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.