Saturday, June 26, 2010

No Turning Back

Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929)

Balsamlund, Elmo and Messiah Churches—Wadena, MN
June 27, 2010
Luke 9:51-62

"When the days drew near for him to be taken up, [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.

57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

When Jesus makes his mind up to do something, there’s no standing in his way. When Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem”—don’t even think of raising objections, slowing him down or throwing obstacles in his way. It will only delay him….and that Jesus will not tolerate!

At first glance it might seem that Jesus has a perverse “death wish” here in these verses from Luke chapter 9. Why is he so determined to die? Why is he so focused on wrapping his arms around the Cross that’s awaiting him in Jerusalem? Is Jesus on a suicide mission or something?

Jesus does have a death wish—but it’s about more than his own personal death. Jesus’ death is just the beginning—the beginning of the End of this old age. Jesus is eager to embrace death, all right—he can’t wait for it: the death of all that will die when he breathes his last.

Jesus is eager for the death of sin and its grim stranglehold over us. When Jesus dies, sin dies. Sin loses its grip on us. Sin’s reign over us is finished. Jesus wants that so badly that he can almost taste it here in this gospel lesson.

Jesus is ready, too, for the death of the devil—the demise of the Evil One who is always cooking up new schemes to make us miserable. Jesus can’t wait to “take him down” at the Cross—to say “enough” to the One who creates sickness and strife and storms like the one that swept through your area a week ago this past Thursday.

Jesus looks forward, with deep longing, to the death of death itself. Jesus hungers for the day when death will no longer have the last word over us. By willingly, freely dying for us, Jesus means to rob death of its power in our lives, and he can’t wait for that to happen.

So, because of all that, Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” eager to take up his Cross and embrace the death that will bring an end to all our worst enemies—sin, death and the power of the devil.

Jesus can’t wait to stretch out his arms in love for the whole human family, in compassion for the whole creation that God intends to make new. Jesus hungers for that…so he must be off….and though he welcomes company along the way, he has no room for laggards, slowpokes, or “ditherers”….certainly no room for anyone who is torn between this dying old age and the New Age of God’s Kingdom that is surely coming.

So here in this gospel we see two things playing out, simultaneously, side-by-side. We see Jesus rushing toward the fullness of God’s Kingdom….rushing toward God’s New Creation…..and as Jesus hastens headlong toward all of that….he brushes up against persons who are still caught up in, still enamored by this old dying age

His own closest followers—James and John--are eager for a little here-and-now “payback”…ready to call down fire on a Samaritan village that wasn’t getting with the program.

Wanna-be disciples approach Jesus and say that they’re with him….but first, but first they have to attend to some dealings with this old age. They’ve caught a whiff of what Jesus is up to….they’ve captured a sense that it’s about moving forward, straining ahead….and yet they’re still stuck in this tired dying age that is passing away. Some are stuck in real estate deals, others are entangled in family matters. Still others have funerals to attend—they’re stuck in the good and upright obligations that make up the fabric of our daily lives.

And Jesus can’t be bothered with any of that.

Jesus is already living with one foot fully in the Kingdom. Jesus is rushing toward Jerusalem because, in a sense, he has already left this old dying world behind. Jesus is the man--God’s man of the future.

That’s, I think, how we will best make sense out of this peculiar gospel lesson. Jesus isn’t so much giving us practical tips on how to follow him. Jesus is impressing upon us the urgency of life lived in a new key—the urgency of embracing God’s Kingdom of Life, which means starting to shuck off all the things that still chain us to this old age, which is already passing away.

I think that Jesus puts his finger on what he’s looking for in the very last verse of this gospel lesson, when he says this: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Now there’s an image that those of us who live on farms, grew up on farms, or hang around farmers can make sense of.

When I was a country boy growing up in southern Minnesota, I operated all the implements on our farm, except two. I never “graduated” to running the combine at harvest time….and I never was allowed to operate the planter in the spring. Those were Dad’s duties, Dad’s jobs—and he didn’t trust anyone else to do them right.

Garrison Keillor likes to say that farming is a spectator sport, and when I was growing up that was true in spades. My dad vied with all his neighbors for the reputation of having the straightest rows of corn and soybeans in Blue Earth County!

