Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Reflections on the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies

When the ELCA Churchwide Assembly convenes in Minneapolis next month, voting members will deliberate on four steps that could lead to a change in the ELCA’s policy regarding the rostering of ministers who are in partnered gay or lesbian relationships. Current ELCA policy states: “Single ordained ministers are expected to live a chaste life. Married ordained ministers are expected to live in fidelity to their spouses, giving expression to sexual intimacy within a marriage relationship that is mutual, chaste, and faithful. Ordained ministers who are homosexual in their self-understanding are expected to abstain from homosexual sexual relationships.”[1]

The first of the four steps being proposed to the Churchwide Assembly asks the ELCA to “commit itself to finding ways to allow congregations that choose to do so to recognize, support, and hold publicly accountable life-long, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” Although this step does not specifically speak of “blessing” gay/lesbian relationships, its adoption would move the ELCA toward official acceptance of homosexual behavior, marking a significant change in the policy and practice of our church. Doing so would also signal a departure from pertinent social statements of the predecessor church bodies that created the ELCA in 1988. Approving “step one” at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly would allow the voting members to proceed to steps 2-4 which, more directly, address the question of rostering ministers who are in partnered gay or lesbian relationships.

The question of homosexuality (and the sub-question re: rostering of partnered homosexuals) has been debated, almost continually, since the founding of the ELCA in 1988. When I served on the board of the former ELCA Division for Ministry (1995-2001), as I recall, the rostering of homosexual persons was the only matter we discussed at each of the twelve board meetings I attended. Our current deliberations must be understood against the backdrop of this long history—a history that mirrors the fevered debate over homosexuality in the broader American culture.

As a voting member of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, I will participate in the debate in Minneapolis and cast a vote. As bishop of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod I believe it is appropriate to share my thoughts at this time with the rostered leaders and laity of the synod. Although I’m not announcing how I plan to vote, I do intend to lay out the critical issues with which I am grappling. I welcome comments from those who read this essay.

In what follows I do not offer an exhaustive analysis of this issue. Rather, I want to describe the major arguments that currently inform my reflections. I will focus on our theology, our understanding of God’s mission, and our relationships with one another within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and with global and ecumenical partner churches.


The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Confession of Faith gives primacy of place to theological sources in approaching issues such as the church’s teaching and practice regarding homosexuality. The scriptures—as the fount of all theological reflection for Christian disciples—are described as “the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.”[2]

Biblical teaching and traditional Christian practice regarding human sexuality are bound up with our theology of marriage and family life. In creating us male and female, God has hard-wired gender “complementarity” into the very fabric of our being. We read Genesis 1-2 not just as a “long ago” origin stories. Rather we hear in these ancient texts a compelling account for how our lives continue to unfold within God’s gracious purposes. When he explained the meaning of the First Article of the Creed, Luther didn’t speculate about the origin of the human species. Rather he confessed that “God has created me and all that exists.”

The church’s historic disapproval of same-sex behavior (along with a host of other non-marital sexual behaviors) must be understood against the backdrop of its teaching and practice on marriage. Disapproval of homosexual acts is based on far more than a purported literalistic reading of “the seven biblical texts that refer directly to same-gender sexual activity.”[3] Christians’ historic unwillingness to accept homosexual behavior functions (alongside prohibitions of incest, bestiality, sex with minors, etc) as a fence around the divinely-blessed, biblically-privileged status of marriage between one man and one woman.[4]

Precisely at this point, however, we are challenged by 21st century worldviews and mindsets. The traditional understanding of marriage and family life “leaves out” so many of us, we are told. [5] What about single persons? What do we say to people who are physically unable to enter into marriage? And how about those who understand themselves to be attracted solely to persons of the same sex? If gays and lesbians cannot marry, is disciplined sexual abstinence their only option?

Our current stance toward the rostering of partnered gay and lesbian persons is often portrayed as being patently unfair. Moreover, it seems to negate the message of God’s love and acceptance of all human beings. Our present policy seems to contradict Christ’s outgoing love for the oppressed—our Lord’s gracious favor shown toward the marginalized.

One factor that contributes to these perceptions is that the distinction North American Lutherans have historically drawn between sexual orientation and sexual behavior no longer seems to “work” the way it once did. Our society increasingly resists such distinctions, at least with respect to homosexuality.[6] In this regard society has impacted the church more than the church has impacted society these last two decades.

Does this mean that the ELCA’s current stance actually is “anti-gospel,” though? I am not so persuaded. The ELCA’s present policy regarding the rostering of partnered homosexual persons has offered and continues to offer a way to accept people without approving same-sex behaviors that nowhere enjoy God’s blessing in Scripture or the mainstream Christian tradition.

Moreover, our present policies are consistent with a fuller, richer expression of the gospel than what is frequently offered by proponents of changing our ministry policies. The gospel is not best expressed as: “God accepts you just the way you are” –so therefore the church must fully accept gay and lesbian persons and their same-sex relationships. A fuller, richer expression of the gospel is that God graciously receives us “just as we are” (captive to the condition of sin that infects even our genes) in order to go to work on us, transforming us into new creatures in Jesus Christ (II Cor. 5:21).

God always moves toward us—starts with us just the way we are—but God never leaves us just the way we are. God accepts sinners (at least at the beginning of our transformation into new creatures in Christ), but God never accepts sin or “un-sins” sin. Rather, God defeats sin. God forgives sin, for Jesus’ sake


Theology determines how we understand and serve God’s mission through the church. Present ELCA ministry policies forbid partnered gay/lesbian persons from serving in rostered ministries. Given the missional challenges and opportunities before us, should we keep saying “no” to these baptized disciples who sense God’s call to serve? Does it enhance our participation in God’s mission if we alienate ourselves in the ELCA—not only from gay/lesbian persons themselves, but also from the many family members and friends in the ELCA who love and support them?

Many argue that the ELCA’s current stance also contributes to the difficulty we have in capturing the hearts, minds and gifts of our younger generations of disciples (or would-be disciples). Furthermore, our present policy may hinder our ability to reach out to many of those whom Tex Sample has identified as the “cultural left” (as well as some in the “cultural middle”).[7] Folks who are persuaded by these arguments contend that, for missional reasons, our rostering policies must change.

But the missional questions are far more complex than this. Changing ELCA policy might enhance our participation in God’s mission in some arenas, but it will complicate it in many more arenas. Although changing our ministry policies might help us gain a hearing from some—perhaps many—younger folks, we should be cautious about assuming that all youth are of one mind on homosexuality.[8] Moreover, appealing to the opinions of young adults is like shooting at a moving target. Many of us who are middle-aged today held viewpoints passionately when we were in our teens and twenties that we have long since abandoned.

