Monday, April 27, 2009

Don't Waste a Crisis!

Opening Word
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Stewardship Events
April 19-20, 2009

“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us…” II Cor. 8:1-5

How many crises are staring us in the face this evening? Let’s see now…
· We’re in the midst of a global financial crisis.
· Many believe we’re facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, marked by manmade climate change.
· And, just for good measure, here in the upper Midwest we’re recovering from our second “500-year flood” in just the last 12 years!

And those are just the BIG world-spanning, history-turning crises. How about the individual crises you and I may be facing as well: health crises, work crises, family crises—whatever?

Sounds like a good time to pull back, hedge our bets, and play it safe--right? If we soberly assess all these crises, that seems like the reasonable thing to do.

And yet, voices--some rather surprising voices--urge us to do anything BUT “hunker down.”

Last November, as he was preparing to assume his new position, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel made a bold statement that’s been quoted time and again, ever since: “You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.”[1]

How does that strike us as followers of Jesus Christ?

Whether or not he intended to, Rahm Emanuel echoes the biblical witness in uncanny ways.

The God of the Bible is forever redeeming crises, taking disasters and using them to open up a fresh future. This Easter season is the best example of that: out of the dark crisis of Good Friday God has worked the future-opening miracle of Easter Sunday….out of the dire disaster of Jesus’ death, God has brought the splendor of New Life, in the power of the resurrection.

And that amazing pattern, that astounding template, keeps getting repeated throughout the pages of the New Testament and—indeed—in the pages of our own lives.

All of this speaks powerfully to the issue that has brought us together this evening—the issue of generosity, the issue of how we live out our stewardship of all God’s good gifts.

Stewardship! This might seem like a terrible time to be talking about that: our care-taking, our giving, our generosity. This might seem like the last thing we should be considering during a global recession.

But, in truth, this may well be the best time, the opportune moment, a critical-turning-point for reconsidering and re-imagining just what it means to belong to a God of grace and abundance, whose generosity washes over our lives so lavishly that it spills over, through us, into the whole world.

Ponder, for example, this amazing story in II Corinthians, chapter 8.

It’s impossible to piece together exactly what happened, but here’s our best guess: the early church, which was first established in Jerusalem, endured horrific persecution and impoverishment in the first few decades of its existence.

This extreme crisis experienced by the Jerusalem believers became known throughout the fledgling Christian churches scattered around the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea.
And through preachers like St. Paul, an appeal went out—not unlike the email alerts some of us receive whenever some disaster or human crisis cries out for our help.

In response to this appeal, one of the least-likely churches insisted on helping out. Christians in Macedonia, who were themselves hungry and persecuted, insisted--absolutely insisted!--on making an eye-popping donation, far in excess of what they seemed to be capable of.

There simply were no “deep pockets” in Macedonia…no “low-hanging fruit” just waiting to be plucked. The Macedonian Christians were dirt poor, wretchedly persecuted, utterly impoverished.

But that would not stop them from giving far more than they could afford to give.

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while, I have had to encourage a Christian to be cautious in his or her generosity. Every once in a great while I have encountered someone who wanted to give more than they could really afford to give, someone whose generosity was so overflowing that she could end up impoverishing herself.

When I have done that, I have always wondered deep down inside myself, whether it’s any of my business to offer such advice. And all the while this story of the Macedonian believers, has stuck in my craw!

What if, just what if, one of the most breath-taking ways God cares for the world, what if one of the greatest ways God pursues his mission in the world is by using the poorest of the poor to grab our attention, put all our middle-class “poor-talk” into proper perspective and simply “goose” us into generosity?

What if God still uses modern-day Macedonians to wake us up, to stir us from our crisis-induced stupor and say to us: “I am still in charge here. I am still the God of Good Friday and Easter. I remain the God who knows only one way of giving: abundantly, over-flowingly, never stingily. And I call you, my dear and precious people, to throw caution to the wind and spend yourselves utterly, in witness and service and generosity, all for the sake of my crucified and risen Son, ….who ‘though he was rich, yet for your sakes…became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’”? II Cor. 8:9.

Let us pray: God of abundance, you have poured out a large measure of earthly blessings: our table is richly furnished, our cup overflows, and we live in safety and security. Teach us to set our hearts on you and not these material blessings. Keep us from becoming either paralyzed by crises or captivated by prosperity, and grant us wisdom to use your blessings to your glory and to the service of humankind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Based on a prayer for “the proper use of wealth,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 80.

