Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Life Overflowing: An Open Future

“When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” I Corinthians 15:54-58

The Ticking Clock

Always laboring under deadlines can be the pits. We work feverishly, grimly aware of the clock ticking the seconds away. The future feels threatening, hanging over our heads like a dark cloud. Will we run out of time?

Such is our fallen condition as human beings beset by sin, death and the power of the devil. As hard as we try to deny it, we are finite creatures of space and time. There’s an invisible expiration date stamped on each one of us. Time is against us. Sooner than we realize, the end of our days catches up to us.

Living in this way, our possibilities are limited—our future is closed. The Big Deadline relentlessly rushes toward us. “Time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our years away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the op’ning day.” (ELW #632)

Resetting the Clocks

But with Easter a new reality bursts into our time-bound lives. By raising up the crucified Jesus, God intervenes in the inexorable march of time-toward-death. The Resurrection is like Daylight Savings Time—we “spring ahead,” into God’s surprising future. Christ frees us from the tyranny of time.

When Jesus arose from the grave, God opened up an eternity of tomorrows—for Jesus, for all who belong to Jesus, and indeed for the whole creation. The Resurrection means that the future is fundamentally open—not closed. We come to see what, or rather Who, stands at the end of all things: the risen Christ who has death behind him, once and for all.

This, too, is part of the “life overflowing” that God graciously bestows upon us. God’s abundant gifts include the gift of time. The future comes back to us as a gift, not a burden—it is now, in Christ, a fundamentally open future.

What Comfort This Sweet Sentence Brings

We who live our days in the valley of the shadow of death find boundless comfort in the promise of the Resurrection. Because Jesus Christ is the “first fruits of those who have died” (I Cor. 15:20) we believe that all who die “in Christ” will also be raised by God who is making all things new (Revelation 21:5).

What would it be like not to live in this hope? Death would be The End. The grave would continually haunt us. The future would remain closed—a bleak “deadline “(accent on dead!) that would suck all the joy out of life.

But now, in the Resurrection of our Lord, we glimpse our own promised future. We mourn our loved ones who pass from us—but not as people who have no hope. We believe in a God who “plays for keeps,” from whose unfathomable love not even earthly death can separate us (Romans 8:38f).

New Creation Emerging from the Tomb

But the open future God lavishes upon us in Christ, the Risen One, isn’t just good news for our personal lives. There is a corporate dimension to God’s promised future. Easter is what makes God’s mission alive—calling forth our best gifts, our time, our substance, our passions and abilities.

This might seem counterintuitive. If God has taken care of our future, why should we care about what happens in the meantime? Some wags accuse Christians of being “so heavenly-minded as to be of no earthly use!”

This gets it all backwards, though. In I Corinthians 15, Paul speaks in one breath of the victory over death Christ has won….and in the very next breath calls us to excel “in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (I Cor. 15:58)

Bishop N.T. Wright of the Anglican Diocese of Durham (England) puts it this way: “When Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility. Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings themselves to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us as passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world.”

Present-Tense Jesus

People and congregations who’ve been grabbed by the Resurrection-reset of the clock start talking in strange ways. No longer is there even a hint of “good old (departed, absent) Jesus.” If we wear WWJD bracelets (as I mentioned in last month’s column), we know the letters stand for “What WILL Jesus Do?” That’s because Jesus is alive and well, right here, right now—alive in the Word, alive in the Sacraments, alive in all people who are “in Christ.”

So, though it makes some of us older Lutherans nervous, we speak in present-tense terms about God. People stop, look and listen—often!—and realize that God is up to something in our world. “God sightings” are reported, and “thank you, Jesus” is a prayer regularly uttered.

Can you see what a huge difference this makes for how we think, talk and act on God’s mission in the world? This mission sinks its hooks into us, it is real—the mission of naming and claiming all the ways God in Jesus Christ is making all things new, starting with you and me and everyone else who hungers to hear the Gospel. We think, speak and act in surprising ways because the Easter Surprise has dawned upon us. Because Jesus didn’t stay dead, the future—our future—is fundamentally open.

