Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Government Shall Be Upon His Shoulders

I am not scheduled to preach until January 3rd, but I want to pass on a link to a great Christmas Eve sermon preached a year ago by Tom Wright at the Cathedral of Durham in England.   Wright is at the top of my list of 21st century theologians worth watching; he consistently "gets" the missional thrust of the Good News about Jesus--splendidly.   There's an excerpt below to whet your appetite.  Enjoy the whole sermon at The Government Shall Be Upon His Shoulders

"The story the gospels tell is not whistling in the dark. It’s about this child growing up and starting to put God’s kingdom into operation, close up, wherever he goes. This is what it looks like, he says, when God is running things. The world gets turned the right way up. Watch, in the gospels, as the Wonderful Counsellor goes to work, dealing with individuals but also confronting the systems which had enslaved them, and upsetting the slavemasters. Watch as the Mighty God strides through Galilee feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rescuing people and restoring creation itself. Look on in awe as the Everlasting Father is seen mirrored in the incarnate Son, giving himself totally to his beloved world. And, if you dare in the light of our culture where war, the way of death, is the way of life for so many, watch as Jesus, from his earliest beginnings with a price on his head through to his riding the donkey into Jerusalem, shows what it looks like when the Prince of Peace is on the move. He comes to get God’s kingdom off the ground – or perhaps we should say, precisely on to the ground, the real life of real people. And that involves taking upon himself the full force of the world’s cruel systems, the political and economic enslavement from which we still suffer, so that the power of evil can be broken and something new may take its place. That was true at Jesus’ birth, as it was true at his death. This is what the alternative looks like. Some mock it as if it were irrelevant, but the truth is that it is all too relevant, a rumour of hope that the powers of the world do their best to hush up."

Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Small Start to God's Huge New Thing

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Wadena, MN
Advent 2—December 6, 2009
Commissioning of Christie Meier, A.I.M.
I Samuel 1:1-2:10

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

This hauntingly beautiful story of Hannah plays itself out at a pivotal moment in the saga of ancient Israel.

Up to this point in the Old Testament the children of Israel have been delivered from slavery in Egypt by Moses….they’ve been granted God’s covenantal law at Mt. Sinai….and they’ve been led by Joshua to cross the Jordan River and conquer the land God had promised to them.

But when Moses and Joshua had both passed from the scene….after the people of Israel had occupied the promised land….they fell on hard times. Why? Because the former inhabitants kept trying to reclaim their territory, even as dissension arose among Israel’s twelve tribes.

This crucial time, a 200-year period, is described in the Book of Judges. Judges reads a lot like a Western—a tale of lawlessness on the frontier, punctuated by brief periods of peace when a new leader would be raised up. Israel’s judges were a little like sheriffs in the Old American West—Wyatt Earp characters who temporarily restored law and order, until the next band of outlaws came along.

The final verse in the Book of Judges sums up the sorry state of affairs that prevailed: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.” (Judges 21:25).

This perpetually unsettled situation could not go on. Something had to give. The old order had to give way to a new order--lest the people of Israel dwindle and vanish from the scene.

It is in this moment--when threats from without and strife from within threatened to undo God’s people Israel….that God acted to do a new thing, to start afresh, in the most unexpected of ways.

And this new thing God was doing began with a pregnancy.

These pivotal first chapters in the book of I Samuel reveal God picking out about the most unlikely of places to begin again—in the household of a righteous man whose name was Elkanah.

The whole nation is in an uproar, and God singles out one man, his wife, and their offspring. Does that have a familiar ring to it? God starts small, in order to do a huge new thing.

But the family of Elkanah had its own share of problems. The man had two wives—Peninah, who was sort of a “baby factory,” and Hannah who couldn’t get pregnant for love nor money. Elkanah favored Hannah, and maybe that’s why the other wife Peninah was so hard on her, constantly throwing up into Hannah’s face the shame of her barrenness. Elkanah’s household mirrored the strife in the land of Israel—and yet God chose this household to give Israel a fresh start.

And it begins--the action is really driven here--not by the strong husband, but by the weary wife. This is Hannah’s story. And Hannah, we learn, is a special case.

She will settle for no consolation prizes. Elkanah, that old smooth-talker, asks her: “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” (v. 8) But Hannah is not content with that.

She goes right to the top, pleading her case before the God of Israel, praying for the better part of a day in the holy place at Shiloh.

Hannah will accept no substitutes for what she desires the most—a child, a son (to be exact) whom she might bring into the world….so that she might return this same son to God, a fully-dedicated living sacrifice.

But as Hannah prays all day at Shiloh, another man gets into the act. Old Eli the doddering priest, whose two scallywag sons were making a mockery of the priesthood--Eli spies Hannah moving her lips, but saying nothing audible—and Eli assumes the worst.

“How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself?” (v. 14) he asks Hannah, accusingly. But Hannah does not back down. “No, my lord,(she responds) I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord…” (v. 15)

Then Eli, who in many respects represented the tired old order that was soon to pass away…then Eli blessed Hannah and came as close as anyone does in this story to proclaiming the gospel to her: “Go in peace, the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” (v. 17)

And that is what Hannah does.

She dries her teary eyes, heads home to the loving arms of her husband, conceives a child, bears him and names him Samuel. And eventually Hannah returns to Shiloh to make good on her promise to give back to God her first-born son.

That son, Samuel, would become God’s instrument in doing a new thing in Israel. God used Samuel to preserve his precious people, to anoint the first two kings of Israel—Saul and David—who brought stability and finally a measure of peace to God’s people.

Now, my dear friends, I ask: do you have a sense of déjà vu as you hear this story of Hannah, the mother of Samuel? Are there not echoes here—echoes of other similar tales in the Bible?

There are, actually, several such stories in our scriptures—tales of women longing to bear a child into the world. Strange, isn’t it—how many “problem pregnancies” there are in our Bible?

The world is in a horrible mess, the old is passing away, a new regime is dawning….and it starts so small, with a mother, and a cry in the night, as a baby is born. It happened to Sarah, to Hannah, to Elizabeth, and in the fullness of time—it happened to Mary, the mother of our Lord.

God starts small—in order to do a huge new thing, to usher in a new order, to make way for a new heaven and a new earth.

That’s what makes this such a wonderful Advent story. It’s a foreshadowing of the miracle that will happen in Bethlehem’s stable, when another cry in the night signals the greatest New Thing God has ever imagined—the Advent, the coming of God’s gracious and gentle reign over all things through the boy-child born to Mary.

God starts small—in order to do a huge new thing.

And that is still God’s way, God’s modus operandi among us, in our time and place.

Ever year, when Advent rolls around, I’m struck by how much the world still needs Jesus, how much you and I still need a Savior. Threats from without, strife from within--our world seems just as unsettled and uncertain as it was when Hannah prayed for a son at the shrine at Shiloh.

Think about the year just past.

We’ve weathered a global economic downturn, a recession from which we’re only now starting to recover.

Here in northwestern Minnesota we’ve dealt with record snowfalls, spring flooding, a less-than-ideal growing season, and now a difficult fall harvest.

And even in our churches we struggle with actions on sexuality at our ELCA churchwide assembly this past August in Minneapolis.

Do you ache for, long for, pine for God’s gracious intervention once again this Advent?

Here is how it will happen once again: God will start small to do a huge new thing in our midst. In the words of Hannah’s great song, God our Rock (I Sam. 2:2) will act once again, to kill in us whatever needs to die, so that God might make us alive again (v. 6)….alive not in our own strength, or in the rightness of our morality, or in our workaholic busyness--but alive solely in God’s mercy, showered down upon us most decisively in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We witness one small sign of this enlivening, animating mercy of God today as we celebrate with Christie Meier—and commission her for service as an Associate in Ministry of the ELCA.

Christie, you and Hannah are a lot alike. You are patient—and persistent. You don’t settle easily for anything less than what you pursue. You aren’t content with consolation prizes. You pray fervently, work passionately, confident that God will not disappoint you.

Most importantly, Christie, you know the Good News. The first time I met you, you were offering devotions at a conference gathering, and I said to myself: “Here’s somebody who ‘gets’ the gospel…someone who knows how to ‘deliver the goods.’”

Two billion Chinese and over a billion residents of India have no idea what will go on here this morning. It might seem like a small thing, this hour of worship, this commissioning rite for Christie.

But God’s speciality, God’s modus operandi is to begin in small ways to do a huge New Thing. And God insists that you and I get caught up in this New Thing.

Isn’t that amazing?

In the name of Jesus.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Home Again!

Thanks to you who have followed these blog entries on our India trip.  Alas, we were not able to make as many postings from India as we had of many learnings from our very rewarding pilgrimage to this fascinating corner of God's creation.

