Saturday, January 31, 2009

You Are What You Eat

“I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter.” Revelation 10:9-10

What a weird passage! Whoever heard of eating a scroll, let alone a book? That doesn’t sound very healthy. It could give one indigestion—which, in this case, apparently happened.
It’s a strange passage, all right, but that’s what also grabs our attention. What if the Bible is more than “mere words”—inked symbols on a flat page? What if there is a power in this Book that lays hold of us, feeds us, and makes us new?

While on a brief retreat I recently read a splendid little volume that I heartily commend to you, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading by Eugene Peterson (2006, Eerdmans). Peterson reminds his readers that in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament the word hagah, often translated “meditate,” can also mean “growl.” The growling in question is what a lion does while gnawing on its prey (those of us who’ve been around farm cats have heard that growling when there is competition at the dinner bowl!)

Peterson invites his readers to imagine what it would be like to “gnaw” on the scriptures, to ingest and digest them into our lives. He writes:

Christians feed on Scripture. Holy Scripture nurtures the holy community as food nurtures the human body. Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son. (p. 18)

When we meditate/gnaw on the Word in this fashion, two things invariably happen. There will be sweetness in our mouths. The Book of Faith is “delicious.” It perks us up, fires our imaginations, sets us free, moves us out. This is “good stuff, Maynard” (remember that old Malt-O-Meal TV commercial?)

But this Word also will unsettle us. In Revelation 10 the scroll tasted sweet on the lips, but it was bitter in the stomach. Holy heartburn! We know that there are “hard passages” in the Bible, verses that rub us raw. But it’s bigger than that. The Bible itself is designed to get under our skin, kill the rebel in us, and raise up the faithful follower whom Jesus is always calling forth. Again, in the words of Eugene Peterson

This book makes us participants in the world of God’s being and action; but we don’t participate on our own terms. We don’t get to make up the plot or decide what character we will be. This book has generative power; things happen to us as we let the text call forth, stimulate, rebuke, prune us. We don’t end up the same.
Eat this book but also have a well-stocked cupboard of Alka-Seltzer and Pepto-Bismol at hand. (p. 66)

All of this will be “front and center” as our synod gathers in assembly, May 16-17 at Concordia College in Moorhead. Our theme will be You Are What You Eat, and our focus will be on the ELCA Book of Faith Initiative. Our worship, our speakers (Dr. Diane Jacobson and Dr. Mark Vitalis Hoffman), our learning opportunities, our deliberations, and our fellowship time together will all center us in God’s barrier-breaking, future-opening Word. Please consider this issue of our synod’s supplement to The Lutheran as the appetizer for our synod’s assembly as well as our ongoing engagement with the Book of Faith Initiative. Bon app├ętit!

Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, which you have given us in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen. (ELW, p. 72)

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

In Healthy Congregations People Respond Graciously and Truthfully

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth…. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:14, 17

These majestic words from the first chapter of St. John’s gospel show up in our worship during the days of Christmas, and we hear their echoes during the season of Epiphany. The newborn Jesus, the Word-made-flesh, enlightens us with God’s great gifts of grace and truth.

Grace and truth don’t merely enlighten us, though. They also—literally—lighten us, reduce our burdens, permitting us to “travel lightly” in this world. Without grace and truth, we are weighed down, heavy, lead-footed, stuck.

Grace Lightens the Load

Without Jesus’ grace in our lives, we are dragged down by sin—our sin and the sins of others who have done us wrong. We know what this means for our individual lives. If we are unable or unwilling to forgive someone else it is (as a pastor friend put it recently) “like you taking some poison, in the hope that it will kill the offender who has hurt you.”

But what does this mean for a whole congregation? What if a whole community of faith is not “lightened” by the grace of Jesus Christ? What does that look like?

It looks like a community weighed down by grudges, stalled by resentments and obsessed with keeping score. Certain ideas or topics are deemed “off limits.” This sort of condition is truly “heavy” for a community, so burdensome that a congregation can grind to a halt in following Christ and doing God’s work.

A former colleague in synodical ministry once put it this way: “I wonder if the folks in that congregation are actually using the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness during Sunday worship. To listen to how they’re at each others’ throats, you’d think that sins hadn’t been forgiven around there for years!”

Sound familiar? When folks in congregations are not living in the gracious forgiveness of Jesus Christ, everything goes sour. Well-laid plans and good intentions are ineffectual. The reason is that when we aren’t regularly forgiving one another, we are cutting ourselves off from God’s future. Martin Luther wasn’t kidding when he wrote in the catechism: “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” We have a future together—“life and salvation!”—when we walk in the forgiving grace of Jesus Christ.

Truth Unburdens Us

Walking lightly in God’s grace, we also are willing to face the truth. Truth-telling is another weight-reducing practice in the community of Christ.

Garrison Keillor likes to say that liars need to have good memories. Since they don’t live in the truth, liars have to work harder at remembering all the falsehoods they have uttered. It can be exhausting. Failing to be truthful in all things introduces another layer of “weight” in our common life.