When my wife Joy and I visited India last autumn, we caught glimpses of this “present-tense Jesus” and his impact on the exuberant disciples of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church. Many of them are converts (or children of converts) from Hinduism, a religion that teaches a closed, cyclical view of time. The vast majority of Christ-followers were formerly Dalits (sometimes called “untouchables”) who were at the bottom of the social ladder in India, often stuck in dead-end jobs. No wonder the message of Jesus Christ crucified and risen is so enlivening and attractive for them! No wonder the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church—already India’s largest Lutheran church body—is growing!

But the risen Christ’s open future inspires mission efforts closer to home, too. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America program unit for Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission (EOCM) just announced that it will share the startup costs for a promising mission start in the Frazee-Vergas area. In partnership with Immanuel Lutheran Church of Osage, Pr. Phil Johnson will soon “work the soil,” visit prospective members, offer worship opportunities and plant a new mission outpost in our synod. Praise God for this and so many other mission ventures in our midst—all because “Christ has died. Christ is risen. [And] Christ will come again!”

In the Risen Christ,

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

Questions for reflection and discussion:

1. Tell about a time when you labored under a deadline. How did that affect your attitude, creativity and energy?

2. What difference does it make to you that, in Christ, the future is open? What difference does it make to your congregation?

3. How might our church’s life be different if we all spoke more regularly about Jesus in present-tense terms?

4. What mission venture is your congregation ready to embrace in this season of Easter?

This is the fourth of twelve 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, March 13, 2010

Jesus' Traveling Homecoming Party

Rodnes Lutheran Church, Erskine

Lent 4/March 14, 2010
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

This beloved parable of the Prodigal Son is a welcome change—wouldn’t you agree?—from the gospel lessons we’ve been hearing these last three Sundays. In the first three weeks in Lent Jesus has been tempted by the devil and threatened by King Herod. And Jesus has spoken of the grim reality that all of us—all of us—stand condemned under God’s suspended sentence, God’s righteous judgment.

These have been tough words to hear, slogging our way through Luke’s gospel….so this morning we’re more than ready for a little break, a respite, a chance to rest in a word of pure comfort and patient mercy.

And it would certainly seem that that’s what we find here in Luke 15. Having been trudging down the way to the Cross….this morning’s gospel text tells us to sit a spell, put our feet up and simply bask in God’s amazing grace.

This is one story we never tire of hearing. We never grow weary of recalling the prodigal son’s brief adventure in that far country, his wasted life, his remarkable turnaround, and then his joyful homecoming, into the arms of his waiting father--a parent determined to let bygones be bygones, to wipe the slate clean, to grant a totally fresh start.

Who could hear this story and not share in its joy?

Well, come to think of it, there is one person—right here in the story, in fact—who is not one bit happy. Our text says that he is so “angry” (v. 28), so incensed that he stubbornly stays out in the backyard, refusing to come to the big homecoming bash.

And, what’s worse, this man is “next of kin”--part of the family—another son of the same generous, waiting father—the older brother of the man who came in from the cold.

We might wish that the parable simply ended with verse 24 where it says: “And they began to make merry.” If the parable ended there, the loose ends would be tied up—the redemption complete.

But Jesus never set out to tell the tale of just one son.

No, when Jesus spun this yarn, he declared—from the beginning—that he was going to tell about “a man who had two sons” (v. 11) So if we pass by the elder brother, if we skip over the older son, we will have missed most of what Jesus wants to say here.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the elder son—his side of the story is really the linchpin in this parable. The redemption at the heart of this parable will be incomplete as long as the older son is still out in the backyard, huffing and puffing and refusing to come in to the homecoming.

Who is this elder brother?

He is the one who didn’t ask for his cut of the family fortune early.
He is the one who didn’t pack a knapsack and set off to see the world.
He is the one who didn’t squander his father’s treasure living like a party animal.
He is the one who didn’t spiral down, down, down to the degradation of slopping hogs— work no self-respecting Jew would ever consider doing.

Who is this elder brother?