Joy, Hank and I returned safely last evening to the Hector International Airport, Fargo, ND, at about 10:45 p.m. local time.   Yesterday was the longest Tuesday of my life, about 35.5 hours long, if my calculations are accurate....because we left Chennai around 1:30 a.m. (Chennai time) on Nov. 17th and arrived in Fargo before midnight (Fargo time)....all on November 17th.

We are feeling quite well.   We had not gastrointestinal problems in India, thanks to the care of others for us and our own cautious approach to eating, drinking and hand-washing.   I picked up some lower-back pain toward the end of the journey, probably the result of too much sitting, too little exercise and lack of rest.   Joy and I slept about 8 hours last night (a long night for us!)....and we know that overcoming jet lag will still take some days.

In reviewing the postings I made in India, I was aware of an error and a place name that may not have made much sense to anyone trying to follow our travels on a map.    The name of the rural valley we visited on Nov. 11th was the Araku Valley--that was my spelling error.    Also, the name of Vizig, India is actually an abbreviation for Vishakhapatnam (this is one of a couple of spellings for this city), along the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

A note about the photos on this page:   ABOVE--our small travel party in front of some Hindu statues on a hill about Vizig, overlooking the Bay of Bengal.   BELOW--Grace, the truly gracious wife of Bishop Suneel, enjoying some fresh coconut juice with me near the Borra Caves, in the Araku Valley.   FAR BELOW--Bishop Suneel, my dear brother in Christ, with me by a commemorative plaque we unveiled at the offices of the AELC in Guntur.

Today is a rest-up, clean-up day for Joy and me....but I hope to do some more posting on the blog in the days to come, to tell a fuller version of our story.   We are so deeply grateful for our time in India, with the great people of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church....and we are thankful to God for the gift of this time AND for the safe return to Minnesota.

More later!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Day in Rural India

Today, (Wednesday) found us heading out of Vizig toward a rural area for some sight-seeing and visiting of a small rural church.   We were a party of about 15 persons in a mini-bus, including local (synod) officials and AELC leaders.    Contrary to some weather predictions that had us facing possible rain and gale force winds, we had a glorious, mainly sunny day.

The Araku Valley area is one of the most scenic areas in this part of India--high, forested hills, terraced farmland, the Borra Caves--and free-range MONKEYS!   "Do not tease the monkeys," is a sign one doesn't see in Moorhead, MN.

On our way back to Vizig we stopped for a brief time of prayers and meeting at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, a mission outpost that reflects many of the ways we do mission outreach in NW MN.   First, the fledgling church has a "mother" church in Vizig--"churches starting churches."   Second, the plan is that as the congregation expands--which looks likely--the current small worship building will become a parsonage, and a new edifice will be built.   Third, these folks are aware of their mission field.  In addition to the local folks--many of whom are "tribal" people, they are on a major highway toward the Araku Valley scenic they hope to reach out to tourists.   Sound familiar to those of you in NW MN?

The welcome was warm, the singing memorable, and the post-worship meal was great, with some fried chicken that was out of this world.  

Now I must sign off in order to get ready for an overnight train ride to our next destination.   We are doing well, seeing lots, and making some wonderful new friends.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

India Update

Despite my good intentions to blog regularly "on the road," it appears that my plans to do so may not materialize.   Why?   I'm finding that Internet connections are very spotty, and the schedule is grueling--rewarding, yes, but very full days!

In fact, even now, I'm literally falling asleep at the keyboard while blogging from the lobby at the DasPalla Hotel in Vizig, India.    So rather than offering more extended reflections, I'll simply share some brief updates from the last two days....

SUNDAY, we headed out early in the rmorning for worship at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Chennai, a congregation affiliated with the Indian Evangelical Lutheran Church (connected to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod).   The very small group of English-speaking Lutherans who gathered together, used The Lutheran Hymnal of 1941-the worship book I grew up with.   I preached from a pulpit that was dedicated years ago by then-president of the Missouri Synod, J.A. O Preus.

Next we went to Resurrection Lutheran Church, a Telegu-speaking congregation of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church, also in Chennai.   Very warm, welcoming folks....and our first introduction to the beautiful, almost haunting chant-style worship for which the Telegu people are known.  

Following lunch with some folks from Resurrection, we went back to the hotel for a very helpful briefing by two leaders of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church.   In the early evening I preached at the chapel service at Gurukul Lutheran Theological College (GLTC)....before ending the day with a late-evening dinner with the director (president) of GLTC and one of the school's professors of missiology.

MONDAY was a travel day, as we flew out of Chennai for Vizig.   It was wonderful being greeting by Suneel and Grace Bhanu Busi--Suneel is the newly-elected bishop of the AELC.    Following some rest time in the afternoon, we feted Grace on her birthday, with a grand supper.

TODAY--Tuesday (Nov. 10) was very full, with the AELC's annual Pastors Day Celebration at Immanuel Lutheran Church in Vizig.   I preached at the morning worship service and an evening ordination service (two sermons), and it was profoundly moving to participate in the laying-on-of-hands for 70 new pastors in the AELC.

I'm including a photo of our arrival in Vizig (that's me, Joy and Hank)--all decked out in garlands and bouquets of fresh-cut flowers, "India style."  Tomorrow (Wednesday) we travel into the rural areas of the AELC, and I may not be able to do any more blogging until the weekend.    We are all doing well, finding it hard to get the exercise and rest that we need, but we also don't want to miss any of this great adventure.   More later, when time and Internet connections permit.

First Day in Chennai....Continued

Mid-day on Saturday (Nov. 7) our small party was hosted by the staff of the United Evangelical Lutheran Church in India in their building on the campus of Gurukul Lutheran Theological College. Dr. Augustine, the current executive secretary of the UELCI addressed us briefly and welcomed us “India style” with shawls, gifts and refreshments.

The UELCI is a “communion of churches in the midst of struggles” (as they describe themselves in a brochure we received). Not as much a denomination, as we use that term in America, but a council of Lutheran churches—the UELCI is made up of twelve Lutheran churches spread across the subcontinent. They claim up to 2.5 million members (though church record keeping in India appears to be less precise than what we shoot for in North America)….meaning that our Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church companion synod is the largest of these twelve churches. Dr. Augustine mentioned that more than 95% of Lutheran church members in India are Dalits, a.k.a. “untouchables.”

At the present the UELCI has four central priorities:

1. “Capacity-building,” which, as I heard it described, sounded much like the same efforts we are pursuing in the NW MN Synod to move into God’s mission, renewing our capacity to pass on the faith, form disciples and cultivate life-giving faith practices.

2. Leadership development, focused it would seem in the UELCI on helping new bishops or presidents of the twelve member churches take up their callings in faithful, effective ways.

3. Embrace of the “Purpose Driven” perspective championed in the U.S. by evangelical pastor Rick Warren.

4. “Peace and reconciliation,” which as Augustine described it, has to do with intra-church conflicts that arise when new bishops/presidents are chosen by the member churches, synods and dioceses. In India, bishop elections are—not to put too fine a point on it—rather more “politicized” than in the ELCA.

We then heard brief presentations from members of Dr. Augustine’s small staff—only about ten persons in all—who lead “programmes” (I’m slipping into the British spelling…) in areas such as

• Social action—lots of emphasis on development and community organizing, and disaster response

• Youth ministries—with ages 0-8 designated “children,” ages 9-14 designated “juniors,” and agest 15-40 considered “youth” (i.e. combining the “youth” and “young adult” categories commonly used among American Lutherans). It sounds as though the delay of the onset of adulthood is a factor in Indian life, just as it is in America.

• HIV/AiDs ministries—one of these ministries is called SWAP, the “Slum Women ‘s Advancement Programme, which has an HIV/AiDs component.

• Dalit ministries, among India’s lower castes who make up the bulk of Christians in India.

• An intriguing program to provide milch cows (milk cows) for young widows—this is both a charitable and a development approach, providing a means for rural widows to feed their families and develop capacity for making a living (reminiscent of the old FFA “gilt ring” approach—whereby a farm kid received the gift of a bred gilt, to build up a swine herd, eventually returning a bred gilt to the program so that others can participate.)

• Women’s programme—There is lots of attention to this area, and I learned later in our visit that “women’s work” has been one of the shining stars in the Indian Lutheran churches. Areas of involvement include theological education for women, microfinance programmes to assist women in building up small businesses, gender justice questions, and the ordination of women. With respect to the latter, we learned that nine of the twelve member churches of the UELCI ordain women, although because of cultural traditions it seems to be difficult for ordained women to secure parish appointments. UELCI also maintains a training center to teach women basic job skills, e.g. typing.

