Friday, June 24, 2011

Dear Minnesota Politicians....

Dear Minnesota Politicians...

Get this state budget crisis fixed NOW.   Stop your preening and posturing and pontificating.

Stop describing "the government" as an entity outside of yourselves--for sure, stop describing government as an enemy.   Hey, Bucko, if you hold elective office in this state you are part of the government.   Heck, if you're a citizen (a "citizen" not a "taxpayer", by the way!) YOU ARE PART OF THE GOVERNMENT.

While you're at it, stop comparing the state budget to my household budget.   Cut that out.   Quit saying inane things like "Just as we have to tighten our belts in our families, so also state government (there you go again, speaking about the government as if it were an "other" and not a shared enterprise you are part of) must tighten its belt."   Sorry--that's not even close to being a valid analogy.   My little household, our little platoon, is small potatoes compared to the State of Minnesota....not just in terms of the dollars in our respective budgets, but also in terms of the scope and mission of our state's government.

What really isn't going to wash with me or other true-blue Minnesotans is tightening the belt of our state government around the necks of the poorest of the poor.   Don't even go there!

Read my lips:   politics is the art of compromise.   In Minnesota right now we have divided government--a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor.   We Minnesotans like it that way, apparently.   Compromise in this case means that the state budget will be balanced by a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.   Get on with it!

And one more thing:  our family is going to vacation on the North Shore in another week.   I expect all those gorgeous state parks to be open.    Don't disappoint me and my loved ones. 

As my namesake the Cable Guy likes to say:  "Get 'er done!"

Your fellow citizen of Minnesota, a great state, worthy of our support, including our taxes....
Larry Wohlrabe

Tree-Hugging Dirt Worshipper

OK, so I'm a sucker for clever bumper stickers--on other people's car bumpers, not mine.   When Joy and I were over at Itasca State Park last Sunday afternoon I saw one that was new to me:  TREE-HUGGING DIRT WORSHIPPER.

"Nice to know there are still some unreformed hippies running around," I mused.   But then I pondered those four words more deeply...

"Dirt worshipper."   Pretty down-to-earth, one of my favorite ways of talking about God's way with us...incarnational to the core, wrapped in flesh, fully human (a word related to "humus," dirt) while fully divine.  

The One I worship is described, in at least one place in the scriptures, as a Second Adam ("Adam" from "adamah"--dirt, in Hebrew, cf. Romans 5:12-21).    Dirt has worked its way into God's DNA.  

Am I, in some sense, a "dirt worshipper?"

But "tree-hugging?"   I don't think so....unless...we're talking about that Tree, the one on which the Savior of the world hung.   The Tree to which we cling for life and freedom and a fresh start.  

I guess I do hug that Tree--yes?  And I hope you do, too.


An appellation for only neo-pagan eco-freaks?

Or might that bumper sticker describe even souls like me, who worship the Word-made-human (humus), who hug for dear life the Tree of Life on which was wrought the salvation of the whole world.

Hmmm.  I wonder where I can get me one of those bumper stickers....

Cracked Pots

Ordination and Installation of Margaret Jacobus
Oklee Lutheran Parish, Oklee, MN
June 25, 2011
II Corinthians 4:1-7

 In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Margaret, it’s customary in an ordination sermon for the preacher to offer some sage advice to the candidate for ordination.  

So, here goes:   don’t try to be too good a pastor.  

Let me say that again:   don’t try to be too good a pastor.

And above all, avoid saying, doing or being anything that might cause someone to say of you:  “Oh, Pastor Margaret—she’s such a perfect pastor!”  If anyone starts saying THAT you surely will have failed as a minister of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, you’re probably thinking:  who let this guy into our pulpit?  This is about the last thing anyone gathered here this afternoon wants to hear—especially the parish call committee and parish council that met with Margaret, discerned her strengths for ministry and perceived a “match” between her gifts and the gifts of this parish.   Surely your call committee and your council did not go casting about for mediocrity….they weren’t just looking for “an OK pastor.”

No, far from it!  In fact this afternoon we are all here because we want you to succeed, Margaret.   This is your cheering section—in full force.    We want you to be a good, maybe even a great pastor.   We are pulling for you!

