Saturday, February 28, 2009

In Healthy Congregation People Develop Caring Relationships and Empower Others

“We now want to return to the gospel, which gives guidance and help against sin in more than one way, because God is extravagantly rich in his grace: first, through the spoken word…second, through baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters.” Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles, III:4.

When Luther wrote these words in 1537 he came close—very close--to placing our relationships within the Body of Christ on a par with Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Caring relationships and loving conversations with other Christians are almost sacramental in the life of the church.

A Network of Connections

In itself the church is a gathering together of God’s people—a sharing of goodwill, energy and gifts of the Spirit. It’s not far-fetched to define the congregation as a “network of connections.” This tracks with the language of the New Testament which consistently favors organic—not mechanistic--images for describing the church, most notably as “the Body of Christ and individually, members one of another.” (I Corinthians 12:27)

Yet even within this lovely image there is place both for differentiation and togetherness. God doesn’t fuse us into a formless “blob.” The Body of Christ consists of members who are wonderfully diverse, but also connected inextricably, one to another.

Our challenge is to find balance between our identities as members of one another and the relationships that give us life. “How can a separate self relate with others in a healthy way?” asks Dr. Peter Steinke, in his Healthy Congregations training materials.

Steinke points to four ways that members of the Body of Christ relate to one another:
· Playing together. “If you cannot get connected to others through relaxation, spontaneity, and letting go,” notes Steinke, “ the only alternative is to connect through hostility or ‘dead seriousness.’”
· Touching one another, verbally as well as physically. Words we share are “touching” when they convey support, care, and comfort.
· Mirroring--simply looking into one another’s faces so we can tell whether we regard one another as important, noticed, and valued. How vital it is for us to know one another’s names and call each other by name!
· Nurturing connects people. There’s a reason why church suppers are so popular. “Half of Jesus’ parables,” observes Steinke, “are about food, feasts or farming.”

The Difficult Business of Helping

Helping one another, though, isn’t always as simple as you’d think. There are ways of “helping” that wind up hindering the growth of both the helper and the one being helped.

If our helping of one another always takes the form of fixing or rescuing someone, we could be tending to our own needs more than to the needs of the one being helped. Ask yourself: am I driven by compassion or by my own anxiety at seeing someone who is hurt?

There is a kind of helping that dis-empowers the one being helped. Some helpers have a sick “need to be needed.” Their tendency to over-function can foster an unhealthy dependency in the one being “helped.”

It’s important to watch for this sort of behavior in our congregations. Peter Steinke suggests that overly-needy helpers can be spotted by their tendency to
· Listen ad infinitum to a friend’s problems
· Volunteer for every job that needs doing
· Stay up all night to do a project
· Do others’ work for them
· Try to provide the perfect environment
· Please others at the expense of their own well-being.

Another example of unhealthy helpfulness is when leaders of a congregation adapt to the weakest or most disgruntled members of the church. When such leaders try to appease or satisfy the chronically anxious or complaining, the whole congregation usually suffers. Writes Steinke: “Healthier functioning on the part of leaders involves keeping their focus on a goal, a direction, not the noise of the needy.”

So what should be our goal in helping others? The founder of the modern servant leadership movement, Robert Greenleaf, has provided this helpful test: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

For reflection and discussion:
1. How well does your congregation play? Touch? Mirror? Nurture?
2. What connects people in your congregation?
3. How can you tell if your desire to help someone is motivated more by compassion than by your own anxiety?
4. Recall a time when leaders (perhaps in an attempt to be “helpful”) adapted to the weakest or most unhappy members of your congregation. How did this affect the whole congregation?

This is the final in 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. All eleven articles are available for download on the Northwestern Minnesota Synod website:

Let It Fly!

New Salem Lutheran Church, Turtle River, MN
March 1, 2009
Installation of Pastor Karol Hendricks McCracken
Mark 4:1-9

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Growing up on a farm, as I did, makes it both easier and harder to understand the Bible.

Growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota, as I did, makes it easier to understand the Bible….because the Bible comes to us largely out of an agrarian, rural culture.

The people of the Bible, by and large, were my kind of people—farmers, tillers of the soil. Rural folk have a leg up on urban folk in making sense of the scriptures….because rural folk know where the food comes from, they live closer to the land, they have an innate sense of how the natural world works. When a country boy like me hears this famous parable of the Sower, at least he knows something about what happens when seeds are planted in soil.

Growing up on a farm makes it easier….and it also makes it harder…to understand the Bible.

The “harder” part has to do with how much agriculture today has changed since “Bible times.”

For example, when my dad was farming between 1942 and 1975, we all knew that seed was precious and needed to be planted carefully.

Seed corn was and still is expensive. You dole it out sparingly, plant it cautiously, let none of it go to waste.

On our farm down near Mankato, one of the most complicated pieces of farm equipment was our corn planter. Right about now, every year, my dad started fussing with that machine, treating it almost like his fourth child. Integral to the operation of the corn planter were the round plates, situated at the bottom of the seed bins, that metered out the corn seed, in line with the speed of the tractor as it pulled the planter through the field, so that the corn plants would be spaced out just right….not clumped together too close, not scattered too far apart. Planting corn was a precision operation, designed to conserve the seed and sow it sparingly.

Take a look, though, at the Sower in Jesus’ story. He “spends” the seed like a drunken sailor….flinging it by the handfuls, in all directions. He lavishes the seed, wastes the seed, “broadcasts” the seed every which way.

You’d think, to read this parable, that there was an inexhaustible supply of seed!

Second, notice how and where the sower scatters the seed.

My dear father, back in the days before “minimum tillage,” prepared the seedbed with multiple passes of tillage equipment and administration of scientifically-measured fertilizers and herbicides. We planted the seed ONLY in the best possible seedbed. We avoided, wherever possible, the pathways, the rocky places, and the notorious weed patches.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we could “divert” those marginal acres with a cover crop to prevent soil erosion. The government paid us NOT to farm wherever the paths had run, wherever the ground was rocky or the thorns and thistles had taken over.
Not so, with this Sower in Mark, chapter 4. He is as indiscriminate as my farmer-father was discriminating, in deciding where exactly to plant the seed. This Sower in Jesus’ story—by my lights, at least—lets the seed fly in all the wrong places—flings recklessly the precious seed in areas where it doesn’t stand a chance of growing, or so it would seem.

What a reckless, wasteful, stupid way to plant seed!

And then there is one last thing that shocks a modern farmer in this parable. I’m talking about those fantastic, off-the-charts yields this Sower achieves. “Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold: (v. 9)

The farmers I have known are sober, realistic, scientifically-minded people. They deal in probabilities and hard realities, they work toward growth (of course!) but always within the bounds of what’s possible.

Growing up on the farm in the 150s, 60s and 70s….I remember seeing corn yields in southern Minnesota grow from 100 bushels an acre to over 200 bushels an acre, an impressive Green Revolution….but still not fantastic enough to strain sober reason.

Here in this parable, though, it’s as if the Sower is planting “magic seed,” achieving Jack-and-the-beanstalk yields that strain our credulity and make us wonder if it’s all smoke-and-mirrors. A hundredfold yield! Don’t be ridiculous!

And here, precisely here, of course, the Good News of the Gospel breaks through once again.

For the Gospel isn’t about probabilities and possibilities….the Gospel isn’t subject to hard realities and pure logic…..the Gospel of God’s extravagant love in Jesus Christ bursts through all of that, as it does here in the parable of the Sower.

Because, you see, the seed is the Word of God, and that changes everything. All bets are off!
The seed is the Word of God, and the Word, dear friends is inexhaustible. It’s meant to be flung, hither and yon, broadcast far and wide, unsparingly, “un-stingily”—just let it fly in all directions.

There’s a first Word for you, dear Pastor Karol, as you are installed today. God calls you to be lavish and wasteful with the Word. It’s none of your business to dole out the Word in measured, safe, bite-size, reasonable portions. Let it fly, broadcast it, spread it around rich and thick…and God will take it from there.

