning, never get to work on time, never finish an assignment or meet a deadline. A modest degree of anxiety or stress gets us going in life.

Anxiety isn’t something we choose. Anxiety simply is! Feeling anxious is as normal as breathing, eating, or sleeping. This is true for Christians and non-Christians alike. (See II Corinthians 1:8 where the Apostle Paul recalls a time when “we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself.” Now, that’s anxiety!) Anxiety is a natural response to a threat or a fear—real or imagined.

But what about unrelenting anxiety? What if we continually operate on the high side of anxiety—above the threshold of normal, run-of-the-mill stress? What if anxiety paralyzes us, stops us in our tracks, overwhelms us? What then?

The word anxiety comes from a Latin word angere, meaning “to cause pain by squeezing.” Related words are anger, angst, angina (heart pain). The image here is telling: anxiety run amok constricts us, squeezes us, reduces our options and possibilities. It feels as if the “cords of death” are wrapped around our necks, choking off our oxygen supply (Psalm 18:4).

This is true for organizations as well as individuals. Congregations are living bodies—vibrant emotional systems of inter-relationships. Congregations can easily become “anxious systems.” And when that happens they become constricted, limited, “squeezed.”

Peter Steinke, a Lutheran pastor and counselor, contends that there are ten common triggers of anxiety in congregations:
*Money (too little or too much, e.g. a large bequest)
*Changing worship patterns
*Issues around sexuality
*Pastor’s leadership style
*“Old versus new” discussions
*Concern over growth or survival
*Conflicts among church staff or resignation of a staff member
*Being overly focused on internal matters or on external matters
*Suffering some major trauma, tension or transition
*Harm done to a child or the death of a child.

Every congregation deals with anxiety. That’s a given. The crucial question before us is: will we mindlessly, automatically react to anxiety? Or will we reflectively, thoughtfully respond to anxiety?

Reacting to anxiety is what comes most naturally. Steinke points out that there are three components to the human brain. There’s the “lower brain” that is concerned with sheer self-preservation. The lower brain specializes in automatic reflexes and reactions. Then there’s the “middle brain,” which is the seat of our emotions. This part of our brain focuses on whether a stimulus is painful or pleasurable.

God has given us a third, “higher brain”—unique to human beings. This brain, also called the neocortex, makes up 85% of our total brain mass. The higher brain is the seat of imagining, problem-solving, and decision-making. Through the “higher brain” God has bestowed upon us the ability to regulate what we do with anxiety. Our higher brain allows us to step into the “broad place” the Psalmist speaks of (Psalm 18:9) where we move beyond constricted gut reactions and “squeezed” unthinking reflexes.

Precisely here we see the difference between reacting (lower brain, short-term, survival-focused) and responding (higher brain, longer-term, mission-focused).

When a congregation simply reacts to anxiety we notice things like…
*Folks are constantly critical of one another;
*Persons or groups make threats, engage in manipulation, throw tantrums;
*Splinter groups form;
*Change is feared and rejected;
*Quick fixes are sought, and the path of least resistance is preferred;
*People keep secrets and avoid open communication;
*Folks get stuck in narrow, “either/or” thinking and thus miss the array of possibilities before them.

When a congregation and its leaders learn to regulate their stress and respond to anxiety they:
*Avoid snap judgments and quick fixes;
*Take time to gather information and analyze options;
*Generate all sorts of possible solutions;
*Endure short-term pain for the sake of long-term health;
*Commit themselves to living in the unity of Jesus Christ;
*Make wise, balanced, thoughtful decisions;
*Trust that God will sustain them, guide them and bless their faithful efforts in the midst of anxious times.

Larry Wohlrabe, Bishop
(This article is based on the Healthy Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke.)

Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. How do you recognize when you’re dealing with high anxiety? What physical symptoms show up? How do you know when anxiety is operating in your congregation? What are its symptoms?
2. Recall a time when your congregation reacted rather than responded to anxiety. What happened and what was the outcome?
3. Right now what is one way you could help your congregation live into the “broad place” of God’s care and mercy? How could your church improve its capacities to respond rather than react to anxiety?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Move That Church!