But there’s only one way to make that happen—and that’s to keep looking ahead, lining up that little ridge on the hood of the tractor that pulled the planter—lining up that ridge with the marker in the dirt that had been laid down by the planter on its last pass through the field.

No looking back. You can’t get to your destination, your future—you can’t get there by gazing in the rear-view mirror.

It’s all about scanning the horizon, heading toward the future, looking ahead, says Jesus.

And that holds true for us still, today. Because Jesus stuck to his guns, held his course, and made his way to Jerusalem—for us and for our salvation.

Jesus died for us—and when he did that he buried in his grave all the things that suck the life out of us.

• Jesus buried sin, Jesus swept away all that turns us in on ourselves.

• Jesus buried the devil, all the dark powers we can’t explain that wreak havoc in our world.

• Jesus buried death itself, in his own grave. Jesus defanged death forever.

And on the first Easter, when Jesus burst out of the tomb, he opened up God’s future for us and for the whole creation. In his resurrection Jesus set our faces toward that future. No looking back. Only ahead!

The problem, of course, is that you and I aren’t fully “there” yet. Sin still clings to us. Sickness and strife and storms still break out among us. The devil still prowls around like a roaring lion—a mortally wounded lion I might add!—but a lion nonetheless, who still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

And although we may have one foot in God’s coming kingdom, the other foot is firmly planted in this old, dying world. We still have to have a roof over our heads—or for some of us, after the tornado—we need to get a roof back over our heads. We’ve still got deals to seal. We still need to put our Sunday duds on and head off to the funeral home, on occasion. The Kingdom hasn’t arrived yet fully.

But despite all that--even now, we can, we will live our lives differently because we belong to Jesus and his wild way in the world.

We live our lives trusting that sin, death and the devil are defeated—they just don’t know it yet. We carry on our dealings in and with this world, but fully aware that none of those things are “final” for us—none of them are the “real deal”—the ultimate reality or goal of our lives.

St. Paul, in a memorable passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, puts it about as well as anyone could say it—what it’s like for us who follow Jesus toward God’s future, even as we live with one foot still in this old age that is passing away. Paul writes: “29I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” (I Corinthians 7:29-31)

Sadhu Sundar Singh came to be known a century ago as the Apostle of Christ to India. Raised in the Sikh religion, he had a wondrous vision of Jesus, just hours before he intended to kill himself by stepping in front of a train. For Singh, the old world truly passed away, when Christ came into his life, and he lived the rest of his days inviting other Indians to follow Jesus. We remember Singh for a simple song that he wrote, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” including this stanza that flows right out of our gospel lesson for this morning.

The world behind me, the cross before me;

The world behind me, the cross before me;

The world behind me, the cross before me;

No turning back, no turning back.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Grow and Go!

Grow and Go: Five “Takes” on a Great Theme

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
June 12, 2010 at Calvary, Perham

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Thanks so much for inviting Joy and me to be with you. We love being part of these annual SWO Conventions.

Thanks, as well, for all the ways you Women of the ELCA are partners in doing God’s work with our hands. I especially want to thank the SWO for the generous gift of $2000 to the synod fund for mission during the tight economic times we’ve been facing. You helped keep our synod strong and moving forward in God’s work.

What a great theme you have chosen for this convention: Grow and Go! Just three little words….but boy, do they pack a punch. “Grow and Go!” That’s enough to keep us out of mischief until the day we die!

Grow and Go: a short, snappy theme…..summing up an enormous, life-stretching way of life!

As I prepared to preach this morning, though, I realized that I had material for at least five sermons….and I was pretty sure that preaching five sermons might throw the whole convention schedule off kilter.

So what I’d like to do instead is offer you five quick “takes” on your theme…five nuggets, five thoughts about this rich theme you have chosen for your convention. Here goes…

TAKE ONE: “Go? And Grow?” Yes, it’s OK…Lutherans can talk this way!

Surprise! Lutherans sometimes get nervous around words like “Grow and Go.” Why? Because they’re verbs aimed at you and me….imperatives, commands we’re asked to take seriously.

