Saturday, February 26, 2011

Gospel Grocery Store

Salem Lutheran Church, Hitterdal, MN
Epiphany 8/February 27, 2011
Vibrant Faith Ministries Training Weekend
Matthew 6:24-34

Way back in 1988 a top-of-the-charts popular song almost ruined (for me) these immortal words of Jesus from the 6th chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel.

For a while after Bobby McFerrin’ song first came out, I had a hard time taking Jesus seriously when he declares: “therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…”

“Do not worry,” says Jesus.

“Don’t worry. Be happy,” sang Bobby McFerrin. “What’s the difference?” something in me wondered. Don’t both phrases convey pretty much the same meaning?

Well, as a matter of fact, they do not.

Bobby McFerrin’s catchy little a capelle ditty is just that—a ditty, a Hallmark greeting card verse set to a jaunty tune, an upbeat piece of “I think I can” sunny optimism.

Jesus’ friendly command, on the other hand, is a gracious, liberating invitation to live all of life in the freedom of knowing we are clutched and carried by the One who holds the universe in the palm of his hand. Jesus’ “do not worry” grows out of believing that there is one God who is before us, behind us, beyond us, yet also beside us…one God who can be trusted implicitly—in life and in death—to do well by us, to always “have our backs,” come what may.

“Don’t worry. Be happy,” is cheerful self-talk…reverberating in an echo chamber.

“Do not worry about your life,” coming from Jesus’ lips, is drenched in the promise of the gospel. It’s like a huge check drawn upon our Lord’s very own bank account—a promise sealed by a Cross and an Empty Tomb.

So there you have it, your weekly dose of the Good News. Are you not of more value than the little sparrows, after all? Do you not mean more to your heavenly Father than the wildflowers that blossom brilliantly one minute, before shriveling into nothingness the next?

Feast upon this Word, my dear friends. Drink in this promise. May it sustain you through the changes and chances of your life this coming week. May this gospel “meal” nourish and keep you strong until another Sunday rolls around.

But what if…

…what if your worries rise up and start to choke you BEFORE next Sunday…before the calendar pops up and it’s March 6, 2011? What if this morning’s “feasting” on God’s Word ends up leaving you hungry about midweek, like the proverbial plate of Chinese food—an hour after you eat it, you’re hungry again.

This weekend your congregation (along with two other neighboring parishes) is deeply pondering that very question.

We have this one treasured hour of the week, here together, in this lovely stone-hewn church building. We spend 60 minutes every 7 days here in this place, feasting on God’s Word, splashing in the baptismal water, receiving the very Body and Blood of Christ.

But what about the other 167 hours of the week—how do we invest those hours, how do we spend that precious time?

Do we sometimes wind up fasting all week, going hungry from one Sunday morning to another-- with no nourishment to speak of the other six days?

Here’s an analogy that might help. All of us go to the grocery store every week—or someone we love goes there on our behalf. We “stock up” as my wife and I like to say—whenever “Mother Hubbard’s cupboard is bare.”

But we don’t eat our food in that same grocery store. Yes, I know there are some folks who pick up a package of cookies, tear it open while still in the store and start munching away… But for the most part you and I don’t buy our groceries and eat all our groceries in the same place, at the same time.

In a word, we buy food in a grocery store so that we can eat it (most of it, anyway) somewhere else—most likely at home.

What if we thought of this congregation that way? What if we regarded Salem Lutheran’s mission center as that stopping-off place where we stock up on provisions that we’ll consume the rest of the week, mostly in our homes?

So that means that, yes, in this precious hour of the week, we will bask in promises like the ones that cascade from this gorgeous gospel lesson this morning. We will shut our eyes, ponder the birds, consider the lilies and remember that we—humans fashioned in the divine image—we are of more value to God than birds or flowers.

We will eat our fill of that this morning….but we won’t “eat” it all here in this place.

We will, rather, take most of this good news home with us…like a sack of groceries that we keep stewing on, chewing on, being nourished by for the other 167 hours of the week.

Perhaps you are already looking at it that way, living your life in Christ in all 168 hours of the week.

But then again, maybe you’re not living that way. Maybe you are binge-eating on Sunday mornings, and then starving yourself the rest of the week. If so, you realize—don’t you?--that that’s neither a satisfying nor a sustainable way to live.

And that’s what we’re acknowledging here together this weekend devoted to learning the Vibrant Faith Frame—a way of rethinking “church” that recognizes how faith isn’t just taught here in our mission center building, as much as it is caught “out there” through trusted relationships with other caring Christians.