We must also ask ourselves questions that, in my experience, are rarely considered in our present discussions. For example, will finding ways to recognize, support and hold publicly accountable partnered gays and lesbians help the ELCA to

· …appeal more broadly and deeply to young married couples who are seeking a church that is manifestly committed to nurturing marriages and families? Today the ELCA is too-often perceived as a church that is overly-focused on the sexual lives of 3-7% of the population,[9] while doing relatively little to assist the roughly 95% of the population who will primarily live out their sexuality in the contexts of traditional marriages and families. Is it missionally wise to have allowed the ELCA to be positioned in such a fashion?

· …deepen our relationships with ecumenical and global partner churches in God’s mission? A tiny and declining minority of North American Christians belong to church bodies that have changed their policies to officially accept partnered gays/lesbians in rostered ministries.[10] Changing our rostering policies will likely strain our relationships with those larger churches to which the vast majority of Christians belong—the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, the Protestant evangelicals, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (with whom we still have cooperative relationships in federal chaplaincies, some social ministry organizations, Lutheran World Relief, etc.) Gazing beyond the North American context, we see among the robust, growing churches of the Global South little if any support for changing our policies regarding gay/lesbian clergy.[11] To what degree in Minneapolis will our voting members be invited to ponder the ecumenical and global implications of the proposed changes to our ministry policies?[12]

· …enhance our outreach among men in general and young adult men in particular? We know that men, especially young men, are less involved than women are in the life and mission of the ELCA. In recent years, more than one observer has commented upon a so-called “feminization of the church.”[13] Because men in America rather consistently view homosexuality more critically than women do, [14]changing our ministry policies with respect to homosexuals may well make it harder to incorporate mainstream men into the life and mission of the ELCA.

· …assist our church in its outreach among people of color and primary languages other than English? Since its inception, the ELCA has sought to make its membership more reflective of the growing ethnic and racial diversity in America. But we have struggled mightily to make headway in this regard. It’s striking—given how much we talk about becoming a multi-cultural church—that relatively little attention is paid to the “conservatism” in sexual matters prevalent among non-white racial/ethnic groups.[15]


The theological and missional issues I have already discussed come to even sharper focus when we consider our relationships within the ELCA—our members, rostered leaders, congregations, synods and the churchwide organization. Many of us are approaching the Churchwide Assembly with profoundly mixed feelings and conflicted desires for our church. There is, on the one hand, an aura of “inevitability” in our church right now—a sense that this year, finally, the Churchwide Assembly will open the door to changing our ministry policies. At the same time there is foreboding about what such changes could do the fabric of our unity in Christ, along with our ability to pursue God’s mission.

One thing is abundantly clear to me. Our decades-long discussions of same-sex orientation and behavior issues in the ELCA have distracted us from other missional challenges and opportunities. Endless debates over homosexuality have sapped our strength and left many of us bone weary. This corporate exhaustion might push us (even some traditionalists!) toward embracing a change in our rostering policies. “Let’s just do it and move on!”

Also, we come to Minneapolis aware that whole segments of the ELCA have already started to move (in actual practice) toward directions that are proposed. There are in various quarters tensions between our stated policies and the ways those policies are administered. This is not tenable over the long-haul. “Doing nothing” leaves us vulnerable to the charge that we are neither clear nor fair in how we deal with candidates for rostered ministry who understand themselves to be gay or lesbian. This state of confusion cannot continue.

But will the four-step proposal in the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies truly take us to a better place? When the document was released, my first impression of it was: “If we in the ELCA change our rostering policies, I can’t imagine a better process to follow.” I was especially heartened to see that an ELCA task force finally put the cart after the horse—dealing with “recognition” of same-sex partnerships before taking steps to roster persons engaged in such partnerships. I was also grateful for the accent on respect for the consciences of all—although I’ve become less certain that the novel term “bound conscience,” sheds much light on the subject.

In the months since the Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies was released, my optimism about the proposed four-step process has waned. Several reasons have fed my skepticism:

· As even some traditionalists have noted,[16] the process seems disrespectful to candidates for ministry who are in partnered gay or lesbian relationships. Will we not see “tiers” within the clergy roster, reducing the sense we’ve had that, in principle, every rostered leader can serve in the ministry of Word and Sacrament anywhere in the ELCA?

· Practically speaking, I foresee the process leading bishops, synod staffs, candidacy committees and congregations into new ways of getting at cross-purposes with one another over particular candidates for ministry or nominees for specific Calls.

· The process initiated by the four steps hands over responsibility to the Church Council, in consultation with the Conference of Bishops and pertinent program units of the church to implement the actual revisions in our rostering policies. Do we have within the ELCA the level of trust in one another necessary to delegate to some in our ranks such detailed implementation of revised ministry policies? For that matter, can voting members in Minneapolis responsibly vote on the “four steps” without knowing more in advance about just how the revised policies will play out?

In this essay I've shared some of what I'm pondering as I prepare for the Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. The deliberation before us will require prayerful, keen, well-grounded engagement with one another. May God grant us clarity of vision, breadth of perspective, biblically-grounded faithfulness, and evangelical graciousness for this critical assignment.

[1] Vision and Expectations: Ordained Ministers. Available at

[2] Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, section 2.03. Available at

[3] Line 103 of Report and Recommendation on Ministry Policies.

[4] Proponents of changing the ELCA’s ministry policies regarding homosexuals frequently point out the presence of varieties of sexual practices in the Bible—including polygamy. However, in a helpful overview of such questions Craig R. Koester observes, “Marriage practices did not remain static [in the Bible], but the tendency reflected in the biblical writings is to advocate greater restraint rather than greater latitude: the polygamy which was practiced by some of Israel’s ancestors eventually gave way to monogamy, with Jesus and Paul stressing that marriage consists of two people becoming one, each man with his own wife and each woman with her own husband (Matthew 19:5; I Cor. 7:2). Jesus took an uncomfortably rigorous stance on marriage and divorce, and ascribed new dignity to abstinence.” Source: “The Bible and Sexual Boundaries,” Lutheran Quarterly (Winter 1993): 384.

[5] It seems to me that “mainline” Protestant churches have let the “tail wag the dog” in matters sexual. Fearful of offending or “leaving out” certain individuals or sexual minorities, we have essentially surrendered our voice regarding traditional, mainstream sexual teaching and practice.

[6] Though not entirely analogous to homosexuality, society’s treatment of alcoholics may be apropos at this point. There are “constitutional” alcoholics—persons who are “oriented” toward abusing alcohol—who are accepted and loved as persons, even though their alcoholic behaviors are not tolerated.

[7] Tex Sample, “Indigenous Ministry in the Context of the United States,” an article first published in 1991 and available at

[8] I was struck by how willingly the small number of youths who were voting members at our 2009 synod assembly spoke to the assembly in the floor debates over sexuality issues. These youths were by no means “of one mind” on the morality of homosexual acts, too.

[9] Robert Epstein, “Do Gays Have a Choice? Science Offers a Clear and Surprising Answer to a Controversial Question,” in Scientific American Mind (Volume 20, Number 3): 68.

