Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting Under Our Skin

December 24, 2010
Christmas Eve, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead

While they were there, the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Christmas is about God getting under our skin.

God is getting under our skin.

Now, I know that saying someone is “getting under my skin” means that he’s irritating me…and if that seems like a puzzling, even crass way of talking about God, well then hang on to your hats!

Because what’s happening here on Christmas Eve, right under our noses, is pretty wild and disruptive. God is refusing to stay put where gods belong. God is moving in on us and invading our space--getting under our skin.

The 75-cent term for that is incarnation--a rough, jagged, scary word. Not the sort of thing we associate with God. We assume that gods are pure spirit-beings, but this God, our God, shows up in Bethlehem’s manger with meat on his bones, hair on his head, and blood coursing through his veins….and that is most un-god-like.

Incarnation is lowly, not lofty. It’s about flesh—meat, to be exact. That’s why we call it chili con carne—chili with meat in it. That’s why the big cats are called carnivores, meat-eaters. In Bethlehem we encounter the God who is con carne--fleshy, meaty, wearing our skin.

And that messes up everything.

Here we thought we had things figured out. We humans belong here on planet earth—that’s our place in the universe. And God’s place is up there somewhere, high above and beyond us, surely at a safe distance from us.

“God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world….”

….until God messes that all up by traipsing into our territory, squeezing himself down into a baby, making that treacherous journey down the birth canal, and then bursting into our space in the midnight squall of a newborn who’s covered in the very same gooey stuff that covered each of us when we popped out of our mamas and into the world.

No self-respecting God does this sort of thing!

If this is how God is going to act—we’ll have to reconsider everything—all the assumptions we were making, all our strategies for keeping God at arm’s length—all of it goes right out the window in Bethlehem’s stable.

Those to whom God came in the flesh of the baby Jesus, they were pretty put off by it all--this scandalous meat-on-bones business. They (and we) didn’t want God to get that close. As it says in John, chapter 1, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)

We earthlings couldn’t handle God under our skin, so we tried sending God back where he came from. We edged God out of our world, up onto a cross, said “thanks, but no thanks,” and imagined that that crucifixion would put a stop to God’s invasion of our space.

But what a miscalculation that turned out to be! For, you see, incarnation wasn’t a failed science experiment God thought he’d try out.

Incarnation was and is God’s permanent, God’s only way of being God for us and with us.

Incarnation is how this God, the only God that matters, does business with us. As author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor (An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith) has wryly observed, “our bodies remain God’s best way of getting to us.” (p. 42)

Even after his dead body was tossed into a borrowed grave, Jesus returned—not as a spirit or a spook—but in the flesh. “He came back wearing skin” (p. 36) and he journeyed down another birth canal, expelled from the tomb, with new resurrection skin on—scarred still by the marks of the crucifixion.

So now, what in the world are we going to do with a God like this?

He just keeps coming back, moving in on us, getting under our skin—there’s no stopping him. He won’t take “no” for an answer.

Truly Christ the Incarnate One has come for us, and make no mistake about it: he will have his way with us…and his way is pure, unadulterated love—not a fleeting feeling-love, not a lighter-than-air love—but love deep in the flesh, love that goes to the bone, love that revels in earthy, bodily life, right here, right now.

That’s what Christmas is all about. More than stringing lights on a tree or getting lucky at West Acres or baking the figgy pudding perfectly for a change.

It’s about incarnation, God’s disruptive way with us, God getting under our skin—and staying there.

And that simply upsets all our apple carts!

It changes everything we thought we knew about God and how God works. For we have a God on our hands who refuses to keep his distance from us, a God whose divine genome contains human DNA!

But the incarnation of God in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth also changes how we view ourselves, how we look at our own bodily lives. We’re more than immortal souls temporarily imprisoned in lowly flesh and blood, longing to escape these shell-like bodies.

No—we are bodies and souls, intimately knit together. As BBT puts it, God “loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in” (p. 38). And what, my friends, could be better news than that?

I mean--have you taken a good look at your body lately? It can be pretty frightening, especially as we grow older. I ought to know: There’s an old geezer who steps out of the shower in my bathroom every morning—and the sight of him still shocks me when I gaze at him in the mirror—because this old geezer is ME!

If you know what I’m talking about…if you and your body aren’t always on the best of terms…I’m here to say that God loves your body, just the way it is. And if that makes you want to tend your body better, I say: go for it (though you may choose to start after the big Christmas dinner!)

God’s incarnation in the baby Jesus changes how we view our own bodies, even as it transforms how we regard all the other bodies Christ came to save.

Again, to borrow the words of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls. It is what we have most in common with one another. In Christian teaching, followers of Jesus are called to honor the bodies of our neighbors as we honor our own. In [Jesus’] expanded teaching by example, this includes leper bodies, possessed bodies, widow and orphan bodies, as well as foreign bodies and hostile bodies—none of which [Jesus] shied away from.” (p. 42)

The Christmas miracle of God getting down under our skin opens our eyes to see afresh all the bodies for whom Christ came: famished bodies, beautiful bodies, homeless bodies, pampered bodies, cancer-ridden bodies, just plain tired bodies…bodies that prefigure the resurrected bodies that will be ours some day, in the amazing grace of God our Savior.

The incarnation of God in the flesh of baby Jesus transforms everything—God, ourselves, our neighbors and all the ways we live out our days faithfully, through our bodily selves.

God’s incarnation launches us on a way of life that is always, somehow, embodied: in wheat and wine and water and word…embodied in cold water on parched tongues, feet lovingly washed, tears brushed away, hugs offered even to persons who’re as prickly as porcupines!

If God in Jesus Christ truly is making all things new, which means: making all bodies new—then we have plenty to do to keep us out of mischief, while we wait in trust for God to redeem our bodies—all our bodies—in and for the sake of the little Lord Jesus who was born for us in Bethlehem.

In fact, we might even find ourselves walking on the earth as if heaven were already coming our way….leaning forward as if God really does hold the future in his hands--a future that will completely embody the love that began in the manger and was poured out for us fully and finally on the cross.

God has gotten under our skin, my dear friends, and through us God’s going to keep getting under all sorts of people’s skins until, finally, God is truly all in all.

And it all began on Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem, when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Life Overflowing: Incarnation

Life Overflowing: Incarnation

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. John 1:15

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. I Corinthians 12:27

God’s work. Our hands. (Tagline of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America)

Stir us up

Advent passes by way too quickly. Every December I want to linger longer in the season of Advent with its royal blue paraments, lush prophecies from the Old Testament, and those amazing “stir up” prayers of the day in Sunday worship.

Here we are, all tucked into the most nostalgia-laden time of the year, fuzzy slippers on our feet, hot chocolate poured up, It's a Wonderful Life plunked into the DVD player....and then on the Sundays in Advent we pray that God will STIR UP his power in our midst.

Yikes! We normally pray to God to calm things down or for things to return to normal. But in this season we ask God to stir us up . . . to agitate us so that we might become the ones God made us and calls us to become. When we implore God to “stir us up” in Advent, we ask for deep and dramatic change.

God with skin on

And exactly what sort of change does God work in our lives? It has to do with the Incarnation, God’s reckless decision to take on human flesh in Jesus. Incarnation is about an event, a person and an ongoing reality.

Here’s a tried-but-true illustration: A father was putting his 4-year-old son to bed. The entire bedtime checklist was completed: tucked in, story read, trip to the bathroom accomplished, night light on. Enough! Dad kissed his son and tried to escape. But as he exited the bedroom, the boy cried out that he was still scared to be alone. “Don’t worry, son,” his dad responded. “Jesus is with you.” “I know that Jesus is always with me, daddy,” his son replied. “But right now I need someone with skin on.”

When the Word became flesh and tented among us (John 1:15), God acted decisively to say: “I intend to be the God with skin on—for you, for all people, and forever.” The Incarnation (“carne” is a Latin word meaning “flesh” or “meat”) is the event we prepare for during Advent—the once-and-for-all occurrence of Jesus’ birth as Immanuel (“God with us”) “in the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4-5).

In one sense, this is an utterly unique, unrepeatable act of God intervening in human history. Advent prepares us to celebrate the Incarnation (event) of the only begotten Son (person) of the Father.

In another sense, the Incarnation is also an ongoing reality. The same Lord Jesus Christ who lived, suffered, died and rose again continues to be en-fleshed in the Word proclaimed, the Baptism poured out, the Supper served up, and the community that bears Christ’s name in the world.