The seed is the Word of God, dear friends, and this Word wheedles its way into the most unlikely of places, finds a home in the most unworthy of persons. This world is full of persons who don’t, by rights, “deserve” the Word of God.

Come to think of it: none of us “deserves” the Word of God. We all, at various times and under certain circumstances are like the hard pathway, the stony soil, the prickly weed-patch. Look at any of us—honestly and directly—and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say: “The Word will never have a chance with THAT person….”

But the Word finds a way. It’s not up to us to deny it to anyone—that’s way above our “pay grade!”

For you, Pastor Karol, there is another call here: never underestimate the capacity of the Word of God to make someone new in Jesus Christ. Some of your greatest ministry will happen with some of the least likely characters.

And then, one last thing: get ready to have your socks knocked off, with the results, the yield of all that indiscriminate, wild-eyed seed-flinging.

Stand back, and be ready to be amazed by what God will do with the Word. It’s like super-seed, it works its own kind of germination-magic, in our midst. The Word, truly does yield thirty-fold, sixty-fold, one-hundred-fold and even more…

I love stories about Martin Luther--who reformed the Catholic church in the 16th century and started the Lutheran movement within the church. One of my favorite Luther stories has to do with the Reformer’s utter confidence in the power of the Word to work in the world.
Luther once wrote: “See how much God has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all….while I sat still and drank beer with Philip and Amsdorf, God dealt the papacy a mighty blow.”[i]

If the Word of God is as powerful as Luther said it was, as mighty as Jesus proclaimed it to be in this parable, there is wondrous relief that should wash over us, especially us preachers of it: It doesn’t all depend on us. Hear that, Pastor Karol? You’re important—but you’re not indispensable. Neither am I. Nor are any of us, gathered here this morning.

God is at work through God’s Word, even when we’re blowing Z’s, taking our beauty-rest, or maybe (like Luther) quaffing our favorite beverage. We can be out of sorts, out of good ideas, or simply “out of it”—but the Word is still at work.

To be sure, we want to serve this Word as best we can. But most of all, we need to know when to let it fly and then get out of the way.

Our prayer, a prayer that will shape our life, goes like this: “Almighty God, grant to your Church your Holy Spirit and the wisdom which comes down from heaven, that your Word may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve you and in the confession of your name may abide to the end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[ii]

[i] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Luther, p. 214.
[ii] Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 137.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Realer Than Real

Peace Lutheran Churches, Shelly, MN
The Transfiguration of our Lord
February 22, 2009
Mark 9:2-9

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“Welcome to the real world.”

Anyone ever said that to you? “Welcome to the real world.”

If you’ve heard that phrase before, chances are you heard it when something unfortunate happened to you.

A romance turned south. A job came to an end. An investment went sour. Something you were counting on, hoping for, failed to materialize.

“Welcome to the real world,” someone said to you, maybe with a shrug of a shoulder.

Isn’t that interesting?

Isn’t it fascinating that we equate the “real world”, most often, with the dark or disappointing side of life. That is what strikes as most “real.”.

According to this way of looking at things, what’s not real is when a wish comes true or when a relationship grows closer or when a hope is realized. All of that is “unreal,” na├»ve, make-believe stuff from some never-never land.

What’s real is what hurts, what frustrates, what robs you of your innocence, makes you cynical, challenges your faith.

“Welcome to the real world!” we glibly say to one another.

But is that really the real world?

This morning’s gospel lesson begs to differ.

This story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, purports to show us a glimpse of the real world. Jesus is on a mountain-top with three of his closest followers. Suddenly Jesus is bathed in dazzling white, amazing light, conversing with two long-departed heroes of the Old Testament, within earshot of the very voice of God who declares: “‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

Welcome to the real world, dear friends. See the veil lifted momentarily. Perceive the Son-light piercing through the dreary darkness. Behold Jesus as he truly is—without limit, without peer, no longr subject to boundaries of space or time or circumstance.