Saturday evening we enjoyed supper with Dr. Monica Melanchthon and Dr. K. Rajaratnam.   Dr. Melanchthon teaches Old Testament at the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, and Dr. Rajaratnam was the long-time executive secretary of the UELCI--both wonderful meal companions, generous in sharing their long-term perspectives on India and the Lutheran Church in this part of the world.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

First Day in Chennai, India

In the next ten days I will be doing some live blogging from our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church of India.   My travel companions are Prof. Hank Tkachuk of the communications studies department at Concordia College, Moorhead (and a longtime India-phile and traveler to this amazing subcontinent) and my dear wife Joy.   We departed from Fargo ND on Nov 6 and hope to return to Fargo on Nov. 17th.   Bear in mind that this is our first overseas trip--for Joy and me, that this blog may read like the wide-eyed wonderings of a waif wandering the world.

After about 30 hours of travel—including stopovers on the ground in Minneapolis, New York and Brussels—we arrived in India at about 12:45 a.m. today (Nov. 7). Though very late at night, the Chennai airport was all abuzz with passengers coming and going, and a large crowd of folks waiting to greet visitors, offer rides, etc. Although this is “winter” in Chennai, and the temperature was “only” about 69 degrees F., we could feel the heat and humidity almost instantly.

Passing through customs was amazingly quick and easy. A screening for the H1N1 virus was accomplished via a thermal imaging camera, which presented images on a TV screen. In short, this is designed to pick up only on the question of fever—if you’re too hot (literally!) you show up red on the TV monitor and get pulled over for more health questions. Customs consisted of having a clerk check your passport, visa and some entry documents provided on the airplane….easy as pie.

It was great to be welcomed by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Meshack of the Gurukul Lutheran Theological College in Chennai. Having taught communications at the college for many years, Sam has been principal (dean) of the college for the last five years. A long-time friend of our traveling companion, Prof. Hank Tkachuk, Sam had secured a small van and driver for our late-evening ride to the Breeze Hotel, our home for three nights.

Immediately we were impressed by the size of the crowds in the streets, the endless “chirping” of the vehicles (honking, done not so much in anger as out of a need to keep track of where everybody on the streets is in relationship to your vehicle), and a somewhat hectic drive from the airport to our hotel—lots of traffic for so late at night.

Our accommodations at the Breeze Hotel are quite fine. We are slowly mastering the international travelers’ arts of figuring out new configurations of power outlets, learning to brush teeth with bottled water, deciphering what switch operates what lights—fun stuff.

Following a restful but short night of sleep, we were up by 9 a.m. in order to catch breakfast with Hank before heading over for a visit to the headquarters of the UELCI—United Evangelical Lutheran Churches in India. Our hostess for the morning was Dr. Monica Melanchthon who teaches at Gurukul and whom I had heard speak at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in 2003 in Milwaukee. A warm and gracious woman, Monica was pinch-hitting for Sam who had had to leave Chennai due to a death in his family.

Our ride from the Breeze Hotel over to the Gurukul compound (where the UELCI is headquartered, also) was all the more adventurous due to the flooding in Chennai, a result of too many days of rain. Cars, vans, bikes and motored rickshaws all plowing through streets with up to a foot of water in places. Our driver is very skillful though—he drives through spaces about as narrow and daunting as those memorable double-decker bus scenes from the Harry Potter movies. Amazing!

I'll write more later about our meeting with the UELCI staff in my next post, but now the hotel exercise room is beckoning!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Membership Has Its Privileges

American Lutheran Church, Long Prairie, MN
October 18, 2009
Mark 10:35-45

In the name of Jesus.


Membership has its privileges.

I understand that this phrase is actually trademarked by the American Express Company, so I’m not sure it’s even legal for me to use it in this sermon.

But too late—I already have….so before the trademark police come to haul me away, I better get to the point.

Membership has its privileges.

We all know what that means, and although it sounds a little uppity, we could get used to it—right? We can envision our name on a coveted American Express Card that gains access, opens doors, and identifies you as a “force to be contended with.”

Membership has its privileges….which is another way of talking about power…

…and power is what’s afoot here in this gospel lesson from Mark chapter 10.

James and John, two of our Lord’s inner circle followers, come up to Jesus and ask him to write out a blank check: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus asks them what’s on their minds and they blurt out their request: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

If that image—of sitting at the right and the left hand of Jesus—doesn’t make sense to you, think about the Cabinet meeting room in our own White House. Who gets the choice seats, closest to President Obama? Let me give you a hint: it’s not the secretary of education or the secretary of agriculture! They are low men on the totem pole. The choice spots—the spots closest to the President’s ear—go to the highest ranking cabinet members—Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, and Timothy Geitner, the secretary of the treasury. Everybody else has to lean in and listen closely.

What James and John ask here is to have the seats of power on Jesus’ cabinet. There can only be one person directly to Jesus’ right and another person directly to his left—and why shouldn’t James and John have those seats?

Very quickly, of course, this three-way conversation becomes more public. The other ten disciples—leaning in, listening closely—are none too happy with the sons of Zebedee. And why? I think it’s because James and John beat them all to the punch. I hate it when that happens—don’t you?—when someone butts into line ahead of me, boldly asking for what I was thinking about asking.

Make no mistake about it: this gospel lesson is about power—power grabbing, power over others, power to work your will and get things done. James and John and all the other disciples wanted that power….and they thought Jesus would give it to them….but as usual, in Mark’s Gospel, they all missed the boat entirely.

So, as we’ve seen time and again in these last weeks, late in the Pentecost season, Jesus has to call for a time out, invite the disciples into a huddle and try—one more time!!—to straighten them out.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

When it comes to power, you see, there are two ways: the Gentile way and the Jesus way.

The Gentile way is the garden variety way power gets exercised in this old world, day in and day out. Those who lack power seek to gain power, and those who have power cling to it for dear life. Power makes the world go around. It’s how you assert yourself, pursue your dreams, accomplish your goals.

The Gentle way is about “power over” someone else, it’s about bending others to your will whether through raw force or subtle persuasion. It’s an ends-justify-the-means game, with winners and losers…and everybody scrambling not to be at the end of the line or the bottom of the heap.

James and John, putting two and two together, sized up Jesus and reckoned that he’d be taking over any day now, so they wanted to get in on the power while the getting was good. “He who hesitates is lost,” they thought….so they jostled to the head of the line and called first dibs….and all the other disciples wanted to clean their clocks.

That’s the Gentile way, the customary way, the default position we all have when it comes to power.

And Jesus…Jesus will have none of it! Not that Jesus doesn’t care about power, mind you. But Jesus has such a radically different “take” on power. Jesus’ power is a power unlike anything that we know in this world.

When it comes to power, there’s the Gentile way, and there’s the Jesus way…and never the twain shall meet!

Because if the Gentile way of having power is to pursue a power over others….the Jesus way is a power under, a power with, a power alongside.

If the Gentile way is about grabbing and hanging onto power for dear life, the Jesus way is about letting go, giving up, tossing away your life….not to control others for your own sake….but to fulfill others for their sake.

Jesus knows full well the Gentile way, he lived under it every day of his earthly life. But it was never his way. Jesus has another way, and he boldly says so here in verse 43: It is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

It is not so among you, Jesus flat out declares to us. He doesn’t say: I sure hope I can persuade you to see things my way. No. Jesus doesn’t command or cajole here, but rather he announces a change that is already coming over us, simply because Jesus is the one standing before us, speaking to us and we now belong to him: “it is not so among you.”

Jesus imprints his way of power upon us. Jesus does that by living out his “downwardly mobile” way of having and holding power, coming down from heaven, squeezing himself into Mary’s womb, being born in the meanest of surroundings, walking among the poorest of the poor, giving himself away at every turn, and finally allowing this Gentile-way-world to edge him out of it, up onto a cross “for us and for our salvation.”

Where the Gentile way says: go, gain advantage, grab, hang on to power for dear life…..the Jesus way counters by saying follow, make yourself vulnerable, let go of life, give yourselves away for the sake of others—to help them be all that God has created them to be.

That’s not just a great goal to shoot for, either. It is our destiny in Christ Jesus: it is not so among you, Jesus tells us all….”for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Membership has its privileges. James and John thought that might be true…but they had only the tiniest inkling of what they were getting themselves into….and so Jesus had to open their eyes, even as Jesus is opening our eyes again here and now, today.

But really now, what does this look like in the hurly-burly of daily life? How does the Jesus way actually play itself out among us?

• Think back to the last time you vowed to throw the book at someone who messed up. Jesus’ way takes you in a different direction—Jesus’ power leads you and me to show mercy when the Gentile way would say “get even.”

• Or remember when, instead of proving your superiority and gaining the upper hand over someone—remember when you stepped aside, took yourself out of the running, deferred to them, let them shine? That’s Jesus’ power in you, cracking open such wild possibilities!

• Or recall an occasion when you denied yourself, put yourself out for another person, spent yourself for them, redirected your time, talent or treasure for their benefit. Jesus’ power frees us for such reckless service.

