Saturday, June 13, 2009

God Does the Heavy Lifting

Vernes Lutheran Church, McIntosh, MN
125th Anniversary Celebration
Pentecost 2/Year B/Mark 4:26-34/
June 14, 2009

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Do you ever get impatient with God? Do you ever wonder when God is going to make good on all his promises to us?

Do you ever wish God would set the world to rights, once and for all, and usher in the New Creation?

Although we Lutherans tend to be more patient than other branches of the Christian family, even we are nagged from time to time by a kind of “sanctified antsiness”—a longing for God to finish off evil, defeat death and usher in the new creation that Paul sings about in our lesson from II Corinthians.

We get that way especially when the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket--when we’re weary of terrorism and greed and phony politicians and cancer and family strife and everything else that sucks the life out of us.

Then we wonder: “How long, O Lord?”

Our gospel lesson from Mark 4 is a response to that ancient question, “How long, O Lord?”

It’s a great summer-time lesson, because it beckons us out into our gardens, yards, and fields. It invites us to hit the dirt, quite literally: “Stretch out on the ground, get eyeball to eyeball with a seedling, and observe just how it is that the Kingdom, the Rule, the Reign of God is becoming a reality—despite all our antsiness, all appearances to the contrary.”

The first bit of “horticultural theology” that grabs us in these verses is the utter simplicity of the picture Jesus is painting: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”

To be honest, I don’t get it either. I studied “plant science” in the agriculture department of Amboy-Good Thunder High School. I still have a vague idea of how germination works. But when my few feeble efforts at gardening actually succeed it’s usually in spite of all my best efforts.

Some years ago I tossed some ancient grass seed on a couple of bare patches in my lawn—never imagining that anything would come of it. But, lo and behold, the stuff came up thicker’n hair on a dog—despite my neglect, despite my lack of a bona fide green thumb.

“The earth produces of itself,” says Jesus—and, boy, is that good news for a poor excuse for a gardener like me!

The earth does such a good job all by itself that I can, for the most part, forget about that seed I planted. God does all the heavy lifting—much of it while I’m snoozing. While I sleep—God is always stoking the miracle of life.

God’s Rule over all things is like a lazy-know-nothing gardener, a less-than-ambitious farmer who lets nature take its course and then shows up—right on cue!—when harvest time rolls around.

What’s the point of this parable? It’s that we farmers, we gardeners can take almost no credit for the bumper crop that results from our planting. The farmer in Jesus’ story spreads no fertilizer, sprays no weeds, pulls no thistles, operates no cultivator. He just dozes in his Lazy Boy rocker while the seed takes off—sprouting, spreading, maturing irresistibly, until harvest comes.

God’s Kingdom, God’s Rule is somehow like that. It doesn’t depend on our best efforts, our noblest endeavors. God isn’t waiting for us to get our act together before God makes good on all his promises to us.

So the question isn’t: will we get busy and do everything we need to do, to help God along?

No. The question, rather, is: will we have a farmer’s faithful patience to trust God to finish up God’s business in God’s good time?

Today we give thanks for 125 years of God being faithful to all his promises to you here at Vernes. In reading your congregational history I was struck by how your parish—like so many churches—has been established and sustained in the face of countless challenges, circumstances that could have destroyed you.

Think of those hardy Norwegian settlers who formed this church in 1884. Imagine them living as a congregation for 15 years without a church building. Recall the hard times they must have faced—the rugged terrain (before we had decent gravel roads), the brutal winters, the always-scarce financial resources. (Vernes ended 1887 with just $2.80 in the treasury…and by 1889 the balance on hand had grown to a whopping $8.50!)

The pioneers who started Vernes were always praying for a pastor to serve them, but for a long time it had to be an “import”—the first six preachers all came from Norway.

In more recent years, many of you no doubt recall the tragic church fire in 1992. Bolts of lightning burned your newly-remodeled church building to the ground. That could have killed your congregation—but it didn’t. God was faithful to you, God is faithful to you. If you are still here, doing God’s work, it is all because of God’s unfathomable faithfulness, making seeds sprout, and grow and bear abundant fruit.