But why be nervous about that? Because we Lutherans are most comfortable when God “has the verbs,” when we’re focusing on what God does to save us, 100% by God’s grace, for Jesus’ sake….while we simply drink it in.

God gives. We receive. Easy as that.

Talk about “good works,” and Lutherans grow anxious. Back during the Reformation of the 16th century, one of Luther’s buddies even wondered out loud whether good works might be detrimental to our salvation.

So we get nervous around words like “Go and Grow”…even though the Bible is filled with such verbs, even though Paul (the original justification-by-grace guy!)….even though Paul can speak quite naturally in our second lesson about our growing “up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (v. 15)

“Grow? And Go?” Can Lutherans talk this way without placing God’s grace at risk? Or course we can, simply because any growing we do and any going we attempt are also God’s gifts to us--lavished upon us, for the sake of God’s mission for which we are saved to serve.

Eugene Peterson puts it this way: “What we know about God and what we do for God have a way of getting broken apart in our lives. The moment the organic unity of belief and behavior is damaged in any way, we are incapable of living out the full humanity for which we were created. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians joins together what has been torn apart in our sin-wrecked world.” (Practice Resurrection, p. 30)

TAKE TWO: Grow and Go! It’s not either/or. It’s both/and.

As I travel around our synod, engaging with servants of Christ in our congregations….one of the craziest things I hear goes like this: “Mission is fine, but we have to take care of our own, first.” Or, they could just as easily say: We must grow (as individuals)…and if we get around to, we’ll go.

I’m always nervous when anyone treats these as either-ors….either we grow the Christians we already have (we sometimes call that “nurture”); or else we go and invite others into life with Christ (we sometimes call that “outreach”).

What I like about your theme is that it weds these two realities together….like two sides of the same coin. And I know that you Women of the ELCA “get it”—that growing and going are “both/and” activities that characterize a living, breathing, “reproducing” Body of Christ.

TAKE THREE: Go and Grow….Switching the Order “Works” Too!

There’s at least chronological “sense” to the order of those words as you have them in your theme: Grow and Go!

Obviously, for all of us who are followers of Jesus Christ, after we are joined to Christ, first there is some growing that we need to do….growing that we will do, as the seed of faith takes root, blossoms, and puts forth shoots and fruits in the world.

But such growth is never just for us or for our benefit. The one who grows in Christ will inevitably be the one who goes with Christ into the world, sent out to bear the Word wherever you go.

So having grown, we feel equipped to go…and there’s a certain logic to that, too.

But it also “works” the other way around…..sometimes the going precedes, indeed triggers, the growing.

If you want to learn how to swim, first get out of the boat. Go into the water, and watch how you’ll grow as a swimmer….the going pushing the growing.

I think of our friends at Immanuel Lutheran of Osage. A while back their own dwelling in God’s Word triggered a curiosity about their neighbors. They ran off 500 brochures, inviting their neighbors to some events at their church—but when they started delivering those brochures and meeting their neighbors, they discovered they had three times as many neighbors as they thought they did--many of them without a church home.

Their “going” at Immanuel church led to their “growing” into a mission partnership with a new ELCA outreach ministry in the Frazee-Vergas area. If you go, if you venture out of your comfort zone, you may grow in ways you never imagined!

TAKE FOUR: Grow and go and grow and go and grow and go….a rhythm over a lifetime

Growing and going, once established in our lives of faith, morph into a regular rhythm of life….”a long obedience in the same direction,” to borrow another phrase from Eugene Peterson.

There is nothing instant about this way of life…it is life lived over the long haul.

Something like that is envisioned in our first lesson from Deuteronomy, where Moses invites the children of Israel—on the cusp of the Promised Land—to take a long view of their life under God. Faith isn’t so much an instant, “microwave” thing…as it is a long, slow-cooking “crockpot” thing. So, Moses tells his people, “Recite [these words] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem* on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

Are you born again? A good Lutheran response is: “Yes, when I was baptized into Christ I was born again. And it has continued every day since—I am born again and again and again and again…”

Are you growing and going? Though sometimes it feels like “two steps forward, three steps backward”….God’s grace is always growing, moving in upon us. God’s new creation is always going, advancing toward us, from the future, into this moment… in Christ is a continual growing and going and growing and going.