[10] To the best of my knowledge, among the ELCA’s full communion partners, only the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ accept partnered gay/lesbian clergy. Though there have been long and continuing debates about homosexual clergy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church (UMC), these church bodies have not officially changed their rostering policies. The Presbyterian Church has passed such actions in their general assemblies, but these revised ministry policies have yet to “pass muster” in ratification votes by local presbyteries--votes that are required under Presbyterian polity. I’m told that the primary reason why the United Methodist Church has not changed its rostering policies is the presence of a large contingent of “traditionalist” bishops, pastors and laity from the Global South who have voting privileges at the general conferences of the UMC.

[11] Case in point: the 2004 Bukoba Statement of the Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania reiterates traditional Christian teaching on homosexuality in the strongest of terms. Available at Note: The membership of the ELCT roughly equals the membership of the ELCA.

[12] I still vividly remember the opportunity that was granted to the Rev. Ishmael Noko of the Lutheran World Federation to speak at length to the voting members of the 1999 Churchwide Assembly in Denver, regarding the positive ecumenical/global implications that would accompany passage of Called to Common Mission. Will Rev. Noko (or some other global church leader) be invited to address the 2009 Churchwide Assembly in like fashion, regarding the ministry report and recommendations?

[13] Most notably Leon Podles, The Church Impotent—The Feminization of Christianity, 1999: Spence Publishing Company.

[14]“Meta-analyses of the research literature on heterosexuals' attitudes toward homosexuality indicate that heterosexual men and women react differently to homosexuality. Heterosexual men generally manifest higher levels of sexual prejudice (i.e., negative attitudes toward homosexual persons) than do heterosexual women. This difference results mainly from heterosexual men's attitudes toward homosexual men, which are consistently more negative than both their attitudes toward lesbians and heterosexual women's attitudes toward either lesbians or gay men (Kite, 1984; Kite & Whitley, 1996).” Source: “Sex Differences in How Heterosexuals Think about Lesbians and Gay Men: Evidence from Survey Context Effects,” by Gregory M. Herek, John P. Capitanio; The Journal of Sex Research, Vol. 36, 1999.

[15] For example, recent Gallup Poll research reveals that “only 31% of black Democrats in America say homosexual relations are morally acceptable, roughly the same as the 30% of Republicans who agree, while very much different from the 61% of nonblack Democrats who say homosexual relations are morally acceptable.” Source:

[16] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, “Task Force Proposes Second-Class Ordination for Gay Candidates,” available at

Monday, July 27, 2009

Blogging from the Big Easy: Day 5

It’s Sunday morning (July 26) and I’m enjoying beignets (pronounced ben-YAYS) at the Café du Monde in the French Quarter with Bishops David Zellmer (South Dakota Synod) and Julian Gordy (Southeastern Synod—headquartered in Atlana, GA). Remember, I did get to the hotel fitness room yesterday…which is a good thing because beignets are some of the tastiest, calorie-laden, foods in New Orleans (French deep-fried donuts covered with powdered sugar). Julian treats us to some local lore. For example, we learn that what tourists call the French Quarter is really the Old Quarter, and it was originally the Spanish Quarter. Alongside the Cathedral Julian points out the infamous Pirates’ Alley, where in the past privateers consummated nefarious deeds, presumably before making confession and going to mass!

If you’re bored in New Orleans, it’s YOUR problem!

The closing worship service in the Dome was splendid, Jesus showed up big time—Hallelujah!—in the singing, the liturgy, the wonderful sermon by Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson and in the Holy Communion. Mark made a nice connection between the gospel lesson (John 6:1-15) and the “power of one.” Just as one little boy stepped forward to offer his loaves and fishes to the hungry crowd, so also one young person can bear the light of Christ in loving service and costly love.

To illustrate this, Bishop Mark invited Isaiah Furquan (one of five young adult emcees for the Dome events) to lead the largest “Lutheran wave” on record. As Isaiah stood on the stage, he raised his hands, uttering the name of Jesus, and leading the “wave” to flow from the stage outward across the floor of the Dome and up into the three balconies---38,000 Lutheran youth and adults with arms lifted to Jesus…..and then as the wave “reversed” and we sat down, we uttered “Justice”….a wonderful blending of words-and-deeds.

Having shared a few concerns about the Gathering in previous posts, I want to conclude this blog entry with my own retrospective on why Gatherings like this one are so important in the life of Christ’s church:

1. Gatherings are times to experience the unity and diversity of our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Kids realize that they’re part of a much, much larger family of faith.

2. The 2009 Gathering put service on the map in an unprecedented way. Rather than making service projects “optional,” this Gathering opened the door for EVERY participant to spend a good part of one day in meaningful, useful service in the city of New Orleans and environs. This Gathering, no doubt, changed the DNA for future Gatherings—service will be front-and-center as we look to the 2012 Gathering and beyond.

3. Much of the value of attending a national youth gathering happens in the smaller-group settings, especially among the youth and adults who prepare, travel together, and hang out in counselor groups from our congregations. I’m confident that some of the Christian formation that I would have liked to see happen more openly at the Dome events WAS happening in the daily interchange among youth and adults from local congregations.

4. Although I would have liked to see ALL the evening speakers articulate a self-consciously Christian basis for their good work in God’s world, they did illustrate well the down-to-earth nature of the life that Christians are called to live. In a sense, there were hardly any “big name” speakers at this Gathering….but all of the speakers were “walking the walk” before they talked the talk in the Dome.

Looking ahead to future Gatherings, here are some of my hopes and dreams:

1. Name the name of Jesus at every turn. Tell the story of Jesus again and again. Center every word, every exhortation, every encouragement in the lavish, grace-filled life that Jesus brings. Raise up followers of Jesus who ground their justice-making, loving, serving discipleship in the life, death and resurrection of the Savior. Don’t assume that everybody already “gets” that.

2. Get the Bible back up on the stage at every evening mass-gathering. Crack open the Book of Faith at every opportunity. Marinate youth and adult leaders in the Word of God.

3. Respect young peoples’ desire to be challenged, not only to serve God and their neighbors….but also to realize why Christ-driven life is distinctive and appealing. Seize this golden opportunity to teach young people how to speak the gospel to their peers.

4. Look harder for Lutheran disciples who can speak at mass-gathering events. They’re out there—how hard are we looking?

Thanks for following these daily posts from New Orleans. Thanks be to God for this 2009 Youth Gathering and everyone who made it happen!

Blogging from the Big Easy: Day 4

Saturday (July 25) was my morning to NOT set the alarm clock! After several late nights followed by early wakeups, my body was telling me: “Slow down, old boy.”

Which raises an interesting question for adults trying to keep up with teenagers: When do we get to be “too old” to hang out with youth? I hope the answer is NEVER….but I also know that my stamina isn’t what it used to be for late night stuff, sleeping on church basement floors and keeping up the pace with youth. So, like so many things, we middle-agers have to figure out HOW to stay engaged with young people when our bodies aren’t quite as cooperative as they used to be. Fortunately I saw MANY “oldsters” (older than me even!) serving joyfully and effectively as church group advisers in New Orleans. Old folks rock!