He is the upright, upstanding, responsible child—most families have at least one of them! He is the one who fancied himself obedient to a fault (v. 29).

He is the one who delayed gratification, who worked like a dog for the success of the family farm.

The elder son is the one who set aside his own interests over long years of toiling for his father—the one who did everything right, kept his nose clean, lived by the rules…

….and, it would seem, resented every minute of it.

Notice, please how both sons have little “speeches” they work on and practice, waiting for just the right moment to deliver them to their father.

The younger son’s speech is his “I’ve hit rock bottom” confession of guilt, his desperate plea for undeserved mercy—“Dad, just let me come home, live in the barn, and be one of your hired hands…”

The elder son’s speech sounds very different. Starting in verse 29 he shows his true colors: “Listen! (he hurls the word at his father…) Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”

Who is this elder son? He’s the one who is at least as lost as his younger brother ever was. We might even say that the responsible son is more lost, more hopeless, more imperiled than the prodigal son was when he came to his senses in that pigpen.

The elder son may never have left home—physically, geographically—but he was light years away from home relationally, spiritually.

Who is this elder son? He is the one who cannot abide forgiveness for the irresponsible, the one who will not tolerate mercy shed on the undeserving. He is the one inside all of us who worries that somewhere, somehow, some good-for-nothing is going to get off the hook, scot-free.

Jesus told this parable of two sons, within earshot of the two sons themselves, as they had popped up along The Jesus Road. Listen again to the opening verses of Luke, chapter 15: “Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus]. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2).

There they were, the two sons, in the opening lines of this chapter.

First there were the “tax collectors and sinners.” Think of them as “younger sons.” Wayward ones. Folks facedown in the pigpen. Persons who had hit rock bottom and were trying to find their way back home.

Jesus told this parable of two sons in the presence of a bunch of “younger sons.”

And right alongside them was a peanut gallery filled with “elder sons”—the “Pharisees and scribes,” muttering under their breath: “This guy embraces notorious sinners and even breaks bread with them. Why--he’ll sit down at table with anyone!”

Jesus told this parable surrounded by younger sons, fresh back from losing it all in a far country—and also elder sons, huffing and puffing and refusing to come to the homecoming party Jesus brought with him wherever he went.

It makes you wonder whether in this place, too, there might be a whole company of younger sons (and daughters) along with elder sons (and daughters)--gathered right here, right now, this very morning, trying to make sense of this ancient story.

I think that is the case. And I bet most of us here need look no farther than the dynamics of our very own families, to find ourselves somewhere in this story.

Some among us could tell some great stories about being the black sheep of our families, wasting part of our lives, looking for adventure in all the wrong places. Some of us have hit rock bottom and (to borrow language from the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous) some of us have “admitted that we are powerless…and that our lives have become unmanageable.” (The First Step of AA)

Others of us have lived the life of the responsible elder child, the son or daughter who made our parents proud, kept her nose clean, fulfilled his duties—but perhaps never, never felt completely at home. Some of us, if we were painfully honest with ourselves, could say: “You need not go to a far country to get good and lost!”

And then there is Jesus, smack dab in the middle of it all—smack dab in the middle of this whole messed-up family. There, right there, is Jesus….welcoming sinners of all stripes, and eating with them.

Wherever Jesus went, wherever Jesus still goes, he brings with him a traveling homecoming party. Jesus declares that wherever you are—whether you’re face down in some barnyard or standing out in your own backyard, seething with old resentments—Jesus declares that wherever you are—the doors are open, the party is starting, and it won’t be the same without you.

For some, those are words of sweet, sweet restoration.

For others, those are fighting words—words to attack. In fact, at the end of his earthly journey, a bunch of elder sons did attack Jesus for welcoming everyone to his homecoming party. Those elder sons were so incensed with Jesus that they nailed him to a Cross—and for a time it looked as though they had silenced Jesus forever.

But then on the third day, a wild rumor was heard that he, Jesus, himself had come back from the far country of death, back to his family, back home—to make sure that the doors would never again be locked, but would remain always open to receive anyone and everyone who wants to come in out of the cold.