It’s not just that occasionally church-folk tell fibs or even whoppers. It’s that we also like to “shave” the truth, hold back some knowledge, or cultivate secrets. A congregation will be weighed down to the degree that it allows clandestine meetings, permits some to be insiders and others to be outsiders, or fosters a cult of secrecy.

Peter Steinke suggests that such “heaviness” shows up when a congregation
· Values a rigid hierarchy, with lots of power at the top;
· Tries to “manage” or “spin” the truth;
· Puts on a “happy face” religiosity or a cozy unanimity; or
· Has a history of punishing or shunning truth-tellers.

A congregation that lives in the grace and truth of Jesus Christ will insist that all its members learn the gentle art of “speaking the truth in love.” Perhaps no text is more helpful than Jesus’ method (Matthew 18:15-22) for bringing “grace and truth” to bear in the web of relationships that make up a congregation. In short, if a congregation is so weighed down that things have ground to a halt, it’s probably time to cultivate both truth (“speak directly with one another”) and grace (“win back your brother or sister”).


1. Recall and share with others a time in your life when forgiving someone re-opened the future for you.

2. Where in your congregation’s life are you experiencing the “weight” of sin, holding you back from fearlessly following Jesus?

3. What issue is most difficult to talk about in your congregation? How might truth-telling in this area “lighten the load” in your congregation?

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA

This is the tenth 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.

Present-Tense Powerful

American Lutheran Church of Long Prairie
Epiphany 4/February 1, 2009
Mark 1:21-28

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Two words grab our attention in this gospel lesson, at the beginning and at the end of these eight verses. Two words stand out—two words that aren’t exactly winsome or inviting in our world.

First there is this word “teaching.” Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and he teaches.

“Teaching” has fallen on hard times in our day. We’re not sure we want to be on the receiving end of “teaching”. We’re heard too many persons tell us that “now I’m going to teach you a thing or two.” Even our schools emphasize, not teaching, so much as learning. Classrooms have all sorts of learners or co-learners these days….but there may or may not be someone who willingly bears the title “teacher.”

Then there’s that other word: authority. Does that word warm the cockles of your heart? I don’t think so. “Authority” is way too close to “authoritarian” in our book….it makes us think about being under someone’s thumb, taking orders from them, not having our own say in some matter.
But here in Mark 1, both of these words—teaching and authority--are used with reference to Jesus, and in both cases, these words are used positively. Those in Capernaum’s synagogue are “astounded” to hear Jesus’ teaching….and they hear in it a NEW teaching….a welcome change that they’re ready to embrace.

And these same hearers are also opening their arms to the authority that Jesus brings. It’s as if they hunger for this authority, an authority utterly unlike what they had known.

So what are we to make of this?

As usual, the text of Scripture offers our best clues, starting with two things.

First, our text says that Jesus teaches and exercises authority “not as the scribes” did.
The scribes were the designated interpreters of the Bible in Jesus’ day. When their scriptures were read, the scribes offered the equivalent of the sermon on the text. They taught the Bible with authority, but it was the authority of the scribes and rabbis who had come before them. In fact, to hear a scribe teach was to hear a string of references to what earlier teachers had said about a passage. “Rabbi Yitzak says this…..but Rabbi Mordechi says that….and Rabbi Aquiba disgagrees, offering yet a third interpretation.”

The scribes taught with authority, but it was a “borrowed” authority, a derived authority. You sat, you listened, you perhaps nodded your head, you might have been intrigued or even moved….but the text of the Bible, the words of our Old Testament didn’t take you anywhere.
Jesus, however, taught in an entirely different way. Jesus’ authority wasn’t derived from earlier human interpreters of the Word. Jesus spoke on his own authority. Jesus spoke for God in such a brash, startling way that listeners couldn’t help but sit up straight. The “buzz” in Capernaum’s synagogue reflected the astonishment of Jesus’ hearers: “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!”

Jesus taught in such a way that the nearness, the right-here-ness of God was apparent for all to hear. Unlike the scribes, who tended to make God an historical point of reference…..Jesus spoke as if God were alive and well and present and very active in their lives.

But Jesus didn’t just speak the word of God. He also enacted this Word, in life-giving, future-opening ways.

Because….as if on cue….another voice interrupted Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue. There was a man there possessed by an unclean spirit. And all of a sudden the demon that inhabited the man spoke up, right there in “church.”

I imagine the demon speaking with a voice that came straight from hell: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’”

While the Sabbath-day worshippers at Capernaum’s synagogue are astounded, trying to figure things out….this alien voice makes clear what is happening. If no one else recognizes Jesus for who he is, the demon inside this possessed man lays it out plainly: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

Now you and I aren’t so sure about this demon-possession business. We don’t expect persons with “unclean spirits” to speak up in worship!

But in that time and in that place, this was not out of the ordinary. Unclean spirits “happened,” it was too bad, but “such is life.”

Except that Jesus didn’t agree. Jesus saw no good reason why demons of any kind should have free reign in this world….so, taking matters into his own hands, Jesus spoke commandingly to the demon inside the man: “Be silent, and come out of him.”

