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.