TAKE FIVE: “You All” Grow and Go. It’s a “Together” Thing.

The Greek language in which our New Testament is written is so much more textured and colorful than our mother tongue. In English, verbs just are—they indicate action by or for “whoever”—you, me, us, them—whoever.

But in the Greek of the New Testament….verbs also describe who engages in the action, who is commanded to act.

And these words, “grow and go” are plural in the Greek. We might translate them: YOU ALL Grow….YOU ALL Go.

These gifted activities of God in our lives are too vital to be carried out individually. God invites and empowers us to grow and go, always in the company of others.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus sends out his 70 disciples in such Spartan fashion because he is counting on them running into allies along the way. There may be wolves out there in the mission field—but there are also other lambs out there. Jesus’ representatives can “pack light” because he’s assuming that others will help them, supply their wants, look after their needs…

….all of which is to say that “growing and going” in Jesus’ name is always a group endeavor; discipleship is inherently communal. It’s a “we” thing, not a “me” thing. Following Jesus is something we do best when we do it together.

God bless you today with the gifts of growing and going…a “both/and” reality….a lively rhythm of life…a venturing forth together, rooted in God’s Word, serving God’s mission, infiltrating God’s world for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Gary Lutheran Church, Gary, MN

125th Anniversary Worship on June 13, 2010
2 Samuel 11:26 - 12:15; Luke 7:36-8:3

I love to do word-associations. You know: hear a word and then say the first thing that pops into your head.

If you hear “Gotcha,” what comes to mind first?

I think of the infamous “gotcha question.” You know—a question designed to trick you into saying something you don’t really want to say.

A classic “gotcha question” goes like this: Have you stopped beating your spouse yet? Just answer with a yes or a no, please!

The problem is that no matter how you answer that question, you’re going to look bad: GOTCHA!

News reporters just love to ask aspiring politicians “gotcha questions”--questions designed to take someone down a notch—questions calculated to generate a headline.

Gotcha questions…most of them, anyway….can really have a mean edge to them. Most “gotcha questions” tend to stunt growth and cut off conversation.

And yet….and yet there are “gotcha” questions that can actually help us, bring us to deeper insight into ourselves….and lead us to grow….

We hear a couple of these sorts of gotcha questions in our lessons for today. Interestingly, both times we hear gotcha questions in these texts, they arise from parables that are told—parables that illuminate what is going on in someone’s life, parables that invite their hearers to “dive deeper” into the dark side of human nature…all in service to hearing a new, fresh word of grace and forgiveness.

First there is the conclusion to the familiar story of David and Bathsheba, from II Samuel. We know the tawdry details that have brought us to this point….David’s decision to stay home rather than leaving town with his army….his voyeuristic “noticing” of his gorgeous neighbor, Bathsheba, taking an open air bath….and the subsequent acts of adultery, murder and coverup. The plotline of the story is as old as the hills and as fresh as the latest fare on HBO or the silver screen.

But the untangling of this sordid web of sin—the untangling is what we see in our First Lesson—a masterpiece of detective work that would make for a great episode of Law and Order (assuming, of course, that the prophet Nathan had first read David his Miranda Rights!).

The prophet comes to David, and instead of leading with an indictment, he spins a yarn about two men—one of them wealthy beyond measure, the other man poor as a church mouse. When the rich man has company come to visit, instead of slaughtering one of his many sheep, he abducts and dispatches the poor man’s lone little ewe lamb.

It’s such a gripping story that Nathan can’t even get to the ending of it; King David interrupts, in a fury, issuing his own verdict for such a weasel: “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die….”

And that was all it took for Nathan to reply: “Gotcha! Take a good look in the mirror—you are the man.” What a piece of work that story is….and what a conviction Nathan won….as we see and hear every Ash Wednesday, with David’s confession, Psalm 51 on our lips!

Some “gotcha” questions are good for us, don’t you know? Some “gotcha” questions bring us up short, catch us in the act, convict us and cause us to see ourselves for who we really are.”