And yet, I caution you:  just don’t try to be too good a pastor.

And really, those aren’t just my words to you today, as much as they are the words of the apostle Paul in our second lesson. …where we read:  “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

You and I, Margaret, as pastors of the church, and indeed all of us who are baptized into Christ, called to bear God’s redeeming Word in the world…..all of us gathered here this afternoon are “clay jars,” earthen vessels--some have suggested “cracked pots.”   

And yet God chooses to do God’s work through us—the work of pastoral ministry in the church, the work of daily life ministry among our neighbors in the world.    God has a predilection for, a preference for, flawed vessels….and thankfully, there seem to be plenty of such flawed vessels at God’s disposal.

But that isn’t exactly what we want to hear….and it’s not what Paul’s first hearers of this word, the Christians in Corinth, wanted to hear either.  

You see, our second lesson is an excerpt of a much longer conversation between St Paul and one of the churches he helped start, the church in the Greek seaport city of Corinth.

It was a stormy, love/hate relationship that existed between Pastor Paul and the Corinthian church.  We know that Paul served among them and revisited them in person, but mainly we know that he wrote letters to them….probably at least four letters, though we have only two of them in our New Testament.

The Corinthian Christians were confused and conflicted over many things, not the least of which was the nature of pastoral leadership—the faithfulness and fruitfulness of those who had preached the gospel in Corinth.   Paul may have jump-started this congregation, but he was followed by a whole succession of other preachers….some of whom were apparently much more impressive, more charismatic, (we might say) more EFFECTIVE than the Apostle Paul.

It got to the point that there were even “favorite pastor fan clubs” within the Corinthian congregation, with members of the church haggling over which of their pastors had been the best (I Cor. 3)….so much so that Paul had to go right after the whole notion that faith and discipleship and mission are dependent upon the personal gifts or qualities of any pastors, including himself.

And how Paul did that was to use himself as an example of how God often does some of his best work through his least-impressive, least-gifted, least-powerful preachers (I Cor. 4).   Why, Paul even boasted of his weaknesses and drew attention to something about him—a physical disability, a speech defect, epilepsy, some “thorn in the flesh”—that made him, Paul anything BUT a “perfect pastor.” (II Cor 12:5-10)

Now, we could chalk all of this up to a flaw in Paul’s fragile psyche, I suppose—his frail ego, his desperate need to defend himself, raise his own stock and curry favor in the Corinthian congregation…were it not for the fact that Paul finally didn’t make this all about himself.  

Finally, Paul made it all about God, specifically the God who meets us in the foolishness of the Cross and the weakness of the incarnate, in-the-flesh Jesus Christ who demonstrated his power chiefly in showing mercy, submitting himself to sinners, being betrayed by his friends, dying on a cross, and being buried in a borrowed grave.

Paul argued with the Corinthians and right here in our text for today, that it’s not about the preacher, it’s not about who’s the most persuasive or witty or impressive speaker of the Good News.   It is rather about God who works through our weaknesses and deficits, who takes us and hides the treasure of the gospel in us, clay jars, “cracked pots,” so that no one will miss the point:  it’s not about us.  It’s about God, the God who meets us in the weak, vulnerable, crucified, dead-but-now-risen-again Jesus.

So I repeat, Margaret, don’t try to be too good a pastor.   If you do that, people might forget that they still need Jesus!

It’s easier said than done, though—this “don’t be too good a pastor” thing.   It sounds like it should be simple, but it’s not. 

It will go against your grain, Margaret, trying not to be too good a pastor.   Because that’s how it is for all of us called to the office of Word and Sacrament.   There is so much to do—and we want to do all of it as well as we can. 

Take preaching, for example.   Preachers, good hardworking preachers, want to “say it all” in every sermon.  That is a temptation, especially when a pastor is starting out—“give them the whole load of hay” every Sunday.