Installation of Bishop's Assistants

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Northwestern Minnesota Assembly

Concordia College, Moorhead, MN
May 16, 2008

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Dakota people of the Great Plains have a saying: If you discover that the horse you’ve been riding is dead…
1. Get off
2. Bury the dead horse
3. Start riding a living horse

Pretty obvious, right?

But what if you had a lot invested in that old, now-dead horse? You might be reluctant to let it go.

And so you could concoct strategies to help that dead horse run. You could try things like…
· Buying a bigger whip
· Changing riders
· Appointing a committee to study the dead horse
· Visiting others to see how they ride dead horses
· Lowering the standards so dead horses can be included
· Reclassifying the dead horse as “living-impaired”
· Harnessing several dead horses together to increase speed
And you might even try
· Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position!

Despite all our best efforts, though, we won’t be going anywhere. The horse we’re trying to ride is still very, very dead.

Dear sisters and brothers, isn’t that how it often is for us in the church? Don’t we sometimes wonder whether the church we love is dying, that we’re trying to ride a dead horse?

If we ever feel that way, we are normal. God’s people are always living on the brink of death. We’re very realistic about that. We know, in those classic words of playwright Thornton Wilder, that “in the midst of life we are in the midst of death.”

And really, that’s a good thing, because we belong to the God who specializes in raising the dead. We belong to the God who is forever working in us that most extreme of makeovers—the extreme makeover of the resurrection.

We see that in spades here in our Old Testament lesson. The prophet Ezekiel stumbles across the Babylonian desert, where his people have been exiled, and in a trance, Ezekiel beholds a whole valley of bones, dry bones, dead as a doornail bones.

And God asks “Can these bones live [again]?” (v. 3)
To which Ezekiel responds. ‘O Lord God, you know [the answer to this question].’” (v. 3)

Which is, of course, the right answer!

God and God alone knows if these dry bones could live again. God and God alone can do something about this desolate scene of despair.

But God doesn’t do anything here without Ezekiel getting into the act.

“Here’s what I want you to do,” God tells Ezekiel. “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.” (v. 4)

Picture it! Ezekiel in this valley filled with dry bones. And God wanting him to preach to the bones. How absurd—preaching to bones!

But Ezekiel does as he’s told. Ezekiel looks out over all those bleached tibias and fibulas and scapulas and vertebrae. He nervously clears this throat and opens his mouth…

Amazing! A valley of dry bones—and a man preaching to those bones.

But the preaching, the speaking of a Word is absolutely essential here. God isn’t interested in a sleight of hand, razzle-dazzle magic show.

Just as in the first chapter of Genesis, where God used his Word to bring forth the universe….

….so now again, in this place of utter desolation, God wants the Word—delivered through Ezekiel’s vocal cords--to be the recreating, renewing event that brings these bones back to life.

Which is exactly what happens.

Before the Word has scarcely left his lips, Ezekiel hears a rattling…as the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone’s connected to the backbone’s connected to the neck bones’ connected to the head bone.

While the Word still echoes through that dry, dusty valley all the bones have gotten pieced back together—and the muscles, ligaments, flesh and skin have reappeared on those bones—like a movie played in reverse.

But there’s one thing still missing.

Bones and flesh and blood are not enough.

God has one more task for Ezekiel. “‘Prophesy to the breath,” God commands Ezekiel, “prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’” (v. 9)

Bones and flesh and blood need one indispensable thing—for life to be restored. The breath, the wind, the Spirit of God must be added. Only the Spirit—the “Lord and Giver of Life” as we confess in the Nicene Creed—only the Spirit can bring these dry bones back to life.

This, dear friends, is an “extreme makeover” story. It’s a resurrection story—and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, beloved ones, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is what we have to offer to the whole world. It’s the Word that we have to preach to the “dry bones” all around us.

The great church historian Jaroslav Pelikan died of lung cancer, two years ago this past week. Before he died Pelikan made this powerful two-part confession.
If Christ is risen—nothing else matters.
If Christ is not risen--nothing else matters.
That pretty well sums up the whole thing, the whole enchilada for us as Christian disciples!