Something very similar happens in our Gospel lesson from Luke 7. Again, the scene is familiar—a great banquet in the home of a hospitable Pharisee, with Jesus the guest of honor. But then in the midst of the celebrating, a notorious woman lets herself in and makes a royal fuss over Jesus….sobbing and letting her tears fall on Jesus’ feet and wiping his feet with her hair and anointing him with precious oil.

Before the Pharisees can get a good grumble going, Jesus says that he has a story to tell—a story about two men who were “under water” in debt….one of them owing a month and a half’s worth of wages, the other owing ten times that amount.

Both men, astonishingly, have their debts completely written off by their creditor. “Now which of them will love him [the creditor] more?” Jesus asks….and you get the impression that Simon the Pharisee feels a noose tightening around his neck as he stammers out his answer: “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.”

And Jesus says: “You have judged rightly…” though he could just as soon have said: “Gotcha!” Because Simon didn’t just fall off the turnip truck yesterday. He knew he was in Jesus’ crosshairs, set up by that question for an uncomfortable, but ultimately transformative comparison to the notorious unnamed woman….whose love far outstripped his own, love that flowed forth from a forgiveness that had freed the woman from a load of sin.

There are “gotcha” questions that aren’t just parlor games or weapons in verbal sparring matches. There are “gotcha” questions that can, indeed, signal the end of the old in our lives….paving the way for something new….as happened to David of old and as happened to Simon the Pharisee, shamed by a woman whom everyone knew though no one named.

But even these “meet, right and salutary” gotcha questions can only take us so far. When with David and Simon we are brought up short, our flaws laid bare, our guilt exposed….how do we find our way home from that? Where do we turn for the new life we know we need?

Gotcha questions—even good, well-intentioned ones—can’t “deliver the goods.” We need something more, something better, something completely different.

We need the “gotcha” promise of the only One who can take us home….the barrier-breaking, future-opening, grace-overflowing “Gotcha” that has not a question mark, but an exclamation mark attached to it.

“I gotcha,” God says to us. “I gotcha….I got your back…in fact I’ve got your everything—back, front, top, bottom and everything in-between. I’ve got your sins covered, your guilt neutralized, your shame removed, your future assured in Jesus Christ.”

There’s the “gotcha” we’ve been waiting for.

David, old scallywag that he was….miserable cheating, lying, conniving, power-abuser that he was….even David heard the “gotcha” promise of his long-suffering God. David who uttered his own death sentence, and deservedly so!---heard these sweet, completely undeserved words: “The LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Gotcha, David!

And that unnamed woman in Luke 7, she too heard it, straight from Jesus own lips: “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Gotcha, sister!

And—thank the Lord—you and I have heard that same gotcha promise in our lives, more than once. Indeed that’s what keeps us coming back again and again and again to places like this.

For 125 years Gary Lutheran Church, has been a place where God’s great “gotcha” promise in Jesus Christ has been uttered and grasped and believed and shared.

Think of it—for the last 6500 weeks, Sunday after Sunday, the faithful have gathered here to listen to God’s Word for the lost, a Word aimed right at sinners who need a Savior, doubters just dying to hear God’s “gotcha” promise.

Imagine it—picture the hundreds of baptisms that have splashed persons in this promise…count up the thousands of persons who have come to this altar to eat and drink in this promise, God’s “gotcha” forever, in Jesus Christ.

Ever since 1885…ever since that year when the Washington Monument was dedicated, when the first rabies vaccine was tested, when Grover Cleveland first became president….ever since 1885 this congregation has been one of God’s best “gotcha” places here in Norman County, Minnesota.

You have gathered here this morning to savor a host of memories about this church.

You’ve come together for a delicious time of remembering that giant cheering section of saints who have come and gone from this congregation.

All of that is good—very good!

But the greatest thing about this anniversary day…and the most wondrous thing about Gary Lutheran Church is that God has kept showing up here for 125 years….as your anniversary theme verse from Zephaniah 3 puts it: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst…” God’s gotcha and God’s not going to let you go, either.

Moreover, God intends to keep uttering his “gotcha” promise for years to come.