What if, what if THIS is the real world, this fleeting glimpse that Mark chapter 9 affords us? What if this is how things are—that all the other stuff is, if not an illusion, surely not “real” in the sense of the lasting, permanent, final state of things? What then?

If on the Mountain of the Transfiguration you and I glimpse momentarily the “real world,” if in Jesus’ metamorphosis we catch a brief vision of our final future, our certain destiny, in the new creation God is ushering in….what then?

If Jesus’ transfiguration shows us “the real world” what can we say about that?

We can say that although we might feel distant from God, God is never far away from us. The veil between heaven and earth, between God’s realm and our world is far thinner, far more translucent, far more penetrable than we imagined.

We can say that for Jesus, all the things that hold us back—space and time and limits of all sorts—those just don’t apply. The dead are no longer dead—Moses and Elijah and goodness knows who else—are all alive and well in the fullness of God’s unending life.

We can say that the light triumphs, that the darkness does not win out, that the dimness of our faith will surely be overshadowed by the crystal clear voice of God who knows and declares Jesus’ true identity.

We can say that alongside this world, which we mistakenly imagine to be the real world….alongside this world is God’s kingdom, God’s realm,….that God’s future overlaps our own, indeed even now it is overtaking us.

We can say that we know how the story ends. It ends in Jesus, bathed in light, his identity no longer in doubt, his Sonship, his oneness with God, as plain as the nose on your face.

St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, puts it this way: “For…as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power….When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all.” (I Corinthians 15:22-26, 28)

This, this, dear friends, is the real world. Welcome to the real world! God in Jesus Christ is making all things new. God in Jesus Christ is showing us how it all ends.

A friend of mine who pastors down in Texas, was leading a Bible study on the book of Revelation. He asked the class how they’d summarize the message of this perplexing book of the Bible….and a developmentally disabled man raised his hand. “I know, Pastor,” he blurted out. “God wins!”

Amen and amen. This man, though not seeming as bright as others, saw it all crystal clear. He cut to the chase. He knew the “point” of the Book of Revelation: in the end, God wins.

Welcome to the real world!

But what about us? Can we not start to see now, not just what’s going on here in Mark, chapter 9….but what’s going on in our lives as well? And what difference does it all make? Jesus was metamorphosed, Jesus was transfigured. Who cares?

Jesus’ transfiguration has “cash value” for us as we, too, are transfigured, as we start to see and be grasped by the fact that the so-called “real world” isn’t what we thought it was.

The real world, God’s real world for us, isn’t the dark and dreary side of life.

The real world is God’s future moving in upon us, even now. The real world is God getting a head start, even now, in making all things new.

So now, even now, we see the advance signs of that happening.

Now, even now, we meet people who refuse to abandon hope, persons who tenaciously pursue reconciliation, folks who are not cowed by death….all because they follow Jesus, the transfigured one.

Now, even now we catch glimpses of good overcoming evil, trust swallowing up cynicism, faith remaining unshaken by doubt….all because Jesus the transfigured one walks with us all the way.

Now, even now, we encounter communities of faith, hope and love….churches betting the whole farm on God’s triumph in Jesus Christ….congregations risking themselves, giving themselves away for others….communities of disciples doing whatever it takes to pursue God’s rescue mission, God’s work of renewal in the world.

Now, even now, we stumble upon tokens, examples of persons living here on earth as if the kingdom of God were already invading this present moment, drawing us forward, beckoning us ahead to God’s final future. Why wait? Why wait for freedom and justice and peace to prevail? Why not get on board with God’s way of doing things, now? What are we waiting for?

Welcome to the real world—God’s world, God’s side of things, God’s triumph, God’s future already invading our present.

