Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ahead of the Curve

Bethany Lutheran Church, Nevis, MN
May 22, 2011-- Easter 5/Year A
John 14:1-14

Are you ever part of a conversation in which you and your conversation-partner seem to be “talking past each other?” Here you are--reasonable and articulate persons, saying good things-- but you just can’t “connect.”

It’s like you’re on difference planets or something.

As I read, with great care, the gospel according to St John…that sort of thing seems to be happening all the time.

There is a lot of talking going on in John’s gospel. It’s a gospel that—unlike Matthew, Mark or Luke—includes extended discourses, delivered by Jesus. Jesus has most of the “speaking parts” in John’s Gospel, but always in dialogue with others—his disciples, honest questioners, random strangers whom Jesus encounters.

Now, to be sure, John’s gospel is rich stuff—containing some of the most memorable, challenging, and comforting portions of our whole Bible.

But there is also something frustrating about these “dialogues” between Jesus and his conversation partners. They talk a lot, but often they seem to talk past one another, unable to connect.

Why is that?

I think it’s because Jesus and those he talks with in John’s Gospel have such different perspectives on everything under the sun.

Picture it this way: most of the persons Jesus speaks with have about as much perspective as does the pilot of a crop-dusting airplane. They see things from a very “low altitude.” They’re “close to the ground” and so they speak out of a pretty small worldview.

Jesus, though, looks at everything from a much higher altitude. Jesus’ view of things is more like what our astronauts might behold this morning as they orbit the earth in the space shuttle Endeavour. Jesus is like astronauts who can literally see “ahead of the curve,” the curve of the earth, that is!

Think about it: Jesus knows, Jesus sees, Jesus lives on a whole different plane of reality. Jesus is equally at home in heaven or on earth. Jesus is not stuck in the past, the present, or the future—Jesus is not hemmed in by time.

But everyone with whom Jesus converses in John’s gospel is a finite creature, stuck in one place, capable of living only in the present moment. They’re like bewildered visitors to a shopping mall, all desperately searching for that map with the red arrow that says: YOU ARE HERE.

So Jesus—with his high-altitude, wide-angle lens view of reality—Jesus sees where he is going—back to his Father—and he assures his disciples that they’ll be joining him, and not to worry because “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” No one needs to sleep on the living room couch in God’s heaven! There is never a “no vacancy” sign on the Father’s house.

And that should comfort Jesus’ disciples, but when Jesus assures them that they know the way to the Father’s house, Thomas—always the voice of realism—interrupts: “No Jesus. We’re not familiar with this ‘way’ that you’re talking about. Could you Mapquest it for us? Could you give us the GPS coordinates? Could you show us where ‘X marks the spot?’”

To which Jesus replies: “The way isn’t a route. The way is me. You’re looking at the Way to the Father. I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. There is no other Way.”

And I picture Thomas staring back at Jesus, dumbfounded, (as Luther liked to say) like a newborn calf staring at a freshly-painted barn door.

But Jesus just keeps rolling on, assuring his followers that they will know this Father he’s talking about—indeed that they already know him….

And then another baffled disciple, Philip, putt-putting along in his low-altitude crop-dusting plane says: “Time out, Jesus! We’d like to see this Father of yours with our own two eyes. Show this Father to us, please. Produce your Father so we can identify him on sight….”

And Jesus just keeps rolling along, telling Philip that that’s all been taken care of—in fact, if they’ve seen him (Jesus!) they already have seen, they already know the Father. The Father/Son resemblance between the two is, in fact, unmistakable… “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

…and it just keeps going like that throughout John’s Gospel. Although Jesus and the ordinary human beings he converses with share many words, that doesn’t mean that they’re always connecting—not by a country mile.

And yet here’s the great thing—here’s the wonder of it all: despite the fact that Jesus lives way above and beyond us, he keeps coming back down to us, keeps hunkering down on our level to help us catch glimpses of the full, rich life that Jesus knows—the abundant life Jesus wants to shower down upon everyone.

So, rather than losing patience with the likes of Thomas and Philip, Jesus backs up and finds fresh new ways to say the same thing. Jesus uses the anxious questions of bewildered disciples like Thomas and Philip as jumping off points to utter promises that fill them—and us!—with faith, hope and love.