Saturday was sort of a high-low day for me at the Gathering. After a trip to the hotel fitness room (my first and only workout in NOLA….but I did plenty of walking, like everyone else), I logged on in the hotel’s wi-fi hotspot, posted my Day 3 blog entry, and put the finishing touches on the Bible study I was scheduled to lead in the Convention Center. Lunchtime in the Morial Center gave me a chance to visit with colleague bishops and Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson—one of the benefits of being at the Gathering.

When I arrived at the room where I was scheduled to lead a Bible study, however, the posted schedule didn’t match up the schedule that had been emailed to me. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that there were a number of scheduling snafus at the Gathering, and I was mildly frustrated not to have the chance to lead the Bible study I had prepared.

Here’s a bigger concern I need to name: it seemed to me that the Gathering planning team could have interacted much more energetically with the ELCA Book of Faith team. Doesn’t that seem like sort of a no-brainer? Here we are in the midst of a five-year Book of Faith initiative—and this is the only national youth gathering scheduled in those five years. My 24-year-old daughter innocently asked me, “Hey, dad, haven’t they had regular Bible readings as part of the evening mass gatherings?” That’s a young adult speaking!

I learned from other bishops (who didn’t get bumped from the schedule as I did) that participation in the Bible studies they led was pretty dismal. Perhaps that had to do with the fact that the Bible studies were all offered on the hard-to-find 3rd floor of the Morial Center, literally at the end of a long line of meeting rooms. Hmmmm. What’s wrong with this picture?

So instead of leading Bible studies, I had some hours on Saturday afternoon FINALLY to “see the sights” just a bit and pick up a gifts for my family. Supper was superb in a little bistro called “Luke” across from my hotel—I hung out with my daughter and her counseling group from Sioux Falls. Then we hoofed it over to the Dome.

Saturday’s Dome gathering was, in my judgment, much better than Friday’s. The mood was lighter, more joyful—kicked off by heartfelt greetings from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, and a congratulatory letter from President Obama, read by Presiding Bishop Hanson. Then we were treated to the juggling magic of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Their unspoken message seemed to be: don’t worry if you drop one of the clubs you’re juggling (i.e. “make a mistake”)….just work it into your act! Do you hear echoes of the rhythm of confession-and-forgiveness in the Christian life? (The Karamazovs are great jugglers—but they DO drop their clubs with frequency…in the way that Babe Ruth held the records for both homeruns and strikeouts!)

Donald Miller’s message was one of the most simple, straightforward “God words” at the Gathering (although he spoke as an American “free will” evangelical, not a confessional Lutheran). I wish he had been given more time to speak about his particular interest in men’s ministries; he dropped one quick statistic we could have heard about much more—that 94% of all prison inmates in America are men, and that 85% of these men grew up fatherless. There’s a huge, huge mouthful in that one sentence….but alas, Don mentioned it and had to move on. (After the Gathering I learned that Don is the founder of The Belmont Foundation, a not-for-profit foundation which partners with working to recruit ten-thousand mentors through one-thousand churches as an answer to the crisis of fatherlessness in America.)

This brings up something else about the 2009 Gathering: the speakers, by and large, were all very limited in the number of minutes they were granted—and several of them clearly labored under such strict time constraints. In past years speakers have been given 20, 30 or more minutes for an address….and the great ones kept their hearers spellbound. I understand that the digital age has reduced our attention-spans, but there has to be a happy medium in this. A number of folks I spoke with shared the same sentiment: we would have loved to hear MORE from some of the speakers, but the stopwatch was running.

Because the focus of the Dome event was JAZZ, we were treated to the Zydeco talent of a pint-sized accordionist (and his backup band) Guyland Leday. The little guy could really punch out the Cajun music…and he demonstrated he could keep playing the accordion in all sorts of postures—a real crowd pleaser, with his even littler brother playing a cool washboard that he wore like an overcoat. Guyland wasn’t the only young musician on stage ,though—we were treated to the amazing fiddling of 16-year-old Amanda Shaw, a New Orleans-based singer, songwriter, fiddler and actress….who is dedicating some of her music (and proceeds from her performances) to restoring the vanishing wetlands of Louisiana. These wetlands, as Amanda put it, are like a “speedbump” that can slow down the flooding that hurricanes bring.

The evening’s episode of “Lil Luther,” an animated short video series (featuring a Martin Luther character who sounded suspiciously like the Governor of California!), made a good connection between jazz music and the “improvisational” nature of Christian discipleship. If the young people caught that—it seemed to “connect”—it will serve them well as they head back home. Each mission context has its own needs and opportunities, so “improvisation” is a gift of the Spirit worth tending.

Venice Williams, the second speaker of the evening, was one of the best on the program. She is heavily involved in urban gardening programs in the Milwaukee area, but what I really loved about her presentation was how God-centered she was. Venice said, every which way, something young people desperately need to hear: that “going green” isn’t about us “saving the earth”—it’s about caring for God’s creation. Go Venice!

The final speaker for the evening was Anne Mahlum, a lovely young lady who overcame challenges in her family of origin and founded an outreach among the homeless in Philadelphia, Back on My Feet. At the heart of her work is the value of running in maintaining one’s physical, emotional and spiritual health. Anne seemed like a fabulous young woman, but aside from a parting “God bless you,” I didn’t find her presentation faith-driven or Christ-centered. Rats! She talked about “being saved”—by running, and by listening to the voice within her. But Jesus didn’t seem to be part of the picture…

But wait, the evening wasn’t over yet: the final band to perform was the Katinas. They were great—joyful, Christ-honoring, and very participatory. Youth and adults were able to sing along—finally!—with words and music that were inspiring and heartfelt. On my scorecard (very biased comment coming!) it reads: “Katinas 10, Skillet 0”…..though I know that Skillet was #1 for many youth in New Orleans.

I ended my Saturday with devotions at 11:00 p.m. in room 477 of the Residence Inn, with the youth from St. Paul’s Lutheran Church of Crookston. What a friendly, talented bunch of youth and adult leaders! They were so welcoming of me, I felt right at home….and it was clear that the Gathering had been a spiritual high point in their lives. Who would have thought that French toast could be so tasty at MIDNIGHT? Thanks so much to their adult leader, Jolanda Anderson, and her great crew of adult leaders and kids!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Blogging from the Big Easy: Day 3

Friday morning (July 24) I hoofed it over to the Double Tree by 6:30 a.m. to meet up with about fifty youth and adults from Our Savior’s and Bethany churches of East Grand Forks. We then headed up Poydras Street to the Dome for the 7:45 a.m. ServantLife launch. We learned we’d be heading to the now-famous Lower Ninth Ward, to help spiff up a park in the St. Bernard Parish. The bus ride to our servant-site took us by some of the poorest parts of the city. What struck me was how some homes have been beautifully rebuilt (or replaced), but they’re right next to houses that are still uninhabitable from Katrina. Some of these abandoned homes look as though they were “hurting” plenty BEFORE the hurricane, signs of the grinding poverty of that area.