Convulsing the man whose body had been his host, and crying out in a loud voice, the demon left the man….just as Jesus had commanded him.

And here we come to the second huge clue in this text. We see Jesus teaching and exercising authority in ways that actually change “facts on the ground.” Jesus’ word is so authoritative, so powerful, that even unclean spirits must flee before him. This poor possessed man, whose prospects in the world had been shut down by the unclean spirit within him, suddenly is given the gift of a new tomorrow. Jesus teaches and speaks authoritatively, delivering a fresh future for all who hear.

To say it plainly: Jesus’ teaching and authority “astounded” those around him, because Jesus—unlike all the scribes they’d grown up with—Jesus speaks words that actually change “facts on the ground.” Jesus’ words do what they say: freeing persons from evil, opening up a new future for all who are in earshot.

With Jesus in the house, God is no longer a quaint artifact of the past, God is no longer an “historical reference point.”

With Jesus in the house, God is alive and present and active. Jesus removes God from past-tense recollecting. Jesus makes God forever the present-tense nerve center of our lives.
And that is true today, right here and now this morning, no less than it was true in that Capernaum synagogue so long ago.

It’s true today because Jesus, “the Holy One of God,” is alive and well and present with us, even now, even in this moment….still delivering us from whatever evils may have us by the throats, still changing facts on the ground, still delivering a new future to us all.

We are people who believe, teach and confess that when we gather around the Word and the Sacraments, God shows up! Jesus doesn’t just loom large among us as a stirring figure of the past.

No. In the Creed we remove Jesus from the past and we confess that he—though crucified, dead and buried, all of it for us—is nonetheless “risen from the dead.” When we say that, we are saying that the present tense is the only appropriate tense to use in speaking of Jesus today.

This Jesus, who taught with authority in the synagogue in Capernaum, this Jesus who stretched out his arms at the Cross to embrace us all, this Jesus is now alive and present and active in our midst. He is closer to you than the person sitting next to you. He is here “for you” this Sunday morning.

Jesus looks at you, Jesus looks at me, and he teaches us authoritatively to know and to believe in our bones that our sins are forgiven, that whatever manifestation of evil that bedevils us is defeated, that he will continue to make himself known to us in the ministry of this church, and that now—even now—Jesus is catching us up in God’s great rescue mission in the world.

It all boils down to this: God is not past-tense memorable. God in Jesus Christ is present-tense powerful.

To whatever force of evil that has its icy fingers around your throat, Jesus says: “Let go!”
To whatever fear possesses you in this scary time of economic turmoil, Jesus commands: “Be gone!”

To whatever question gnaws at you, Jesus responds: “Be of good cheer. I have overcome the world. Behold I make all things new.”

If you happen to have one of those old WWJD bracelets, dear friends, if you sometimes ponder “What would Jesus do?” I invite you to change just one word, and ask yourselves instead the question of a lifetime: “What WILL Jesus do?”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

God's Love Letter

(Commentary on Baptism at the "With One Voice" ecumenical concert, sponsored by Oak Grove Lutheran School and Shanley High School, Fargo, on January 25, 2009.)

In his Large Catechism of 1529 the German church reformer Martin Luther made this remarkable statement about Holy Baptism.

In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life. He always has enough to do to believe firmly what Baptism promises and brings—victory over death and the devil, forgiveness of sin, God’s grace, the entire Christ, and the Holy Spirit with his gifts. In short the blessings of Baptism are so boundless that if timid nature considers them, it may well doubt whether they could all be true.

Luther loved to make wild, audacious statements like this. In the heat of a debate, he sometimes went too far…contributing to years of discord between Roman Catholics and Lutherans…discord that thankfully, in our own day, has given way to renewed respect within the Body of Christ.

But on this matter, with respect to Holy Baptism, Luther was never at odds with the Roman Catholic church of his youth. To this very day….baptism is a great gift that unites us as Catholic and Lutheran believers. We and a growing number of other Christians agree about what Baptism is, what it accomplishes and how it works itself out in our daily lives.

Let me say three things about Baptism that come out of the Lutheran tradition but are widely shared among Catholics and other Christians:

1. First in Baptism God rescues us sinners, wrapping us up in the saving work of Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul put it this way in Romans chapter 6: Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

Baptism is not something you and I do for God.

Baptism is something God does for us.

Baptism is God’s overture to us, God’s love letter, God’s “I love you forever” writ large in our lives.

But isn’t simply hearing that promise enough? Why do we need both to hear God’s promise and to be washed in Baptism?

Think about how we express love to one another. We speak our love to another, to be sure. But love never stops with words. We say I love you and we kiss the one we love.

Baptism is God’s kiss on our forehead. We hear it, but we also feel it. Baptism is God’s first move toward us, opening us to receive all that Jesus has done for us.

When we are baptized it is as if time is telescoped. Our baptismal day and Good Friday and Easter are all brought together. Jesus’ death and resurrection overtakes us in the present, bringing home to us all the rescuing work of Christ….unmistakably conveying to us all that Christ has done for us.