• Or ponder how we do that corporately, in the way we “do church.” Friends, our Lord calls us at every turn to “do church” his way, not the Gentile way. And so we refuse to play power games with one another, we shun coercion, we listen to one another, take one another seriously, make room especially for the least of those among us, and we finagle ways to give away what we have, to spend ourselves utterly for the sake of the world.

Dear friends, when God graciously leads us to bypass the Gentile way of power-seeking and power-grabbing…..when God mercifully allows us to live, in even the tiniest of ways, the Jesus way in the world….God amazingly shows forth, indeed re-presents to the world another way of having and using power: the Jesus way, the way of him who “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In the name of Jesus.

Through the Needle's Eye

Zion Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls
October 11, 2009
Mark 9:17-31

In verse 22 of this morning’s gospel lesson we read: “When [the man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving…”

A fellow came up to Jesus, engaged him in pastoral conversation about deep matters of faith—and based on what Jesus told him, the man was shocked, went away grieving…

And apparently, Jesus just let him go.

Isn’t that striking?

As a pastor I try never to let that sort of thing happen. If someone comes to me, asking honest questions and seeking truthful answers, I try not to dismay them so badly that they’re overcome by grief and walk away from me.

If I were Jesus, I would have gone after this man. I would have caught up with him and said: “You know, maybe I was a little hasty. Perhaps I overstated things just a bit—can’t we just talk about this? I really don’t want you to go off in a huff.”

But Jesus just lets the man go—and he does that, in spite of the fact that Jesus liked this guy—verse 21 says that Jesus even loved him.

And still, Jesus was willing to let the man go.

Why? Why doesn’t Jesus run after him, try to reason with him, turn him around?

I think it’s because Jesus isn’t like most pastors. Jesus isn’t a “recovering people pleaser.” Jesus doesn’t shy away from speaking hard truths—exercising tough love.

Why did the rich man leave—why didn’t he stick around longer?

I think it’s because Jesus struck a nerve. Jesus located the man’s Achille’s heel. Jesus focused on the one and only thing standing between this man and the Kingdom of God.

Think of Jesus as if he were your family physician.

You’re in your doctor’s office, lying down on the exam table, and she’s probing your abdomen. Things are going fine until she finds a spot that makes you jump. And rather than going back over all the parts of you that are OK--your doctor keeps going back to that one painful spot, asking you to hold your breath and then let your breath out, listening with her stethoscope—asking you silly questions like: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad’s the pain when I press right HERE?”

Jesus, in this gospel lesson, is like such a physician. He probes the man’s life, searching relentlessly for what ails him.

And at first, it doesn’t seem like there’s much wrong with this man. He’s kept all the commandments since he was a wee little lad—no murder rap, no extra-marital affair, no “dissing” of his parents, no petty theft—nothing like that. Jesus probes and prods, and the man is feeling no pain.

Until—until Jesus discovers one touchy area. And when Dr. Jesus finds that vulnerable spot, he announces his diagnosis: “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.”

And all at once, things turn south for this man—he hurts like the dickens, his pain (on a scale of 1 to 10) is at about 17, “for he had many possessions.”

But instead of taking the medicine, pursuing the remedy that would cure him—the man just got out of there. Jesus got too close for comfort. So the man departs, shocked and grieving…

And Jesus lets him go.

Jesus apparently loves the guy enough—takes him seriously enough--to trust that the truth Jesus had just spoken would still work on him—would soften him up and finally bring him to that day when--pray God!--the man would become small enough, poor enough, empty enough to enter God’s Kingdom.

Gaining entry into God’s Kingdom, you see, is about reducing, losing, emptying.

Jesus recommended an astonishing weight loss program--a divine reducing plan. Entering God’s Kingdom means jettisoning all the extra baggage of our lives so that we become small enough to pass through the entrance to God’s Kingdom.

And just how small is that entrance?

Well, says Jesus, it’s about this small—about as tiny as the eye of a needle.

The great British writer, C.S. Lewis, once declared that nothing’s really impossible—that a camel can even get through the eye of a needle, although it’s rather hard on the camel!

So also, you and I wince when we hear Dr. Jesus’ prescription here. For, truth be told, we also have many possessions. Compared to how most poor people on the face of the earth live, you and I are robber barons—we’re the super-rich. We’ve got more stuff than we know what to do with. No wonder we hold annual garage sales and fill up our landfills!

We’ve got too much stuff. It’s choking us—clogging up our lives!

Dr. Jesus offers a prescription for this deadly disease of affluenza, getting all bogged down in our possessions….being possessed by our possessions.

Jesus looks at us, loves us, and says—get rid of it. Take the weight off. Go on my guaranteed reducing plan—gain life by giving it all away.

When Jesus has his way with us, prying us loose from the stranglehold of our money, the tyranny of our possessions…..Jesus opens up life—for us and for our neighbors.

It’s a two-for-one deal, you see! Jesus’ gift of generosity saves our lives and the lives of others.

Giving away the stuff, the money, that threatens to possess us….cutting that all loose saves us from idolatry, worshipping the gift rather than the Giver. It saves our lives, opening us up to the source of True Life, Jesus.

But there is more. Giving our stuff away aves the lives of our neighbors as well, especially our neediest neighbors—who long for food, hunger for good news, are thirsty for God.

Do you see how Jesus works a “double-whammy salvation” when he leads us into lives of generous giving? First Jesus saves us from ourselves—saves us from the long, slow death that comes over us as we turn inward on our possessions, become obsessed with money, get addicted to “acquiring.”

Second, Jesus saves our neighbors by transforming our generosity into the fruits of God’s mission in the world. The stuff we most need to get rid of is the stuff our neighbors most need to receive!

• So we hold a garage sale with all the proceeds going to Lutheran World Relief. Our junk brings irrigation water to a small farm in Tanzania.

• We bite the bullet and take steps toward tithing to Zion Lutheran and its ministries. Our dollars fund education and youth ministries right here, and our generosity spills over to help Luther Seminary keep turning out new pastors.

• We get a bonus at work or an investment windfall, and rather than spending it on some stuff we’ll have to sell at a garage sale in a few years….we send the money to Lutheran Disaster Response or the ELCA Hunger Appeal, or we designate a gift for healthy snacks for students at a Lutheran school in Honduras.

• We revise our wills, realizing that we can keep giving our stuff away even after we die…and so we leave a bequest for our favorite Bible camp, or campus ministry, or church college, or other Christian ministry that matters to us.

That’s how it works, dear friends. Jesus infects us with his gift of generosity and it saves us, even as it saves our needy neighbors. That’s what getting caught up in God’s mission looks like!

But have I made it all sound too easy? It’s not easy, really! Living into God’s way, practicing generosity kills us before it makes us alive. It kills our acquisitiveness, kills our greed, kills all our me-first tendencies.

But the death of all that isn’t the end for us. This is a death that leads to life!

Look again at vv. 26 and 27: [Jesus’ disciples] were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

God loves impossible cases. God gets a kick out of helping you and me become small enough, empty enough to follow Jesus through the narrow passageway into God’s Kingdom.

God loves to pry our hands loose from the security of a fat bank account or a house-full of stuff. God delights in saving us from ourselves, and simultaneously saving our neighbors to boot!

God’s aim is simple: that we follow Jesus--who for our sake became small!—that we follow Jesus right through the eye of the needle….bringing us and our neighbors out on the other side--into that wide, open, liberating space called the Kingdom of God. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Look Who's Talking

NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes, MN
September 23, 2009
Mark 9:38-50

So we’ve been playing with the metaphor of eating this year. Dwelling in God’s Word is like dining, like consuming food….we “eat this book”….and what we eat gets metabolized into witness and service in the world…..and that’s all well and good.

But why, I wonder, why doesn’t the Word furnish us with just a little more “comfort food?”

You know what I’m talking about. Comfort food. Moms’s mashed potatoes slathered with real gravy, not some fake stuff out of a can. White bread with the crusts cut off, toasted with a little pat of butter on top. Comfort food--the kind of stuff you nibble on whileshaking off a 24-hour flu bug….the kind of food that fills your tummy and sends you off to sleep on a Sunday afternoon. Nap-inducing food…..what most preachers need after a jam-packed Sunday morning.

Why isn’t there more all-white, all-soft “comfort food” in the Bible? Why is the Book of Faith so big on the “hot and spicy” menu—the Tzechuan entrees?

Take this gospel lesson, with which we’re all wrestling this week—why couldn’t Jesus have slipped in some banana bread or caramel rolls here? Why does he have to hand us a word that sets our teeth on edge, a word that gives us heartburn?