We are not free-floating spirits. We are flesh-and-blood human beings, and to meet us where we are and as we are, God continues to seek out human flesh. God keeps “putting skin on” through the life and ministry of the church.

God’s skin on a new Body

Just the other day, at our local Anytime Fitness gym, I saw a fellow exerciser wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed: “DON’T GO TO CHURCH…” And then, in smaller letters, right underneath: “Be the church.” Bingo!

In the living, breathing church of today we see the Body of Christ—the way that God still has skin on, through the real gathered-scattered community that embodies the risen Lord Jesus in the world.

Here we behold another manifestation of the abundance of God—God’s life overflowing, that has been the subject of these monthly columns in Northern Lights this year. Jesus the risen and living One continues to be incarnated in all that the church is and does. In the Church we behold God’s skin on a new Body—the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27).

This means, among other things, that the Church embraces us through our lives of faith. The church precedes us—we are born into it. The church succeeds us—it outlives our earthly lives. The church, therefore, belongs to none of us. It’s not my church, your church or even our church, to do with what we please. The church is God’s Body, God’s business, God’s gift to us and to the world.

God’s skin on you

What happens corporately, in the church, is also enacted personally, in our individual lives as baptized Christians—disciples of our living Lord. When God claimed you in Baptism, God decided to take up residence within you—fancy that! “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).

So you, right now, are a bearer of God’s Incarnation strategy—God’s risky way of getting close to us to make us new in Christ. The great Scottish missionary to India, Lesslie Newbigin (1909-1998), showed how God’s saving of us is intimately linked to God’s sending of us to bear Christ to others. He wrote: “The corporate nature of the salvation which God purposes is a necessary part of the divine purpose of salvation according to the biblical view that no one could receive it as a direct revelation from above but only through the neighbor, only as part of an action in which he opens his door and invites his neighbor to come in….There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness which reflects that eternal relatedness-in-love which is the being of the triune God.”   Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret (1978, Eerdmans), p. 85.

“Be born in us today…”

As we conclude the year 2010 with the seasons of Advent and Christmas, I invite you to keep your eyes peeled for signs of how the Incarnation is simultaneously an event (the Nativity of our Lord), a person (Jesus, “God with us”) and an ongoing reality in our lives as Christian individuals and members of the Body of Christ. If you watch carefully, you will see hints of the Incarnation all around you—opportunities, invitations to live out the ELCA tagline: “God’s work. Our hands.”

And surely, you will hear this rich understanding of the Incarnation in the songs of the season. For example, notice God’s incarnation strategy in the 4th stanza of Phillips Brooks’s beloved carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem:

O holy child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us today…

Thank you for reading, reflecting on and discussing with others this series of monthly columns on our synod’s 2010 theme, Life Overflowing. A rich Advent and a joyous Christmas to you all!

Your brother in Christ

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

For reflection and discussion

1. What are some of the ways your congregation embodies Christ in your community?

2. The article includes this sentence: ”It’s not my church, your church or even our church, to do with what we please.” How might remembering that the church is God’s church change the ways you make decisions in your congregation?

3. The article quotes Lesslie Newbigin as saying, “There is no salvation except in a mutual relatedness…” What does this say about God and God’s way of engaging with us?

This is the eleventh and final in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

So, What Are You Waiting For?

United Christ Parish, Fertile, MN
Advent 3/December 12, 2010
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

So, what are you waiting for?

Ask that question of all the little ones in our lives and you know what the answer will be: they’re waiting for Christmas, waiting to rip open all those presents-under-the-tree.

Fifty years ago, when I was a little boy, each December I was regularly encouraged not to get my hopes up too high. It was the last thing I wanted to hear, because my expectations were already sky-high, having spent weeks with my nose in the Sears Wishbook.

“Son, just don’t get your hopes set too high.” I can still hear my mom murmuring those words…

And they were good words, wise words, for a little guy to hear. Santa’s sleigh is only so big after all, and money doesn’t grow on trees.

The problem with being told not to get your hopes too high is that, over time, people take that to heart….and after a while they set aside all their great expectations in favor of more modest hopes, more measured anticipations….and life gets flattened out, the highs canceling the lows, and we put our heads down and keep our noses to the grindstone.

As one wag has put it: “Don’t expect much, and you’ll never be disappointed.”

But it’s disappointment that we run into in this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew, chapter 11.

John the Baptist, languishing in King Herod’s prison, is taking stock of his life. John thought Jesus might have been the One, but now he’s not so sure—things aren’t turning out the way John thought they would. So he sends a couple of his buddies to ask Jesus, point blank: “Are you or aren’t you the One we’ve been waiting for?”

And my question is this: Did John the Baptist wonder that because he was expecting too much of Jesus—expecting more than even Jesus could deliver?

So, John, what are you waiting for? And I imagine John responding like this: “I’m waiting for a little divine ‘payback.’ I’m waiting for these occupiers, these rotten Roman scoundrels to be given the boot. I’m waiting for folks to start taking their responsibilities seriously—I’m waiting for my people Israel to act like they’re truly the chosen ones of God.”

But none of that was happening. And John, in his narrow prison cell--not sure the key would ever jingle and the door be thrown open--John was wondering if his expectations of Jesus had been a tad too high.

So he sent messengers to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” And, fortunately for us, Jesus didn’t answer with a simple Yes or No.

Instead, Jesus let his actions do the talking for him. Presbyterian preacher Frederick Buechner paraphrases Jesus’ response this way: “Tell [John] there are people who have sold their seeing-eye dogs and taken up bird-watching. Tell him there are people who’ve traded in aluminum walkers for hiking boots. Tell him the down-and-out have turned into the up-and-coming and a lot of dead-beats are living it up for the first time in their lives.”

I don’t think John was flirting with disappointment because he expected too much from Jesus.

No. John’s problem was that he expected too little. John’s hopes weren’t high, deep or “thick” enough. And so Jesus re-set John’s hope and our hope, in soaring language borrowed from the prophets of old.

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Well: sit up and take notice. People are “coming to their senses”—literally!---the blind now dazzled by light, the deaf now tapping their toes the music, the dead now refusing to stay put where we buried them.

Please, it’s as if Jesus is pleading with us, please ratchet up your hopes too high—and watch me exceed those hopes, whatever they might be!

And that’s what I’d like us to bore in on for just a few more moments.

What if our moms and dads got it all wrong? What if instead of tamping down our hopes and moderating our expectations, they had told us: “don’t hold back, don’t expect too little, don’t cultivate modest anticipations, don’t low-ball God.”

We Lutherans, especially we northern European types, God’s “frozen chosen” of the upper Midwest—Lord knows, we’ve got safe and modest and realistic down pat. We are paragons of moderation!

But what if all along we’ve been aiming too low, when we should be shooting the moon?

There is, after all, an excess, an over-flowing-ness in the Word of God that is always catching us up short. Take our First Lesson from Isaiah 35, for example. It’s about the wilderness—the dry, parched places of life where we feel utterly cut-off, bereft of all hope.

But this wilderness is turning lush and verdant, as God renews all things. “It shall blossom”—not just a little bit, not just “enough”—but “abundantly( v. 2).

And the lame don’t just limber up—they aren’t merely content with hobbling around—no, “they leap like a deer!” (v. 6) The speechless manage to do much more than croak out a few syllables—rather, “they sing for joy.” (v. 7) The dry land doesn’t just show a few hints of greenery—it becomes like a northern Minnesota wetland in the summer, teeming with life.

And right through the middle of this barren, God-forsaken “dead man’s gulch”—the kind of place any sane person would avoid at all cost—right through the middle of it we see not just a narrow rocky trail—but a wide highway, the Holy Way, the way back home for God’s exiled people.

Isaiah 35 invites us in this Advent season to set our hopes too high for a change—because the higher we hope, the higher will God outdo us in giving us all that we will ever need.

So, my dear friends, what are you waiting for this morning?

Are you waiting for a little peace and quiet, a break in the relentless routine? Are you waiting for spring? Are you waiting for a ruined relationship to be knit back together? Are you waiting for the economy to turn around, the country to come back together, the world to settle down? Are you waiting for a way through your wilderness--whatever that wilderness might be?

Whatever you are waiting for—I invite you to ratchet up your hopes. Toss moderation out the window. God wants to give you more than you can ask or imagine. That’s why God sent us the baby Jesus, that’s why God keeps showing up in Water and Wine and Word, that’s why God will send us Jesus one last time, to set all things to rights.