I have to hand it to the kids from East Grand Forks—they were real troopers. We started out by weeding some of the garden areas surrounding a kids’ playground….then raked the area and put down some new mulch. We also patrolled for trash, pulled up support rods from saplings that had “outgrown” them, and added reinforcing brackets to the playground equipment. As the day wore on and the temperature and humidity rose, we all started to wilt a bit—but the kids hung in there and kept working. We took frequent water breaks, chased a few toads and lizards, patronized a passing ice cream truck and chowed down on Subway sandwiches. Hats off to the Our Savior’s and Bethany youth, their adult advisers and their leaders—Chris Leach (Our Savior’s) and Pastor Bud and Claudia Johnson (Bethany).

A mid-afternoon shower and clean clothes were refreshing, and I snuck a few moments in a food court with free wifi, so that I could post my blog for Day 2. One of the puzzles of life in New Orleans, at least from my perspective, is that it’s relatively hard to find food. Lots of eateries are not open, or are open for very limited hours. Getting food has generally been a challenge at this Gathering, and it started on opening night with a “Tailgate Party” at the SuperDome that basically fizzled.

The evening mass gathering at the dome gave me a chance to sit with my daughter Kristen, and her fiancé, Aaron, who are both counselors with a group from First Lutheran Church of Sioux Falls (where Kris and Aaron will be married on August 8th). We arrived at the Dome before 6 p.m. and basked in the air-conditioned cool while warmup groups like Lost and Found shared their music.

Sad to say, I experienced the mass gathering with a fair amount of disappointment. On an emotional level, the event never seemed to bring people together, with alternating moments of serious engagement and playful humor. The mood seemed mainly “serious” last evening, and the program just got heavier and heavier. The first speaker was Spencer West, a young man who lost both legs (due to health issues) at age five; he spoke winsomely about overcoming challenges in life. Michel Chikwanine spoke later, about his horrific experiences as a child soldier in Africa. It was a moving presentation, raising our awareness of a still little-known reality in the Third World. There was a big hole in both speakers’ presentations, though, about which I’ll say more below.

It became clear that the headliners for the evening weren’t the speakers but the band, Skillet, who performed for about 45 minutes….though our church group, like many groups, left before the conclusion of their last number. My goodness! Skillet’s high-energy, high-decibel, pyrotechnic-backed “music” almost peels the skin off your face. The band clearly had many fans who streamed forward toward the stage and were loving every minute of the experience….while others among us (youth as well as adults) looked at each other with puzzled expressions (speech was impossible, the music was so deafening)….and after two “songs” I noticed significant “leakage” from the arena, as groups evacuated en masse. Because I had no idea WHAT they were singing, it seemed as though the attraction of Skillet is about spectacle far more than substance.

Which leads me to a little blogger rant I need to share. I admire the gargantuan effort that goes into planning and executing a mass Gathering like this….and although there are always glitches with gatherings (e.g. the food issue mentioned above)….there are also issues of substance that cannot be ignored. I might sum up my main gripe this way: the theme for this Gathering is Jesus, Justice, Jazz….but thus far I’d have to say that the Dome events have been long on Justice….with Jesus making only cameo appearances….and not nearly enough Jazz.

Re: the dearth of Jazz at this event--my heavens! We’re in NEW ORLEANS….and by my count the Dome events have had only ONE local jazz band, on the opening night. We know that there are all sorts of jazz groups, including Christ-formed musicians, that could share with us that art form most representative of the great city we’re visiting!

But it’s Jesus I’m missing the most at the Dome events. He gets a few tips-of-the-hat, now and then, but I’m not walking away from the SuperDome with the sense that it’s Jesus who brings us together—him alone—and it’s Jesus who sends us out into a hungry world (Justice) and bearing the Christ-light in the joyful hilaritas (Jazz!) of Christian discipleship. By my count, four of seven evening speakers thus far have scarcely MENTIONED Jesus, and the other three have hardly knocked the ball out of the park, in terms of re-centering our lives in Christ. (Jay Bakker tossed out the most scripture passages in his all-too-brief message, but he seemed so nervous and cowed by the size of the crowd that he never hit his stride on Thursday evening.)

When Jesus isn’t clearly front and center in our Gatherings, they start to seem like something other than Christian assemblies. Right now, I’d say that the evening mass events in New Orleans have about them the aura of conventions of Young Democrats. (I wouldn’t be happy if they seemed like Young Republicans gatherings, by the way!) We talk about “making a difference in the world” and “changing the world,” because we’ve lost the sense that God is bringing in a New Creation through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s work isn’t just “making a difference in the world.” It’s the amazing miracle of making all things new. God’s mission catches us up in getting ready for the New Creation that God is bringing to us (not the "better" world we are producing, thank God!)

A related note: I and others have observed and talked about the tendency for the Dome events to be performances or spectacles rather than participatory assemblies of Christian folk. Case in point: there has been virtually no sing-along music in the Dome events, thus far. Tragic!

That’s why I was so glad to end my day with devotions at the SpringHill Suites, hosted by Trinity Lutheran of Moorhead. My, but these young people (all 92 of them) know how to sing and be together with grace and good humor. I was introduced to a new, lilting version of Kumbaya that just might give that old song a new lease on life. Kudos to Kathy Hunstad, AiM, who directs youth ministries at Trinity, Pastor John Hulden (who is attending his 11th national youth gathering, though he started out at the age of seven!) and a splendid cadre of other Trinity staff and adult advisers. It was the perfect ending to a topsy-turvy day.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Blogging from the Big Easy: Day 2

Thursday morning (July 23) dawned bright and clear, and I joined Chaplain Tim and Ute White, along with Tim’s commanding officer, Capt. James Tunstall of the U.S. Coast Guard for an early morning breakfast at a great breakfast café, Stanley’s. Though a member of the Navy, Chaplain White is “billeted” for now to the Coast Guard’s 8th District, headquartered here in New Orleans. The 8th District is a huge area, along part of the Gulf Coast and as far northward as North Dakota (the Red River is a Coast Guard-supervised waterway—did you know that?)

It was fascinating for me to receive this “up close” look at what a Coast Guard chaplain does (most everything a parish pastor does) and who he serves (mainly young adults, ages 18-26). We reflected together on how military chaplains are in the front lines of mission and ministry with young adults. I also learned that, though it is organized along military lines, the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security. They do great work on behalf of all of us, patrolling our water-borders and spearheading search, rescue and recovery efforts.