We’re deep into Mark 9….perhaps a little relieved that this long chapter on discipleship is coming to an end. The disciples have been slow to understand, blockheads really, and as we read last Sunday, they were disinclined even to ask questions of Jesus. Not going to get very far that way—if you don’t even have the gumption to ask the teacher questions, you’re probably not going to learn much.

So as we round the bend into the home stretch of Mark 9 we’re wanting Jesus to at least hand out a few “A”s for effort…but no such luck!

John is the first one to realize that here, as he offers his discipleship “scouting report” to our Lord:

“Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

You’d think Jesus would be happy to hear about this ne’er-do-well exorcist who had refused to pay the “Jesus’ name” franchise fee, or (if you prefer) someone masquerading as a pastor without the benefit of a “Lutheran year” at an accredited ELCA seminary.

You’d think Jesus would have given John a gold star for vigilance…but instead, Jesus adopts an amazingly “live and let live” approach to this fraudulent healer.

The bonafide disciples wanted to draw the circle tighter, make the boundaries clearer...but Jesus gets all loosey-goosey and tells his followers to back off. “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Really, Jesus, that could potentially include all sorts of shady characters. “Whoever is not against us”—that standard of fellowship casts such a wide net…maybe especially for us right now, living in a church struggling with our own boundaries, our own definition of fellowship.

This is not helpful, Jesus. What if some flagrant, unrepentant sinner sashays up to us with a cup of cold water and gives it to us because we bear the name of Christ—then what are we supposed to do? Take it? Drink it? Jesus confounds us with his extravagant generosity.

All we wanted from the Word was some glorified rice and a warm blankie…but instead Jesus serves up spicy meatballs that make us run for the Pepto-Bismol!

And then it gets worse. This same Jesus who seems so soft on outsiders like that renegade exorcist…this same Jesus is a regular hard-nose when it comes to discipline among his precious insiders, the disciples!

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”

Funny thing, but I’ve never seen those words splashed in bold letters on plaques in the pastors’ studies in any of our churches. Maybe they should be—huh? Because if I’m reading these verses correctly, our butts are in the sling here, dear fellow servants and proclaimers of the Word!

Except at ordinations and installations we don’t talk this way very often. We forget those old scriptural charges to the ordained, the commissioned, the consecrated….charges like this one from I Timothy:

“Put these things into practice, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 16Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; continue in these things, for in doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

We Word-proclaimers bear radical responsibility for others. How might we cause “little ones” placed in our charge to stumble? How do we speak to the straight woman who grieves over the church she feels she has lost? How do we minister to the gay teen so deep into despair that he’s pondered taking his life? Are they not both “little ones” in our care? What are we offering them in the name of Jesus?

But Jesus doesn’t stop with radical responsibility for each other. He beckons us, also into the fiercest of self-discipline. “If your hand…your foot…you eye….if any of these members of your body cause you to stumble….get rid of them.”

We want to flee from this Word, don’t we? Jesus can’t possibly intend for us to take this stuff literally, can he? Otherwise the church would be one huge mass of stumbling, bumbling, half-blind beggars, right?

But, precisely at this point, I ask myself: “why am I so intimidated by this Word that I feel like taming it?”

I keep hearing Lutherans aren’t literalists, which of course is not true.

My friends, Lutherans are and always have been literalists, when dealing with texts clearly meant to be taken literally. Martin Luther rudely carved the words, “This IS my body…” into the oak table at the Colloquy of Marburg, while arguing over the Real Presence with the Reformed. The issue isn’t whether we’re literalists, but when we’re literalists…

Still, dear friends, even when we conclude that we shouldn’t be purchasing a bunch of millstones or machetes for our churches, even when we’re pretty sure we aren’t meant to take a text literally….we certainly better take that text seriously…which in this passage from Mark 9 might mean: we best take a good look in the mirror daily, confess our sins (maybe even to a personal confessor who can absolve us!), and remain mindful of how awful it is to slip and stumble while carrying the Good News.

So…we come to the Word looking for Graham-crackers and warm milk….and the Word just leaves us with chili peppers and a bad case of heartburn….and in this gospel pericope there seems to be no rabbit to pull out of the hat at the end—just some puzzling statements about salt that all smack of judgment to me!

That’s where the Word sometimes leaves us, does it not?--staring into the maw of judgment for all the ways we cause little ones to stumble, and for our own lackadaisical discipline of ourselves.

What’s a body to do? Where’s a body to turn?

Roy Harrisville of Luther Seminary once offered this advice to preachers trying to wrestle a Yes out of God’s No, especially in a heavy-on-the-Maalox text like this one.

When the text itself seems unrelenting in judgment, heavy on demand, short on Gospel….always, always, always remember who the Speaker of the text is.

Recall the One who speaks it to us, lays it on us.

This One, our Lord Jesus, always figures out ways to draw the circle broader and wider.

This One, our Lord Jesus, is always offering up his life for his fellows, always ready to have the millstone tied around his neck, for you and for me.

This One, our Lord Jesus, submitted himself not to have his hands and feet chopped off…but rather pierced through…to have his eyes, not plucked out…but closed in death, for us and for our salvation.

All the difficulties in this text, all the hard words it speaks to us drive us toward the unparalleled preciousness of our salvation…the amazing treasure that is the kingdom.

Whoever in any way, shape or fashion is aligned with that kingdom…whoever is not dead-set against Jesus is somehow for Jesus.

Christ’s coming kingdom is so precious that surely we will avoid anything that prevents someone else, some little one, from entering it.

And surely, surely, the only thing that is finally worth fearing, is the mere mention, the remote possibility that we somehow might miss this salvation or be deprived of our place in this kingdom.

Please pray with me: “O most loving Father, you want us to give thanks for all things, to fear nothing except losing you, and to lay all our cares on you, knowing that you care for us. Protect us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties, and grant that no clouds in this mortal life may hide from us the light of your immortal love shown to us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Slumdog Savior

Gran, Park and Rollag Lutheran Churches—Hawley, MN
September 20, 2009
Mark 9:30-37

“Two steps forward, three steps backward…”

I wonder whether Jesus felt that way while trying to school his followers in the Way of the Cross: two steps forward, three steps backward.

Jesus was trying to spell it out—to get his disciples ready for what was to come—betrayal, execution and resurrection—and the disciples kept misunderstanding, walking in the fog, missing the point entirely.
And, it would seem they weren’t all that interested in understanding what Jesus was saying, either. “They were afraid to ask him…” (v. 32).

Were they dumb or just plain “in denial?” I suspect the latter…because as this text unfolds, one has the distinct impression that they were catching on to at least some of what Jesus was telling them. But they didn’t want to see what Jesus was asking them to see. They were avoiding painful reality, as we all are wont to do!

And when we’re in denial, we think about more pleasant things, don’t we? I sure do. Get your mind off whatever’s bugging you….think happy thoughts….which in the case of these doofus disciples concerned the question of greatness. When they thought Jesus was far enough ahead of them, out of earshot, they argued with one another “who was the greatest.” (v. 34)

Talk about missing the boat! Jesus was laying out his way, the give-yourself-away-way….and his followers were wallowing in their way, our way, the I’m-better-than-you-way.

But Jesus wasn’t really out of earshot—and by the way, that is a word for you and me to hold onto: Jesus is never out of earshot!

Jesus wasn’t oblivious to their argument over one-upmanship—not at all. And yet, rather than hectoring them for their block-headedness, he tries another way of saying what he was already saying. “You want to know about greatness, friends?” Jesus asks them. “Here’s the scoop on greatness: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ I’m here to turn everything upside down, to upset all your ways of ranking yourselves and each other. Go to the back of the line…because that’s where the line begins, my friends.”

And then, because Jesus knew that words by themselves are never enough, he offered an object lesson, a visual image they would not soon forget. He took a little child—perhaps one of the street kids who may have been following them along the way, a ragamuffin whom these Alpha Males rarely noticed!  Jesus took a child, placed a child in their “circle of excellence,” and said of the child: ““Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (v. 37).

Now it’s at this point that we need to pause and set aside all the ways we usually think about children in our time and place. For we live in an age that dotes on children, especially our own of course. We like to think that among us children are prized and treasured. We become very sentimental where our children are concerned.

And in that respect, ours is so very different from the age when Jesus our Lord walked the earth.  In the first century, children were not the center of attention. They were more like “background noise.”
People did not fret as we do about the child mortality rate. Children would come and go—and parents, especially fathers, had more latitude when it came to raising or abandoning children.

Child abandonment, in fact, was in the first century, a common form of post-natal “birth control.” If a baby was unwanted, if an infant was one too many mouth to feed….it could be left some place—tossed away.
As grim as that sounds, it’s likely that many of these abandoned babies were taken in by others—parents who couldn’t bear children of their own, families that needed some extra hands to do the chores. But still—children “came and went” in Jesus day in ways that make us shudder.