Dear friends, dear younger sons and daughters, dear elder daughters and sons alike: your Lord Jesus Christ bids you come to his homecoming party. Whether you come in the front door from some far country—or whether you sneak in by the back door--there’s a place set for each of you.

Come in from the cold and join the celebrating.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Life Overflowing: Vocation

Life Overflowing: Vocation

Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:17

The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Frederick Buechner

God’s abundance meets us in the Word—incarnated in Jesus, proclaimed in preaching, falling from the pages of the transforming Book. This same abundance washes over us in Baptism and gets down deep inside us in the Supper. And God’s amazing abundance also flows through us, into the life of the world, primarily through the gift of vocation.

“Vocation” includes our work or profession, but only as one small part of a larger whole. In truth, God calls (vocare is the Latin term) us in all sorts of ways, roles and “stations” in life. This all-encompassing understanding of vocation was one of Martin Luther’s great gifts to the world. And yet it often seems like a hidden treasure, right under our noses—one of the gems we Lutheran disciples have silently squirreled away in our treasure chest. It’s time to bring vocation out into the light of day—to appreciate the multitude of ways it, too, is a means whereby Christ’s life overflows through our down-to-earth callings.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) re-introduced the church to the fullness of “vocation” in the life of every baptized believer.

Comes With the Territory

The first thing to be said about our vocation is that it’s a given—not an accomplishment. Like all good things, it is God’s doing. The background of vocation has to do with how God has put together the whole creation. In the words of a favorite confirmation textbook, “God has designed the creation in such a way that we all wind up [helping and] trading with other people.” Even if we don’t want to have anything to do with others, life leaves us little choice in the matter. Just by going about our business, we will inevitably help out others.

When we are baptized into Christ Jesus, however, this way the creation is structured comes back to us as a beautiful gift. It’s not just that circumstances compel us to help others—but God calls us to this good work, in whatever ways we do it.

In the Middle Ages, the word “vocation” was reserved for persons set-apart for the religious life: priests, monks, and nuns. But Martin Luther, as he rediscovered the goodness of the gospel, boldly spoke of the vocations of all the baptized: “Whoever comes out of the water of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop and pope.”

Everywhere We Look

Not only are we all called to service in our baptism, but this call of God keeps getting repeated in our lives, whichever way we turn. If you think you maybe got missed when God came calling—guess again! “Just look at your tools—at your needle or thimble, your beer barrel, your goods, your scales or yardstick or measure,” write Luther. “All this is continually crying out to you: ‘Friend, use me in your relations with your neighbor just as you would want your neighbor to use his property in his relations with you.’”

Our vocation in Christ encompasses all our roles and relationships—those that are public and those that are more private. Again, in the words of Martin Luther: “How is it possible that you are not called? You have…always been a husband or a wife, a boy or a girl, or servant…Are you a husband, and you think you have not enough to do in that sphere to govern your wife, children, domestics, and property so that all may be obedient to God and you do no one any harm? Yea, if you had five heads and ten hands, even then you would be too weak for your task, so that you would never dare to think of making a pilgrimage or doing any kind of saintly work.”

Infiltrating the World

You have to hand it to God: our down-to-earth vocation is a great way for God to do vital business in the world! We could even say that through our vocations we Christians “infiltrate” the world around us. That’s why Luther sometimes spoke of our vocations as one of the “masks” God wears to fulfill his purposes. Or, even more colorfully, “God milks the cows through the vocation of the milk maids.”

“God milks the cows through the vocation of the milkmaids.”

All of this is true, even when a Christian doesn’t breathe a word to his or her neighbor about Jesus. But imagine what happens when, in the natural connections and relationships of life, we employ our baptismal vocation to “name the name” of our hope, in Jesus!

When Joy and I traveled in India, visiting our companion synod last autumn we met not only some wonderful church workers, but also some inspiring laity who fulfilled their vocations by serving God in daily life. I think of our local tour guide, Dr. Patta Deva Raj, a teacher and school principal who now is offering his retirement to the work of the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church—like many other ordinary Christians we encountered.