Gary Lutheran’s proud history is worth celebrating today, not least because it’s such a great launching pad for the next 125 years….during which time you and others who will follow you will continue to live, breathe and be sent into the world to proclaim this promise: “God’s gotcha…God’s got your back….God’s got a hold of us forever….The Lord, our God, is in our midst and that, finally, is all that matters.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Life Overflowing: Material Wealth

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability….” Matthew 25:14-30

One Sunday morning Pastor Olson told his congregation that he had bad news, good news and bad news for them.

“Here’s the first bad news,” said the pastor. "Our church’s furnace has died and needs to be replaced immediately."

“But now the good news,” Pastor Olson continued: "We have more than enough money to do the job!"

Then he offered the second bit of bad news, though: "All that money is still in your pockets.”

This story makes for good humor, but it’s lousy theology. What if we thought of this as a good news/good news/good news story?

“Problems” Equal “Invitations”

GOOD NEWS: "The furnace has died and needs to be replaced immediately." Which is to say: God is sending us a challenge, an opportunity. God’s got some more work for us to do, to keep us out of mischief while we await his New Creation.

Broken church furnaces, third graders needing Bibles, hungry bellies, ears itching for the gospel—all those "problems" that confront us are really chances to minister, opportunities to be in God’s mission. Hidden beneath every “problem” we encounter is the invitation of God to go deeper, step up, move out, and forge ahead!

A wise pastor once said that when Jesus told his followers that we will always have the poor with us, he wasn’t complaining about a problem or making a dire prediction. Rather, Jesus was uttering a promise!

Abundance Trumps Scarcity

“GOOD NEWS: We have more than enough money to fix the furnace,” as Pastor Olson told his congregation. Whatever the challenge or opportunity that’s out there, the resources are here–in abundance!

That’s because God is the source of all that we are and all that we have–and God doesn’t know the meaning of the word “stingy.” In the Parable of the Talents, this breath-taking abundance of God is represented by the fabulous sums of money the master leaves behind with his three slaves. Before he goes away on his long journey the master leaves five talents with the first slave. That’s 75 years of wages or well over $3 million in our day, here in northwestern Minnesota.

Such overflowing wealth in this parable–it’s like a bell going off! It’s a clue, a sure sign, that the master (in the parable) is God! For no one is more generous than God. God has held back nothing from us–not even the precious life of his only beloved Son, given up to death on a Cross for you and for me.

Dear fellow disciples of our synod, we can meet and exceed our goals for financial stewardship in our congregations and our wider church, all in the service of God’s mission. God has lavished on us all the time we need, all the abilities we need, all the resources we need to get God’s work done.

God Works Through Us

And here’s the third GOOD NEWS from our friend Pastor Olson: "The money is still in your pockets!" The resources are at your disposal–you get to free them up.

What awesome trust God places in our hands! God lets us be the managers and caretakers of all that God possesses. God trusts us to make wise and generous choices with all that we have.

God could have done otherwise. God could simply extract our offerings by force. God could choose to levitate our wallets or do a little Star Trek "beaming up" of our dollars. God could do his own celestial version of “automatic withholding” of a portion of our paychecks.

But instead, like the master in the parable who went on a journey and turned over everything to his slaves, God recklessly grants us the freedom in Jesus Christ to do the right thing with our cash and with everything else that we have.

Duty and Delight

At last month’s synod assembly our keynote speaker Dr. Mark Allan Powell invited us to think of our offerings of material wealth in terms of both duty and delight (“duty and delight,” being a phrase familiar to us from our Holy Communion liturgy).

Lutherans tend to recoil from thinking about anything in the Christian life as duty. But many of us experienced Dr. Powell’s comments as liberating, not oppressing. He is right, after all. If God has graciously grafted us into his church, and if God’s church has work worth doing—it is our duty to support that in some commonsense, down-to-earth, intentional way.

But that’s only half of our giving. Dr. Powell also pointed out the role of delight in our offering of our material wealth. Over-and-above our “duty” giving, we experience God’s goodness each week in some fresh way that makes us want to give more—just for the fun of it. God is waiting with baited breath to catch the twinkle of delight in our eyes when we give back some of what has been lavished upon us. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “God loves it when the giver delights in the giving” (II Cor. 9:7, The Message). God gets a charge out of some of his own generosity rubbing off on us.