This weekend is about remembering that where Christ is present in faith, the home is “church” too. It’s about thinking of our congregation less as a restaurant and more as a grocery store—or if you prefer, a year-around farmers market—where we go to get “stocked up” for the other 167 hours of each week.

Most importantly: this weekend is about what we’re ready to do for the sake of our young ones, the next generation of disciples of Jesus Christ. Because we don’t want them to go hungry, do we? Rule #1 of parenting is: don’t let your children starve.

We want them to have food every day, the Word in their lives that other 167 hours of every week, blessings pronounced upon them every 24 hours, prayers to go with them day by day. We want to see a vital partnership between our congregation and all the households that are also “church”….a dynamic relationship of “stocking up” on Sundays and feasting on weekdays.

Because, sure as shooting, Wednesday—hump day--will roll around….and we’ll be battered and bruised, bills piled up, bad news from the wider world shaking our optimism, worries hitting us right between the eyes…..

…and come Wednesday, once again, we’ll need to eat what we’re tasting right here, right now: Jesus’ own promise that there is a way of life as free and unfettered as the birds, as cared for and bedazzled as the lilies of the field….because there is a Father who knows that we need all these things and will see to it that we have what will keep us going.

It’s as simple as this. Please take out the “Taking Faith Home” bulletin insert and look at with me for a moment. Think of this resource as sort of a spiritual “Hamburger Helper” that will help you stretch this morning’s gospel-grocery-run throughout the coming days.

I mean, don’t you sometimes get to midweek and you can’t remember last Sunday’s sermon? That sure happens to me—even when I myself was the preacher of last Sunday’s sermon.

But here on this bulletin insert, you have some easy ways to keep dwelling in this morning’s gospel lesson. If you are like me—if you have young adult children you occasionally worry about—look at the first bullet point under “Rituals and Traditions,” and read it with me right now: “God cares for your children even more than you do and is already taking care of tomorrow.”

Wow…those words are more than leftovers! That’s a promise to savor over the next 167 hours of your life. When you can’t get to sleep…when you wake up too early and start mulling over your anxieties…repeat that promise to yourself.

And if that promise moves you, why not also use the simple table grace on the other side: “Christ our light, shine upon us. Refresh us through this meal to reflect your love to others. Amen.” (Let’s be Baptists, just for 10 seconds. Raise your hand if you’re willing to use this as your table prayer at least once this coming week. PAUSE. OK, now go back to being Lutherans.)

Dear friends of Salem Lutheran, may this hour in God’s gospel-grocery-store open our eyes to behold God lives in your house (and you live with God) every hour of every day of every week.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deep Into the Marrow

The Next Generation: Deep Into the Marrow

“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” St. Paul to St. Timothy (II Timothy 1:5)

Last month’s column in this series focused on the neglect of the role of the home in making disciples. Dr. David W. Anderson calls this “The Great Omission” in the life of the North American church over the last century.

In response to this situation, Anderson and his colleagues at The Youth and Family Institute (now better known as Vibrant Faith Ministries) have birthed a vision for the 21st century church that they call the Vibrant Faith Frame. It’s a perspective—indeed, a whole “vocabulary”—for describing the church’s DNA, “basic stuff for the life of the church that goes deep into the marrow of its very being.” (All quotations in this column are from Chapter Two in From the Great Omission to Vibrant Faith.)

Six Locations of Ministry

Let’s face it: American Christianity has all too often reflected the individualism of American culture. The ministry of the church has focused inordinately on one’s personal (read “private”) relationship with Jesus. Such an approach forgets that “to be the church and pass on faith in Christ requires attention to all that God does and all that God calls Christians to be in the world.”

The Vibrant Faith Frame broadens our horizons by asking us to consider at least six “locations” of ministry:

• Children and youth. In contrast to our tendency to place kids on the periphery, the Vibrant Faith Frame views “children and youth…[as] central to the life of the church.”

• Homes, in which persons live “in close connection to one another in family-type relationships that offer foundational care for people.”

• Congregations, which “represent the larger network of relationships that connect Christians” to one another.

• Community, the social environment in which Christians have “their most direct experience of faith made active in love that serves [the] neighbor.”

• Culture, a community of communities in which language shapes meaning and interprets human experience.

• Creation. Christians live “as stewards of God’s handiwork…serving all that God creates, redeems and sustains.”

One might envision these six locations as concentric circles that ripple outwards—like a stone tossed into a pond. Shot through these “six locations of ministry” is an emphasis on the highly relational nature of Christian faith and life.

