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.


  1. Thanks be to God for the congregations that comprise the Northwestern Minnesota Synod. Thanks be to God for you and whole synod staff. Your message, Larry was inspired and inspiring. Thanks be to God that our Lord Jesus provides with a fresh mount to ride. Shalom, my friend. Keith

  2. Amen! There is a new spirit of excitement and energy in our synod, a determination to reach out with the love of Christ to our communities and our world. Blessings to you this summer.

  3. Larry- Please address this question some of us have from the synod assembly: Does the synod (and the synod's congregations) rush to "change" out of a feeling of anxiety, or should we think about what change means for ministry and mission before we jump on the change wagon? One thing implied by the assembly is that traditional ministry in Northwestern MN needs to end so "new and better" forms of ministry happen.

  4. I'm grateful for the three comments that have been posted thus far. I especially want to respond to the comment from "anonymous". By no means do I believe that what we need is "change for change's sake." That would be mindless, thoughtless, faithless change. I'm not interested in that. What I am interested in is encouraging all of our congregations to see themselves as "mission churches" willing to spend time defining their purpose, opening themselves up to change that will serve that purpose, and empowering leaders to help the congregation pursue their purpose. I see our congregations all along a continuum in this regard. Some congregations are out ahead of us all. Other congregations are pretty much stuck in business-as-usual mode. And many congregations lie somewhere in between. Anxiety about our future (as Lutheran Christians) has gotten my attention--as it should make ALL of us sit up straight. But anxiety is not what impels me. Hope in God, and excitement about God's great global rescue mission in Jesus Christ is what motivates me. How can God use us? How can we open ourselves up to God's renewing work? Those are the questions I want us to embrace.