[1] (accessed on 4/18/09)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Doubters Into Shouters

Our Redeemer’s Lutheran Church, Puposky, MN
Trinity Lutheran Church, Debs, MN
April 19, 2009
Second Sunday of Easter/John 20:19-31

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

One of the things I love about the Bible is that it has dirty laundry hanging out all over it.
The folks who put the Good Book together could have cleaned things up, smoothed over the rough spots, rounded off the jagged corners--but they didn’t.

The Bible tells the story of God and God’s people “warts and all”—no holds barred, no apologies offered. Nothing gets sanitized or swept under the rug--even episodes that don’t exactly put believers in the kindest light.

Take this familiar gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter.

There are no two ways about it: This is a story about unbelievers....unbelievers who because they were Jesus’ disciples should by rights have known better.

This morning’s gospel lesson is about unbelievers.

First there are those ten men, huddled together behind locked doors (in a “safe house”) on that first Easter. They have spent years with Jesus. They have walked miles with Jesus. They have heard Jesus teach, seen Jesus work wonders. They have lived as close to Jesus as anyone. But still they’re clueless.

They thought Jesus was done for.
They assumed that their adventures with Jesus were over.
They had nowhere to go, no place to turn, no future to look forward to.
So, fearful that Jesus’ fate might come their way as well, these ten disciples pulled the shades, locked the doors, put out the cat, and hid.

They were (at this point) unbelievers. They couldn’t muster even half-an-ounce of faith that God might still have something in store for Jesus or for them.

This gospel lesson is a story about unbelievers like those 10 scared-rabbit disciples, huddled behind barricaded doors on the first Easter.

And then there is that disciple who was missing--good old Thomas.

Thomas missed all the hoopla when Jesus showed up three days after his burial. Thomas had pressing business elsewhere that day. Perhaps he was out “on assignment.” For whatever reason, Thomas didn’t get to see the risen Christ.

And so--simply because that’s the kind of guy he was--Thomas declared that he wasn’t going to believe without at least as much proof as the other ten disciples had already received.

You’ve got to love Thomas.

He was no dummy. Every church council needs at least once Thomas on it--and God seems to make that happen.

You have to love Thomas. He was the kind of fellow who never got snookered, who took absolutely nothing at face value, accepted no wooden nickels, bought no cut-rate swampland in Florida.

I sometimes imagine Thomas as the Eeyore of the disciples.

You remember Eeyore--the stuffed donkey in the Winnie the Pooh stories. Eeyore is a cold, hard realist. He never views the world through rose-tinted glasses. No matter how brightly the sun might be shining, Eeyore always knows that a storm cloud will show up on the horizon soon enough. “Always look on the dark side of life”—that’s Eeyore’s motto.

And it seems to be Thomas’s motto too--at least as we encounter him in the Gospel of John.

Although Thomas is mentioned in all four gospels, he only speaks in John’s Gospel. Thomas has four brief “lines” in John’s script—and he always speaks with the voice of cold, hard realism.
In John, chapter 11, when Jesus tells his disciples that his friend Lazarus has died and they must go to him, Thomas--always Mr. Sunshine!--glumly responds: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

In John 14, just after Jesus tells his disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going, Thomas the Realist begs to differ: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

And then, here in John chapter 20, we see Thomas in all his skeptical glory. Demanding certified proof--visual and tactile evidence--that Jesus is really alive again.
You’ve got to love Thomas--unvarnished skeptic that he is.

And you’ve got to love the fact that his story didn’t get edited out of the Scriptures! His story didn’t wind up on the cutting-room floor.

There is good news in that, good news for unbelievers like you and like me....folks who can go head to head, toe to toe with Thomas in his dark doubting.

Because there is room for Thomas in the Bible, there is room enough in God’s story for you and for me as well.

For we certainly are all capable of Thomas’s skepticism--aren’t we? We have our own doubts about this whole Easter/resurrection/life beyond the grave business. We stoic northern European type-Looterans, know just how to take the wind out of the sails of whoever has the audacity to get too enthusiastic about anything.

Thomas fits us like a glove. Thomas is you and me. And the Bible--miracle of miracles!--does not shrink from telling his story.

But that’s not all.

The Bible doesn’t simply make us feel at home with all the other unbelievers who dot its pages.

The Bible doesn’t merely make us into more healthy, well-adjusted unbelievers. The Bible does more than make us comfortable with our doubts.

The Bible also tells us what God does with unbelievers, how God deals with doubters.