In fact, as we sort out the meandering “two steps forward, three steps backward” conversation here in John 14, we hear—unmistakably—we hear three amazing promises from our Lord—promises that give us a faith-engendering glimpse of what Jesus knows and sees and lives…what Jesus wants to give to us and anyone else who has ears to hear.

First, Jesus tells us that in the full, rich life of God, we belong—there is and always will be room for us in the Father’s house. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”

Wow! What a promise!....a promise that has cheered us at countless funerals, right?…a promise that we cling to whenever we face up to our finitude, our unworthiness, our mortality.

But this is so much more than a promise to fall back on when we face death. This is a promise not just for the future, but a promise that transforms our present: God has room for us, now and always. We don’t deserve that—not one bit—but God in Christ just keeps coming back to us, filling our ears with hope. The door is open, the place card with our name correctly spelled on it has been set out, God has room for us, not because “we’ve got that coming” but because God is unfathomably good and gracious.

Second, Jesus promises us that if we’ve come to know him, we know all that we’ll ever need to know about God. In Jesus, we have all the “God” we will ever need.

If the whole notion of “God” is too much for us to wrap our arms around—and it is!—here is Someone we can wrap our arms around: Jesus of Nazareth, who walked on this earth, Jesus who lived among us, Jesus who stretched his arms out on the Cross to embrace all sinners, Jesus who could not be kept in the grave but rose again, nevermore to die, “for us and for our salvation.”

If you’ve seen Jesus, known Jesus, grasped Jesus….you have come as close to God as you possibly can.

And then there’s a third promise here—a promise that surpasses the first two: God has a life and a purpose for you. You belong to the God who hopes that you will “outdo” Him in this world. You belong to the God who believes in you more than you may believe in yourself.

This final promise in our text, I must admit, is so mind-boggling that I “scarce can take it in”: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

What I hear Jesus saying is this: as he “goes to the Father,” his mode of living and moving and acting on earth will be entirely through you and me. As we like to say in our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: “God’s work. Our hands.”

So what Jesus did, we do and will keep on doing as long as God gives us life. That means, at the very least, that

• we will turn sinners loose, as Jesus did;

• we will bring resurrection hope wherever death seems to have the upper hand, as Jesus did;

• we will fill empty bellies, as Jesus did;

• we will embrace outcasts, as Jesus did;

• we will bring cheer to this world’s sadness, as Jesus did;

• we will walk on earth in faith, hope and love--as Jesus did.

And maybe, just maybe, as Jesus lives in us, we’ll gain some altitude with our little crop-dusting planes…and start to see “ahead of the curve,” start to see and know and live the way Jesus does.

In the name of Jesus.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Aftershocks of Easter

Aftershocks of Easter
Northwestern Minnesota Synod Assembly
May 15, 2011 (Easter 4, Year A)
1 Peter 2:18-25

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Christian worship is always an “aftershock of Easter.”

You know what an aftershock is. Just two months ago an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter Scale devastated parts of Japan, causing a massive tsunami, killing thousands and leaving tens of thousands unaccounted for or homeless.

What you may have missed is that aftershocks from the March 11th earthquake continued for over a month—some of those “aftershocks” serious earthquakes in their own right.

…Not that that’s so unusual. Throughout history, after some major earthquakes, the aftershocks have lasted for up to ten years.

Awe-filled worship is always an aftershock of Easter.

Three weeks ago the ground shook under our feet as we heard the story of Easter in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:1-10)—an amazing account that begins with an earthquake and an angel descending from heaven, rolling away the stone in front of Jesus’ grave—and then sitting on the stone, as if to say: “Now what do you think of them apples?”

Easter, in Matthew’s telling anyway, commences with an earthquake….an earthquake the aftershocks of which are still sending tremors through the church and the world.

Like all major earthquakes, the Easter earthquake affected everyone, turned everything upside down, altered the landscape permanently.