But here’s the kicker:  you will find that the sermons that “hit home” are the ones you feel least good about.   Every preacher I’ve talked with about this can tell stories to that effect.   You think you have a pretty good sermon—but it falls flat, goes nowhere!   Then the next week, you’ve been distracted by other things and you didn’t prepare as well as you’d like—so you go into the pulpit on a wing and a prayer—and afterwards some of your hearers request a manuscript, so they can ponder this magnificent sermon again.

Here’s what I think is going on in all that:   when we step down or step back or step aside, as preachers, Jesus steps up.   Where we are lacking or incomplete or just plain weak—Jesus has a chance to shine all the brighter.  

More than once in my many years of being a traveling preacher, I’ve stepped into a pulpit on which is carved this verse from John 12:21:   “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

That’s what it’s all about, my friends.   Ministry is about stepping back so that Jesus can shine all the brighter.

So Margaret, I say to you again:   although we all know you bring wonderful gifts and ardent passion to this work, and although we know you are eager and ready to “dig in” in here in the Oklee parish, with heart and soul and mind…..please don’t be too good  a pastor.  Please don’t think you need to say it all, do it all, be it all.   

And you, people of God, you can do your part by not trying to be” too good” Christians, as well.  Because Christians who are hung up on being “too good” usually become hung up on themselves, often in ways that divide them from one another…no longer focused on or trusting in Jesus, no longer united in Christ.

Give Jesus time and space and ample opportunity to do what Jesus does best:   save us from our self-centeredness, our mortality, our captivity to forces that mean us harm.

Give Jesus a chance to save us and to send us, not as perfect specimens, but as “clay jars,” flawed vessels, cracked pots through whom God nevertheless does God’s amazing work in this world.  

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

All About the Future

75th Anniversary of Immanuel, Bejou, MN
Trinity Sunday—June 19, 2011
Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Matthew 18:16-20

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

I love days like this--church anniversaries--when we “militantly modest,” shy, understated Lutherans give ourselves permission to “cut loose.”  

I love how days like this feel like big old family reunions.  I love how we wheel in the old pastors, gawk at them, whisper to one another over who has gotten the grayest or lost the most hair.  I love how on days like this we look back, tell ancient tales, and relive episodes from our church’s past.  I even love all the “stuff”—the cookbooks, the wall plates, the ornaments and gizmos and nick-nacks that we let ourselves get talked into buying to remember our dear old church.

What I maybe love the most is the food—the big dinner (sometimes under a rented tent) and the cake and all the trimmings.  We Lutherans don’t know how to celebrate anything without eating too much—and today is no exception.

I love days like this, and I get invited to church anniversaries every summer, and that always surprises me—because usually I’m the most unfamiliar face in the whole crowd.   Makes me feel a little like a “reunion crasher.”   Why in the world do congregations like yours ask a total stranger to come and even preach on a day like this, anyway?

Perhaps it is because you realize a congregational anniversary is always about more than the congregation.   Deep in your bones, you recognize that Immanuel Lutheran Church isn’t your cozy club—your private preserve.   This whole, glorious history that we revel in today is about you and those who came before you—but it is also all about God—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and everyone who belongs to God.  Today is about all the “operations of the Holy Trinity,” coming sharply into focus in one small corner of God’s vast domain.

Years ago I heard an anniversary sermon I will never forget.   The pastor brought into the pulpit an eight foot-long stick on which he had he had painstakingly marked off, in 100-year segments, highlights of the history of the whole Christian church on earth, from the Day of Pentecost down to the present moment.

The pastor used this wooden timeline to give us all a lesson in church history, scrolling through all the events that have defined Christianity, until he arrived finally at the last 100 year segment—the century in which his congregation had been in existence. 

To tell the truth, measured against the whole sweep of church history, the time this one congregation had occupied looked like a blip on a screen.

Which was precisely the pastor’s point.   The years a single congregation has been around--though precious us who love the congregation—are like a drop in the bucket of eternity.   So we would be wise, the preacher urged us, to keep all our anniversary reminiscing and remembering in proper perspective.

Well,  this morning I didn’t bring an 8-foot stick along with me, but I did bring along the scripture lessons for this Trinity Sunday, which point, in three specific ways to all the “operations of the Holy Trinity” that will help us keep this 75th anniversary here at Immanuel in proper perspective.