Five Principles of a Vibrant Church

If the Six Locations describe the context for ministry that responds to all that God has created and redeemed, the following Five Principles reveal the unique heart of the Vibrant Faith Frame:

1. Faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through personal, trusted relationships—often in our own homes. A simple way to understand this pivotal principle is to ask a group of Christians to do some history-sharing around the question: “Who or what has influenced your life of faith?” As staff members from Vibrant Faith Ministries have posed this question in a variety of settings they have discovered consistently that folks name those with whom they are in primary life relationships: parents, grandparents, siblings, children, godparents, etc. To be sure, pastors and church staff members are also mentioned on such lists—though usually not so much because of the positions they held as because of the relationships they had with the individual who is naming them. This reality of faith being formed through relationships is borne out, again and again, by research in the sociology of religious formation.

2. The church is a living partnership between the ministry of the congregation and ministry of the home. Consider an analogy that compares a congregation and a grocery story. Both are places where people receive food for life. But congregations and grocery stores are “secondary social systems.” You can munch on some food while in the grocery store (as long as you remember to still pay for it at the checkout counter!)—but mainly you acquire food there, in order to eat it throughout the week somewhere else, usually in the home. So also, the “food” we receive in our congregations—God’s Word and Sacraments—is intended to be “taken home” and “eaten” on a daily basis. (Don’t we say that, teach that and believe that?) Quite literally, we do not—and we ought not—eat once a week at church and then starve ourselves the other six days until we can eat again at the next weekly worship service. This second principle envisions a “dynamic relationship between the activities of the congregation and the activities of the homes that are engaged in the congregation.”

3. Where Christ is present in faith, home is church, too. This third principle carries the first two principles to their logical conclusion: the home can be thought of as “the domestic church,” a “critical arena for faith formation.” This is why, for example, Martin Luther assumed that his catechism would be taught primarily by heads of households—and why these domestic “priests and pastors” were enjoined by Luther to lead daily worship (devotions) in their homes, at the beginning and ending of each day and around every meal-time. This principle also recognizes how homes are often the doorway to Christian faith and life, because “sometimes the best way to get people into the congregational church is first through the home church.”

4. Faith is caught more than it is taught. Please read this principle carefully. It does not say that faith isn’t taught—faith is most assuredly taught! But what is taught (in a confirmation classroom, for example) “lives” or takes on flesh-and-bone only as it is also “caught” from other Christians, in daily life. This is why faith-mentors are so critical.

5. If we want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults. I have grown weary of hearing congregational leaders moan over “the loss of our youth.” I am, frankly, tired of hearing about how “our kids leave church as soon as they are confirmed.” Such laments take aim, in my judgment, at the wrong cohort in our communities. If you are so concerned about our children, where are the adults in their lives? This fifth principle of a vibrant church “ups the ante” for all the adults in our churches, adding what the Vibrant Faith Ministries folks call a “cross+generational focus.” This principle challenges us to see that “all Christian adults are Christian parents, thereby making a difference in the lives of children whether or not the adults are the parents of the children….[A]ll children are our children. In recent years, it has been suggested that each child should have three to five to seven adults who do not live with that child in the home and yet invest in the child’s life in healthy, supportive and faithful ways.”

The Four Keys

OK, so you’re starting to catch the vision, right? So, how do we live into this vision? The Four Keys are offered as “embedded practices” that form and nurture Christian faith in the fabric of daily life, often in the homes that make up our congregations.

Over twenty years ago the Search Institute of Minneapolis (a social research organization that helped give birth to Vibrant Faith Ministries) discovered that faithfulness in youth and adults tended to result from things like “the frequency with which an adolescent talked with mother and father about faith, the frequency of family devotions, and the frequency with which parents and children together were involved in efforts, formal or informal, to help other people.”

Out of this basic research arose the notion of the Four Keys in which all members of a Christian household can participate:

• Caring Conversations: opportunities every day, often around meals, for family members to share their joys and struggles, their laughter and their tears.

• Devotions: moments of praise and prayer in the midst of daily life—upon rising, as bread is broken, before going to bed, etc.

• Rituals and Traditions: practicing forgiveness, offering blessings, observing milestones in the Christian life, adorning one’s home in ways that honor God.

• Service: moving out into God’s world, for the sake of our neighbors, “being part of a community.”