Unlike most major earthquakes, though, the Easter earthquake’s aftershocks are not subsiding. Indeed, the aftershocks of Easter, the reverberations of the Resurrection retain all the force of the original earthquake—so much so that we say that every Sunday, every worship gathering around the Cross is itself another Easter Day.

And none of us comes through the aftershocks of Easter unscathed.

Here’s how author Annie Dillard describes Christian worship: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Harper & Row, 1982)

How can we speak this way? Is the community of Christ, really shaken regularly, in worship, by what happened on the Third Day after the Crucifixion?

Beyond the shadow of a doubt! Because Easter means at least three things:

• We have a living God on our hands.

• God has a living people on his hands.

• And the future is no longer filled with foreboding….the future is fundamentally open, in Jesus Christ.

And that means that everything we thought was true is up for grabs. We thought that sin would never release us. We thought that death would always have the last word. We thought that the future was gray and hazy and utterly uncertain.

But the Easter earthquake permanently altered all those things. Dwelling now in the awe-filled worshiping community of Jesus Christ is like living in the midst of an ongoing earthquake, walking on ground that’s still trembling, moving ahead not in terror—but in boundless hope.

Worship in the name of Jesus taps into incredible, unbelievable, bigger-than-the-biggest-atom-bomb power.

Because worship connects us to a God who is best spoken of in the present tense. If you wear a WWJD bracelet I invite you to stop talking about What Would Jesus Do?….and shift gears to a better, Resurrection question: What Will Jesus Do?--Jesus on the loose, at-large in the world, Jesus living inside of all who are “in Christ,” Jesus showing up at least once a week in your congregation.

Yes, you heard me right: Jesus “shows up” every time we worship. When the Word is read, it’s Jesus’ voice we hear. When the preacher preaches, it’s Jesus getting in a Word edgewise with us. When water, bread and wine are wrapped in the promises of God, Jesus is rescuing, restoring, setting us and all things right.

We have a living God on our hands, my friends….

….and God has a living people on his hands.

Without Easter, without the Cross and the Empty Tomb, we are all toast. We’re goners. Here today, gone tomorrow, fresh out of life, fresh out of hope.

But Easter presses the “reset button” on all of that! When Easter dawns upon us, it’s like the First Day of Creation all over again, God’s great “do-over”…and that means life for us. Sin no longer has a future with us. Life, in Christ, will have the last Word!

Every time Christians gather for worship we experience an aftershock of Easter. Because we have a living God on our hands…and God has a living people on his hands….and the future is no longer a dark question mark. In the Risen Lord Jesus Christ the future is fundamentally open, because it’s God’s future, and God beckons us out of our guilt-ridden past, out of our anxiety-driven present, into God’s hope-filled future.

…and that’s because every syllable of the New Testament was written in the glow of the Easter Sonrise. If the New Testament seems to describe a world that is “all shook up”…if it appears as though the world of the New Testament is all topsy-turvy, it’s because the New Testament is filled with rubble--the rubble of an old world destroyed by the Cross…a dying world rendered passé by the surpassing power of the Resurrection.

So, if the New Testament strikes you as being sort of a “wild ride”—it’s because folks are always poking their heads up out of the rubble left by the Resurrection.

We see that in our Second Lesson from I Peter. Picture a slave poking his head up out of the rubble from the Easter earthquake and wondering: “Now what? I’m a slave. I belong to my overseer, my guardian. I’m totally at his disposal. But Christ has suffered, died and risen again for me—so now what?”

The writer of I Peter takes a first run at that piercing question. What does the Easter earthquake do for a first-century slave who’s been embraced by the Risen Christ? He’s still a slave, right? He still has a master, a guardian—who may or may not treat him well.

But this slave now lives life in a brand new key. Even his sufferings have been transformed, but only “in Christ.” Suffering itself has been redeemed by the suffering of Jesus. “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (v. 24)

And what’s more, this slave now has two owners—and the New Owner is the Ultimate Owner, the Shepherd and Guardian of this slave’s soul. Jesus has dibs on this slave—so now what?

It just keeps going on and on like that across the pages of the New Testament, down through the history of the church and even into our own day. Folks—you and I--keep poking our heads up out of the rubble left behind by the Easter earthquake—and we keep wondering: “Now what?”