We are a people—as good as dead in many respects—who live solely because God has not given up on us. God has not tired of working God’s greatest work within us, the extreme makeover of renewal, transformation, new life….the extreme makeover of the resurrection.

We see dry bones all around us in the church. We see empty coffers, worn-out workers, chilling demographic predictions. We see a church that for the all world feels like it’s dead or dying.

But God sees something else. God sees the “raw materials” of a resurrection-in-waiting.

God sees all that and God says: MOVE THAT CHURCH. Prophesy to the bones. Prophesy to the breath—and then stand back, watch out, see the new thing I am about to do among you.

My dear sisters and brothers of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod: We have gathered here in this place for these two days to do just that. To open our eyes not just to the dry bones in our midst, but to see and hear and experience anew what God is doing among us, in the extreme makeover God never tires of working among us.

And as we begin this assembly, I want to say this as clearly as I possibly can: this is God’s work, from start to finish, from beginning to end. This is God’s work because only God can do it—it’s God’s speciality, raising the dead!

If you or I think for one moment that renewal of the church is about techniques or gimics or programs or any other quick fixes….we will fail and fail miserably.

If you have come here wondering, “Now what are ‘they’ going to try to get us to do?” you need to know that WE aren’t trying to get you to do anything.

For this is not, strictly speaking, “our” human business.

Only God can and does and will renew God’s church.

But this church-renewing God of ours doesn’t want to, doesn’t intend to renew the church without us—even as God didn’t resurrect that valley of the dry bones without Ezekiel’s involvement, without Ezekiel’s prophetic Word, without Ezekiel’s own breath, prophesying to and through the Breath of God, whom we also call the Holy Spirit.

So, dearly beloved in Christ, God is opening you up in these days. God is inviting you today and tomorrow to be open to what God is doing and promises to keep doing, working God’s extreme makeover in us, reviving the church wherever it has been planted, using our vocal cords and our breath to shout: MOVE THAT CHURCH!

Where we see that happening, in our place and time, we invariably notice some things that are going on. Dave Daubert, one of our keynote speakers, has summarized it succinctly in his book which I hope you all will purchase, ponder and take back home.

Where churches are experiencing God’s extreme makeover they are invariably doing three things, all in response to God’s gracious prompting

These churches are becoming clear about, articulating clearly their PURPOSE.

These churches are becoming open to CHANGE for the sake of God’s mission….they’re no longer trying to ride dead horses!
And these churches are calling forth, supporting and expecting their LEADERS to help them make missional, purpose-driven change for the sake of God’s mission.

Our synod, our “walking together” in Christ across the 21 counties of Northwestern Minnesota…our synod is another manifestation of Christ’s church that is open to the renewing, transforming “extreme makeover” of the resurrection. And so, as a synod, we too are finding ourselves
· Seeking to clarify God’s purposes for us
· Opening ourselves up to purpose-ful change…
· And calling forth leaders who will help us move ahead, toward God’s future.

That is why, in this opening service, we are kicking off this assembly, gathered around Word and Sacrament, and also installing three new servant leaders in God’s mission.

This synod has called you—Erin, Laurie and Steve—and God has called you to be agents of God’s extreme makeover, agents of God’s death-defying, resurrecting Word in Jesus Christ.

We thank God for you. We claim God’s power and peace for you…as you partner with us all in
· Raising up disciples in life-giving congregations…
· Identifying, calling forth and supporting other servant leaders for a mission church…
· And being forever on the lookout for new and renewing ministries in God’s church, on the move, toward God’s future, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Goosed by the Spirit

Gary Lutheran Church, Gary, MN
Installation of Pr. John Ahola
The Day of Pentecost

May 11, 2008
Acts 2:1-21

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

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

What? (you’re maybe thinking to yourselves…)….what’s with this guy? Hasn’t he looked at the calendar lately? Easter is long gone. We celebrated that on March 23rd. Easter is old hat—we’ve moved past it.