Bishop Suneel Bhanu Busi (left) and Dr. Patta Deva Raj (right) greet Bishop Larry at the airport in Vishakapatnam, India

In recent years lots of people have taken to wearing WWJD bracelets, standing for “What would Jesus do?” Unfortunately, that’s the wrong question! To ask, “What would Jesus do?” implies that Jesus is a figure of the past—“Good old Jesus. He was a great guy. I wonder what he’d do if he were here?”

But Jesus is here. Jesus isn’t gone or forgotten. He is alive, right now, very present among us. In fact, Jesus lives in us and through us. The more exciting question is: “What will Jesus (in you, through me) do?” Jesus lives and acts in our world, through the callings we carry out as sisters and brothers of our Lord. This reality is what’s behind our wonderful ELCA tagline: God’s work. Our hands.

The Bitter With the Sweet

All of this makes the notion of vocation sound mighty appealing. But there is a downside in this—Luther called it the “cross” in our vocations. As we are faithful to all the roles, relationships and stations we occupy we will inevitably run into obstacles and suffer in some way, at some time. This is true even for the vocation of being a parent, as Luther observed: “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself?”

When we find that our callings bring drudgery or boredom with them, we wonder whether they’re worth it. This too, is God’s work in us—reducing our pride, cutting us down to the right size, opening us up to look to God (not ourselves!) for all good things. And then our vocations return to us as the gifts they were always meant to be. Once again, in Luther’s colorful way of saying it: “O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight.”

Monday Through Saturday

Whenever I preach in one of the congregations of our synod, I begin by greeting the worshippers on behalf of all their synodical sisters and brothers in Christ. And I thank them for their partnership—starting with all the ways they bear the light of Christ into the world in their Monday through Saturday lives. That is my way of saying something about our vocation, through which God is always coming up with new ways to embrace the world in his care, mercy and overflowing life.

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, NW MN Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For further reflection or discussion:

1. Playing off fhe Frederick Buechner quote at the beginning of the article, what’s one place in your life where your deep gladness and the world’s deep need have come together?

2. What are some ways your congregation already is helping people realize that God is at work in their daily lives, infiltrating the world with his grace and favor?

3. How could your congregation help disciples of the Lord Jesus expand their understanding and appreciation of their baptismal vocations?

This is the third of twelve 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.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Fox and the Hen

Bethlehem/West Elbow Lake Lutheran Church, Elbow Lake
Lent 2/February 28, 2010
Luke 13:31-35

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

When we think of Jesus, chances are that “danger” isn’t the first word that pops into our heads.

We don’t picture Jesus as someone who courted danger, flirted with danger or spit in the face of danger.

To link “Jesus” and “danger” we’d have to revise how we conceive of Jesus. We’d have to alter the common notion that Jesus was mainly soft, passive, eager to live and let live. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon Thy little child…”

Here in these few verses from Luke 13 another Jesus steps forward. The Jesus we meet here is one tough customer.

Having set his face like flint toward Jerusalem and the Cross, Jesus resolutely pursues his path—knowing where he’s heading, why he’s heading there and what’s going to happen there. Jesus is a man on a mission!

And then along the way, some guys try to derail him: “Get away from here,” they whisper—“for Herod wants to kill you.”

The “Herod” they spoke of was Herod Antipas who ruled over Galilee, at the pleasure of the Roman emperor. He was one in a whole line of “Herods”—penny-ante politicians whose main goal was to keep things on an even keel in their petty little kingdoms.

Having dispatched one rabble-rouser, John the Baptist, Herod Antipas was apparently ready to “take out” someone else who was stirring up mischief. But friends catch wind of this and warn Jesus to make himself scarce. Dangers surround Jesus—he needs to hide.

Which is why Jesus’ response seems, at first, so surprising. Bristling at the warning he has just received, Jesus shoots back with a defiant tone: “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.’”…

Herod Antipas thought highly of himself. Herod fancied himself a lion—the king of beasts, a noble ruler of his realm.