When Prof. Hank Tkachuk, my wife Joy and I visited our companion synod in India last autumn, we observed what “duty and delight” offerings look like in worship. At every worship service, an offering was received from all the worshipers who had gathered—just as we do (they use little bags rather than offering plates, though!). But this was the second “duty” offering of the day; earlier in each worship service the pastor invited “delight” thank-offerings from members who wanted to give extra thanks for some special blessing. These offerings were brought forward to the chancel, placed on a silver platter, and prayed over by the pastor.

Follow the Money

This might seem like too much attention to money. I’ve been noticing how often, in talking about stewardship, Lutherans like to say, “Stewardship is about more than money, you know.” I’ve also noticed how often Lutherans then use that same line to avoid talking about money-stewardship entirely!

Dr. Powell, during our synod assembly, opened our eyes to something: we have good reason to keep our eyes on our money, to watch what we’re doing with our money. Because, as Jesus himself proclaimed: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

You’d think it would be the other way around: where your heart is, your money will follow. But that’s not how our Lord put it. Jesus turned the tables on us, saying to us (in effect): “Show me the money. Follow your dollars. See where you’re already placing your material wealth, and your heart will follow that.” One of the best ways to become disciples of Jesus who give more generously is to start acting in ways that are generous. Start giving more of your money away to the sick, the needy, charities and church….and your heart will tag along!

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. Think of a “problem” in your own life or in your congregation’s life right now. How might God be tucking an opportunity into this problem?

2. Why is it so easy for us to fall into “scarcity mentality” rather than “abundance mentality?”

3. Think (or share with others in your group) about a time when you experienced great joy in giving.

4. Do you believe you can actually give your way into a more generous life? Why or why not?

This is the fifth 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.

Right Up to the Precipice

Glyndon Lutheran Church, Glyndon, MN

Second Sunday After Pentecost
June 6, 2010

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter ten, St. Paul writes: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (I Cor. 10:13)

Commenting on this verse, one of my seminary teachers once observed: “Scripture says that God ‘will not let you be tested beyond your strength,’ but that doesn’t mean that God won’t let you be tested right up to the point when your strength is about to give out.”

Think about that with me.

God won’t allow us to be tested beyond our point of endurance….but we may be tested right up to our point of endurance.

….which is to say, God may allow things to get pretty bad with us. God may permit us to face heartache right up to the point that we cry out: “How long, O Lord?” God may let things get so out of hand in our lives…that we feel driven to despair.

And then God will meet us, right on the edge of what we can handle….and God will hold out his hand and help us move ahead--often in the most unanticipated of ways.

That seems to be a pattern in each of our scripture readings this morning.

In our First Lesson from I Kings 17, the prophet Elijah, on the run from wicked King Ahab, trying to survive in a time of drought….is led to the home of a widow in the Gentile territory of Zarephath. And it happens twice in this story---God allows things to get bad to the point of despair….but then God intervenes. The jar of flour and the jug of oil is replenished, the widow’s only son is brought back from death by the man of God.

Right up to the precipice—two times no less! And God reaches out to rescue.

In our second lesson, we’re reminded about the desperate situation of the first Christians--slaughtered for their faith in Jesus the Messiah of Israel. Where would it all end? It ended in God’s astonishing call to Saul the chief persecutor, to become Paul the chief missionary to the Gentile world. Right up to the edge of the cliff—God turns things around in a way no one could have anticipated!

And it happens in this gospel lesson from Luke, chapter 7, as well. Once more, we see before us a scene of unspeakable heartache: a widow’s only son has died….a mother’s last shred of earthly security—snatched away. The wailing of the mourners fills the village of Nain as the young man’s body is borne out to the same graveyard where his father’s bones already are buried. How much more desperate and gut-wrenching a scene could anyone imagine than this?

But right there, once again, in the dark valley of death, God acts. Jesus and his disciples encounter the funeral procession. Jesus the Man of God defiles himself by touching the stretcher that bears the dead son’s body. Jesus speaks to the young man as if for him—for Jesus!—death holds no power….