Today is a different celebration day, don’t you know?! It’s Mother’s Day. It’s the Minnesota State Fishing Opener! It’s Pastor John Ahola’s installation day!

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

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

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

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

No—I’m wishing you a happy Easter, because this festival day of Pentecost is itself really “another Easter.” It’s not so much the start of the Pentecost season, that long green season that takes us through spring and summer and into the autumn…

Pentecost isn’t so much the start of the Pentecost season as it is the climax, the culmination of the Easter season. Pentecost is itself “another Easter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Easter Sunday that happened—quite literally—with the body of the crucified Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus’ corpse didn’t follow the normal route toward decomposition. No--death was reversed—death was “undone” in a most decisive way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know what I’m talking about. Our stories echo the Pentecost story, don’t they?

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

And then God in Jesus Christ the Risen One….God in the power of the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life….raises us up, holds our heads above the water, unbinds us, puts a Word on our tongues and gooses us to get out into our world. The Body of Christ is still being re-animated by the Spirit of the living Lord Jesus.

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

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

You and I, dear friends of the Gary-Rindal Parish….you and I are still living out this Pentecost story. Today, in a very particular way, we do so by installing Pastor John, alongside Pastor Kelly, to be another Apostle Peter in your midst….to stand up among you, when things seem chaotic and confusing and dis-connected and to clarify for you what God is doing.

You have called your pastors, to do for you what Peter did for the disciples and for all those foreigners visiting in Jerusalem—the whole world at their feet. You call your pastors to speak with the courage of Peter, to say to each one of you that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 1:21).

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

The outcome will be another Resurrection--the Body of Christ, all of you!—animated for prayer and praise and service and mission, turned inside out, set loose in the world, just as Jesus was on Easter Sunday and just as the whole church is unleashed whenever the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life comes upon us, putting dreary death behind us, and goosing us toward God’s astonishing future.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Always Be Prepared

Faith Lutheran Church, Miltona, MN
May 4, 2008
I Peter 3:15b-16a

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

During this Easter season our New Testament lessons have all come from the first Epistle of Peter. And here’s one of the most memorable verses from that epistle, from chapter 3 to be exact: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

George W. Bush, it seems, has an uncanny knack for coming up with ever more embarrassing mis-statements or mis-pronunciations of common words. In fact, publishing books filled with Dubya’s malapropisms has become something of a cottage industry.

But I wonder if President Bush really is a worse speaker than other politicians? Or is it just--because he’s the president and is therefore “on camera” every day--that he gets to make bigger, splashier, more public verbal miscues!

Think about it. How would you like to be in the spotlight, under the constant scrutiny of reporters just dying to catch you off guard? If some TV broadcaster were thrusting a microphone into my face 24 hours a day, 7 days a week I know I’d come up with mangled syntax that would rival anything our president has ever said!

The truth is that all of us get tongue-tied now and then. All of us have moments when we’re caught with that “deer in the headlight” look—unable to come up with anything intelligent to say.

Perhaps that happens most often when we’re asked a question that requires us to speak about God or our Christian faith. When someone calls us to “speak from our heart” about things that matter, issues of faith—then is when more often than not we clam up, find ourselves at a loss for words, tongue-tied, unable to speak.

You and I can prattle on for hours about the weather, gasoline prices, the Twins, the latest scuttlebutt at work, the juiciest gossip at school, how cute our grandkids are, you name it.

But if someone dangles a question out there asking us to speak out of our faith—well we get that look on our faces--like the way the President appears at a press conference when a reporter asks him a question for which he has no 3 x 5 card answer!

And when that happens, our situation is sorrier than President Bush’s predicament. Because when the President is at a loss for words, it’s usually just over some here-today-gone-tomorrow, issue of the moment.

But when someone invites us to speak of our faith—they’re opening up a door on eternity, posing an opportunity to talk about the most important topic imaginable!

Followers of Jesus simply must expect that others will ask them what it means to follow Jesus. It’s in the nature of things! We can count on it.

Therefore, we’d be wise to think about that sort of thing—before it happens.