Whatever you’re waiting for, whatever you’re hoping for…hope for more…because God will give you even more than what you hope for. That’s the only way God knows how to give!

It’s what this season, and what the Christmas holy days just around the corner, are all about.

We may not think about that every waking minute of every cold day in December….but such boundless hope keeps breaking through, especially in the great songs of this season. Listen for it!

Our hope and expectation,
O Jesus, now appear;
Arise, O Sun so longed for,
O’er this benighted sphere.
With hearts and hands uplifted,
We plead, O Lord, to see
The day of earth’s redemption
That sets your people free!

Even we lumpy,pasty, pale, shy Norwegian Lutherans….even we paragons of moderation….even we know how to sing those words in Advent (in four-part harmony!)--and maybe we even believe them!

Tune your ears to such music, my dear friends, perk up your ears to hear the humming hope of the whole world, being ratcheted up, because God in Jesus Christ is renewing the whole creation—God is exceeding all expectations, in the Baby born for us in Bethlehem.

So, I ask you one last time: what are you waiting for?

If God in Jesus Christ is restoring our senses, reclaiming every wilderness, depriving death of its terror-filled hold on us, bringing us home ….if God is making all things news in the life, death and resurrection of his Beloved Son…if the future belongs to this God, who is setting all things aright…

…what are we waiting for, even now? Why bide our time until God wraps it all up? We have permission to start living in this very moment as if God’s preferred future had already arrived.

What if we leaned forward into the Kingdom that is coming toward us, giving ourselves away recklessly, waging peace relentlessly, pursuing justice obsessively, letting God’s abundance flow through our pocketbooks effortlessly, befriending everyone whom God places in our path--voicing the hope that is in us?

There’s nothing stopping us. We can live like that, even before the Kingdom comes in all its Final-Advent fullness.

There’s nothing holding us back.

So, what are we waiting for?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

It Takes Two to "Gospel"

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, Barnesville
November 7, 2010--All Saints Sunday
Luke 6:20-31

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Today is one of those “second string” festivals in the church year. All Saints Sunday isn’t on a par with Christmas or Easter or Pentecost….it’s called a “lesser festival”….but we would be mistaken if we thereby assume that it’s no big deal.

Today is much more than the Sunday after the start of deer hunting. It’s more than a kind of “Memorial Day in November”—more than a nostalgia trip or a sentimental journey recalling loved ones whom we still miss.

All Saints Sunday, rather, is about two things that really, really, really matter.

First, it’s about Easter all over again—so much so that some call it a “little Easter.”

All Saints Sunday is like a second Easter on the church’s calendar, and it comes our way when we need it the most—not in the lengthening days of spring, when hope is easier to stir up, as the sunshine bathes us in light, as the world comes alive again.

All Saints Sunday hits us in the autumn, when the leaves have almost all fallen, when shadows are lengthening, when we’re hunkering down, getting the snowblower ready to run, groping our way toward the shortest day of the year, frantically blowing on the glowing embers of hope in our lives.

All Saints Sunday hits us in early November when we need to hear—desperately so!—this good news: Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! And that’s not just something we make a big fuss over for a few weeks in April and May.

No—it’s true, indeed it is the truth of our lives ALL the time—most especially when hope is harder to sustain, when it appears as though the darkness might win out, when the chill in the air produces a corresponding chill in our souls, All Saints Sunday comes around, whispering in our ears: “It’s still true, even now. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!”

And that is not just a promise hanging out there in thin air, either. It is not just the world’s greatest Tweet, the very best Facebook status update we could ever read.

It is true in the dailiness of life. It is true in the lived-out lives people we have known, people we still know—persons who have come through the water of Baptism and staked their lives on the fact that Jesus has died for us and God has raised him up….the first fruits of all the saints who have fallen asleep.

All Saints Sunday is that little Easter that says the resurrection is real, not just for Jesus, but for all who live and die in Jesus, all who have known the dregs of life—the emptiness, the hunger, the sorrow, the reviling that comes to followers of Jesus.

All Saints Sunday is that little Easter in autumn for all the faithful ones we’ve committed to God’s unending love and mercy in Jesus Christ. And to make that even more concrete, more real, on All Saints Sunday we name them—both the newly baptized next generation of disciples—and also those sunk deep in their baptism, the saints who have lived and died in faith.

For them, for us, too, the Easter proclamation rings out, in early November (say it with me): “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!”

But there is another reason, a second reason why All Saints Sunday is so much more than a “lesser festival.” And that’s because this day opens our hearts to ponder how God does vital business with us—how God chooses to make himself known among us.

It’s a one-to-one, deeply interpersonal thing, you see. Eric Gritsch who taught many years at our seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, once put it this way: “It takes two to ‘gospel’.” (Quoted in Philip D. Krey, editor, Luther’s Spirituality, 2007, page xxx.)

“It takes two to ‘gospel’.”

…which means, the Good News about Jesus always comes to us in some me-to-you, you-to-me way. That’s how God operates on us—through his called, chosen, baptized ones. God gets under our skin to save us and to send us to our neighbor.

A week ago our children put on masks and outlandish costumes to shake us down for candy, which moms and dads now have stowed away in ziplock bags in the freezer, doling out the goodies, one by one.

Here’s the connection: God puts on a mask, God dresses up like someone else, in order to get close to us, wash us, feed us, utter saving promises to us, and hook us on the gospel.

God puts on the mask of our neighbor, God dresses up like some saint, God comes to us through one another, because it always, always “takes two to ‘gospel’.”

Have you ever thought of it that way before?

I’m guessing that none of you carried yourself to the baptismal font; someone else—some saint—got you there (even if you were an adolescent or an adult when it happened).

And none of you were just sitting under an apple tree one fine day, when the gospel “dawned” on you, out of the clear blue, like the proverbial light bulb turning on in your head. Someone introduced you to Jesus, spoke Jesus, acted out Jesus—made Jesus real for you.

None of you have rustled up a little Holy Communion self-serve snack for yourselves. The table, rather, has always been spread for us. The Body and the Blood of your Savior are brought to your lips, handed over to you. Someone else’s vocal cords have proclaimed the promise, so that you might hear it: “The Body of Christ, given for you….the Blood of Christ, shed for you.”

Gospel-talk is not self-talk!

It takes two to “gospel,” which is the deeper truth of this festival, All Saints Sunday. None of us pulls ourselves up by the bootstraps in the Kingdom of God. We are carried into it, lured into it, won over by the Gospel because someone else, some saint of God, “got through” to us. That’s how God works, how God does vital business with us.

And this isn’t just about the happy, celebrative, “up” times in life, either.

“Gospeling” happens to us chiefly when we’re on the skids, at the end of our ropes. That’s why the appointed gospel for All Saints Sunday focuses on the blessed emptiness, the blessed hunger, the blessed sorrow of those who know they can’t make it on their own—who know that they and the whole world needs Jesus.

When we have nothing going for us, God has room to do something with us, to call us and claim us and fit us for his Kingdom. When you and I are willing, even, to suffer in some way because Jesus lives in us—God does some of his most amazing work. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” an ancient father of the church once observed (Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 50).

If this is worth suffering for, if this is worth dying for, then perhaps it is also worth living for.

Make no mistake about it, my dear friends in Christ: praying to dead saints will never save us. But rubbing elbows with living saints, those who walk on the same ground as we do—that certainly IS one of the ways God saves us and sends us to serve his mission in the world.

So do not let this day pass with a ho-hum yawn. This may officially be a “lesser festival,” but it surely points us to a greater hope.

And just so that it doesn’t pass you by, let me spell it out for you one more time.

The saints—those who by God’s grace have been washed, fed, saved and sent—the saints who have gone before us, still live in the fullness of God. That’s the “little Easter” aspect of this day. We never speak these words alone—we always speak them in unison with the saints and archangels—we live by this promise (say it with me one more time): “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”

And even now, before we die, we stake everything on speaking and living this promise with one another. Eric Gritsch got it right: “It takes two to ‘gospel’.” The saints among us, the saints I’m looking at right now, are God’s hands, God’s lips, God’s incarnate invitations to everyone who’s paying attention.

Through you, God is going to bring the saving Word of Jesus to someone else--maybe even today.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Floating in the Grace of God

Devotions at NW MN SynodCandidacy Retreat
October 29, 2010

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Complete this sentence, if you would: “If you want to make sure a job is done right ________________ (do it yourself!)”