…..and the young man is restored, he opens his mouth to speak, to re-establish connection with his community…so that all the mourners—in a mixture of fear and joy—suddenly recognize that “God has visited his people” (RSV) once more.

God has visited his people.

It’s a kind of mantra. We hear it throughout the scriptures, time and again, God visits….God shows up….God rescues us from the jaws of death….just in the nick of time, just when all looked lost, just when we thought we were goners.

But why does God do it that way?

Why does God allow us to be tested right up to the edge of our power to endure? What is God up to, in these stories of people at the precipice? What can we take away from such texts, for our own lives of faith and discipleship?

1. The first thing that seems apparent in these stories is that God seems to have no interest in eradicating evil, at least for the time being. That is: God doesn’t remove us from a world in which we sin, encounter suffering, feel desperate, and die.

All of those things—“sin, death and the power of the devil” (as Luther liked to call them)—play some role in our coming to faith and our being sustained in faith. Life in this world is hard, and that hardness somehow connects to how God “visits us,” walks with us—through (not around!) the tough stuff, promising all the while to “provide [a] way out” (I Cor. 10:13) so that we might endure.

2. Which leads me to the second thing that seems apparent in these stories. God may not be interested in eradicating evil….but God certainly loves to defeat evil, forgive sin, upend death. And I wonder if that is why God allows those “awful awfuls” to persist, for a while longer, in our lives here on earth.

God allows us to be tested by these unpleasant things. God permits us to walk in harm’s way. God lets us sin and live with the consequences of our sin. God even makes room for death to keep intruding into our lives here on earth.

And why? To help us remember who we are not! So that we might learn our limitations. So that we might know what we can’t do on our own—we can’t stop sinning, we can’t dodge every bullet, we can’t stave off death on our own. We are finite, “bounded,” limited beings.

Which is to say: we are not God.

But we do belong to God—and that makes all the difference. So God doesn’t eradicate sin, death and the power of the devil…..but God surely defeats all those grim realities, again and again.

• God hasn’t yet made us perfect, sinless creatures…..because God wants us to experience the relief of having our sins forgiven as only God can forgive.

• God hasn’t yet finally “defanged the devil,” who still prowls around like a hungry lion, but God surely keeps vanquishing the devil, and showing the devil who’s Boss.

• And God hasn’t yet abolished death. Even the two widows’ sons in our scripture lessons had to die again, just as we all shall die. But death will not have the final word with us. In the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, we have God’s dependable “down payment” on the resurrection that awaits us all.

But in order to be resurrected, you do have to be dead first!

And God knows just what to do with dead things. God’s solution isn’t to eradicate death—to remove death from the equation. God’s solution is to raise the dead, starting with the crucified Jesus.

So God raises up two widows’ sons in these stories….returning them to their bereft mothers.

And God raises up Saul the violent persecutor….so that he might become useful in God’s service, as Paul the one-who-was-sent to the Gentiles, to bring them into the sphere of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ.

And so also, God raises up you and me, when we are dead in our sin, dead in our dread of the evil that surrounds us, and when we are finally dead in our graves….God will raise us up once again, so that we might serve him forever.

3. And that brings us to the third reason why God allows us to be tested, right up to our point of endurance. God wants to fashion us into new beings who will be of service to God and to our fellow creatures.

God allows us to taste the bitterness that life can dish out, so that we might know the needs of our sisters and brothers, so that we might be turned “inside out,” and so that we might rise to serve our fellow travelers through this world.

There is, as always, a call to service and an invitation into God’s mission tucked away in these stories. Elijah and Jesus didn’t just want two widows to be happy again; they wanted them to have sons alive and able to serve.

God didn’t just want Saul to lay off on persecuting the early Christians. God wanted an apostle like no other to step forth, into the pagan world of the Roman Empire, to announce the good news that Jesus—not Caesar—is Lord over all.

And so also, God raises us up, not to make us “fat and sassy” but to free us for God’s royal service….as disciples who know that evil exists to be defeated, that sin persists to be forgiven, and that death lingers on only to be upended by the Resurrection that burst forth from Jesus’ tomb on Easter Sunday.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.