But Jesus saw another animal when he imagined Herod. He was no majestic lion, in Jesus’ opinion. Herod was on a par with the lowly fox--a barnyard predator, an egg-sucking varmint, a critter that raids hen houses.

It’s as if Jesus told those who had warned him: “Go and tell that no-good polecat, Herod, that I will not alter my itinerary just because his nose is out of joint. I have work to accomplish. I will proceed in my own way, according to my own timetable. I will run my course”—says Jesus—“and I will reach the finish line in Jerusalem.”

Pretty “in your face,” wouldn’t you agree? Pretty audacious of Jesus, to turn Herod’s threat around and hurl it right back at him!

The Jesus who steps forward here in Luke 13 stands in sharp contrast to all those “soft, sweet” pictures we have of him. This Jesus is no milquetoast, no “doormat” sort of personality. Here’s a Jesus we need to get to know--to stand in contrast with “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon Thy little child.”

And yet, and yet….we need to be careful precisely at this point.

Because Jesus isn’t engaging in a little Dirty Harry “make my day” bravado, here. Jesus isn’t playing the part of a tough guy. Jesus’ response to Herod tells us something much, much deeper than that.

Jesus, in his fearless response to the danger in Herod’s threat, reveals the depth of his determination to go to the Cross for you and me and all people.

Jesus has a race to run, he’s on a road to a finish line—and he will let no one or no thing keep him from it. Dangers dot the landscape, like roadside bombs in Afghanistan. But Jesus is not cowed by them. Jesus cares for much more than saving his own skin.

Jesus’ willingness to face dangers speaks volumes about his determination.

And what is Jesus absolutely determined to do?

He is determined to gather all people unto himself. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…”

In these words Jesus seems to shift from toughness to tenderness. One minute he’s calling King Herod a fox. Now Jesus describes himself as a cluck hen, perched on a nest, fervently gathering up all her chicks. This is who Jesus is, too—not just a tough guy, determined to run his course.

Here, in the image of the hen and her chicks, we see why Jesus was so determined. We behold the object of his determination: the gathering, the coming-together, of all people, under the shelter of his wings—even, even those who resist him! Jesus wants even them to come in from the storm, to take shelter in his nest: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

So who actually is Jesus here in Luke 13? The tough guy, telling off Herod? Or the mother hen, clucking to the chicks? Or are these two seemingly opposite views of Jesus closer to each other than we might think?

A mother hen, after all, is nothing if not determined—determined to gather her brood, tuck them under her wings, and protect them for all she’s worth. “Chicken” may connote “coward,” to us, but spend some time on a farm and you’ll observe that a mother hen won’t hesitate to attack a predator, with sharp beak pecking and claws flying! Cluck hens have died from attacks by foxes and other predators rather than abandon their nests. Mother hens have stayed on their nests, even when fire sweeps through the chicken coop.

Mother hens can be tough customers, too!

And why? All for the sake of protecting the weak. All for the sake of sheltering the little ones. All for love.

If Jesus is not cowed by danger here, if he is determined to run his course, it is all for us, all for the human family—including even resisters like Herod “the fox.” Jesus does not shirk his assignment to gather all people unto himself, under the shadow of his Cross.

The road Jesus traveled was fraught with danger. Opponents like Herod “put contracts out” on Jesus. It mattered not to him. He was bound and determined to love us all—to love us to the end.

And where does that leave us, who also travel The Jesus Road, today? None of us will be ambushed by snipers on our way home from worship this morning. No one is “out there” threatening to kill us because we belong to Jesus. (Though there are Christians in our world who do face such dangers—and we would do well to remember them, speak up for them and pray for them!)

No, if we face dangers because we follow Jesus, they are usually dangers of our own making.

Let me mention just one of them—the danger that comes from AVOIDING danger at all cost. Being overly cautious, shying away from risks of any kind—there is great spiritual danger in that, for you and me.

I’m speaking of the danger of doing little or nothing, lest we rock the boat. Avoiding all risk, we are found to be faithless by our risk-taking Lord.