That seems to be the watchword here in Jeremiah chapter 31. To grasp the magnificence of this passage, though, we need to remember what comes before it.

Jeremiah was a spokesman for God, who lived and worked in the 7th century before the birth of Christ. It was a dark time for God’s people—and Jeremiah gave voice to that—calling Israel and Judah to account for their many failings, warning them of the judgment to come, interpreting their exile at the hands of the Babylonians in terms of God’s “alien work” of judging, condemning and killing.

Jeremiah the prophet is never mistaken for the “Mr. Sunshine” of our Old Testament. He is unsparing in his willingness to speak harsh, relentless oracles of judgment. And Jeremiah—in his own person—takes on the darkness of which he speaks. He suffers with and for his people.

But then in chapters 30-33 of Jeremiah’s prophetic book, the sun peaks through. Consolation replaces all the doom and gloom—promises cascade down from heaven, covering the sorrow of exile, reviving hope.

And here in chapter 31, it seems God rolls up his sleeves and says: “If you to make to make sure a job is done right, do it yourself.”

And that is exactly what God intends to do!

God has had it with halfway measures, and half-hearted responses. Having tried a give-and-take approach to covenant-making with his wayward people, God is itching to take a fresh run at it, to start all over again, to cut a deal with his beloved ones the likes of which they had never known.

And this is what the deal will look like: no deal at all! No quid-pro-quos, no “a little bit of this and that,” no “meet you in the middle” two-way arrangements.

No, God is through with all that. For that old approach to covenanting turned out to be a bust--not because God failed, but because God’s beloved ones could never hold up their end of the bargain.

Presented with the sweetest deal they could ever imagine—God’s chosen ones turned up their noses and sniffed, “thanks but no thanks.” And so God got fed up with them, handed them over to their own disastrous choices, and allowed their enemies to have free rein for a season. And the Babylonians were only too happy to level Judah’s cities, haul off the children of Israel, and swallow them up in exile. Resistance would be futile.

As fed up as God was with Israel and Judah, though, he simply could not wash his hands of them.

God could not abandon his claim on them. There had to be a way, some better way to make them his forever--which is all God wanted in the first place.

And then it hit God. If you want to make sure a job is done, do it yourself….which is what, through the lips of the exilic prophet Jeremiah, God now lavishly promised.

After chapters of doom and gloom, Jeremiah 31 breaks forth in a song of astounding hope about the new thing God was about to do: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”

The days are coming, sang the Lord, when I will take matters into my own hands and make happen what I have longed for since the dawn of creation: a people of my own, to cherish and love ‘til the end of time….and here’s how I will pull it off.

There will be no “recycling” of earlier covenants. Even an extreme makeover of the first covenant will not do the trick. What’s needed is a covenant like no covenant that’s been tried before….a covenant that I will make with my people, and a covenant that I will also keep on behalf of my people. I myself will guarantee it—says the Lord. I will make it happen.

I will write myself into the core of their being. I will insert myself into their programming code. This covenant won’t be etched in stone like the first one; rather it will be branded on human hearts—I will hardwire my steadfastness right into their DNA. I will weave my very being into their selves, make myself one with them.

No more teaching, instructing or learning of my will via third-party-vendors. Instead, I will meld my will with theirs—the two will cleave to one another inseparably.

I will be their God—they will be my people—and that’s not wishful thinking, either. It is their future, it is our destiny, I will see to it.

And perhaps most astonishingly, no one will be left out. “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” No exceptions. This is the real “no child left behind” act!

And at the heart of it all—because sin taints everyone, because the disruption of the Fall infects the whole creation—at the heart of it all will be God’s fierce determination not to eradicate sin but to freely forgive it—to drive it away from our lives, as far as the east is from the west.

And just so we know God means business here, he opts for a case of divine amnesia. God swears that he will do what gods aren’t supposed to be able to do: God will forget something—God will forget all the ways we’ve rebelled, fallen, spit in God’s face. God will clear his memory banks of all that.

Our new life, our promised future—will be guaranteed by the self-imposed forgetfulness of God.

THAT’s how God is going to pull it off, start from scratch, take matters into his own hands—for us and for our salvation. This is not a plaintive, pleading God, knocking at the door of our hearts and hoping that we’ll open the door. This is God the divine cardiac surgeon who’s going to make it happen by giving us the new hearts for which the psalmist (Psalm 51) could only pray.

Appropriately enough, we hear this fabulous prophecy on Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate Martin Luther’s 16th century rediscovery of how God truly does business with us.

How can I find a gracious God, Luther wondered, as he was overwhelmed by his own sin and guilt? Luther’s quest for this gracious God drove him to the brink of despair where—finally—he discovered that his merciful God—the God he’d been looking for, longing for—was already hot on his own trail.

Luther, searching vainly for a God he could love, stumbled across the God who had already found him, the God who had already taken matters into his own hands, rolled up his sleeves and written himself into our lives forever in Jesus Christ, the bringer of the New Covenant for which old Jeremiah longed.

And what about us? Having been found by this seeking, mercy-bearing God in Jesus Christ, how then shall we live? If God has taken matters into his own hands and worked out our salvation—without even half an ounce of effort on our part—how shall we live out our days?

It is—is it not?—as if we’ve been given our lives back, so that we might simply float in God’s grace, and bask in God’s goodness.

Ray Lucker was the Roman Catholic bishop of New Ulm, MN for many years. A wonderful pastor, powerful teacher and faithful friend—Ray was deeply loved by his flock. When he was diagnosed with cancer, all of us who treasured him were disheartened-- but not Ray.

He was found one day, sitting in a lawn chair, in the sun, out on his little acreage. “What are you doing, bishop?” someone asked him. “I’m just sitting here, letting God hold me,” Ray replied.

What a Lutheran thing for a Catholic bishop to say? If God has already put into effect the new covenant, if God has taken care of our salvation, what is left for us than to bask in it, to float in God’s grace, and to return to what God made us for him the first place: trusting God, tending this good earth, and loving all our neighbors. It doesn’t get any better than that, now, does it?

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Life Overflowing: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Life Overflowing: A Great Cloud of Witnesses

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

“Our confession approves giving honor to the saints. This honor is threefold. The first is thanksgiving: we ought to give thanks to God because he has given examples of his mercy, because he has shown that he wants to save humankind, and because he has given teachers and other gifts to the church…..The second kind of veneration is the strengthening of our faith. When we see Peter forgiven after his denial, we, too, are encouraged to believe that grace truly superabounds much more over sin [Rom. 5:20]. The third honor is imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings…” Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XXI

On the first Lord’s day in every November, most of our churches observe All Saints Sunday. This is a mark of the “conservative” nature of the Reformation that produced our Lutheran Church. Martin Luther, unlike other Protestant reformers, sought to retain (or “conserve”) the treasures of the medieval Catholic Church that were not contrary to the Gospel and that could encourage us in faith, hope and love.

This included a healthy appreciation for the “saints,” understood biblically and evangelically as all the faithful baptized children of God in every time and place who believe in and follow the Lord Jesus Christ. Lutherans do not invoke the saints (i.e. we don’t “pray” to deceased saints to help us), but we do honor their memory in three ways, according to our Lutheran confessions:

• We give thanks to God for all the saints, especially the “cloud of witnesses” who have lived and died in faith;

• We have our faith strengthened when we see God’s mighty deeds in and through the lives of the saints all around us; and

• We seek to imitate those who have modeled the faith or mentored us in discipleship—not for our own sakes, but to serve our neighbors and God’s mission in the world.

What an overflowing, abundant “cloud of witnesses” surrounds us all, in heaven and on earth—cheering us on, encouraging us, showing us the way to follow our Lord! This month I invited my three colleagues on the synod’s pastoral staff to join with me in sharing recollections of saints who have touched our lives.

Pastor Laurie Natwick, Assistant to the Bishop

Mrs. Ulness was larger than life and yet o-so-gentle and warm. Looking back, she was for me the first voice of God’s comfort and grace beyond that in which I was so securely nestled at home. She was the one who led the “opening exercise” (I think that’s what they called it then) before we went to our classes for Sunday School each Sunday morning.

We sat on those little chairs and Mrs. Ulness would begin, “This is the day which the Lord hath made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Throughout those pre-school years I remember feeling sorry for Mrs. Ulness that she didn’t know how to say “has” and always said “hath” instead. But even more than that, I remember that she started with those words and we went on from there with songs and Bible stories. We learned the songs from her and we sang. “Into my heart, into my heart, Come into my heart Lord Jesus. Come in today; come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” There was ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and ‘Away in a Manger’ and Mrs. Ulness knew them all by heart! She was the best.