2. This brings me to a second word about Baptism: In Baptism God signs and seals us forever.

When we are baptized God sets his stamp of ownership upon us—and that is a brand, a mark that cannot be erased.

In Baptism we receive something that can never be taken away from us: God’s unconditional claim upon us, washed over us with promises that God will never go back on.

Back in the 1970s the TV comedy series All in the Family revolved around the lives of Archie Bunker and his long-suffering wife Edith, their young adult daughter Gloria and her hippie husband Michael.

When Michael and Gloria had their first child, Grandpa Archie insisted that little Joey be baptized. But Michael and Gloria didn’t want that. Their wish was that Joey would grow up and find his own religious path. They would not have him baptized.

Beside himself with worry, Archie reminded his atheist son-in-law that he (Michael) had himself been baptized.

“Yeah, but I renounced it years ago,” declared Michael.

…to which Archie Bunker responded: “Go and renounce your belly button, ya still got it!” [1]

You cannot erase your baptism. You can try to run from God, but God will come after you.

Your baptism is part of your permanent record. You can always return to it, reclaim it, live back into it.

3. And that leads me to this third word about baptism: Baptism is for life. Baptism launches us into an adventure of faith, following Jesus. Baptism sends us into God’s mission in the world.
When someone is baptized a candle is given as a reminder of what Jesus our Lord said: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Baptism is sheer gift—from start to finish—and part of the gift is the calling that we receive. If you are baptized, you are called to take the light of Christ with you, wherever you go. It’s the job of a lifetime and the joy of a lifetime. Martin Luther, that 16th century teenage Catholic, had it right: In Baptism every Christian has enough to study and to practice all his life.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

A New Kind of Fishing

Winchester Lutheran Church of Borup, MN
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church of Felton, MN
Epiphany 3—January 25, 2009
Mark 1:14-20

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In this morning’s gospel lesson Jesus likens following him and inviting others to follow him to fishing. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

An older translation, still familiar to many of us went like this: “I will make you fishers of men.” Eugene Peterson’s contemporary paraphrase, The Message, puts it this way: “Come with me. I’ll make a new kind of fisherman out of you.”

But does this comparison—of following Jesus and fishing—does it really “work?”

Think about it! We Minnesotans know a thing or two about fishing, don’t we? Are we SURE we want our Lord to compare telling others about him with fishing? Is that the best possible metaphor for what he calls us to do?

I know just enough about fishing to be dangerous—and yet, right off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons why fishing and “discipling for Jesus” are anything but similar.

1. To begin with: fishing is based upon deception. Fishing as we do it here in northern Minnesota, is based on deceiving, tricking some poor fish into mistaking whatever it is that’s dangling there on the end of our hook with tasty, nutritious fish-food.

And some fishermen go to great lengths to come up with the smelliest, fishiest, bait possibilities….or the sneakiest, most under-handedly-deceptive lures.

Several years ago, I was on a church men’s retreat over at Camp Emmaus. It was winter and the lake was frozen solid, so some guys tried their hand at trout fishing. They had some of smelliest stink-bait I’ve ever seen up close—the kind of stuff you can smell on your fingers long after you’ve handled it.

To humans—yuck! To trout—yum!

Fishing is based upon deception. But is that what being a disciple of Jesus is all about? Is inviting others to follow Jesus some sort of bait-and-switch operation? Is it all smoke-and-mirrors?

Or is it, rather, about something very close to that? Is evangelizing, is good-news-bearing about making Jesus and his message attractive in a world hungry for more than junk food?

Or, better yet, is it not so much about MAKING Jesus attractive, as it is about helping others see how attractive already is Jesus—along with the forgiveness and freedom and eternal life that comes with him. Is fishing for people about making Jesus attractive, or is it about helping others see how attractive Jesus already is?

2. There’s a second potential problem with equating discipling and fishing.

Fisher-folk all know what it means to be skunked—to fish and fish and fish, and end up with nothing to show for it.

I have this part of the fishing enterprise down pat. Most of the time, if I have a line in the water, I just figure I’m out enjoying the sun and drowning a few worms. Most of the time, at the end of the day, I have nothing to show for my efforts as a fisherman.

Now, I realize, that could just say that I’m a lousy fisherman—which may be true. But I’ve listened to enough “real” fishermen talk to know that even the most seasoned angler has a dry streak now and then. Even the best fisherman gets skunked (though I don’t know how skunks, who prefer to stay on shore, ever got associated with not catching fish!)

Knowing how easy it is to get skunked, do we really want to hear Jesus say that following him and fishing are akin to each other? If that’s true—Jesus seems to be saying: get ready to spend a lot of time trolling for others to follow me—get ready to spend a lot of effort on that, with little to show for it.

And, in truth, sometimes it feels that way. We work and work and work to invite someone into the Christian life—or to invite them to RETURN to their walk with Christ—only to be disappointed.