My afternoon was spent in the Interaction Center in the Morial Convention Center—a huge area dedicated to providing learning activities, games, art projects, simulation experiences, etc. I helped staff the Vocation and Education unit of the ELCA area for a couple of hours, and had some neat conversations with ELCA college admissions staffers, seminary reps, and outdoor ministry directors (including our own Laura Morlock from Pathways Bible Camps). The Old Lutheran Store was doing land-office business selling all sorts of Gathering memorabilia, music CDs, t-shirts, you name it. This is the first year that this Moorhead-based enterprise, operated by former NW MN Synod youth ministry leader David Hunstad, has been in charge of the Gathering “store” (formerly operated by Augsburg Fortress publishers).

Other bishops and I enjoyed a delicious supper in the SuperDome, hosted by SYMBOL—the Synod Youth Ministry Band of Leaders, a network of youth ministers who serve on synod staffs. They challenged us bishops to support an initiative at the upcoming Churchwide Assembly that will mandate having young people fill at least 10% of the members of churchwide assemblies, the Church Council and ELCA boards and committees.

Thursday evening’s mass gathering in the SuperDome was even more energy-filled than Wednesday’s event. Opening speaker, Jay Bakker (son of former televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Baker) looked out over the multi-colored sea of t-shirts in the Dome and said that we looked “like a bunch of Dippin’ Dots.” He spoke eloquently of God’s call to love all persons, regardless of religious differences, and at several points it was clear that this young pastor (who was reared in the Assemblies of God) understands the “Lutheran thing” about grace. Perhaps the most well-received speaker of the evening was Viola Vaughn, an American who moved to the African nation Senegal in 2000 and started a remarkable ministry of empowerment for at young girls who have failed in the school system. She was followed by Pr. Becca Stevens, an Episcopal priest and founder of Thistle Farms and Magdalene—ministries that help women get out of drug abuse and prostitution. Three “graduates” of the Magdalene program were guests with us in the Dome.

Solo performer Celia Whitler sang a thrilling song, “Live Christ, love Christ, share Christ, be Christ. All these things do, today; all these things along your way.” The evening ended with the music of an amazing Christian hip-hop group, Group1Crew—two guys and a young woman who met in a Bible study!

I spent some time with my daughter Kristen and her fiancé Aaron, and the youth they are leading from First Luthearn Church of Sioux Falls, enjoying “night life” in a hotel in the French Quarter, just off Bourbon Street.

My day ended at 11 p.m., sharing some get-acquainted time, “stump the bishop” questions, a photo shoot and prayer with the ten youth and adults attending the Gathering from Our Savior’s, Warren. Sweet kids and two great adult leaders….a neat way to “wind down” before bedtme.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Blogging from the Big Easy: Day 1

ELCA National Youth Gathering
Day 1
Blogging From the Big Easy: DAY ONE

In a slight departure from my normal approach to this blog (which is mainly a public archive of my preaching and writing), I’m going to try my hand at some “live blogging” while here in the Big Easy for the ELCA Youth Gathering. This is the first of what I hope will be several reports from the Gathering, and I invite comments from readers who “tune in.”

I flew into New Orleans yesterday (Wednesday, July 22) and was greeted at the Louis Armstrong Terminal by Cmdr. Timothy White and his wife Ute, who warmly welcomed me with a “military escort” to my hotel. Tim and Ute have been great, and in my next posting I’ll share a bit on a wonderful breakfast we enjoyed this morning. Tim is an ELCA pastor, a Navy chaplain, currently billeted to the U.S. Coast Guard 8th District here in New Orleans.

Most of the 38 bishops (with some spouses) met for a superb supper at Café Reconcile in the warehouse district of the city. The café is a real working restaurant that is also a ministry of development and entrepreneurship, training city youth in what it means to work in the hospitality industry. A wonderful Christian ministry, doing its part in the rebuilding of the human lives of New Orleans’ residents. Learn more about them at
After supper we were taken to the SuperDome where some 37,000 youth and adults were already raising a ruckus of praise and worship. Stunning—the music was so overpowering that I “felt” it in my stomach.

The first evening Mass Gathering was an action-packed 90 minutes of singing, clapping, praying and hearing speakers. The Dome is an amazing venue for so many Lutherans crammed into one place.

Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson met us first via a video “road trip”—as if he had traveled on a bus with youth from Illinois down to New Orleans, complete with mission experiences and recreational activities along the way. By the end of the road trip even the perspiring bishop was getting a little “rank” and needed a shower….but when he finally had time for that shower, it was time for him to come on stage in the Dome. So picture our presiding bishop, clad in shower cap and terry-cloth robe, DRIVING into the dome in a battery-powered bathtub (don’t worry, he was fully clothed under the robe). The crowd loved it…..and as Bishop Mark stepped onto the stage he effortlessly connected his “shower” with the baptismal grace that calls us all into humble service in God’s world. Once again we experienced Bishop Mark’s wonderful willingness to “play” with God’s people and lead them in gospel service….in a way that participants will not soon forget.

Speakers on the program included Liz McCartney and the Kielburger brothers. Liz has spearheaded a volunteer home-rebuilding effort in New Orleans that has brought 200 families back into livable housing. She was named CNN’s Hero of the Year in 2008—plainspoken, humble, genuine to the core. She reminded us that there are still 15,000 New Orleans households who need to have their homes restored. The Kielburgers started up Free the Children in 1995, a ministry that builds school in marginalized regions worldwide. The “quote of the night” came from their message. Marc Kielburger talked about being so frustrated with the “bad news” on the front page that he stopped reading newspapers for a time—until he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa who said: “College boy….what do you see there? I see all that ‘bad news” and call it ‘God’s to do list.’” A turnaround moment for us all.

The music was rich and engaging, with Peter Mayer and the house band and a Christian rapper, Agape (Dave Scherer) who had us all on our feet. A Dixieland jazz group featured a trumpeter whose cheeks puff out the way Louis Armstrong’s cheeks puffed out….along with a pint-sized trombonist who brought the house down. The evening closed with a STOMP-STOMP-CLAP chant that rocked the stadium, as several hundred red-tee-shirted participants (carrying red glow sticks) converged on the stage, preparing the whole Gathering for the Servant Life activities that will send out all 37,000 participants into mission projects across the city today, tomorrow and Saturday. We moved from “We Will Rock You” to “We Will LOVE You” in a perfect coda to the day.

Fun fact: I found out from youth director Kathy Hunstad that Trinity Lutheran Church of Moorhead, MN—with 92 participants at the Gathering—is the largest single congregational youth group here. Over the next few days I look forward to connecting with a number of our NWMN Synod groups, along with other friends from across the church. Please keep this Gathering and the city of New Orleans in your prayers…and check back for further updates this week.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Jesus is Our Cornerstone

Kingo Lutheran Church of Fosston
125th Anniversary Celebration—July 19, 2009
Ephesians 2:19-22

"So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God."

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

One of the more enjoyable things I get to do is attend church anniversaries like this one. We Lutherans are a pretty calm, sedate bunch, but every hundred-and-twenty-five years or so, we like to cut loose! And then—watch out! We write up our history…throw a party….sell some keepsakes….and wheel in a bunch of old pastors to see how they’re doing!