The Four Keys, we must emphasize, are not a replacement for congregational life. Rather, they are ways that congregational life “spills over” into daily life, in households where Christians live out much of their Monday-through-Saturday lives. Congregations, indeed, can be places that also practice the Four Keys—and that furnish Four Keys resources and ideas for use in the home, where Christian people actually live out many of the other 167 hours of each week.

AAA Christian Disciples

No, this is not an advertisement for the American Automobile Association! The upshot—the outcome—of shaping or reshaping our discipleship around the locations, principles and keys of the Vibrant Faith Frame is the birthing and nurturing of Jesus-followers who are authentic, available and affirming. Authentic disciples are not perfect disciples, but they are honest and “real”—“free to serve, free to believe and trust God, free to live, free to love and free to fail at it all.” Available disciples seek “to be present and aware of others and creation…available to be [tools] of God’s work and will for the world.” Affirming disciples, in the midst of sin, death and evil are disciples who believe “that God’s word gets the last word, and it is a word of hope.”

Whetting the Appetite

This column has been written to whet your appetite for more—to offer some hors d’oeuvres that will leave you hungry for the full meal. If you and your congregation are ready to dive deeper into the Vibrant Faith Frame perspective I invite you to do five things:

• Visit the Vibrant Faith website at;

• Read--or, better yet, read and discuss with others--a book like David Anderson’s From the Great Omission to Vibrant Faith: The Role of the Home in Renewing the Church (2009, The Youth and Family Institute);

• Pray about and talk with others about ways you, your home and your church might live more deeply into this vision of partnership between homes and churches;

• Take a team of disciples from your church to the next Vibrant Faith Ministries conference or other VFM event in our region. Watch future issues of Northern Lights for information about such learning events.

God bless you, your home and your congregation.

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe

Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. How and why have congregations sometimes placed children or youth on the periphery of the church?

2. Who or what influenced your life of faith?

3. How is your church already living out the Vibrant Faith Frame (please be specific)?

4. How might your church pass on the Four Keys to the homes of your parish?

5. How ready is your congregation to embrace more fully the Vibrant Faith Frame?

This is the third in a series of columns on Bishop Wohlrabe’s “Next Generation” vision (available at'S%20PAGE.htm) for the NW MN Synod. These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry. Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

God's Precious Salty People

Epiphany 5/Year A/February 6, 2011

Bethesda Lutheran Church, Alexandria

Matthew 5:13-20

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

“You are the salt of the earth.”

Notice, please, three things about this remarkable statement that comes to our ears from the lips of our Lord.

First, Jesus says: “You are…”

You are…the salt of the earth.

Jesus could have said: “Get serious—why don’t you?—and become the salt of the earth….or: follow these ten easy steps and make yourselves the salt of the earth.”

But Jesus didn’t launch us into a self-improvement program here. Jesus didn’t set up the Salt-of-the-Earth Transformational Leadership Institute.

No. Jesus uttered a promise. He simply announced: “You are the salt of the earth.”

It was neither a command nor a wish. Rather Jesus declared the way things already are…the way that things shall most certainly be.

Spoken by the One who was present on the first day of creation, who went to the Cross and the Grave, who has death behind him…these words are a promise we can count on: “You are the salt of the earth—no use trying to be anything else.”

…because this is God’s business, first of all. This is who God has made you to be…what God has called you to do. “Be salty, because that’s what I have made of you, that’s what I call you to be: ‘You are the salt of the earth.’ Salt is your identity. Be who you are.”

Second, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.”

You are not the honey of the earth, sent to sugar-coat all of life’s harsh realities.

Nor are you the pablum of the earth…you are not a bland, easy-to-digest food for babies and older folks with weak stomachs.

You are not the ointment or the WD-40 of the earth, sent to lubricate and smooth over all life’s hard edges.

Nor are you the duct tape of the earth, desperately trying to hold things together.

No. You are, rather salt.

Which, is to say: you are a force to be reckoned with.

Salt, after all, is not soft, delicate or inconsequential. Salt is—rather—a biting, bracing, reactive substance.

We should know. We’re Minnesotans, after all. We have two seasons of the year-- the season of ice and snow and road salt…to be followed soon by the season of road repair—fixing up all the damage to our highways done by the road-salt we can’t live without in this season.

Salt is a force to be reckoned with. Every living being needs salt just to survive. But we need our salt in the right quantity. Too little salt and we die. Too much salt and we also die.

Salt is a force to be reckoned with. Salt makes chemical reactions happen. Salt preserves food—keeps it from spoiling. Salt brings zip and zest to our eating. Salt makes food tangier, tastier.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says to us. You are a force to be reckoned with in the world. You are going to make a difference—whether you realize it, whether you believe it--or not.