As a pastor, fairly often I have heard someone say, “I’ll be getting back to church soon, Reverend.” Perhaps after a major illness or a stunning medical recovery or a death in the family, someone will say: “Now things are going to be different—now you’re going to see me in church every Sunday.” And sometimes that does happen—and we rejoice.

But often, we Christian fisher-folk, find ourselves skunked.

And perhaps that’s just the way it is. Perhaps “getting skunked” is just part of the deal.

Come to think of it, God invests an awful lot in us—with frequently paltry returns. God sends his rain and sun on the good and the evil—and hardly any of the evil and very few of the good even turn around to thank him for it.

But God is a more patient fisherman than I am. And in that respect God has something to teach me. Fishing, after all, is about hope. Every person who launches a boat or wets a line does so in hope. Hope keeps them going.

At that same winter Men’s Retreat I just mentioned, the guys doing ice-fishing didn’t have a lot of success. But they were still out there, on the ice.

And pretty soon one of the fellows noticed a tug on his line and pulled out a 13” trout. Hope was rewarded—and then, suddenly, there was a renewed interest in fishing! The guys knew there were fish to be had—so hope was restored and they fished a while longer.

Maybe that is how it is to be for you and me in our lives of faith and invitation to others. We keep fishing, we know the fish are out there, we may not catch all of them—but hope tells us we’ll catch some of them.

3. There is a third thing I wonder about, when Jesus equates being his disciple and fishing. It’s that sometimes we go from being skunked to having almost too many fish on our hands.

The most successful day our family ever had fishing was when our two kids were little and we were camping at Savannah Portage State Park west of Duluth. It was a gorgeous summer day out on Lake Shumway—and for some reason the crappies were biting.

For a couple of hours I just took fish off hooks and replaced them with minnows while the kids kept hauling them in. My son and daughter both reached their limit, so we rowed for shore, and Dad had a couple hours of fish-cleaning to look forward to while the kids and mom went swimming in nearby Loon Lake.

Talk about an ordeal! There’s a reason why we call it a “mess” of fish, right? I think it must have taken me 10 minutes of cleaning per fish, just to come up with…..maybe two or three decent bites.

If you aren’t skunked, if you haul them in left and right, well then we say that you have a “mess” on your hands—a mess of fish.

In God’s family we see that. If God grants us success, if God rewards our fishing efforts with newly baptized ones, new followers, new members—well then sometime it seems as though our work has just begun! We have a “mess” on our hands—a mess of new Christians—and they must be attended to. They need to learn the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed and the Ten Commandments—they need to be guided into the ways of Jesus—they need to be coaxed back into the flock when they wander—they need to be supported through thick and thin. It’s just a big mess on our hands, if God grants us success.

And I can almost hear God chuckling and saying: “Cry me a river! This is what it’s all about. This is what I’m all about. You were made for me and you were made for each other—so, hop to it. Pray for a mess! I’ll be there with you in the mess.”

Hmmm. Maybe Jesus did know what he was talking about after all, when he invited Simon and Andrew, James and John, (and you and me) to leave our boats and “fish for people.”

Jesus still calls us to that good work
To help others see how attractive Jesus and his message really are
To live in hope and fish in hope—even though sometimes we’ll seem to be skunked
And to deal with the mess that successful fishing brings.

“Lord, give us a mess of freshly-caught Christians to clean up and care for and present to you!”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Impossible But Not Hopeless

A pastoral letter to God’s people in the Northwestern Minnesota Synod

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. II Cor. 4:8-10

In the last few months we on the synod staff have been overhearing conversations linking funerals and finances. Such conversations are happening so frequently, in so many places on our territory, that we can’t help but notice. Something is happening. Our little world is “turning” right before our eyes.

For years and years there’s been a kernel of conventional wisdom—dressed up as a “fact”—making the rounds. “For every church-going ELCA member over the age of 65 who dies, it takes twelve (or fourteen or sixteen or more) younger members to replace that now-deceased one’s giving toward the mission of the church.”

I’ve heard that kernel of truth, and I’ve passed it on, more than once. Heads nod, shoulders shrug, and murmurs of concern always follow. But fortunately it’s not really happening yet…at least not in a major way. It’s in the future, it’s coming at us, it’s still around the corner….
Lately, though, it feels as though we’re turning that corner right now.

The awful prediction is coming true and it’s catching us up short—right in the middle of a global economic downturn to boot! Recently a pastor-friend told me about a death of a parishioner that resulted in the congregation instantly losing 1/3 of its income. One death—one third fewer dollars in the offering plate the very next Sunday. Wow!

If this is happening (and I need to check this out with you—is it happening?), how shall we live and serve in the face of it? To what is God calling us?

First, I believe God is calling us to honesty. If the patterns of financial support for God’s mission are indeed “turning”-- we best acknowledge that, directly and fearlessly. Now is not the time for denial or diversion or getting lost in the busy-ness of the mundane. If we are turning a corner in how we “do church,” we need to name that fact. (We on the synod staff sense that people in our congregations are realizing that this is happening. We are detecting a fresh, palpable readiness especially in small town and rural ministry settings to imagine new ways of doing God’s work.)