God doesn’t wait for us to do something big and dramatic and decisive for God to set the world to rights and make good on all his promises.

There’s something shocking about that—but also something freeing about that.

It doesn’t all depend upon us.

God doesn’t expect you and me to bring about a heaven on earth. That’s God’s job.

What you and I are good at are smaller things—like trusting God in this moment, loving the neighbor right next to us, caring for the little corner of the earth where God has planted us.

Those are small things, I realize—and small things are often the hardest things for us to do. And yet, the small things are what we’re cut out to do.

In fact, maybe those small things aren’t that small after all!

That’s the promise tucked away in the second little parable here in Mark 4. Once again Jesus beckons us out into nature, to examine the smallest of seeds. It’s just a mustard seed—but don’t let its tiny size fool you. It germinates into a large bush, with branches sturdy enough for birds to roost in.

God doesn’t overlook small seeds and small things—and neither must we. No one and no thing is too small for God to bother with.

God actually prefers small beginnings. God chose the smallest of nations, Israel, to be his precious people. God selected the smallest of ways to enter our world, in Mary’s boy baby, Jesus. God slips into our lives in the smallest of ways—with baptismal water, Communion bread and wine, and the words we share, even in this moment—naming, claiming and sending us.

Vernes Lutheran Church has always been a small-membership congregation. Hardly any of this world’s 6.7 billion inhabitants even know you exist…and yet you are precious—oh so precious!--in God’s eyes.

And over the last century-and-a-quarter God has blessed, God has used so many small things done by you and your ancestors, to foster God’s mission here at Vernes.

Do you know how your first church building was paid for, starting in 1892? By inviting all members to offer up one penny—just one penny!—per bushel of all the wheat, oats and barley that they harvested on their farms. That’s a “mustard seed” stewardship strategy if I ever heard of one!

Think of the old Vernes Luther League kids gathering their coins for world missions, putting up the posts and fence around the old church….Picture the original Vernes Ladies Aid, raising the money to put a basement under the old church, paying part of the cost for bringing electricity to Vernes back in 1948….

And we could go on and on—all sorts of small things, all manner of mustard seeds have been planted by you and your forebears. And God has worked with, God has multiplied all those small efforts, those modest contributions.

So, when you get antsy with God, when it seems as though it’s going to take our Creator forever in setting everything to rights, when impatience with God’s ways and God’s timetable washes over you—remember to do this: Hit the dirt, size up a seedling, and take time to watch a mustard plant grow.

Then, if you still need to work off some nervous energy, take on some small thing. Create something beautiful. Mend a relationship. Say a prayer. Right a wrong.

Do it all in gratitude for God’s grace shown to your congregation for these 125 years. Do it all because you belong to Jesus…Jesus, who has defeated sin, death and the devil….Jesus, who even now is ushering in God’s gentle and glorious rule over all things.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Called From the Water

Called from the Water
Matthew 28:16-20
Synod Women’s Organization Convention
June 13, 2009
Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Moorhead
“Now the eleven disciples came to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus commanded them, and when they saw him they worshiped him, though some had their doubts. And Jesus stepped forward and spoke to them, saying,
‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
So move out and disciple all nations,
Baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
Teaching them to keep absolutely all that I commanded you;
And look! I myself am right there with you all the days, to the consummation of history.’”[1]