My life has been a mess—but now Jesus, the Best Shepherd, has waylaid me and made me his own. All around me—the rubble of my stupid choices, my abject failures, my wayward ways—but those no longer define me. Jesus, the Guardian of my soul has called dibs on me, on us. So now what?

Isn’t there even a word for our congregations, our synod, our Evangelical Lutheran Church in America here? It feels as though nothing is the way it used to be—everything is up for grabs—we’re rethinking everything about how to be the church in the 21st century.

But what if we, too, are simply poking our heads up out of the rubble of a tired, old dying world…poking our heads up out of the rubble left by the Resurrection…and looking to Jesus, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls?

Where are you taking us Jesus? We’d really like to know that.

But, Jesus, if you’re not ready to tell us just exactly where you’re taking us, reassure us of just one thing: Let us know, deep in our bones that you’re the one taking us there, into God’s tomorrow, into the future that belongs solely to you.

Because if that is true, nothing else matters.

In the name of Jesus.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Next Generation: Practicing Resurrection at Home

The Next Generation: Practicing Resurrection

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47

The title of this column might puzzle you. “Practicing” Resurrection? What’s that? The Resurrection is an event, not an assignment, right? The Resurrection is God’s greatest miracle, the Father’s vindication of the crucified Son, the definitive defeat of death. What’s to “practice?”

Lutheran Christians rightly raise such questions. It’s in our DNA, it’s part of our vocation within the Body of Christ. We get nervous whenever someone tries to turn a gift into a duty or an obligation or even a “practice.”

But sometimes our nervousness betrays us. The “happenedness” of the Resurrection too easily leads us to treat Easter as an event in our past. But what if Easter isn’t over yet? What if the Resurrection is an event that unfolds in a transforming way of life?

Living Into God’s New Future

This seems to be what happened in the Jerusalem church that was birthed on Pentecost, the 50th Day of Easter. In Acts 2:42-27 (the basis for our 2011 Synod Assembly theme, Awe-Filled Worship: Doing Acts 2) we behold a gathering of Christ-followers living in this world still, but mindful that God in raising up Christ has opened up a brand new future for them, also.

So, rather than waiting for God to do something amazing, they live new lives characterized by Easter awe—a palpable sense of dwelling in the presence of the Risen Christ. God is active—outside of them but also in and through their faith-filled lives. They extend the Easter event through learning, worshiping, sharing, praying, breaking bread, working wonders, welcoming new believers. Every day became a new adventure!

And notice especially the interplay between their public and private lives in verse 46: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts…” There was a rhythm established, hot on the heels of Pentecost, that valued both what happened in the public church (“the temple”) but also in the domestic church (“at home.”)

The Four Keys

This dynamic interplay of public-and-private undergirds the Next Generation vision for our synod. My March column (The Next Generation: Deep into the Marrow) offered a high-altitude overview of the Vibrant Faith Frame. This month we bring the plane down to a lower altitude, to focus on the Four Keys—ways “practicing resurrection” in the 21st century.

The Four Keys take seriously the experiential side of being Christian. Dr. David Anderson of Vibrant Faith Ministries quotes appreciatively from the American sociologist of religion, Robert Wuthnow: “Effective religious socialization comes about through embedded practices; (emphasis added) that is, through specific, deliberate religious activities that are firmly intertwined with the daily habit of family routines, of eating and sleeping, of having conversations, of adorning the spaces in which people live, of celebrating the holidays, and of being part of a community.”

Indeed, all living faiths have some sort of “embedded practices”—some very similar to our own. What makes these “practices of resurrection” is that we do them “in Christ.” The Four Keys represent four ways that the risen Christ lives in and through us, for the sake of the world.

Caring Conversations

This one sounds so easy, so basic. The First Key—caring conversations—nudges us toward a practice that used to come more naturally for Christians, i.e. to check in with one another regularly on how the Christian walk is unfolding in the daily-ness of life.

In our atomized, cocooned, “wired” 21st century lives it is so easy to miss chances to connect with one another personally in our congregations and our homes. The more high-tech our lives become, though, the more we hunger for high-touch encounters with one another.