Five-year-old Laurie Natwick, was mentored by her
Sunday School teacher, “saint” Dorothy Ulness.

She was even there to pick me up when I was five and Jimmy Moe thought he’d be cute and pull my little chair away from behind me when it was time to sit down and hear another Bible story. It was not that far to the floor, but my pride was hurt. Not only did Mrs. Ulness pick me up, she held me for just a minute or two and brought me comfort. As I recall, she didn’t get angry with Jimmy Moe and, though firm with him, was gentle too.

It was years later (I don’t recall when) that I learned those words were from Psalm 118. I will admit that at first I was shocked. Now wait a me these words were good news according to Mrs. Ulness and now I was learning that they were hidden there in the 118th chapter of the Psalms. But, I came to see the wonder of what I had learned from the lips and heart of Dorothy Ulness (yes, I also came to learn she had a first name!) The words from Psalm 118:24 are engrained within me and I have Dorothy to thank for that. She was not only teaching me Bible stories. She was teaching me the words of scripture and I was only three years old when she began to teach me.

Dorothy was not only the Sunday School leader. I saw her in many leadership roles in the church and liked to go to her house. She was one who lived the faith both in her being and in her doing. She was one who came to the day and rejoiced in

Years later I was thrilled to find a red plate with Psalm 118:24 etched around the outside edge. It was in the King James Version so “hath” was there. It was the perfect gift for one of these first saints to touch my life in such seemingly simple yet profound ways.

There are many days when the morning seems to come too soon. On those days especially I find myself thinking of this saint who helped shape my life, not only as I began Sunday School, but throughout my years of growing in the faith--one of the many saints who have gone before us and for whom we can give thanks.

Pastor Steve Peterson, Assistant to the Bishop

When I think about special saints in my life, Gerhardt Semler comes to mind. In the late 1960’s and early ‘70s Gerhardt was the resident caretaker of Atlantic Mountain Ranch, a rustic Lutheran camp connected with Outlaw Ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota. During this time I spent several summers on the camp staff. Gerhardt and his wife Verna Mae lived at Atlantic Mountain Ranch because they loved Jesus, they loved the summer staff, they loved the campers, and they loved simple living in God’s service.

Gerhardt was an authentic cowboy. He could hand roll a cigarette while riding a horse. He always wore a cowboy hat. As far as I know he slept in it. He could fix anything as long as he didn’t have to spend money to do it. We joked we were pretty sure he could fix or build anything with recycled wood and bailing wire. He loved to get city kids into the barn when he was milking a cow, squirting milk into the barn cats’ mouths and challenging the kids to give it a try. His eyes would twinkle and his grin would light up our whole known world.

Steve Peterson on staff--with “saint” Gerhardt--at
Atlantic Mountain Ranch in 1971.

Gerhardt taught a whole generation of Atlantic Mountain Ranch staff the joy of hard work and discipleship. This camp’s several primitive “villages” had to be built from the ground up each summer; college kids setting up teepees, scraping fire breaks, digging outhouse holes. Gerhardt’s supervision-– his vast practical knowledge, wit and wisdom and passion for both hard physical work and relationships, always in service of the mission of Jesus at this camp-- formed us into, perhaps more than any other factor, the most passionate Jesus community I have ever been a part of. It was fun and it was transforming. Gerhardt taught us how to serve.

There were the hoedowns every week at camp. Verna Mae called the dances. Gerhardt played lead electric guitar. By the time Gerhardt got out his stick and started hammering and sliding on the strings of his guitar skeptical adolescent campers were whooping and hollering and wanting it to never end. And up on the hay rack was Gerhardt grinnin’ that million dollar grin that said, “see kids, there’s lots of ways to have fun…”

I remember once driving Gerhardt’s old beat up camp pickup while doing a work project in the woods. The tailgate was hanging down. I backed into something and put a big dent in it. He came over in mock disgust, put the tail gate up, backed hard right into a tree and straightened the tail gate. That grin and twinkle in his eye told me, “There is more than one way to fix things; you gotta think outside the box.”

I have treasured a cross he made out of old square nails taken from an old railroad depot we tore down under his supervision to salvage the wood. It reminds me of what he modeled about service and freedom in Christ.

Pastor Keith Zeh, Director for Evangelical Mission

Soon after moving into our new house in Las Vegas, a stranger came to the door on a hot August day in 1965. He was a pastor out door-knocking and welcoming new residents into the neighborhood. My mom invited Pastor Adolph Holm to come in for a glass of sun tea that had been steeping on the back patio.

This afternoon encounter between a Lutheran pastor and an unchurched family marked the beginning of a relationship that forever changed my life. Pastor Holm baptized me at age 12, along with my dad, mom, two brothers and sister, on August 29, 1965.

Keith Zeh at age 12, when he and his family were
baptized by “saint” Adolph Holm

Pastor Holm is one of my most precious mentors in faith. He would teach, preach and model the faith for me throughout my growing up years. He confirmed me and saw in me more than I saw in myself. He was the first one in my faith journey to see me as someone who could serve our Lord Jesus as an ordained pastor.

On a hot August day in 1982, I was standing outside the sanctuary of Calvary Lutheran Church in Las Vegas. I was preparing to process into worship for my ordination service. Pastor Holm would have been at my side had he not died of a heart attack several weeks before. I was thinking about him, when suddenly his wife Esther came up beside me as she entered the sanctuary. She hugged me and whispered in my ear, asking me if I remembered my baptism. Oh my! The realization washed over me that this date - Sunday, August 29 - was also the anniversary of my baptism. At that moment, I caught a glimpse of the great cloud of witnesses and knew that my mentor, Pastor Holm, was indeed with me for my ordination. His mentoring in the faith continues still to this day.

Pastor Larry Wohlrabe, Bishop

When I think of the “great cloud of witnesses” who have shaped me in Christian faith and discipleship, I think of Millie and Sue, two stalwart saints from First Lutheran Church in St James, MN.

Millie and Sue, along with their wonderful husbands, were deeply embedded in the congregation’s life and ministry. Faithful worshippers, eager Bible study participants, willing workers—a pastor’s dream.

The Wohlrabe family in May of 1988 while
Larry served at First Lutheran Church of St James, Minnesota
and appreciated “saints” Millie and Sue.

But what made me appreciate them most is that they were absolutely committed to making sure First Lutheran Church would be turned “inside out” in witness and mission in God’s world. I came to think of them (affectionately!) as our congregation’s “Mission Mafia,” and because of them I never needed to give a little speech that most pastors deliver once a year.

In my nearly five years as co-pastor of First Lutheran (1986-1991), I never had to nervously clear my throat and speak up at the annual meeting on behalf of the congregation’s “benevolence” giving to the district and national church body. When the coming year’s budget was being discussed, I didn’t have to give that speech—because every year Millie and Sue beat me to the punch! They were relentless (in a gentle Lutheran way) and “took no prisoners” in their approach to insisting that First Lutheran continue to grow its benevolence giving (a.k.a. “mission support”). And because Millie and Sue had such stature in the congregation—because they “walked the walk” in their own lives of discipleship and generosity—people listened to them and knew that they were right.

Millie and Sue also reminded me that the baptized people of God—the laity—often bear witness and speak-the-truth-in-love more creatively and persuasively than we pastors manage to do.

Surrounded by Christ’s saints,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. What memories of “saints” in your own life are triggered by these stories of “saints” Dorothy, Gerhardt, Adolph, Millie and Sue?
2. Right now who might be looking up to you for encouragement in Christian faith and life?
3. How might your congregation raise up more models and mentors in the faith, especially for the next generation of disciples of Jesus?

This is the tenth in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Business of Showing Mercy

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes
Pentecost 22/October 24, 2010
Luke 18:9-14

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If you had your druthers, which would you prefer: being full or being empty? Satisfied or hungry? Rolling in dough or down to your last red cent?

Whether we’re talking about your stomach, your car’s gas tank or your bank account…would you rather be: full or empty?

It’s a silly question, of course. The answer is obvious: Given a choice between being “full” or “empty,” we will always opt for “full,” won’t we?

That’s true in our physical lives, our financial lives and our spiritual lives.

In this regard, I’m always intrigued by things like what names new ELCA congregations are choosing for themselves.  What kinds of church names “sell” in the religious marketplace of the early 21st century?