And while we’re being honest, let’s add that although this seems like a financial crisis, it is deeper than that. Money problems are always spiritual problems. God’s lavish generosity somehow has not caught on among us.

Second, I believe God is calling us to give thanks and repent. Let us not forget to give thanks for the members of the Greatest Generation who are passing from our midst. Thanks be to God for their faithfulness. In many respects our church, at least in its institutional embodiment, continues to run on the momentum these senior saints provided.

But, just so, God calls us also to repent. As Dr. David Anderson of the Youth and Family Institute has said, “The Greatest Generation, the most faithful church-going generation in recent memory, gave birth to the least faithful generation, the Baby Boomers. “ (Both Dr. Anderson and I are Baby Boomers!) The ball was carried by today’s senior saints—and dropped by their offspring. As another pastor-friend observed recently, “In our congregation there’s a whole generation essentially missing.” It’s that missing generation, and the generations they have spawned, that you and I are called to preach to, inspire, and lead. How daunting is that, I ask you?

Third, I believe God is reminding us that he works best when things seem most desperate. I’m writing these words on retreat at St. John’s Abbey of Collegeville. The Benedictine monastic community is mourning the death of Br. Dietrich Reinhart, OSB, (pictured above) who served as president of St. John’s University from 1991 to 2008. Br. Dietrich was diagnosed in late October with stage four metastatic melanoma in his lungs and brain. He described his health situation as “impossible but not hopeless.”

That gets it just about right, doesn’t it? “Impossible but not hopeless.” God is always leading his people through such desperate territory. And God continues still to woo and win us, to guide and drive us, through the wilderness of “impossible but not hopeless” realities.
And as God does that you and I are not left empty-handed. God may always work with stuff that is fundamentally flawed, with crooked planks and warped beams-- that is, with you and with me. But God does wondrous things with the resources at his disposal.
And God lavishes those resources upon us, abundantly, generously. Here’s what I’m talking about:
· The Word, enfleshed in Jesus the Epiphany Light-Bearer, proclaimed and sacramentally enacted, and woven deeply into the Scriptures—the Book of Faith.
· Faith practices that prepare us for the Word and open us up to the Word. Make no mistake about it—only the Word can save us and send us. But God also graciously gets the wax out of our ears so that we can hear this Word of Life. So God gives us prayer and worship and Bible reading and faith-filled conversations and simple service and soaring music and hungry neighbors and everything else that opens us up to God’s saving, sending Word.
· The community of sinner-saints, with all their foibles and failings—freed and forgiven, washed and fed, saved and sent. Through this community God provides all that we need to do his work. Even in this time of global strife and desperate economic turmoil, God is still providing far more resources than we need to do God’s work in the world
· The mission—God’s mission (missio Dei)—that will keep us out of mischief until Christ returns one last time to finish up the New Creation. Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing in this desperate time and place need keep us from moving ahead in God’s mission.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed,” wrote the Apostle Paul. Cancer-ridden and dying, Br. Dietrich described his situation as “impossible but not hopeless.” May such fierce faithfulness be the prism through which we read the signs of our times and respond accordingly, in the name of Christ the Epiphany Light-Bearer.

Your brother in Christ,
Larry Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Minnesota Without Poverty

(Remarks by Bishop Wohlrabe at an event marking the release of the recommendations of the Legislative Commission to End Poverty in Minnesota, delivered at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Moorhead on January 21, 2009.)

Thank you for being here this afternoon. Thank you, not just for making time in your busy schedules…thank you not just for your politeness in listening to the words and pondering the presentations that will be shared here…..but thank you for caring about your neighbors, especially those among us who are dogged by poverty and its effects…..thank you for standing alongside your neighbors this afternoon and committing yourselves to the cause of ending poverty in our great state of Minnesota.

I confess that when I first heard of this effort I was a little put off by that language about “ending” poverty. It struck me as being “over the top”…promising more than we can probably deliver….too lofty, way beyond what mere mortals can achieve. I expect that poverty will end one day, but only (truth be told) when Christ comes again to usher in God’s new creation.

But as I have learned more about this effort, as I have read the Common Foundation on which it is based, as I have become aware of the diligence and creativity and passion of the Legislative Commission on Ending Poverty in Minnesota….it has slowly dawned on me that we need audacious language like this. We need to make it clear that poverty has no rightful place among us. We dare not seem to be “making peace with” or “tolerating” poverty in our great state… that anything less than aiming to END poverty—anything less than that simply will not do.

This unwillingness to accept poverty as a permanent state of affairs, this reluctance to continue allowing for or making room for poverty in our midst—it is grounded, we believe, in our deepest values, the values that come to us from the faith that is shared by most residents of our state.

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the greatest of all, it might seem that he fudged in his response. Rather than reciting just one commandment from the Old Testament, Jesus articulated two: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”….and then Jesus added a second: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus wedded these two great commandments and melted them into one—like two sides of one coin.