You are catalysts for divine change, agents of God’s preferred future. Because you are present, things happen. You keep life going. It is your presence in the world as Christ’s precious salty people that, in a sense, preserves the world. God keeps the world going for the sake of the Promise you are sent to utter and live out.

You are here to make everything more interesting, more engaging, more fascinating. Your mission is to add zip and zest, to make tasty and tangy a world that can seem so bland, tedious and tasteless. You make the world sparkle with the spice of the gospel.

All of that is what Jesus is getting at when he says: “You are the salt of the earth.”

And, you know, one of the best things about salt is that it doesn’t take much to do the trick. A teaspoon of salt does wonders in a whole pot of soup. A pinch of salt transforms the flavor of a whole lump of bread-dough.

You, God’s precious salty people in Christ, have an effect on the world that is all out of proportion to your numbers in the world. Salt is like that. It only takes a teaspoon, just a pinch.

Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the bigness of the planet and the hugeness of the world’s problems? Do you find yourself lamenting the fact that you’re just one person—“and what difference can one person make?”

Never mind! You are salt and salt is most effective in small quantities. Just a pinch, just a bit of salt makes all the difference in the world. God intends to use you to change, to preserve, to make more tasty the little corner of creation where God has planted you.

Third, Jesus says: “You are the salt of the earth.”

Salt works only when it gets dissolved in the broth, mixed in with the stew, sprinkled on the pot roast. Salt has to get shaken out, salt needs to be scattered, salt has to lose itself to whatever dish it is being added.

When that happens, persons don’t say” “That sure is tasty salt.” No. Instead they say things like: “My this is scrumptious roast. Goodness, this is a delicious hotdish. Heavens to Betsy, this is a savory stew. My compliments to the Chef!” The salt gets lost. It “lives on” only in connection with whatever it is salting.

Salt needs to lose itself in order to be of any use.

Salt that stays hermetically sealed in the salt-cellar isn’t good for much. It may stay high and dry and “pure”…but it won’t accomplish anything. It will be useless—worthless.

I wonder if the fracas in our ELCA hasn’t gotten us overly focused on how pure we all are as salt—who is saltier, you or me? That’s always a temptation—and a danger.

Christian people who are aloof, Christians who hole up in their “mighty fortress” church buildings, pursue their “purity projects,” and never actually venture forth into God’s world aren’t good for much of anything. They may still look like salt…they may still have all the chemical properties of salt, but such salt really isn’t worth much. It’s like salt that somehow has lost its saltiness and is good only for being thrown on the ground.

You are the salt of the earth, Jesus declares to us.

Your purpose is to spend yourself, even as Christ our Lord expended himself on the Cross—to take away our sins and the sins of the whole world.

If you want to know what it means to be salt, after all, you need look no farther than your Lord Jesus Christ. He was no secluded Savior, no remote Messiah, no aloof Lord secluded safely away in a fortress—like salt hermetically sealed in a salt shaker. Jesus came among us to be expended, to be lost, to be dissolved in his calling to seek and to save the lost.

This same salty Jesus comes to say to each of us: “You are the salt of the earth.” You are salt for the world. You are most valuable when you are scattered, sprinkled, shaken out, lost—dissolved--in the world. You’re worth your weight in salt when you get close to others…especially when you get close to bland, tedious, tasteless, unsavory folks. You make them tasty by seasoning them with the Good News of Jesus Christ…for you are the salt of the earth.

On our better days, on our best days, we know that we who are Christ’s Body “live, move and have our being” for the sake of the world. Or, as one of my former pastors liked to say: “the church is the only organization that exists solely for those who aren’t members of it.”

Three astounding promises ring true and come through in this one striking sentence.

One: you are salt. God has seen to that. Salt is your identity.

Two: you are salt—not honey, not pablum, not ointment, not WD-40, not duct tape. You are a force to be reckoned with. Because of who you are in Jesus Christ, you make the world more “tangy,” you cause other persons to be more “tasty.” Because of the good news that you bear, you are the little pinch of salt that spices up all that is bland, tedious and tasteless in this world.

Three: you are the salt of the earth. It is for the sake of the world that God has sent you, just as God sent his only beloved Son. You’re here for the sake of others, here to lose yourself for others, here to be dissolved in winsome witness and self-giving service wherever God may scatter you, wherever God may send you.

For you are…the salt…of the earth.

And you have Jesus’ own word on it!

…in his name. Amen.