The next time you meet someone for the first time, and they ask you where you’re from, why don’t you look them right in the eye and say: “I’m from the water.”
That should get a reaction—don’t’ you think? Either the other person will think you’re a little whacky…or perhaps she’ll be curious and ask you to say more.
“You’re from-- the water? How so?”
And here’s what you might say: My life began not the day my mother’s “water broke” and she birthed me, as amazing as that day was…but rather, my life began in the water of my baptism into Jesus Christ. I really wasn’t much of anything before that day. But all that changed when Christ washed over me. Life really began for me when I hit that other water, the water in the font….when that rescuing, renewing water splashed over me I became a new creation. It was my second birth--when I was claimed by my three-personed God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
To be called from the water, as our convention theme has it—to be called from the water is to say something about our origin, where it all began for us, where the true story of our life began. Jesus, as he laid the Great Commission on his first followers, articulated how foundational baptism is for all of us.
Twenty-seven years ago this past Mother’s Day, my dear wife Joy celebrated her first Mother’s Day (as a mom, that is) by watching me nearly drown our newborn son.
Mother’s Day seemed like the perfect day for a baptism, so we invited the whole family to our little country church just north of Willmar—to celebrate with us and our one-month old son Erik.
But somehow, as I got ready for the baptism, I went a little overboard (no pun intended).
I remembered how one of my seminary teachers--sort of a wise guy professor of worship--liked to say brash things like: “When you preside at a baptism, make sure you splash enough water around that the janitor has to bring in a mop and clean up afterwards.”
So when we got to that part of the worship service, I scooped up a huge handful of water and poured it—not carefully over my little son’s forehead…..but rather I splashed the water over his whole face and right up his nostrils to boot. Little Erik came up from his baptism, sputtering and coughing, and my wife Joy looked at me with an expression that said: “Are you crazy? After all those hours I labored to bring him safely into this world—are you drowning my precious baby?”
And, of course, I felt about this tall—as I glimpsed in my mind’s eye a horrible headline in Willmar’s West Central Tribune: “Rookie Pastor Accidentally Drowns Infant Son During Christening.”
But that’s not what happened, thank God.
Babies are harder to break, more difficult to do in than we think…and after a few good coughs, sneezes and sputters, Erik recovered from his baptism and all was well with the world.
What if, though—what if persons occasionally died in the baptismal font? That would wake up the sleepers in the third pew, don’t you think?
It’s water, after all….and water can kill you! In fact the New Testament is replete with images of baptism that all imply a kind of death happening, right at the beginning of our lives.
“We were buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death,” Paul says, soberly in the 6th chapter of his epistle to the Romans. “I’m from the water, all right….my life began when I died in the waters of my baptism.”
But isn’t that language a bit overly dramatic? No—not really. This is serious stuff. We come into this world kicking, screaming and showing symptoms of a fatal disease, revealing soon enough that we’re victims of a sin-pandemic sweeping through the whole human family, like a devouring wildfire.
But God, who is rich in mercy, has snatched us out of that wildfire, and washed us with the water of baptism, joining us—lock, stock and barrel—to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We are called from the water, all right—that is our origin.
But we can spin this all another way, employing another preposition in our convention theme.
We’re not just called from the water. We’re also called to the water!
“From” bespeaks our origin, but “to” points toward our destination. Our direction, our destiny, is to travel ever deeper into our baptism, every day of our lives, until we’re sunk deep into our baptism on the day we draw our final breath, when we’re laid in our graves, awaiting the resurrection.
We’re called from the water….and at the same time we’re called to the water. We’re baptized in church just once—but we’re born again and again and again as we return, every single day, to our baptism. We hit the rewind button (so to speak), we return to our baptism, whenever someone reminds us of it, even as I am reminding all of you right now.
Friends, we’ve got to get over the idea that baptism is ancient history—that it’s over and done with.
“Um, we’ve come to get our baby ‘done,’ pastor…”
“Sorry, friends—no can do. We can only start her baptism…but it’ll never be ‘done,’ it won’t be finished until the Day of Jesus Christ.”
Baptism just gets us off to a good start, as our life in Christ begins….and what an astounding life it is. We receive a whole boatload of possibilities in our baptism into Christ.
Martin Luther put it this way in his Large Catechism:
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.[2]
We’re called from the water—that’s our origin.
We’re called to the water—that’s our destination.
And there’s one more preposition we must toss into the mix with our convention theme: we’re called through the water, as well!
It’s a water-way that we’re traveling through life. Baptism doesn’t sit still. Baptism never leaves us immobilized. Jesus, the Risen One, launches us onto a water-route toward God’s new creation. You can’t get there by land—you can’t get there by staying dry, looking good, staying above it all. No—you have to get wet, you have to “go under,” you have to take the water route; it’s the only way to arrive where God is leading us.
Please notice the movement Jesus draws us into here in his Great Commission from Matthew 28. I’m struck by the vivid language of Frederick Dale Bruner’s translation: “Move out and disciple all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep absolutely all that I commanded you…”

As usual, the verbs grab our attention here. They’re strong, striking verbs….painting in vivid detail what the water-route of baptism looks and feels like.