I take this to mean that we never can have God all to ourselves. We cannot have God, that is, without having our neighbor as well. God will have it no other way. If we want God, if we long for God, our neighbor inevitably is part of the deal. We cannot separate them—God and our neighbors are as one—both of them laying claim to our allegiance and our highest regard.

This is the basic grounding our faith tradition gives to us for caring about the poor in our midst, the neighbors who lack the food, the clothing, the shelter, the health, the transportation, the work and the wherewithal to enjoy the abundant life God intends for all his people.

So this effort to end poverty in our state by the year 2020 AD…this effort began with impetus from the faith communities of Minnesota. Appropriately enough, today we gather here in this house of God, and we consider this effort to be a “God thing.” We realize that only as we get in touch with the transcendent ground of our being, only as we ponder what it means to belong to a God of abundance, who never gives his gifts stingily, and only as we claim God’s power and direction and enlightenment….will we do justice to an adequate response to the grievous reality of continuing poverty in a land of plenty.

So this afternoon we mark a milestone in this process, as the legislative commission concludes 1-1/2 years of study, hearings, discussion and deliberation….and as we, the citizens of Minnesota now receive their recommendations. What are we to make of this report? And how shall we respond?

There are three things that have impressed me about this effort to end poverty in our state:

1. First, I have been struck by the bi-partisan nature of the commission, its work and now its recommendations. We have before us a vision for ending poverty in our state that people of goodwill, regardless of party affiliation or guiding ideology, can get behind and support and give themselves to. I am so grateful that the legislative commission has moved us beyond the tired old partisan rhetoric….and beckoned us toward recommendations most of us can affirm and embrace.

2. Second, I am grateful for the comprehensive nature of these recommendations. The legislative commission truly is inviting us to “dig deeper,” to get below the surface level, to move beyond band-aid approaches to ending poverty. We have here a vision that recognizes the central value of meaningful work, for which adequate compensation must be provided. We have here a vision that recognizes the need for all citizens to have a shot at building up assets. We have here a vision that recognizes that the vitality of our citizens is intrinsically tied to the vitality of our communities and the values that we share.

3. Third, I am hopeful about the prospects laid out in these recommendations—the prospect of putting together a structure for moving this vision forward, the prospect of building ways to monitor our progress, and the prospect of holding ourselves accountable as we undertake the most critical part of this journey—the implementation of these recommendations in the years to come.

Of the conducting of studies and the writing of reports, there is no end. Creating roadmaps and blueprints are, in a way, easy things. It is the traveling of the road that matters. It is in the building of the house, that we prove our mettle.

So as delighted as I am that you are all here today, and as grateful as I am for your presence….we and the poorest among us will be most thankful for your ongoing commitment to move this agenda forward. The legislature can’t do it alone. State government can’t accomplish it all. The poor themselves can only do so much. As surely as we all have a stake in the common good and the bright future of our state, so also we are all now called to receive these recommendations and commit ourselves to their timely implementation. Each of us has gifts to bring to the table—whether we come out of business or government or non-profits or the churches—it will take all of us, and God will use all of us, to move one day soon from the good words of this report to the good deeds that will make poverty in Minnesota nothing more than a dim memory.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

A Door Opened by Our Neighbor

Zion Lutheran Church, Blackduck, MN
January 18, 2009 (Epiphany 2)
Installation of Pastor Dan Heath
John 1:43-51

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

"Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Don’t you just love it when the SS kids sing that old song in worship? You know the scene--there’s always one little girl singing louder than all the rest, and there’s at least one boy in the front row waving to his parents in the back pew...

Such shenanigans make me smile….but so do the words of this beloved old song.

"Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Isn’t it amusing...hearing a bunch of 3- and 4-year-olds singing those words?

"Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Really? How many of those darling preschoolers have ever actually opened up a Bible and looked inside? How many of them have ever read from the scriptures--or from any other book, for that matter?

And still the cherub choir stands up there on the chancel steps, belting out those words: "Jesus loves me/This I know./For the Bible/Tells me so."

Well, you know, that's not exactly the way it happened.

The Bible probably hasn't directly "told" those little kids anything—at least not yet. It would be far more accurate, far truer-to-life...if our children sang something like: "Jesus loves me/This I know./For my mommy...for my daddy...for my grandpa or my neighbor or my Sunday school teacher or my pastor.../Told me so."

Faith isn't so much taught by a book as it is caught in a relationship. "Jesus loves me," is a message that first got into our bones because someone else...some flesh-and-blood human being..."told us so." Word-of-mouth is how it happened.

The Bible, of course, informed all those "tellers of the story" who first sat us down on their knees and told us about Christmas and Good Friday and Easter and our baptisms.

But in the beginning...when the gospel was just dawning on us...when "Jesus" was becoming more than a name to probably happened by word-of-mouth: "Jesus loves me/This I know/For a Christian/Told me so."

It's as simple as elementary as the scene that unfolds for us in this Gospel lesson from John, chapter 1.