When you and I hold back from risky ventures like speaking of our faith or standing alongside someone who’s marginalized or giving so generously that we have to alter our lifestyle—when, instead, we play everything cool and cautious, we miss the adventure that the life of faith is meant to be.

When we are so fearful of failing or making a mistake that we never try anything new—we give way to the danger of avoiding danger at all costs. We feed the notion that the church is utterly harmless and of no account.

Our son-in-law used to be a wrestler at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Several years ago we got to see him wrestle up in Moorhead, at MSUM. As I observed how the wrestlers went after each other, each one seeking advantage over the other—it dawned on me that a wrestler, in order to win, has to risk the possibility of losing. When two wrestlers face off in the center of the mat, sooner or later, one of them has to venture out—to get momentarily off-balance in order to try throwing the other guy off-balance.

I love that line from Eleanor Roosevelt, who said: “Do one thing every day that scares you.”

Christian faith and life is about so much more than not rocking the boat, avoiding risks and dangers, all so that we can arrive at death’s door--safe and sound.

Christian faith and life is, at its best, a high adventure, following our determined, risk-taking Lord who willingly walked the road of danger for you, for me and for all people.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Ending Poverty in Minnesota

Minnesota Without Poverty Event

February 27, 2010
Centrum, Concordia College, Moorhead

Thank you for being here. It’s a privilege for me to participate in this evening, representing over 100,000 Lutherans here in northwestern Minnesota….lending my support for this grassroots, statewide movement pursuing the goal of making poverty in Minnesota a thing of the past.

Digging into my own faith tradition as a follower of Jesus Christ, I’m reminded of three ways Jesus approached the perennial issue of poverty:

1. Jesus lived as one for whom talking the talk was never a substitute for walking the walk. It’s been said that Jesus spoke more often about wealth and poverty issues than he did about prayer….but he never was content with “mere words.” Jesus moved toward the poor, sought out those on the edge, embraced hardscrabble lives, rubbed elbows with those at the end of their ropes.

a. And it is in the spirit of Jesus that you and I have a chance in these next ten years to walk the walk by pursuing the concrete, realistic steps that fill this legislative report.

b. I am particularly struck in this vision by its thoroughgoing emphasis on accountability. If this vision succeeds, as I trust it will, it will be because it challenges us to monitor our efforts and hardwire into the fabric of our state concrete means of accountability for the common good of all who call Minnesota home.

2. Second, Jesus was forever conniving ways to widen the circle. It’s a little like when we were children, playing a circle game, and needing to stretch that circle out—make it wider, more permeable, more open to include all sorts of folks.

a. We who love and live in Minnesota have a long-standing bias toward “widening the circle,” following in the footsteps of great bi-partisan leaders like the late Hubert Humphrey and the lateElmer L. Anderson….we’re always finagling ways to “widen the circle.”

b. I see that impulse played out in this vision which is such a comprehensive vision, recognizing in so many ways that the call to end poverty is too important to be a Democratic or a Republican issue. What gives me hope in this vision is the fact that it draws upon the best wisdom from all points on the political compass….there is so much here that can energize all people of goodwill.

3. Third, I recall all the ways that Jesus lived in boundless hope. Jesus continually called people, you and me, to live into God’s preferred future….a future in which Kleenex won’t be necessary because tears will no longer flow, a future in which justice will no longer seem like a pipe dream, and a future in which God will be all in all--surrounded by a redeemed humanity and a new creation.

a. As I read this vision, I am struck by the fact that it’s short on band-aids and quick fixes and long on visionary, far-sighted thinking. This vision of a Minnesota Without Poverty has “legs” under it, because it commits us all to the long haul together…and it gives us ways to let God’s future draw us forward.

b. I appreciate the careful ways this vision reminds us that our understandable concern for the momentarily urgent, dare not displace our “in-this-for-the-long-haul” need to attend to all that is profoundly important-- the vital, the structural and infrastructural ways that God’s preferred future is already embracing us and leading us and all God’s children toward a hope-filled tomorrow.