Move out, Jesus says to us. Baptism into Christ sets our feet in motion. We’re taken somewhere, driven to our neighbors, dispatched into the world. We’re saved to be sent.

Disciple, Jesus commands us…..that is: get people close to Jesus, help folks get “aligned” with Jesus’ way of life, help persons get behind Jesus so he can lead them from death to life.

Move out…disciple…(those are the commands in the Great Commission)….and to hang some specificity on those commands, two participles get tossed into the mix: baptizing and teaching.

· We might say—clean ‘em up and fill ‘em up!
· Rescue and enlighten.
· Cleanse and equip….so that the whole business keeps repeating itself….as the baptized, taught ones start moving out, discipling, baptizing and teaching others.

That’s how Jesus gets so much done. He refuses to do it all by himself. Jesus keeps commissioning, Jesus keeps giving marching orders, Jesus keeps catching us up in the action!

And because we do none of this under our own power, our Risen Lord wraps up his Great Commission in two breath-taking promises: the promise that all authority in the cosmos has been given to him—to Jesus our Lord….and the promise that we fulfill his Great Commission by his power, never our own power.

For Jesus goes with us—behind, below, above, and always ahead of us…to the end of the age.


[1] Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary--The Churchbook: Matthew 13-28, Revised and Expanded Edition (Eerdmans, 2004), p. 804
[2] Martin Luther, Large Catechism, Part IV.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Footwashing Pastor

Ordination/Installation for Matthew Rose
Peace Lutheran Church, Barrett, MN
June 7, 2009
John 13:12-17, 20

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Of all the ordination services I’ve been part of, this is the first one where the Gospel lesson came from this portion of John 13. I’m struck, and I’m intrigued, Matthew, by why you chose this text for your ordination and installation here at Peace.

What you seem to want us all to know is that you intend to be a “footwashing pastor.” And that bodes well for you and the people you’ll serve. For if you aim to be a footwashing pastor, you will be following in some wonderful footsteps! You’ll be “tracking” your Lord Jesus!

What does it mean to be a footwashing pastor?

First, it means that you’ll offer radical hospitality to all of God’s children. In Jesus’ day, it was standard fare—the normal, expected duty of a host—to provide water so that guests could wash their feet. Footwashing was simply a mark of hospitality.

But a good host, the “founder of the feast” didn’t do the footwashing himself—not by a longshot. Footwashing was such lowly, humble work that a host couldn’t even make his slave do it! Washing smelly, dirty feet was beneath anyone; so you normally washed your own feet in the 1st century.

Why? Because feet were too much in touch with the earth. Feet traveled where animals traveled, where animals left their manure on the road—feet were soiled, unclean, mucked up, dusty, impure.

So it was the lowliest of all forms of personal service, to take a towel, fill a basin and bathe the parched, soiled, malodorous feet of someone else.

Which makes this story so astonishing. There is one person who by all accounts should NEVER have been washing feet in the Upper Room on the first Maundy Thursday. And that was Jesus! But there he was, strapping on a towel, filling the basin, stooping to bathe 24 dusty, filthy feet.

Jesus did not shrink from the stink of other peoples’ feet. Jesus didn’t ignore the mess of their lives. Jesus mucked it up, got drawn into the sorry predicaments of others--and nowhere is that more clear than here in John 13.

If you desire to be a footwashing pastor, brother Matthew, you’ll get involved in the messes people make of their lives. You’ll make contact with the dirt and grime of life—daring to offer a measure of comfort and cleanliness wherever it is needed. You will even come up against the ungrateful and the rebellious—just as Jesus our Lord washed the two feet of Judas Iscariot, moments before he betrayed him.