Jesus is on the road, issuing invitations, calling on prospective believers, telling the story. He does it up close, face-to-face, one-on-one.

It's as uncomplicated as that: Jesus speaks with Andrew and Andrew talks to Peter. Jesus travels on a little farther and finds Philip...and, before you know it, Philip has gone and grabbed a hold of Nathanael, who winds up confessing: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"

That's how it happens. The gospel gets heard, sometimes over-heard. Faith gets caught by word-of-mouth. It begins when one person tells the story of Jesus Christ--God's point of access with the whole wayward human race...the One in whom heaven and earth meet, with angels ascending and descending upon him.

One person tells the story of Jesus Christ; another listens; and soon that person is telling the story to listeners who are themselves destined to become tellers.

It's as simple as that.

And yet, if we’re honest, there’s nothing simple about that.

Faith may be “caught”…but it doesn’t usually happen without a struggle and a monkey wrench or two thrown in.

Take this gospel lesson. There are all sorts of things that could have gone wrong here. The ball could have been dropped at any point along the way.

Moreover, some obstacles did pop up here—road blocks that almost prevented faith from happening.

We see that especially in Nathanael, who sounds like some Lutherans I know.
Nathanael doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Nathanael isn’t buying just because someone else is selling. Nathanael takes a little cajoling and convincing.

Nathanael is put off by the fact that Jesus comes from a little, backwater village called Nazareth. “Can anything good come out of THAT town?” he blusters.

We know people like that. We’ve encountered skeptics like Nathanael…folks who make us think twice about mentioning Jesus or our life of faith. Is it worth it—having to confront these Nathanaels in our lives, with their raised eyebrows and sharp tongues?

But here in our gospel lesson, Phillip is not put off by his friend’s reluctance, and perhaps that, too, is a miracle of God’s determination to grab us by the ears.

Nathanael throws up a brick wall of doubt--but Philip persists. “Come and see”—what have you got to lose, Nathanael?

Philip persists, and Jesus isn’t put off by Nathanael’s prickly personality, either….and in the end one more follower, one more disciple signs up for God’s mission in Jesus Christ.

That, dear friends, is how it’s been happening for over two millennia.

That’s how the gospel has made its way down through time and across the globe, all the way to Blackduck, Minnesota. The Good News about Jesus has traveled that long and that far, in order to make its way to our ears here on this snowy January morning in this new year of 2009.
"Jesus loves me/This I know./For a Christian/Told me so."

Imagine a centuries-long, worldwide chain of story-tellers, a global network of gospel-spreaders...who have confronted obstacles, endured skeptics, spanned the eons and traversed the miles from mid-1st century Galilee...all the way to 21st century America...from Philip and Nathanael...all the way to you! That's how far the Word has journeyed....that's how far the story has word-of-mouth...from Jesus' own vocal your own eardrums.

When we start to get a feel for that, we catch a glimpse of just what our God is up to…and who we're called to be: not just patrons of the Lutheran branch office in northwestern Minnesota...but rather members of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church…Christ’s set-apart, sent people.

The name of Lesslie Newbigin may be unfamiliar to you. But he was a great missionary bishop of the 20th century who built up the church on the sub-continent of India, and then retired to his native England--only to discover that the mission field had followed him home.

Newbigin, in a series of books, developed an understanding of mission that reflects God’s own relational nature and the way God has designed us for relationships with one another. It is in such relationships that the Good News about Jesus is caught, that vibrant faith is formed in us.
Here’s how Newbigin once put it: “God’s purpose is precisely to break open that shell of egotism in which you are imprisoned since Adam first fell and to give you back the new nature which is content to owe the debt of love to all men. And so God deals with us through one another. One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people. Each of us has to hear the gospel from the lips of another or we cannot hear it at all…Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”[1]

What a word for us to hear on this day, as we install a new pastor for Zion Lutheran Church.

Make no mistake about it, Pastor Dan Heath has come among you to speak Christ into your ears, and to live out the Christ life in your midst. That’s what pastors do, and I’m confident that Pastor Heath will do that well.

But Pastor Dan cannot, Pastor Dan must not be the only one who speaks of Christ and brings Christ to folks. He may lead you, he may show you the way, he may model for you how that is done. But you, dear sisters and brothers, are called to pick up the ball. God has created you for that and Christ calls you to do that..

As surely as Jesus called out to Peter and Andrew and Phillip….and as certainly as Phillip “went after” that cantankerous skeptic Nathanael, so also God uses each and every one of you, to “go after” others, bearing witness to Jesus Christ. God’s M.O., God’s modus operandi, God’s preferred way of doing things is to use us, to take on flesh and blood again, in our relationships. Lesslie Newbingin was right: “Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”

This Good News has found a home in our hearts–because God has graciously sent persons into our lives to tell us the story of Jesus, the story that discloses the very heart of God.
God has done all that so that we might get into the act, too…joining that great chain of witnesses throughout all time and space…men, women and children who all love to sing: Jesus loves me/This I know/for some Christians/told me so.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian, A Reader (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 50.