This, my friends--this colder, harsher world is the one in which Jesus took a child, placed it center-stage, embraced this child and said of this child: “If you welcome such a one—dirty, smelly, unruly, abandoned—if you welcome such a child you welcome me, and when you welcome me you welcome God who sent me.”

Jesus’ words, when we hear them in that light, are more jarring than we thought they’d be. Jesus invites us to see this first century child as someone like a leper, or a prostitute, or a tax collector, or any one of the no-accounts Jesus was always drawing into the circle of his new family of followers. Jesus asks us to see in whomever we are inclined to miss or ignore or write off—Jesus asks us to see him in this abandoned one we’d otherwise avoid.

Last year’s best movie was Slumdog Millionaire--the tale of an 18-year-old orphan from the slums of India’s largest city, Mumbai. Jamal Malik lost his parents when he was five, grew up as a “slumdog” with his brother Salim and a little girl name Latika….and survived all sorts of hurdles and challenges to find his way to India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Jamal’s whole tortured life prepares him to answer the increasingly-harder questions on the show…but the authorities arrest him on the suspicion of cheating. “How could a slumdog know all of this?” they wonder.

That’s a question to bring to this morning’s gospel text. How could Jesus so closely identify himself and his mission with a slumdog child in a backwater village like Capernaum? Is it that Jesus was and is our Slumdog Savior—who stoops to meet us in the lowest of the lowly, always and forever?

Notice the little one…see this child! Jesus tells us. When you meet this child, you gaze into my face and into the face of God.

See the child!

Whether or not the disciples caught on that day in Capernaum so long ago, eventually they and we did “get it,” more or less.

When the early church was being birthed, when the gospel of Jesus was spreading across the ancient world….concern for children, including children cruelly abandoned by their parents….care for children became a hallmark of its ministry. Noticing, picking up and caring for abandoned children became part-and-parcel of the mission of Christ through his church.

And that is still the case today. Jesus’ body in the world—the church—has had a place for babies, children and youth. When we have been most in touch with this part of our mission we have spoken up for children in the womb, children on the edges, children others have cast away, and children already in our midst.

Following Christ’s lead, we disciples of Jesus have trained up baptized babies, cared for orphans, sponsored schools, founded institutions of caring for all the “little ones” who might otherwise have no place to go.
In our own time we’re embracing again the notion that parents are the primary faith-nurturers of children.   We’re shifting our attention away from seeing the church building as a drop-off place where kids might pick up a little God-talk. Rather, we’re re-envisioning churches as seedbeds—hothouse nurseries--for growing in parents and other caring adults a passion and ability to form faith in the next generation.

In fact, mark your calendars for our synod’s next Passing on Vibrant Faith conference on October 22nd, with Drs. David Anderson and Paul Hill of the Youth and Family Institute in the Twin Cities. (End of commercial!)

The point, I guess, is that Jesus wasn’t a failure with his disciples or with us. Schooling us in the way of the cross might seem like a “two steps forward, three steps backward” ordeal….but we are teachable, and we have learned some things from our Slumdog Savior.

We realize that the greatest thing about our children isn’t that they’re cute or oh-so-innocent…but the greatest thing about each child is that she’s a window to heaven, his face is a mirror in which we see Jesus’ own face—indeed, the face of God.

We’re “getting it” that we ignore folks at our peril. Whoever we’re tempted to sidestep—because they’re poor or awkward or a little weird or just plain embarrassing—whoever we try not to see is the very one we must see, lest we miss Jesus.

And, taking our Lord at his word, we’re taking responsibility for children. Each and every child among us is OUR child, dear friends! Taking Jesus at his word we behold in each and every child, especially in our faith-families, a child for whom we bear awesome responsibility.

That, dear friends, is why we all—yes, ALL of us, make awesome promises to tiny children they’re baptized, when we say: “We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share: join us in giving thanks and praise to God and bearing God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” (ELW, p. 231)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Talking Points

(From the September issue of Northwest Passages, the newsletter of the NW MN Synod)

If you thought that last month’s ELCA Churchwide Assembly (CWA) “settled” all our issues around ministry by partnered gay and lesbian persons in our church—guess again. The vote of the Assembly has not put an end to our discussions about human sexuality. Rather, it got the ball rolling in a new direction, opening up a fresh chapter in this continuing discussion.

So, how shall we participate in this conversation? Do we have the fortitude, patience and goodwill to stay connected with one another in the midst of sharp disagreements?

In order to embrace this new chapter of our church’s discussion of human sexuality, I propose some “talking points.” Specifically, I urge us to “retire” four phrases. And I encourage us to add four other phrases to our vocabulary, so that “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Ephesians 4:15).

Four Lines That Need to Go…

Here are four statements that, in my judgment, belong on the ash heap:

1. “I don’t know why we’re even talking about this.”

I’ve heard this one from both proponents and opponents of the CWA’s ministry policy changes. The implication is that the issue is “settled”—one way or another, so why waste our breath on it? But in fact the issue is not settled in our wider culture—nor have we arrived at a biblical consensus together. Will we ELCA Lutherans contribute to this society-wide discussion, or will we sit on the sidelines?

2. “Shame on you!”

This is one of those demeaning conversation-stoppers that periodically gets lobbed into discussion like a hand grenade. All it does is to belittle folks—both the one who makes the comment and the one against whom it is aimed.

3. “You’re just a bigoted fundamentalist!”

Some proponents of the CWA’s ministry policy changes hurl this charge at traditionalists as a way of side-stepping their heartfelt convictions. “Fundamentalist” has become an all-purpose cuss word in some religious circles. (By the way, thoughtful students of church history know that while there are varieties of conservative Protestants in North America, true-blue fundamentalists are a rare species.)

4. “You’re ignoring what the Bible clearly teaches!”

This epithet, usually uttered by opponents of the CWA’s ministry policy changes, misses the fact that both sides read and study the scriptures—and both claim biblical warrant for their positions. Both treasure and read the same Bible—the distinction is in how they each interpret the Bible.

Four Phrases That Can Help Us…

If we seek a fuller, richer discussion of the issue of how gay and lesbian persons might serve in ministries of our church, I propose adding the following to our vocabularies:

1. “The peace of Christ be with you!”

Some Finnish-background Lutherans greet one another—even on the street—with the Peace, offered as a token that we have life only in the forgiveness that Jesus brings. What if we began and ended all our discussions of human sexuality with the passing of the peace?

2. “I hear you saying ____. Am I describing your viewpoint accurately?”

What a gift it is when we listen to one another so carefully, so deeply, that we can mirror back to our partner the opinion he or she is expressing. We owe one another the gift of such patient, painstaking listening.

3. “Although we don’t agree, here’s something I appreciate about your position. And here’s something I still struggle with in my own position.”

When we cling to our own views with white-knuckled clenched fists we lose our capacity to open up our hands, to learn and to grow. I hold lots of firm convictions, but I also know where my arguments are weak—and where my sparring partner is right (or close to right).

4. “Wherever this discussion takes us-- let’s keep talking, praying and meeting at the foot of the Cross.”

Some in our church believe that we’ve reached a point of no return with respect to human sexuality issues. Others of us—I believe, most of us—aren’t so sure. We continue to share our heartfelt disagreements in this arena, but we are also mindful of how much more still unites us. We don’t see eye-to-eye yet on homosexuality. But we confess Jesus as our only Savior. We confess that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

These are modest proposals for how we continue this conversation. I have no illusions about how difficult these discussions will be. But I know the One who binds us together and who beckons us into his mission. And I am confident that God leads us, giving us the capacity to hang in there with one another.

God is with us, and we in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod are also in this together. If you’re confused or concerned about any actions of the recent Churchwide Assembly, please contact one of our synod’s 24 voting members to that assembly, or a member of the synod council, or any of us who serve you on the synod staff. Give us the opportunity to listen, to speak and to walk with you, for Jesus’ sake.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
God’s work. Our hands.

Christian's the Name--Confessing's the Game

Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Felton, MN
September 13, 2009—Dedication of Building Addition
Mark 8:27-38

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“Christian’s the name—confessing’s the game.”

That’s a little too cute, I realize--but it does get right to the heart of this gospel text.

To follow Jesus is to confess Jesus. A church caught up in God’s mission is always going public, bearing witness, offering testimony about Jesus to the world.

This morning, as we dive deeply into this story, we learn some things about “confessing Jesus Christ” before the world.
· We learn that opportunities for confessing often come on the margins of life, when we’re under the gun.
· We learn that confessing is more than sharing information or passing on gossip.
· And most importantly, we realize how confessing moves beyond bold words, to costly deeds of self-emptying love.

1. The first thing we learn here is that confessing Christ often happens on the margins, when we’re under stress or affliction. Confessing Christ isn’t something we do while sipping tea in the parlor—confessing isn’t an armchair exercise for persons who dabble in religion. No. Confessing Christ happens most often when you and I are under the gun.