There are, for example 70 Community Lutheran Churches in the ELCA…but not a single “Miserable Sinner Lutheran Church.”

New Life Lutheran Church is also “hot” right now—with 17 of those across our church body….but there’s not a single “Empty Hands Lutheran Church.”

There are 10 Rejoice Lutheran Churches and 8 Celebration Lutheran Churches—but not a single “Lutheran Church of the Grief-Stricken Heart.”

And you’ll find a whopping 440 First Lutheran Churches, but not even one “Last Lutheran Church.”

We love church names that convey images of fullness, coming-out-on-top, togetherness and joy.

But we never choose church names that suggest being empty or humbled or last…

…even though, more than once, Jesus said that the first will be last and the last will be first!

And right here in this morning’s gospel lesson he concludes with these words: “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Which do you prefer: being empty or being full? What a silly question! Given that choice—we always, always, always opt for “fullness.”

…which is a problem when we try to make sense out of this morning’s gospel lesson, a parable in which Jesus describes a very full man and a very empty man.

The very full man is the Pharisee. He is full to overflowing—so we expect him to come out ahead here.

Why do I say that? First of all, the Pharisee knows how to pray. Look at him: he stands up straight, looking up to heaven.

He prays--not a “give me, give me” prayer....but a “thank you, thank you” prayer. The Pharisee doesn’t make demands on God, but rather thanks God for God's goodness, God's guidance of his life—for the fact that God has kept him from a life of pilfering, swindling and philandering.

Moreover, the Pharisee is a true blue follower of God. He’s committed to God 1000%. Other Jews fasted one time a year—but he fasted twice each week! Other Jews contributed 10% of some of their income—he gave 10%, he tithed on his entire income. If you were on the temple finance committee, if you were running a first century capital appeal, you’d expect this Pharisee to be a major giver!

In every respect, this Pharisee was full—full of gratitude, full of holiness, full of sacrifice. We’d call him a pillar of the congregation--a model believer.

The other guy in Jesus’ parable, though--the tax collector—he’s something else! He is utterly, completely, totally empty.

In his neighbors’ eyes, the tax collector was simply a thief. No one respected him. Everybody avoided him.

When he snuck into the temple, the tax collector stood off to the side. Instead of standing up straight and gazing toward the heaven--the tax collector's eyes were downcast, his arms folded across his chest, beating his breast.

All he can do is beg for forgiveness for his God-forsaken life. Sounds like a guy whose spiritual gas-tank was on EMPTY.

So what are we to make of the ending to this parable? Jesus renders this astonishing verdict: I tell you, this man [the empty tax collector] went down to his home justified rather than the other [the full Pharisee]; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.

If the Pharisee was the full one—and if being full is always better than being empty—what are we to make of Jesus’ startling conclusion to this parable?

Take another look at what the Pharisee was full of.

True, he starts his prayer by saying, "God, I thank you..." But soon the Pharisee gets stuck on another word, the shortest word in the English language, the word that showed his true colors. "God I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income."

The Pharisee is full all right—he’s full of himself. His favorite hymn is: "How Great I Art."

The Pharisee is full—but he doesn’t go home justified, righteous, in line with God's saving purposes. Why? Because he has no need for anything God might have to offer.

The tax collector, on the other hand, is empty.

He’s a hopeless case—and he knows it.

The tax collector is at the end of his rope--and he realizes it.

The tax collector brings no achievements before God.

He simply throws himself on “the mercy of the court.”

And Jesus says that he--not the Pharisee--goes home justified, righteous, in line with God's saving purposes—even though the tax collector is utterly empty.

How can that be? It’s because the tax collector dares to speak the awful truth about himself--the awful truth about all of us. We are sinners in need of mercy. We are lost causes in need of rescuing. We are empty vessels in need of filling.

And because the tax collector dares speak the awful truth about himself--he simultaneously makes room for the awesome truth about God: the truth that God is in the business of showing mercy, the business of rescuing lost causes, the business of filling up empty vessels.

The reason that the tax collector, not the Pharisee, went home that God could still do something for the tax collector. There was an empty, hollow space in the tax collector's life that God could and did fill.

If you find yourself on top of the world, all your ducks lined up in a row, everything going your way….

If you discover that your spiritual life is particularly rewarding, especially not be quick to assume thereby that God is impressed.

But if, on the other hand, you wrestle with a hollowness, a sense of failure, a profound not be quick to assume that God is far away from you.

When your awareness of sin seems most overwhelming, when all your doubts are most daunting, when the needle on your spiritual gas tank gauge is bouncing on empty....then, then is precisely when God is most near to you.

For then God can do something for you.

God can do what God does best:

God can demonstrate his power chiefly in showing mercy, for the sake of the crucified, risen, Lord Jesus Christ.

In short: God can—and God will--fill you up!

And God will not stop there, mind you. God won’t be content to fill you up. God will call upon you, God will empower you to fill up others in his name.

That is God’s mission in the world—the mission to which we each are called and for which congregations like Trinity exist: the mission of filling up the empty with God’s blessings and God’s redemption.

But here’s the trick: God does his best work when we come to grips with the emptiness in our lives—when we go places we’d rather not go….and when we approach other persons who otherwise spook us because they’re so hurt or frustrated or depressed…so empty.

So, my dear friends of Trinity Lutheran, if that is what God is up to in our world….where might that take your congregation? Who might you find yourself noticing for the first time? Who have you been side-stepping, because they seemed so bereft, so downcast, so empty? Who is out there, maybe within a stone’s throw of this church building—who needs to be filled with the good things that God alone gives? Whose spiritual gas tank, whose empty stomach, whose vacuous life does God want to fill up—in and through you and your ministries here at Trinity?

You’re in a transition time as a congregation. You’re focused, rightfully so, on the changes that are coming in the leadership of your church.

But what if—what if the most important task before you wasn’t merely to figure out what kind of pastor or staff leadership model you need? What if God wanted you to focus first on why he planted you here in Detroit Lakes? What word are your neighbors dying to hear from your lips? What emptiness in your community are you uniquely equipped to fill?

This great parable, this astounding story that Jesus told asks us all to set aside our fixation on religion-as-usual and ponder anew all the pockets of emptiness here in your mission field that God in Jesus Christ is just itching to fill up.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Life Overflowing: Semper Reformanda

Out of my distress I called on the LORD;  the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place.
Psalm 118:5

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

On the last day of October we celebrate Reformation Day, recalling Martin Luther’s instigation of a far-reaching reform movement within the Catholic church of the middle ages. With a hammer, some nails and a freshly-written document (The 95 Theses) Luther lit a reforming fire that is still refining the church on earth.

“Semper reformanda” is a Latin slogan that means “always reforming.” Although the phrase was first coined by Dutch reformers a century after Luther lived, we 21st century Lutherans gladly lay claim to this watchword. There is a vibrancy and a renewing impulse that continues to bubble up from the Reformation Luther set off—claiming and sending us out in our time and place.

Pinched, Brittle, and Joyless

But does it always seem that way? Nowadays I am struck by how pinched, brittle and joyless so many Lutherans have become. Some have reduced Luther’s world-turning Magna Carta into tired formulas, stilted vocabulary, and theological strait-jackets. They appear to be nervous defenders of a “mighty fortress” rather than daring ambassadors for God who is reconciling the whole world unto himself, in Jesus Christ (II Cor. 5:16-21).

Last November, when Joy and I visited our companion synod in southern India, we were struck by how unapologetically members of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC) embrace and even advertise their robust Lutheran connections. It shows up in the names they regularly give their children in Holy Baptism—names like “Luther Paul” (one of the six synod bishops of the AELC) or “Monica Melanchthon” (a professor of Old Testament at the Gurukul Theological College). It also shows up in how they order their church life, e.g. all the pastors of the AELC gather annually for worship, learning, fellowship and deliberation on Martin Luther’s birthday (Nov. 11).

Primarily, though, it shows up in what matters most to the people of the AELC:

• Freedom in Christ

• Joy in believing

• Being bold and imaginative in God’s mission.

Free in Christ

Whenever the founder of a movement dies, the movement itself changes. There is an understandable impulse to “freeze” the convictions and vision of the founder.

Something like this happened soon after Martin Luther died in 1546, and it is apparent even in the Lutheran confessional writings in our Book of Concord. There is a feistiness and warmth in the documents that Luther himself shaped (e.g. the Catechisms) and a corresponding formulaic stiffness in the document that was added after Luther’s death (aptly named the Formula of Concord).