The late British author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote many books, trying to explain faith to ordinary folks. One of his fictional writings, The Great Divorce, depicted a group of folks, traveling on a bus, from hell to heaven. As they left behind their own “grey city” and reached the foothills of heaven, the riders on the bus realized how ghostly and unreal they were. When they stepped off the bus, to walk on the landscape of heaven, they noticed that “although the country was the most beautiful they had ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) was unbearably solid compared to themselves: it caused them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf was far too heavy for any of them to lift.”[1]

Rather than depicting heaven—God’s realm--as some light, airy, unreal place….like the proverbial cartoon heaven where angels play harps, flitting from cloud to cloud….C.S. Lewis portrays heaven as more solid, more substantial, more “weighty,” more real than any other country we will ever visit.

Welcome to the real world. Not the world of disappointment, dreary darkness or defeat.
Welcome to the real world of God’s realm, bursting into our lives, in Jesus the transfigured one, the crucified and risen one, who is “realer than real.”

I invite you, dear friends, to stop saying “Welcome to the real world,” when someone you know experiences some misfortune. Misfortune is not real, final or ultimate.

Instead, I invite you to catch your neighbor by surprise. Catch your neighbor in the act of living by faith, righting a wrong, fearlessly facing the future. Catch your neighbor acting like Jesus and in that moment say to your neighbor these astonishing words: “Welcome to the real world!”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.


The "germ" of this sermon comes from a chapel sermon preached in 1987 by the Rev. Steve Wohlfeil, when he served as campus pastor at Augustana College, Sioux Falls, SD.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Missionary Back Home is You

Fridhem Lutheran Church, Lengby, MN
February 15, 2009
Epiphany 6/II Kings 5: 1-17

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

What a trip Naaman took, from Syria to Samaria. If he had known, if he had an inkling about what lay ahead for him—do you suppose he ever would have left home?

I’m not just talking about the one hundred miles or so, south by southwest, from Damascus in Syria to Samaria in northern Israel. That’s just geography….and surely longer, more daunting journeys have been taken.

No…I’m talking about the whole trip, the entire journey that Naaman went on….a journey down, to the depths….a journey up to the heights….and a journey out into the world again, by a man who was no longer quite himself.

What a journey---down, up and out….not unlike the journey of faith that you and I are on. Think about it.

Naaman took a journey down, not just down from Syria to Samaria, but down into the depths of humility, down to a place where all the pride was squeezed out of him, down to a river where he would die to all that he had been.

Naaman, you see, was a general, accustomed to giving orders and getting his own way. And Naaman was a successful general, to boot. His military prowess had won many victories. He had the confidence of his king. Naaman was, in so many ways, on top of the world.

Except that he was also a leper, which in that day was more than a skin disease. Leprosy brought disfigurement, uncleanness and shame. If Naaman could be rid of that, nothing would hold him back.

But to get rid of his leprosy, Naaman would have to go down, he needed to stoop down, get down, despairing of himself and submitting to the orders of others.

And that meant that Naaman needed to listen to the little people. Three times here in II Kings 5, Naaman the almighty must take his cues from the no-accounts, the servants, the slaves in the story. What a twist!

First there’s the little Hebrew maid, the slave girl Naaman had captured in an earlier victory over Israel, carrying her back to serve as his wife’s house-servant. The first glimmer of hope in this story comes from the slave girl—“There’s a prophet in my homeland,” she told her mistress. “He can heal your husband.”

So Naaman and his whole entourage traipse off to Samaria, the northern Kingdom of Israel. Armed with letters of introduction from the king of Syria, and a veritable “stimulus package” of gifts for the prophet, Naaman heads down to make contact with the man who could heal him.

But the prophet is not in the Israeli king’s palace. To meet the prophet, Naaman will need to bypass the palace and head out into the countryside, to the prophet’s humble home.

I bet Naaman was annoyed by that. Couldn’t the prophet come to him? Apparently not. So Naaman and company headed to the prophet’s hut, and when they got there, the prophet didn’t even bother to make an appearance.

Instead, for the second time in this story, a servant came to the fore. The prophet Elisha dispatched his slave with a simple set of instructions: “Go, Naaman to the River Jordan and bathe seven times and you will be healed.”