Notice where this gospel story takes place geographically. Jesus and his disciples are leaving the comfort of their own land and venturing into the non-Jewish villages of Caesarea Philippi. They are leaving the safety of home—venturing out into alien territory, into a veritable religious marketplace. Before they head off into this frontier region, Jesus schools his disciples in the art of confessing.

We live in a 21st century religious marketplace. Gone are the days when we could assume people were all church members or Christians just like us. Nowadays it’s easy to rub elbows with persons captive to other values, living out other scripts, following other “gods.” If they have any opinions about Jesus, they’re probably all over the map.

We’re also living through a global recession, in the midst of a society that’s increasingly polarized, and in a church body wrestling with tough questions like the role of gay and lesbian persons among us. Hot enough for you?

So, when the time comes, when someone pitches us a slow ball right over the plate!—what will we say? When it’s time for us to testify, to speak up for Jesus and his way of life—what words will fall out of our mouths?

2. The second thing we learn in this story is that confessing Christ is about more, so much more than sharing information or passing on gossip.

That’s how it seems to start out here, though, doesn’t it? Jesus asks his disciples for the local skinny—“what are folks saying about me? Who do they say that I am?”

It’s always easy, of course, to speculate on what others are thinking, right? We hear them, we watch their body language, we intuit their opinions. And gossip—who doesn’t enjoy passing on a little of that from time to time?

The disciples are ready for Jesus’ first question: “Who do people say that I am?” Their answers just flow. What a fascinating “window” on the first century gossip about Jesus! Was Jesus another John the Baptist—come back from the grave? Or was he the reincarnation of Elijah, who never really died but was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind? Or was Jesus one of the other prophets of the Old Testament? The possibilities seemed endless.

But that wasn’t confessing. Imparting information, passing on gossip—that’s not “confessing.” Confessing is another animal entirely.

We get to the act of confessing only when we’ve heard Jesus’ second question in this text: “But who do YOU say that I am?”

At this point in the story I imagine an uncomfortable silence descending upon the otherwise-talkative disciples. Because now they had to “speak for themselves”—now Jesus was getting personal, putting them on the spot, peering into their hearts, seeking their own response.
Maybe the disciples didn’t know how to respond to Jesus. Or maybe they knew how to respond but lacked the gumption to open their mouths….all of them except Peter. Never adept at holding his tongue, Peter blurted out the first thing on his mind—and he happened to be right on target: “You are the Messiah.” “Jesus, you are God’s ‘one and only’—you are the one we’ve been waiting for.”

And of course, Peter was exactly right! Peter had Jesus’ identity down pat!

So why does confessing Christ come so hard for us Lutherans? Most of us memorized these lines from the catechism: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, son of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the virgin Mary is my Lord. At great cost he has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person. He has freed me from sin, death and the power of the devil—not with silver or gold, but with his holy and precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death….”

With a great script like that, there’s really no reason for us to be tongue-tied when we’re asked: “and you, what do you have to say about Jesus?”

3. Thirdly, this beloved gospel story shows how confessing moves beyond bold words, to costly deeds of self-emptying love. There’s a price to be paid when we clear our throats, speak up and give voice to our Christian witness.

Because confessing Christ allies us with God and God’s ways….and that means that confessing Christ sets us against everything that opposes God and God’s ways. When we confess Christ we put our lives on the line. We align ourselves with God’s mission in a hostile but hungry world….we reach a point of no return. We can’t “unring that bell.”

Peter the great confessor nailed it when he named the identity of Jesus—but he “slipped on a banana peel” when it came to naming the way of Jesus—the way Jesus be the Messiah for us.
Peter confessed who Jesus was, but he either couldn’t see, or he refused to see how Jesus would act as the Messiah. Peter couldn’t stomach the cost—the cost to Jesus, and by implication, the cost to Peter and every follower of Jesus.

Because here’s how Jesus lived out his life as the Messiah: he opted to give it all up, to toss it all away, to let go of everything and open himself up to the very worst we human beings could dish out. Peter couldn’t stomach that—couldn’t bear to think of the cost—the “blood, sweat and tears” price-tag of our redemption.

So he offered a counter-confession to Jesus—“God forbid!”

And Jesus fired back just as strongly: “Get behind me, Satan”…”stand aside, Adversary…..I’m doing things God’s way, not the same old, same old human way.”

Now I need to pause here, take a sharp turn, and apply all of this to what’s happening here this morning at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church. Where are the points of connection between this gospel lesson from Mark chapter 8 and the building dedication festivities of this day?

I believe that you here at Gloria Dei are all confessing Christ rather boldly, rather publicly this morning. You’ve “gone public” with this building project—stuck your necks out—quite literally—to make your center for mission more open, more accessible, more welcoming for all people.

And you’ve done it in the midst of a painful economic recession. Nobody would have blamed you if you had called a “time out” when the economy tanked—but you barreled ahead anyway, exceeding even your own expectations of yourselves.

And what you’ve accomplished makes sense to me only if it’s a sign that you’re convinced Jesus Christ is Lord—God’s “one and only”—and that you realize it’s your job to lift up Jesus with all your might, here in this community.

Words are integral to confessing Christ—to be sure.

But costly, sacrificial, going-against-the-grain deeds are also ways we confess Christ.

You could have ducked, played it safe, gotten by….but instead God led you to embrace the cost of this confession, embodied in your building addition that we dedicate today.

It’s about more than money, of course—but the money side of this project is pretty amazing….and I can tell you that you’ve been an inspiration to others in our synod, over-subscribing your capital campaign goals in a time when most of us are tightening our belts.

I believe that all of this—all that we celebrate this morning—is a reflection of the fact that you know and confess who Jesus is, and that you’ve aligned yourself with not only the identity of Jesus, but also with the way of Jesus—giving yourselves away for others, sacrificing your play-it-safe security, giving--perhaps beyond your means, investing yourselves in this project which can and will help yourselves and others
See Jesus more clearly,
love Jesus more dearly and
follow Jesus more nearly.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

On What Basis Did the ELCA Assembly Act?

On August 21, 2009 the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to commit the ELCA to “finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” The Assembly also voted to commit the ELCA to “finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as professional leaders of this church.”

Regrettably, these landmark decisions were not based on a clearly-articulated theological consensus that exists among us—a consensus that all parties could describe, in substantially the same language and using similar arguments based on the scriptures, the ancient creeds and the Lutheran confessions. Both the social statement, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust[1] and the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies[2] acknowledge as much.

To say that we lack a theological consensus in this matter , though, does not mean that there were not theological reasons—many would say: compelling theological reasons—to support the actions of the Assembly. There may not have been an articulated theological basis, but as I listened to the floor debate preceding these votes I perceived, in broad contours, something of an operating theological rationale.

To describe this rationale, it may be helpful to recall an earlier ministry-related decision by two of the predecessor church bodies of the ELCA. In 1970 conventions of the former ALC and LCA both voted to lift the historic prohibition against women serving in the office of Word and Sacrament. The ALC and LCA took this action, lacking a full theological consensus, on the basis of majority votes “in convention.” In some circles this was a very controversial decision at the time. The decision for the ordination of women seemed to fly in the face of some passages of Scripture, e.g. regarding women “keeping silence,” not exercising authority over men, etc.
If there was not a widely-shared consensus on this question at the time, on what theological basis did the ALC and LCA approve the ordination of women in 1970?

· Alongside the scriptural texts that seemed to prohibit women from serving as pastors, there were other scriptural texts that allowed for and even commended the ministry of women in roles associated with the pastoral office, e.g. the women at the Tomb who were the first proclaimers of the Resurrection, the ministry of female leaders in the early church like Priscilla and Junia, bold statements such as Galatians 3:28, etc. Proponents of women’s ordination , using the Lutheran principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture,” successfully argued that these latter “affirming” texts mitigated the force of the former “prohibiting” texts.

· It was also becoming increasingly apparent that God had gifted women for pastoral ministry and that God seemed to be calling women into pastoral ministry.

In what ways might the 1970 vote by the ALC and LCA be viewed as analogous to the 2009 ministry policy changes approved by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly?

The ELCA has taken these ministry policy actions, on the basis of majority votes “in convention” despite the fact that these actions stand in tension with some passages of Scripture, e.g. the seven biblical texts that refer directly to same-gender sexual activity[3], texts that teach or assume a heterosexual ordering of the human family,[4] etc.

Even though a specific theological consensus was not presented in advance of this decision, on what theological bases did members of the Churchwide Assembly argue for changing the ELCA’s ministry policies regarding gay and lesbian persons in rostered ministries?