This sort of thing has continued for nearly 500 years, even as it keeps impacting the Lutheran movement in the 21st century. And it is about far more than academic concerns.

For at the heart of the Reformation was a renewed experience of the honest-to-goodness freedom that Christ bestows. Luther himself was dying for such freedom in the church of his youth. Laboring incessantly under the load of the Law, living daily in fear of God’s wrath, Luther hungered to know a gracious God.

And when Luther found this God—or better, when this God of boundless grace found Luther!—it was as if the heavens had opened and life could begin again: “And this is the reason,” wrote Luther, “why our theology is certain: it snatches us away from ourselves and places us outside ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.”

Dear friends in Christ, we too are surrounded by folks who live under a load of the Law—paralyzed by their failure to measure up, restricted by their sense of shame and unworthiness, dying for a Word that might set them free. I believe that rather than offering old formulas that make sense only to life-long Lutherans, we are called to preach and teach Jesus Christ with such nerve and boldness that real live sinners will be set free for the life God created them to live.

The psalmist offers a memorable way of picturing this: it is like the movement from a stifling, confined space into a wide and open plain. “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me in a broad place (Psalm 118:5). How might our congregations become—for all who enter our doors—such free, broad, open spaces for those who hear the gospel?

Joy in Believing

When we visited AELC congregations in India last November, we were struck—repeatedly—by the overflowing hospitality and genuine warmth of each welcome we received. Musicians led impromptu parades around the church building, rose petals were tossed on our heads, people—especially the children—sang their hearts out, and gifts were showered upon us.

Prof. Hank Tkachuk of Concordia College, who traveled with Bishop Larry and Joy Wohlrabe to the AELC last November, receiving a flower garland gift from a student at the Girls School in Bhimavarim, India

What we witnessed in all of this “fuss” was the sheer joy of believing and following Jesus that our Indian sisters and brothers exhibit. And that, too, is consistent with the founding vision of the great reformer, Martin Luther.

To be sure, Luther had his own dark days—and as some have noted, he may have suffered from bouts of clinical depression. But Luther also lived the Christian life with an earthiness, a humor and a hope that was contagious. Perhaps Luther’s own joy in Christ shone through most compellingly in the hymns that he wrote and how he felt about the place of music in the Christian life: " "I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the Devil and makes people gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.”

In this regard, we too are called to the joyful task of semper reformanda. God has given us the best news we could ever imagine: “For freedom, Christ has set us free…” (Gal. 5:1) What if the “buzz” about us became: “Those Lutherans—what a zest for life they have! They really know how to throw a party! Wherever Lutherans are found, the joy of Christ is real”

Bold and Imaginative in Mission

Our friends in the AELC, we learned last autumn, are also deeply grateful to the missionaries who traveled to India, bringing the gospel from other parts of the world. They still honor the memory of missionaries, like John Frederick Christian Heyer (1793-1873), the first American Lutheran in America to be sent abroad to share the gospel.

Bishop Larry and Joy flank a statue of J.C.F Heyer in the city of Guntur, India, where Heyer’s missionary work began in the 19th century. Bishop Suneel of the AELC is 3rd from the left.

These and other global Lutherans might be surprised to hear that there has been a long debate among scholars of the Reformation as to whether Martin Luther even had a vision for global mission. Luther, after all, lived in a place (Germany, within the Holy Roman Empire) and a time (born in 1483, nine years before Columbus “sailed the ocean blue”) when it was assumed that the whole known world was at least nominally Christian.

Despite this “gap” in Luther’s theology, James Scherer, writing on the topic, “Lutheran Mission in Historical Perspective,” has argued that “there is a rich abundance of hints and suggestions about mission available from Luther’s primary writings.” Indeed, I believe that if Luther were serving in the missionary situation of our North American context in the year 2010, he would argue that the greatest service we can render our neighbors is to share with them the reason for the hope that is in us (I Peter 3:15).

Semper Reformanda!
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. Where do you see the spirit of semper reformanda—always reforming—in today’s church?

2. How do congregations become “free, broad, open spaces” for persons liberated by Jesus Christ? What does that look like?

3. When, in your own experience of the Christian life, are you most keenly in touch with the joy that Christ brings?

4. What is one bold, imaginative venture your congregation could attempt in order to serve God’s mission in the world?

This is the ninth in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bridging the Mega-Chasm

NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference, Fair Hills Resort

Pentecost 17/Year C/Luke 16:19-31

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In verse 26, Father Abraham says to the rich man in torment: “Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed…”

Between the rich man in Hades and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, “a great chasm”—the Greek says: a chasma mega, that is: a wide gorge, a “super- sized” canyon that separates heaven from hell. It cannot be crossed.

Death places you on one side or the other—and there you stay—forever!

Now, there’s an attention-getter if I ever saw one!

It’s an image we will not soon forget—an image, I believe, that helps us unlock what Jesus is driving at here.

For the chasma mega that existed between the rich man and Lazarus didn’t just open up when they died. That chasm, that gorge, that canyon between them existed throughout this story.

In fact, I believe that this mega-chasm spoken of toward the end of the story, is related to three other chasms, three other “divides” that exist in this parable and in our own world as well.

Here’s what I mean:

First, there was the chasm that existed between Lazarus begging at the gate and the rich man stuffing himself daily with fine food. Though they may have been only feet apart at the time, they might as well have been separated by light years—poor, ailing Lazarus with his cardboard hand-scrawled “help wanted” sign and the rich man at his 24-hours-a-day buffet.

Long before they died, Lazarus and the rich man were separated by a wide gulf—the gulf between the haves and the have-nots, between those who can help themselves and those who are helpless.

There’s a way in which death didn’t so much open up the chasm between Lazarus and the rich man—death merely revealed the chasm that had always been there. The parable takes us from seeing this chasm in the way the world pictures such things, to seeing how God views them. It’s a difference in perspective, a difference in “camera-angle” that is revealed at the point of their death.

This same mega-chasma exists in our world, in our day—does it not? It’s said that this chasm between rich and poor not only exists—but that it’s widening, that the “haves” are growing farther and farther distant from the “have-nots,” that many of the world’s troubles arise from the fact that those who can help themselves NEED keep their distance from, need to protect themselves from those who have not.

There is a way to bridge this gap, to close this chasm. It is the way of Jesus, Christ’s own life overflowing that helps us see life is not a zero-sum game, but rather it is life lived in the abundance of God. And I thank God that throughout our synod and our whole church, especially in this unsettled time, “feeding the hungry” is at least one thing we can all do together.

It all starts with noticing, not ignoring, the poor among us. Did you notice how only one character in this parable is named—not the rich man (whose biography surely was listed in the Who’s Who volume of his day)—but Lazarus. Lazarus alone has a name here. He’s not just another faceless, nameless beggar. We’re told who he is. His name is Lazarus which means “God helps.”

The rich man realizes this, the rich man calls the beggar by name—but only after his time has passed, only in death does he come to name the name of the beggar who had been at this door all those years.

In the moment of death, when the rich man finally “gets it”—then, then he also finally starts to care about someone other than himself.

He remembers that he has five brothers, still at home, still alive, still faced with an opportunity that the rich man no longer has. And the rich man—for the first time in the story—expresses concern for someone other than himself.

“Father [Abraham], I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

The rich man imagines that if a poltergeist came back from “the other side” and scared the liver out of his five brothers—sort of like the Ghost of Christmas Past visiting Ebenezer Scrooge—then, then they might turn their lives around and avoid the punishment the rich man was experiencing in Hades.

Sounds like a plan—doesn’t it? And again, if truth be told, there are all sorts of well-meaning Christians who actually buy into the rich man’s way of thinking.

That is: lots of people imagine that faith is chiefly about avoiding hell and heading for heaven, right? And how better to achieve that purpose than to use fear and warning as your primary tools.

“Do you know how hot it is in hell? Have you thought about how long eternity will be? If you don’t make the right choice and get your act together before you die—you’re going to find out, buddy!”

Notice how such preaching, such exhortation focuses on raw self-interest. Save your skin at all costs. Look out for yourself, lest you come to the same place of everlasting fire where the rich man was tormented—longing, longing for just one drop of cool water on his parched tongue.

But Father Abraham, speaking for God I believe, refuses to play along with the rich man’s request. He declines to send Lazarus back to earth to scare the bejeebers out of the rich man’s five brothers. No deal!