That’s the first bit of wisdom that comes to us here in this text from I Peter 3. Always be prepared, the apostle encourages us.

When these words first saw the light of day, being a Christian was dangerous business. The First Epistle of Peter was written for Christians under siege, suffering persecution at the hands of the Roman empire.

Those to whom Peter first wrote were regularly being dragged out of their homes, hauled from their work places, marched at the point of a sword to some tribunal, some stern judge who wasn’t going to mince any words or beat around the bush. “What gives? What’s with you? Give us an answer—quickly now! How do you justify this Christian faith of yours?”

Because Peter’s fellow Christians didn’t know the day or hour when they might be put on the spot—it only made sense for the apostle to advise them: Always be prepared….

In other words: start getting ready now. Formulate your thoughts ahead of time. Come up with, and even practice, your witness to Jesus. Don’t act as though it’s not going to happen.

Dear friends in Christ, I don’t expect that many of us are going to be asked about our faith at the point of a sword or with a gun aimed in our direction.

But we can and we will be asked. The topic will come up. The opportunity will present itself. And when it does--and we get that “deer-in-the-headlight” look, it doesn’t just make us look bad. It makes Jesus look bad, quite frankly. It makes faith seem like some cheap thing that really isn’t worth anybody’s time, effort or passion.

So, Peter advises believers of all ages: get ready before it happens, always be prepared…

And for what should we prepare?

We should prepare for someone to call us to account. We don’t need to contrive chances to do that. We don’t need to orchestrate things. We simply need to be attentive to the opportunities that will, that do, that surely come our way.

It could sound like this: Why do you spend so much time over at that church?
Or when something awful has happened, it could sound like this: Why aren’t you falling apart, given all that you’re going through?

Or it could even sound like this: Hey--what gives you a right to be so happy??

Every day some circumstance, some encounter, some question sets us up to speak from the heart, to reveal something about the source and goal of our lives, to put in a good word for Jesus and his love.

For what should we always be prepared?

I love how Peter puts it in our text: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you…

What that other guy who asks you that question is fishing around for is hope, your hope, the hope that is in you, the hope that God has planted in your heart so that you can keep on going, looking up, moving ahead—always toward God’s future.

This is not some dark, grim business we’re talking about. It is about hope. Always be ready to give an accounting for the hope that is in you.

Christian witness or evangelizing or whatever we call it—it gets such a bad rap because of the way it’s so often done—beating someone over the head with a load of guilt, a gunny-sack full of “would haves/could haves/should haves.”

But that’s not what Peter is after here. Peter is after hope! And the persons who set you up with a question or statement or maybe just a look or a sigh—the persons who pitch the ball to you, slowly and right over home plate—they’re not looking for a guilt trip. They’re hungering for some of your hope!

So, dear friends, don’t clam up. Don’t freeze. Let the Spirit speak through you, let Jesus in you have his way with those whom God places in your path. Say it—short and sweet if you prefer, but say it. And don’t worry about being eloquent or impressive!

So, someone asks: “Why do you spend so much time over at that church?”
Answer: Well you see it’s my home, it’s where my dear family gathers, it’s where my Father meets me, washes me, feeds me, speaks to me, takes me by my hand, and sends me back into his world.

Or someone else wonders: “Why aren’t you falling apart in tragedy?”
Answer: Well I guess it’s just that I know I’m not alone. My Best Friend, Jesus, is with me—he will not abandon me—and I trust he will wring some good out of this!

Or some skeptic confronts you with: “Hey—what gives you a right to be so happy?”
Answer: Well, as a matter of fact, I don’t have a right to be happy—but in God I always have a reason for joy. In the Lord, I get to start over fresh every day. Walking with Jesus, I know where I’m heading—into God’s tomorrow. Best of all: I know how the Story ends—in the endless love and mercy of my Savior.

If those sorts of responses help you—by all means, use them—help yourself.

But you don’t need to mouth my faltering words. You can, you will come up with something of your own. Jesus in you, the Spirit your Advocate, will give you something to say.

Get ready now. Plan ahead. Expect to be put on the spot.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.