Who says we Lutherans don’t know how to have a good time!

A year ago I helped the folks of Calvary in Bemidji celebrate their centennial. The climax of their party was opening up three different cornerstones. It was pretty exciting! After a guy used one of those incredibly-loud saws to cut through brick and mortar to dislodge the cornerstones, they laid ‘em out on a table in the narthex.

The whole church gathered around, with the little kids in the front row, standing on tiptoes, wondering what artifacts were tucked away in those three cornerstone-time capsules.
And what a treasure-trove it was! There were old Bibles, wrinkled catechisms, yellowed constitutions, moldy baptismal candles, and faded newspapers telling how much eggs and shoes and gasoline cost when each of the three cornerstones were laid.

Now this might sound like so much foolishness….but think about it: we put stuff in time capsules inside of church cornerstones because we assume the church has a future, right? It’s like planting: we tuck away that stuff, knowing that someone years from now willopen it up and gawk at it.

The church has a past, a present and a future…because it belongs to Jesus, the crucified and risen one. The church is “built” on Jesus.

Paul says as much in this reading from Ephesians 2: the people of God are like a big building—and the cornerstone of this “building” is Jesus himself. And Jesus never gets old or faded or moldy! Jesus has death behind him and nothing but the future ahead of him—and it’s on Jesus that the church—you and I—are “built.”

Having Jesus as our cornerstone, in fact, leads us to realize three things…to realize:
1. How God lays a foundation for us that cannot be shaken…
2. How God brings us together, transcending all our divisions…and
3. How God orients us toward the future, as missionaries in a world hungry for the gospel.

First, having Jesus as the true cornerstone of our church means that we’re built on a foundation that cannot be shaken.

I know just about nothing about how buildings are put up, but even I know that the foundation comes first. The bedrock, the foundation, the cornerstone needs to get laid before anything else. Nothing will go well for us if we don’t get the foundation straight and strong and deep.

Jesus our true cornerstone is the first stone that gets laid in this “building.” It starts with Jesus. I’ve read some of your history here at Kingo, and I’ve noticed how back in 1884 your ancestors put first things first. Like a lot of good Norwegian immigrants of the late 19th century, they didn’t wait around to organize a church. In many frontier communities—probably here in Fosston, too—newcomers sometimes organized a church family before they even built their own cabins.

Ponder that a moment. If for some reason we all picked up stakes and left here for Alaska or Siberia TODAY, would we be as likely to start up a new church before we even built our family homes?

Our forebears in faith got it right. Kingo was the first Christian church organized here in Fosston, one year after the town itself got started! Your forebears gave priority to Jesus Christ and the faith that embraces him and the mission-oriented life he calls us into.

The church, the people of God, are not “built” on shaky things. We don’t base our life on our proud ethnic heritage or our prevailing politics or our moral convictions or even our good looks! Rather, we are founded, established, on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ our true cornerstone.

If we’re built on Jesus—that means we base our life on his sin-forgiving, death-defying, future-opening unmerited love and mercy. What a foundation! When we get that straight, as your ancestors got it straight back in 1884, everything else falls into line.

Second, having Jesus as the true cornerstone of our church means that God brings us together and keeps bringing us together in a community that transcends all our divisions.

Remember that old joke?---
What did one wall say to the other wall?
“I’ll meet you at the corner.”

The corner is where walls come together….we might even say (in line with the earlier portion of our reading from Ephesians 2) that the corner is where separation-walls are replaced by walls of sturdy togetherness. The cornerstone is where the walls meet up and actually strengthen each other.

Jesus is like that in the community of the church. You started out as a Norwegian congregation….but you’re named a Danish hymnwriter. (How did that happen?) And since 1884 I dare say that you’ve let in all sorts of other folks….and this morning, wonder of wonders, there’s a German standing in your pulpit!

Those old ethnic divides are nothing, though, compared to all the other differences that sometimes keep us apart. Jesus overcomes our gripes and feuds and jealousies and disagreements. We meet—quite literally!—“at the corner”—the cornerstone who is Jesus Christ. When Jesus draws us nearer to himself, he simultaneously brings us closer to everyone else who belongs to Jesus.

Third, and finally, having Jesus as our cornerstone orients us toward God’s future as missionaries to a world still hungry for the gospel. Jesus lines us up as his followers, in order to send us out to keep building his church.

A cornerstone isn’t just the foundation stone or the coming-together stone. It also determines how the rest of the church will be built. Master-builders are painstaking in making sure that the cornerstone is set—straight and true!--because that’s what the whole rest of the building is “oriented” around.

It’s fascinating to read through your history here at Kingo. You started out with just 35 members back in 1884….and you just kept growing until your membership peaked at 931 members in 1959.

But don’t you imagine that that’s how your ancestors envisioned it happening? When they laid the cornerstone for their first church building in 1888 I bet those old Norskie settlers prayed: “Please, dear Lord Jesus, help us outgrow this building?”

Now we all know how the population in this part of the world has waxed and waned over the years. I’m guessing that when your membership peaked 50 years ago, the city of Fosston’s population peaked also. That’s what happened in the midst of the post-WWII “baby boom.”

But I wonder: do we still pray that old pioneers’ prayer: “Lord Jesus, help us outgrow this building?” If we’re not praying that prayer—why not?

Since 1990 the population of your zip code area 56542 has gone up, not down—did you know that?[1]

And do you realize that even now over one-quarter of the residents of Polk County are unchurched?[2] Some might call that a “mission field!”

What if we thought of those 8,370 Polk county neighbors of yours not as “the unchurched” but as “disciples-in-waiting?” What if we followed the trajectory of our hope in Jesus Christ and made the task of claiming them our 21st century assignment? What if Kingo faced the next century-plus, re-oriented to our mission as a people who still pray: “Lord Jesus, help us find a way to outgrow this building?”

Jesus, our true cornerstone, provides a foundation, brings us together past our differences,….and also “orients” us, gives us our marching orders. When we’re lined up with Jesus, like the faithful followers, the durable disciples that he has called us to be….we know where we need to go--right into the next 125 years, caught up in God’s barrier-breaking, future-opening mission!

In the name of Jesus.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

God Will Not Be Silenced

Mission Sunday
Zion/Amor Lutheran Church, Battle Lake
Pentecost 6/YearB/July 12, 2009
Mark 6:14-29

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

As I read this gospel story from Mark, chapter 6 two thoughts come to mind:

First, this is probably one Bible story you shouldn’t read to little children at bedtime.

Second, this doesn’t seem like a good gospel text for a Mission Sunday.

Read this story to little kids just before tucking them in, and they’ll probably have bad dreams about mean old King Herod and what he did to John the Baptist.

Read this story on “Mission Sunday,” and folks will just go, “Huh? What in heaven’s name does this violent “flashback” have to do with spreading God’s love, telling others about Jesus or serving in Christ’s name?”