· It was pointed out that some biblical scholars argue that the “seven texts” assume outmoded understandings of same-sex behavior, do not take into account the contemporary notion of sexual orientation, or fail to conceive of the possibility that gay or lesbian persons might live in publically-accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-sex relationships.

· Alongside the scriptural texts traditionally quoted to prohibit same-sex sexual behavior, there are other scriptural texts which—even though they may not directly contradict the scriptural prohibitions against homosexual behavior—arc in a trajectory that mitigates the force of the traditional biblical prohibitions. Examples: Jesus’ bias toward outsiders, Jesus’ redefinition of Old Testament notions of “uncleanness,” God’s unconditional love for sinners, Jesus’ command to love the neighbor unconditionally, the early church’s decisions to include Gentiles and others (e.g. the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts) formerly considered “unclean,” etc..

· It is becoming increasingly apparent to many in our church that God has gifted gays and lesbians for pastoral ministry and that God seems to be calling gays and lesbians into pastoral ministry.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, members of the churchwide assembly did wrestle with the law/gospel dynamic that is so central to our Lutheran identity. God’s Word addresses us always in the forms of demands (law) and promises (gospel). The law—in all its forms—tells us that we cannot make it on our own; it convicts us and drives us to the mercies of God in Jesus Christ. The law tells us we are sinners; the gospel declares us righteous solely for Christ’s sake. When all is said and done the only thing we have going for us is the gratuitous mercy of God, whose undeserved forgiveness restores us to life.

Recall how Lutherans have employed this law-gospel dynamic to deal with other sticky issues in the realm of human sexuality—like divorce. Our Lord rigorously condemns divorce in the gospels, and yet in our congregations we have divorced and remarried people—some of them even serving as pastors. When a husband and wife divorce, God’s law exposes their sinfulness; but we believe that the grace of God in Jesus Christ covers even this grievous sin. We tolerate divorce as the “lesser of two evils,” especially when a marriage has become a “living hell.” Might the ways we Lutherans have taken a law/gospel approach to divorce also inform how we approach the vexing question of same-gender relationships among baptized Christians? I heard such questions echoing throughout the discussion of the ministry policies at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.

It simply is unfair to suggest that the actions of the Assembly arose in an environment that did not include serious attention to scripture and the theology of the church. One may disagree with the biblical/theological approach that finally prevailed—but we must recognize that voting members did grapple with the scriptural witness and the doctrines of our church.

In offering these observations, based on what I saw and heard in the Minneapolis Convention Center prior to the August 21 votes, I do not say that I necessarily agree with what I’m calling an “operating theological rationale.” However, in my judgment, voting members at the Assembly did recognize the importance of building a biblical and theological case for the votes they were about to cast. And I hope that as we move into the future together we will continue to wrestle with the Bible and our theological tradition, in the hope that we might yet arrive at a consensus that thus far still eludes us.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe[5]
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

[1] “This church also acknowledges that consensus does not exist concerning how to regard same-gender committed relationships, even after many years of thoughtful, respectful, and faithful study and conversation. We do not have agreement on whether this church should honor these relationships, uplift, shelter, and protect them or on precisely how it is appropriate to do so.” Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust, p. 11.

[2] “The task force believes that consensus does not exist in this church with regard to the matter of sexual intimacy between same gender-oriented people.” Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies, p. 9.

[3] The texts normally cited are Genesis 19:1–11; Judges 19:16–30; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:26–27;1 Corinthians 6:9–11; Timothy 1:9–10. For more information, “Background Essay on Biblical Texts for Journey Together Faithfully Part Two: The Church and Homosexuality.” (Chicago: ELCA, 2003). The task force commissioned an essay by biblical scholars Walter F. Taylor Jr. and Arland Hultgren regarding these texts.

[4]For example, the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 and Jesus’ reference to these accounts in the gospels.

[5] Opinions in this paper are solely those of the author, not the Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA.

Why the Church Sometimes Breaks Your Heart

If you love someone, sooner or later that person will break your heart.

This doesn’t happen with someone you don’t already love. Such a one can hurt or disappoint you—but he or she cannot break your heart. Because you never gave this person your heart in the first place.

The two seem to go together: loving someone and having your heart broken. One of the things we risk when we love, when we give our hearts away, is that our hearts may be broken. (All of this works the other way around, as well. We occasionally break the hearts of those we love!)

Because the church is not simply an organization or an institution—because the church is a “body,” in some sense a “person,”—and because we love the church, the church will sometimes break our hearts. Something will happen, some course of action will be pursued, and we will wonder: “How could this one that I love do this to me?”

I have lived in the church for 55 years, and I love the church deeply. It has been in the context of the church and its life that my life has found meaning, purpose and deep hope in Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church. But the church has broken my heart—more than once—and I suspect that the church isn’t done breaking my heart.

When I was a young man, the church broke my heart so badly that I actually left one branch of it for another. I departed from the church body that had raised me up—and affiliated with another part of the church. It was a gut-wrenching decision to make, a decision about which I have told myself: “Once in a lifetime is all I can handle!”

But even after I made my move, from one part of the church family to another part, the church continued to break my heart. That is why, the older I get, the more I long for the church envisioned in the final stanza of Charles Wesley’s great hymn:

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee!
Changed from glory, into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise![1]

For as long as we live on earth, for as long as we love a church comprised entirely of sinner-saints, the church will from time to time break our hearts. Only when we arrive together at God’s New Day will all of that change. As long as you draw breath, as long as you love the church militant, expect to have your heart broken.

But also—because this is part of the deal, too—expect this church filled with sinners to love you, to bear you up when you cannot walk, to support you all the live long day, and to carry you through this life. Expect the flawed church (the only kind of church we know in this world) to be the hands and feet of your Savior—deeply scarred, yes, but saving and sending you into God’s mission for as long as you live.

To speak of loving the church and having the church break your heart— is to speak of the deeply relational nature of the church. The church is a relationship, one of the deepest relationships we know. And on this side of the grave, all relationships—though life-giving, to be sure—are also deeply flawed. We give our hearts away to someone, and our hearts get broken some times.

Today, in the branch of the church called the ELCA, hearts are breaking. That is an indication that we love one another in this church, for only lovers know what a broken heart is all about.

Folks who struggle with the sexuality decisions at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly feel as though the church has broken their hearts. And this is very real. They need to remember that others in the ELCA rejoice today. Others—gay and lesbian persons and those who love them—have felt the church breaking their hearts for years, shunning them, shutting them out—this church that they have loved.

It’s a crazy business, loving and being in relationship. The twists and turns, the ups and downs of our lives. But is there any relationship you have, especially a close and loving one, that isn’t marked by such complexity?

If we love the church, we will sometimes become so heart-broken with the church that we want to walk away (as I did in my youth). That happens in the context of loving relationships all the time. But we need to be clear on what we’re walking away from: we’re walking away from a friend whom we have loved. And dear friends never take that sort of action lightly.

In these days of discernment, we will talk about theology and confessional commitment and “taking a stand.” But let us never forget that we are also talking about a primary love relationship. And if that is the case, let us ponder deeply what it means to walk away from someone we have loved.

I believe that, in pondering the possibility of disaffiliation with the church we’ve been part of, we need to think in terms of ending a relationship with a dear friend. That will mean that we will attend intensely to the relational nature of being part of the church, the Body of Christ. If the church has broken our heart so achingly that we think we may need to leave the church, let us ponder that awful possibility with all the care and deep attention we would give to the prospect of walking away from our best friend.

To be sure, friendships—even “best friend” relationships—sometimes become so flawed that they hurt the parties in the relationship. We may need to end such a friendship—but only as the “lesser of two evils” or a “last resort.” If we are considering departure from the ELCA, I hope that we will speak in the same terms.

And I also hope that we will not forget that wherever else we turn—to whatever other branch of the Christian family that may look better to us right now—our hearts will be broken by the church again, at some point in the future. There is no flaw-less church on earth.[2] (If you find one, please let me know, because I’ve been searching for one for years!) When we give our hearts away, there is only one thing we can count on: some time, down the line, our hearts will be broken again. And we will hunger, we will pine for God’s New Day when the only Heart-Mender restores us and all things and finishes his New Creation. Only then will the heart-breaking finally stop, only in Jesus Christ.

[1] Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” #631 in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.

[2] Some friends who read an earlier draft of this reflection reminded me that a church body like the ELCA isn’t the same as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” that we confess in the Nicene Creed. True enough! But I would add that in this life the only real, physical access we have to the “one true church of Jesus Christ” is via the “doors” of the various denominational churches. In other words, you can look in the Yellow Pages all day long, but you will not find a street address for the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” The only street addresses you’ll find are for the Baptist, Assembly of God, Roman Catholic, Lutheran (all stripes of Lutherans!), Presbyterian, you-name-it churches through which we gain access to Christ’s one true church.