In so doing, I believe we see the second mega-chasm in this story. It’s the chasm between thinking that faith is about fear—fear of hellfire, fear motivated by self-interest—and understanding that faith means freedom—freedom from being all bound up in oneself, freedom to live the generous life that children of God live simply because they’re children of a generous God who abundantly gave us his only precious Son to free us from self-interest, to free us to pour out our lives willingly and generously, for others..

“They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” Father Abraham replies to the rich man regarding his brothers. The five brothers don’t need a spook from the far side of grave, they’ve got the Bible, right there in their laps. That is to say: they have the Book of Faith, the same Word of God that’s been given to you and to me.

But the rich man isn’t convinced. The rich man strongly suspects that his five brothers aren’t “into” regular worship and Bible study—that being too pedestrian, too tame, too ho-hum.

He says, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The rich man knows his five brothers—he can read them like a book—and he knows that a book will never be enough for them.

They already have the scriptures. What they need is a spectacle. And so he repeats his request: “Please, Father Abraham, send them Lazarus, back from the tomb. Let Lazarus rattle his ghost’s chains in their faces—like the ghost of Jacob Marley confronting Scrooge right in his own bedroom.”

But Father Abraham isn’t buying any of that. Father Abraham recognizes what I’m calling the third mega-chasm here in his story—the chasm, the gorge, the valley between the spectacular, the razzle-dazzle and the sure, steady Word of God.

Father Abraham replies to the rich man, for the final time: “If [your five brothers] do not listen to Moses and the prophets, if they can’t make time for the scriptures they already have--neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”’

God could, I suppose, dazzle us daily with pyrotechnics. God could amaze us with spectacles that take our breath away. God could overwhelm us, God could make us see—so that seeing, we’d no longer need to believe.

But our God doesn’t operate that way. Our God moves into our lives in strong, steady ways always, always with a Word that opens us up to believe—to live by faith, not sight.

We have that Word—and even better, this Word has us! It is the same Word that the rich man probably heard in his life—the same Word that his five brothers also had.

It is the Word of God who created an astonishing world of breath-taking abundance, assets upon assets—freely, recklessly given to us, God’s creatures.

It is the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ who though he was rich yet for our sakes became poor.

It is the Word of the Spirit who catches us up in God’s tomorrow and makes us and all things new.

If that Word doesn’t do the trick for you and me—nothing else will.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Striking While the Iron is Hot

First Lutheran, Audubon

Installation of Pr. David Beety
September 19, 2010
Luke 16:1-11

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,* who will entrust to you the true riches?

“Strike while the iron is hot.”

Have you ever said that—either to yourself or to someone else?

“Strike while the iron is hot.”

The image goes back to an era when every town had a blacksmith—a man adept at bending iron.

I’m just old enough to remember Floyd Robbens, my little hometown’s blacksmith. Floyd’s welding shop on the edge of town was where all the farmers (like my dad) took their broken farm implement parts for repair.

Sometimes, welding was not enough. Floyd had to fire up his forge and use huge tongs to put the metal part into the fire, heat it up until it was red hot….and then Floyd would take a hammer and strike the iron, bending it, returning it to its proper shape.

Floyd knew when the iron was hot enough, and he sensed when he had to act with speed, accuracy and determination….getting the job done before the metal cooled and hardened.

“Strike while the iron is hot” is a colorful way of saying: “Do something, for goodness’ sake. Don’t dilly-dally. Seize the day! Act while you can, before the moment passes….before the opportunity slips away.”

“Strike while the iron is hot” might have been the motto of the manager here in this peculiar parable from Luke 16.

It really is a strange story--this parable that drives preachers nuts every time it turns up in the Sunday lectionary rotation.

First there’s a rich man who had made loans to all sorts of people. They’d borrowed certain commodities from him, with a promise to return what they borrowed plus some extra oil or some additional wheat, to cover the “finance charges.”

Then there’s the rich man’s manager who, we learn, has been playing fast and loose with his boss’s assets….so recklessly that he gets caught and given the boot.

Such a sad turn of events might have paralyzed another manager, but instead it galvanized this manager. He sizes up his sorry state, and decides on a creative-but-reckless course of action.

Instead of putting his records in order, this shyster shrewdly “cooks the books” to ingratiate himself with those who owed debts to the rich man. “You owe my master 100 jugs of oil? Let’s write off half of that debt—make it fifty jugs of oil instead.”

And here’s where the story really gets interesting: because when the boss finds out how badly his manager has bilked him he commends him for his resolute, imaginative response—his daring shrewdness.

The manager epitomized that old saw, “strike while the iron is hot.” His master praised him for that--rather than calling the cops.

But why? What’s the point here?

At first glance, even Jesus seems to have been unsure about just what this story meant, as he heaped up all sorts of “morals” to the story—spun out various conclusions we might draw.

For my money, though, the first of these possible endings strikes just the right note: “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

So, for our day, what is it that the “children of this age” are so good at?

They’re good at telling their story, marketing their product, and making us want to buy.

• So, Capital One wants to know what’s in our wallets.

• And Geico makes taking out a second mortgage so easy a caveman can do it.

• And Verizon has this geeky guy and his whole network of support staff, who if we just purchase their cellphone package, are going to follow us around, wherever we go.

We know all those advertising campaigns and jingles forward and backward, and they make all that stuff—all that junk—so attractive and irresistible that we just have to have it.

And meanwhile, meanwhile, about the only person who ever mentions Lutherans on the national scene is Garrison Keillor every Saturday about 5 p.m. on National Public Radio. If you’re in the habit of listening to his Prairie Home Companion show, as I do, you may have noticed how all Mr. Keillor has to do is say the word “Lutheran” and the audience chuckles—not because we’re such wacky, edgy folks--but because we epitomize solidity and stability and utterly boring predictability.

We Lutherans have “safe and sensible” down pat. We’ve parlayed sanity and serenity into an art form. We are champions of inertia.

And meanwhile, all around us, persons are dying for some good news, a shred of hope, a word that might set them free and set their feet ‘a marching toward God’s bright future.

But we Lutherans act as if our feet are stuck in cement. We’re like junior high kids at their first dance….everyone standing shyly around the edge of the gym, waiting for someone else to step out on the dance floor and make the first move.

Dear friends, to each of us and to all of us together, I believe that our Lord Jesus has told this crazy parable to get us off our duffs. To learn something from this fraudulent manager—not about financial management—but about sizing up our moment, seizing our day and acting in a risky way for the sake of sharing God’s good news in Jesus Christ.

Goodness knows, we follow the greatest Risk-Taker of them all. Goodness knows Jesus our Lord went way out on a limb—for us!—when he took on our flesh, walked in our shoes, and made himself vulnerable to the worst humanity can dish out—even death on a cross, for us and for our salvation.

Talk about a scheme, a plan, that looked like it had no earthly chance for success!

But it did work, and it continues to work on you and me, this plan of God in Jesus Christ to do whatever it takes to win us for him, to bring us to repentance and newness of life, and to plant God’s kingdom of heaven, right here on earth.

So, how do we read the signs of our times? How do we size up things in our day, our world? We have neighbors who don’t know Jesus—what are we going to do about that? We have friends, even here in our congregation, who have just scratched the surface of the Christian life. How are we going to walk with them, deeper and deeper, into God’s Word and God’s mission?

I can’t tell you just exactly how to do it, though I think you’re taking some steps in the right direction…steps like offering your new “Jam Session with a Punch” and “Jacob’s Well” ministries on Wednesday evening. Giving those sorts of things a try tells me that you good Lutherans of Audubon aren’t stuck, that your feet are not set in cement, that you’re ready to venture out into your mission field with the Good News about Jesus Christ.

And, I truly think, you have taken another good step, by calling Pastor Dave Beety to hang around with you for a while longer. You know he came to you “on waivers,” but now you’ve been bright enough to offer him an open-ended Call. That’s the sort of thing that makes me think you’re pretty bright—you “children of light,” you!

So, this morning, together, we are striking while the iron is hot. We’re putting Pastor Betty in his place as your preacher, your shepherd and your guide…a path-finder toward God’s future in Jesus Christ. He will help you do the most important thing we 21st century Lutherans need to do: to overcome our centuries-long love affair with inertia, to get moving as the people of God….moving to places you may not have been, bearing the gospel where it needs to go.

Pastor Dave brings many good gifts, not the least of which is energy and what I call a “sanctified shrewdness” that will serve you all well.

God bless you as you “seal the deal” on this new partnership. God be with you as you keep your feet moving, following Jesus, the One who calls you and has made you to be children of light.

In the name of Jesus.