Caring Conversations need not be highly organized or intricately choreographed. A simple, leading question may be all you need: “How was your day? What happened at school or work? How did you meet God today?” Some households and church groups share “highs and lows” as part of the “agenda” of every meeting.

It’s tempting to skip over these brief personal sharing times, though. Parents of ‘tweens and teens can’t always get their kids to talk—so why bother trying? Or in church committees we want to “get on with business.” Ironically, as studies have revealed, we actually handle “business” more efficiently and effectively when we start our gatherings with some personal checking-in-time.

Moreover, caring conversations keep the boundaries of the Body of Christ “permeable,” i.e. able to invite and include seekers who are looking for the one true God. What if our homes and congregations became known as places where no topic is off limit and no potential conversation-partner is turned away?


Caring conversations prepare us for the Second Key: devotions. Remember the verb that dwells within this word: devote. Devotions center us in the One who is utterly devoted to us, the God to whom we are utterly devoted. Devotions place our busy lives in the presence of the God and Father of us all, who raised Jesus the beloved Son from the dead.

Having devotions in our households or church groups need not be burdensome. Instead of setting the bar too high, let’s view devotions as moments-in-time when we take a brief break from the routine and remind ourselves that the Risen Christ is always with us—that we are not alone in the universe.

So reading Christ in our Home or another daily devotional guide—at the breakfast table or before bedtime—is never wasted time. Homes that include small children will want to use age-appropriate devotional resources. Dwelling in a verse of the Bible sustains us. More and more Lutherans are following ancient prayer practices like lectio divina (sacred reading): a four-step way of living with a verse or two for some moments that lead to prayer. (For a simple introduction to lectio divina go to and scroll down to #4, “Pray the Bible.”)

Rituals and Traditions

Closely akin to devotions is the Third Key: rituals and traditions. These are healthy habits and routines that sustain the Easter life God has opened up for us by raising Jesus from the dead. The rituals and traditions we actually embrace will be many and varied. The Third Key includes

• How we adorn our homes and church buildings with symbols of living faith;

• How we pray upon rising, before meals, and at the close of the day;

• How we bless and commend one another to God every day or before every journey or farewell;

• How we immerse ourselves in art, music and other forms of beauty that reveal God’s love;

• How we mark life’s milestones in homes and in congregations;

• How we practice forgiveness and reconciliation with one another;

• How we baptize, affirm, marry, heal and bury “in Christ.”

I suggest a spirit of playfulness, imagination and variety--especially in our homes, as we develop rituals and traditions that “work” for us. When our children were little, Joy and I included very long “God bless” lists in night-time prayers (including even blessings for favorite stuffed animals—“all God’s creatures”), brought home fun table graces learned at family Bible camp (“Be Present at Our Table” to the tune of the Flintstones theme), and precious children’s hymns (“Have No Fear, Little Flock” was a favorite).


The Fourth Key draws us out of our tight circles and into God’s wider world: service. Our caring conversations make us wonder how others are doing. Our devotions and traditions ground us in God who is always showing up in the face of the “least ones” around us (Matthew 25:31-46). Families, homes and congregations “practice the Resurrection” as they follow the Risen Christ out into our communities and beyond.

Last November our family did something we’d thought about for years. We helped serve the community Thanksgiving Dinner at St Joseph’s Catholic Church of Moorhead (in cooperation with Trinity Lutheran Church and the Moorhead community). It was great: being with our neighbors, giving thanks for God’s abundance, reducing the loneliness that is a daily reality for so many. Afterward I was struck by how serving together in this way fed back into our family’s own caring conversations and prayers. Indeed, the Four Keys are intimately related to one another—playing off each other as “practices of the Resurrection.”

In the Risen Christ,
Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. The Four Keys aren’t the only “practices of the Resurrection” in the church. What are some other “embedded practices” that enliven faith in your homes and congregation?

2. How have you observed “caring conversations” opening up a home or a congregation to include an outsider (or outsiders)?

3. What pattern of devotions do you find to be most faith-strengthening and sustaining?

4. How do you perceive connections between the Four Keys?

This is the fifth 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.