And what God does is simply this: God turns unbelievers into gospel-speakers.

God transforms doubters into shouters.

That, too, is the story--in fact it is the real story--of this gospel text.

First Jesus comes to those ten little lost lambs on that first Easter evening. Although the doors are locked, Jesus stands among them and gives them--not a stern lecture about the dangers of unbelief--but a word of gentle peace.

“Shalom!” That’s the first word Jesus has for this pack of unbelievers. “Peace to the nth degree,” Jesus says to them. And then, so that they will know he is truly Jesus and he now has death behind him, Jesus shows them the scars of his crucifixion.

Curious--isn’t it--that Jesus doesn’t offer proof that he is alive. Jesus doesn’t strap on a blood pressure cuff or a heart monitor or a brain wave detector. He doesn’t offer a DNA sample for testing.

Jesus proves he is alive by reminding his disciples that he was really dead. Then, and only then, do the disciples rejoice, in giddy recognition of their risen Lord.

And then, not wasting a second, Jesus gives these unbelievers work to do and empowers them to do it--all in one breath (literally--all in one breath!) “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”(v. 22-23)
What does Jesus do with these ten, knee-knocking unbelievers? He drafts them for his service, makes them his ambassadors, catches them up in his own work of piecing back together the whole creation--one shattered relationship, one jaded unbeliever, one repentant sinner at a time.

And Thomas? What does Jesus do for Thomas?

Two weeks after the first Easter Jesus does for Thomas exactly what Thomas needed him to do. Jesus graciously, lavishly gives Thomas the grounds he needs to become a believer. “Put your finger here, Thomas...Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do whatever you need to with me in order to have faith. Do not doubt but believe.” (v. 27)

What does Jesus do for Thomas? He transforms Thomas the doubter into Thomas the shouter.
Thomas doesn’t have very many lines in the Gospel of John, but Thomas does finally get the best line of all, Thomas’s last line in this Gospel: “My Lord and my God!”(v. 28) he exclaims.

And may we so declare those very same words! May Thomas’s good confession find its way to our lips, as well!

It is for us, you see, that the Bible tells us this story--warts and all.

It is for us that the Bible lets the dirty laundry hang out all over. Or as John the gospel writer puts it: “These are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (v. 31)

There’s the pay off! It is for you and me that the Bible allows the stories of unbelievers and doubters to be told....for only in so telling do we also come to behold what God does with unbelievers and doubters.

And what God does with them, in the pages of Scripture, is what God still does with the unbelievers and doubters in our midst, with you and with me.

God in Christ turns unbelievers--you and me!--into gospel-speakers.

God transforms doubters--you and me!--into shouters who love to deliver Thomas’s greatest line: “My Lord and My God!”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Acts of God

Comments at "The Crest"
Fargo-Moorhead Community Worship Event
Fargo Theatre--Saturday, April 4, 2009

”Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2

Have you noticed how insurance policies, laws, and newspaper accounts often call tornadoes, earthquakes and floods “acts of God?” Why do we so often hear this phrase “act of God” in the same breath as we hear of a natural disaster?

Doesn’t that amount to a huge “bum rap” for God? In these last weeks I’ve witnessed all sorts of other “acts of God”—and I bet you have, too!
· I’ve seen aching arms and tired muscles filling millions of sandbags. That’s an act of God.
· You’ve eaten bologna sandwiches, and pizza, and all sorts of other food, lovingly prepared by hands perhaps not strong enough to haul sandbags. That’s an act of God.
· We’ve observed governmental officials, relief agency workers, National Guard members, church folk and neighbors from all over…working 24/7 to save life and preserve property. That’s an act of God.

Dear friends: “acts of God” are all around us here in Fargo-Moorhead! Acts of God have drawn us here this afternoon. God is all over the place….and we’re counting on God to keep acting among us, in us, and through us in the weeks of cleanup and recovery yet to come.

Those of us who represent the Lutheran branch of the Christian family are here and will continue to be here through the arm of Lutheran Disaster Response--often the last church relief agency to leave the scene of a disaster. We will be here because God is here, acting among us.

Let ‘s pray: God, you are awesome. We see how amazing you are in forces of nature that take our breath away. But we also perceive your presence in acts of kindness, aching muscles, sandbags, bologna sandwiches, homes opened to evacuees, and the dedication of our leaders. Keep our eyes peeled, gracious God, to see you wherever and whenever you are among us, acting in us and through us to save your people and renew your whole creation. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.