I’m going to go way out on a limb, in these next few moments, though…and I’m going to argue that this gospel lesson, oddly and unexpectedly does say all sorts of things about God’s great mission to rescue us, to renew the creation and to set all things right, in Jesus Christ. If that sounds like a bit of a stretch—well then please humor me, for just a little while.

1. This is a good Mission Sunday text, first of all, because it’s embedded in a greater mission story here in Mark, chapter 6. Just prior to this morning’s reading we see Jesus sending out his disciples, two by two, to tell others about God fixing up the whole creation, making all things new. In the power that Jesus shares with his followers, demons are cast out and illnesses are cured—signs of God’s imminent recapture of the world, God’s in-breaking Kingdom!

In fact, it’s precisely this mission work of the disciples, that’s referred to in first line of this morning’s gospel lesson: “King Herod heard of it,” we read in v. 14, and the “it” is the mission, the wonder-working, healing power of Jesus, unleashed in the world. All that God was doing through Jesus’ disciples came to the attention of King Herod in a way that made him shudder.

Herod, you see, like most petty tyrants, liked to keep things calm in the little territory over which he ruled. But when Jesus sent out his disciples to be about his mission, they stirred things up. The local gossip was that maybe evem John the Baptist had come back from the dead—that Jesus, was in effect the reincarnation of John the Baptist.

When followers of Jesus are about his work…when disciples of the Lord do what Jesus commissioned us to do, heads will turn and people will take notice. Jesus’ name will become known! (cf. v. 14)

2. A second reason why this gospel text is a good Mission Sunday lesson is that it reminds us how God’s mission always encounters resistance in the world. Getting caught up in God’s work, taking our orders from Jesus, putting mission first, will (if we do it right!) get us “sideways” with some folks.

There are always, always opponents to God’s mission. Here in Mark 6, King Herod represents the opposition—big time! He had thrown John the Baptist into a dungeon, after all—not because John stole or kidnapped or killed someone….but because John the Baptist had told the truth—he had proclaimed God’s Word boldly, fearlessly. Rather than sweeping under the rug the extra-marital affair Herod had had with his own sister-in-law, John the Baptist called it what God calls such things: the sin of adultery.

Have you noticed how we almost never hear talk like that any more? If you’ve been reading the newspapers this past week you know that the governor of South Carolina, and (closer to home) an ELCA pastor over in Valley City, have both been caught in extra-marital affairs. The word we most often apply to such situations nowadays is the word “mistake.” The governor, the pastor, each made a mistake, which sounds like slipping on a banana peel or not adding up a column of numbers correctly on a tax return.

But there’s another name for this sort of monkey business—a word that comes straight from God. It’s the A-word, as in “You shall not commit adultery.” John the Baptist got tossed into a dungeon because he told Herod he had committed adultery. John was in the slammer for telling the truth about that. (And I’m guessing that John told that truth because he wanted to tell a bigger truth about how God forgives sin, including the sin of adultery!)

The word of God, the truth that God gives, never goes forth without bumping up against opposition. When we try to speak God’s word, God’s truth….when we become caught up in God’s mission….we’ll get sideways with some folks, something will thwart us. In fact, that sort of thing is proof positive--a sure sign that we’re working for God. True gospel-speakers, reliable truth-tellers (like the prophet Amos in our Old Testament lesson) are invariably ignored, opposed or attacked. In the Bible, the only popular prophets are the false prophets!

So, dear friends, if when you are seeking the things of God, if when you are trying to do God’s work, you sometimes feel like you’re spinning your wheels, or swimming in Jello, or facing flat-out antagonism from persons you thought you could count on—be of good cheer. Truth-tellers, faithful missionaries, real prophets are usually in hot water of one sort or another.

3. But here’s the kicker: even when God faces opposition, and even when God’s followers encounter obstacles….unforeseen opportunities and surprising possibilities pop up. That’s the third reason why I love this Mark 6 story on this Mission Sunday.

There’s a fascinating verse tucked away here in this gospel lesson. In verse 20 we read, “When [Herod] heard [John], he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” As wicked and selfish and awful as the tyrant Herod was….he was still intrigued by John the Baptist and his proclaiming of God’s Word. I picture Herod perhaps even sneaking downstairs and listening curiously to John the Baptist down in his dungeon!

So also, dear friends, we may stumble across some of our best opportunities to speak a word on God’s behalf, in the midst of perplexity and frustration. God may well send us a chance to tell someone about Jesus, not when the sun is shining and the sky is blue….but in the middle of some crisis, some argument, some disaster. God the Holy Spirit slips us chances to make a difference in the world, sometimes in the oddest, most inopportune times and places.

You have some folks from Zion/Amor who have a passion for God’s mission, especially with people who’ve been through a disaster. These Zion/Amor missionaries give themselves heart and soul to helping out, cleaning up, returning things to normal. But in the midst of that disaster clean-up stuff, they’ve learned to stop and listen to the people they’re helping.

Folks who’ve survived a flood or a hurricane or a tornado need to tell their stories. Your “mission crew” from Zion/Amor understand that we share God’s love when we stop and listen—not just when we speak and act.

4. Finally, this tragic tale from Mark 6 is a great Mission Sunday story because it reminds us how ineffective tyrants like Herod really are. This “flashback” story gives the impression that Herod (or that Herodias, his wife) “won” here. John the Baptist got his head cut off, and his friends buried his body—end of story!

But it wasn’t the end. That sort of thing, in God’s economy, is never the end of things. Despite all opposition, God and God’s Word win out. Herod silenced John, but he could not silence God. When, after John’s murder, Jesus sent out his followers, two by two, setting people free, exorcising devils, healing sicknesses….Herod realized that getting rid of John didn’t mean he had gotten rid of God.

God keeps coming back. Herod shuddered to think that John might have crawled out of the grave—he trembled to imagine that God would not be silenced just because God’s messenger, John, was beheaded and buried.

And even when this world did its worst to the One whose way John prepared….even when the world tried to “shut up” Jesus on the Cross, even when we sinners buried Jesus in a borrowed tomb….God was not done speaking.

God raised up Jesus—for real! And this risen Jesus, in turn, raised up followers…indeed, he keeps raising up disciples like you and me to keep the Good Word moving out into the world—a word that is spoken winsomely and acted out in deeds of caring for Jesus’ sake--a word that still sets sinners free.

That promise, dear friends, stirs our hope on this Mission Sunday. Whatever you say, whatever you do in the name of crucified and risen Jesus, will not be in vain. If as you’re helping someone recover from some disaster in their lives—if you simply stop to listen to them, if you speak Christian hope to them or express care for them in even the smallest of ways, that is a holy moment. God is present, active, and alive in that.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Note: The striking art piece above is by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824-1898), Beheading of St. John the Baptist (La Décollation de St. Jean Baptiste), 1869, oil on canvas, about 48 x 64 inches, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, England.