Here was mighty Naaman, a general of the Syrian army—standing hat in hand, before the prophet’s house—and the man couldn’t even step out, wave his hands and utter an incantation or two.

Naaman had had enough. He didn’t need this. He turned his face, north by northeast, back home to Syria…

But just then, for the third time in this story, the little people, Naaman’s own servants….came to him and spoke to him a word of pleading and hope. “What have you got to lose, O great one? You’ve come this far—why don’t you give it a try?”

And so again, Naaman relents and “goes down,” this time quite literally, seven times down into the muddy Jordan River….and when he comes up out of the water, his skin is like that of a teenager.

Naaman had to go down, down, down….for that is how God usually has to start with all of us.

Wherever we’re at, God needs to press in upon us, to reduce us, to diminish us, to soften us up and wear us down so that we become useless enough, powerless enough, worthless enough that God can do something great for us.

You and I have gone down like that. Life puts pressure on us. Though we may imagine ourselves in control and doing fine…. God has to recalibrate our lofty estimations of ourselves….and that’s a very good thing….because God needs us to be empty-handed, so that God can do his greatest work.

And what a great work that is. From the lowest of lowly places, Naaman is lifted up to the heights. Having gone down, down, down….Naaman is lifted up, up, up.

He receives more, far more, than the healing of a dermatological disorder. That would be wondrous enough, by rights….but God has bigger things in store for Naaman. As he rises up out of the River Jordan, Naaman receives a healing that is more than skin deep.

More than receiving the skin of a teenager, Naaman “gets it.” The pieces come together for him. Naaman isn’t just cured. He is saved—soul, mind and heart. Naaman is lifted up to the heavenly places where he confesses: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

Isn’t this just like God—to always give us more than we’re asking for! If Naaman’s leprosy had left him and that was the end of it—we’d say that Naaman was cured. His skin disease was cured.

But Naaman was more than cured, he was healed. He received God’s deep healing of the affliction that would have killed Naaman. God healed Naaman’s unbelief. God didn’t just give Naaman a cure. God gave Naaman the gift of himself.

Having gone down….and having been brought back up….there was one more step in Naaman’s journey, though.

God now sent him out, back into the world. And not just anywhere, either! God sent Naaman back to his own country, to Syria, and when Naaman got back there he would have some “explaining” to do!

“How’d you get that peaches-and-cream complexion, Naaman?” Naaman had to explain that, and the only way Naaman could do that would be to name the name of the one true God who had healed him.

This was no fly-by-night, flash-in-the-pan cure Naaman received. He was a new man, inside and out. He belonged now, and he knew he belonged, to the one true God, the God of Israel.

And that’s what those two mule-loads of dirt were all about.

Toward the end of this little story, Naaman, when he realizes that Elisha will accept no gift from him, Naaman asks if he can take home to Syria a gift from the prophet. Naaman asks to bring a little bit of the land of Israel, back to his home in Syria, so that he can worship the true God, on Israeli soil.

That might strike us as superstitious or just plain weird….but in truth, Naaman “got it,” he realized that his new faith in the one true God needed a point of sacramental connection to the place where God had made himself known.

So, Naaman, with his two mule-loads of dirt, would have more explaining to do, back home in Syria….and my sense of this story is that Naaman was eager, as eager as he could be, to do just that.

When we walk with God we are on the journey of our lives. God sends us down….down to wherever it is we learn humility, wherever we come to despair of ourselves. For that to happen to us, dear friends, we (like Naaman) may need to listen to the little people in our lives!

And God sends us down, only so that God can bring us back up, so that God can do for us what we need most, give us the gift of himself, in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord.

But that is never the end of it all. In the end, God sends us one more place. God sends us out, which for many of us simply means that God sends us back home, as Naaman went back home to Syria, a new man. God sends us home, washed in the waters of Baptism’s cleansing flood, new people with baby-soft skin and a faith to share.

This story, like every great story in the Bible, is finally a missionary story. And the missionary back home is Naaman, the missionary back home is you.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.