This is radical hospitality—opening the door widely to all manner of folks, bring all manner of messes into the family of God. A footwashing pastor says: “Welcome! Welcome to God’s presence! Welcome to God’s condescending love and mercy! Welcome to this family of sinners….”

But a footwashing pastor doesn’t just leave folks in their filthiness. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus cleansed what was unclean….and in like fashion a foot-washing pastor welcomes sinners into a place where they can get cleaned up and start over, a place of forgiveness, repentance, renewal, new life, and a fresh start—all for the sake of Jesus Christ.

A second thing that a footwashing pastor does is to lead the people of God. This might seem surprising—because we often pit servanthood and leadership against one another. But that was not so with Jesus. In him, servanthood and leadership are blended together in perfect fashion.

To be sure, Jesus stooped as far down as anyone could when he abased himself at the feet of his disciples. But was he merely powerless in this action? Far from it!

Rather: Jesus claimed the most peculiar power of all when he washed those feet. Jesus declared himself free of all conventional measures of “muscle” or authority. Jesus seized power on his own terms—the power of someone who gives himself up for others, setting them free.

A footwashing pastor is a servant-leader. As you become a footwashing pastor today, Matthew, you are launched into a life of lowering yourself, putting yourself at the disposal of others. And even as you embrace that calling, you will invite others deeper into their own experience of servanthood.

In this fashion, you will lead by serving. “15For I have set you an example,” Jesus reminds us, “that you also should do as I have done to you.” Jesus’ act of footwashing in the Upper Room wasn’t a one-time, grandstanding spectacle. It was, rather, the inauguration of a whole new way of leading…leading persons deeper into God’s kingdom, leading by example.

For as long as you serve as a pastor, Matthew, you will use words to convey the Word of God. Pastors put out a tremendous number of words. We treasure syllables, we finesse phrases, we love language. God uses our feeble words to convey God’s own powerful Word—and what a miracle that is!

But here’s the kicker, Matthew. Even though some folks will remember you for your words, most will be struck by your deeds. St. Francis of Assisi once put it this way: “Preach at all times. Use words if necessary.”

This is not to devalue language, sermon or words. But it is to remind us that how we say what we say—and how we live what we say—is the “Bible” that others will notice first, last and always. Your confirmation students, Matthew, won’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.

My prayer for you, Matthew, is that God will produce in your life a congruence between your words and your deeds….and that by so doing God will make of you a servant-leader who winsomely invites others into following Jesus more closely.

Third, a footwashing pastor is a pastor who is always heading toward the cross, leading others to the cross, bearing the cross of Christ.

In the context of Holy Week, Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet was an appetizer, a preview of what was to come for our Lord. Jesus’ act of footwashing was a parable, and it was also prophetic. We might say that in the span of Jesus’ last 24 hours on earth, the washing of his disciples’ feet was his first step toward the cross.

And at the cross, we behold the depth of our Savior’s condescending love for us. The Servant of all is not merely abased by the act of footwashing; no….he goes as far as a servant can go—giving up his life for those he loves.

A footwashing pastor, brother Matthew, always is making tracks toward the Cross. A footwashing pastor points people to the Cross of Jesus, magnifies the Cross and the salvation our Lord procured for us there.

“For I decided to know nothing among you,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians (I Cor. 2:2)…”I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” I have used that verse, Matthew, more than once, as I have begun and concluded ministries in the congregations I have served. And I commend that verse to you on this, your ordination day.

· A footwashing pastor pursues the downward mobility of the way of the Cross.
· A footwashing pastor serves God’s people in the muck and messes of life.
· A footwashing pastor leads as he serves—woos others into following Jesus.
· A footwashing pastor always knows where the road leads—to the Cross, the death that was died for us there….and the new life that sprang forth from the Tomb.

As today you take up your calling, Matthew, to be a foot-washing pastor, you don’t strike out on your own. No—you follow the One who led the way, Jesus our Lord. As you head off into what I hope will be a long and fulfilling time of pastoral ministry, people will notice—they will notice you, to be sure, but even more importantly, they will see Jesus in you. And what could be better than that?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.