First, to keep us from getting too tightly focused on this single congregation, in this tiny village, God’s Word for today calls us to take a wide-angle lens view of all that God has been and still is up to across the panorama of the whole universe.

So, it’s good to hear the poetry of the Genesis 1 creation story, to see the cosmic backdrop, across which God’s “portrait” of Immanuel Lutheran  has been painted.  For the God who called your congregation into being in 1935 is the same Creator God who spoke all things into existence…

…the Lord to whom this congregation belongs is the one who according to our gospel lesson has “all authority in heaven and on earth.”   Wow!

There may be 1.3 billion persons in China who will never hear of Immanuel Lutheran of Bejou—but the Creator of all that exists, Jesus the Son who is Lord over all has called you, Immanuel Lutheran Church, to be one of his kingdom outposts.     Big enough for you?

Second, to help us resist turning inward (as can happen so easily in any congregation), God’s Word for today invites us to consider the entire web of relationships and connections that have made and still sustain Immanuel as the congregation that it is.

Relationships, you see, are in the spotlight on every Trinity Sunday.  Relationships, after all, are at the core of God’s very being.   God is “three in one” because God is a relationship of mutual self-giving in which the Father gives the Son, even as the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son for the life of the whole world.

It is this Triune, three-in-one God out of whose abundance of love and relationships that Immanuel Lutheran Church was formed 75 years ago.    And that’s why for these last three-quarters of a century, you have continually tended relationships both within, but also outside of this congregation.   It’s what Christians do, after all—as persons who’ve been commissioned to expand God’s life-giving web of relationships, making disciples of “all nations.”  

So today, rather than risk getting turned inward, God’s Word bids us give thanks for all the relationships that got Immanuel going and kept it going, through thick and thin.   As I’ve gotten acquainted with your congregation’s history, I’ve been struck how often Immanuel has been threatened by forces that could have wiped you out.

Founded during the Great Depression, you had to reorganize yourselves in your first five years of life, recognizing that you would survive only in relationship with others…with neighboring congregations like First of Mahnomen and now Calvary of Winger….with part-time pastors who served here for many years…with financial assistance from the old ALC back in the 1970s…and, after a tornado struck Bejou, with the prayers and support of others who helped you put up a new church building that serves you still.

Your ongoing life, my dear friends, will be full and rich as you keep on tending relationships with God, with one another and with your fellow believers across this region, this country and this world. 

Third (and finally), lest we get stuck in nostalgia—looking back only--on this anniversary Sunday, God’s Word for today reminds us that God is all about the future—and that God’s mission is always beckoning us forward, toward the New Creation that God is bringing our way.

What we might miss, in this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew 28 is the fact that here at the very end of the gospel is the first time the disciples show up since they forsook Jesus on the night he was betrayed.  As Matthew narrates Christ’s passion, the disciples run and hide like scared rabbits.   Only some women followed Jesus to the Cross and ventured to the tomb on Easter morning….the disciples are nowhere to be seen until these last five verses of Matthew’s gospel.

You’d think, under those circumstances, that the Risen Christ would turn back the pages of time and rub his disciples’ faces in their cowardice, reminding them of all the ways they let him down.   

But not the Risen Lord Jesus Christ:  he meets his disciples, some of whom still have their doubts, and he sends them—woefully inadequate though they may be—Jesus sends them out to turn the world upside down with the astonishing news of life, forgiveness and freedom.

The Risen Lord Jesus who commissions those scared rabbits is all about the future, all about what lies ahead, and his final words in Matthew’s gospel drive us and all who hear them toward this same future:  “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We will do some history-sharing, we’ll engage in a little nostalgia today here at Immanuel.  But may our looking back serve the purpose of charging us up, in order to move ahead, with our Risen Lord who is indeed all about the future.  

You may have your doubts about that future—especially now as you say goodbye to a beloved pastor and prepare to call a new pastor with your parish partners of Calvary.    But have no fear:  you will never be alone, never far from the One to whom has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.

The future, your future here at Immanuel, is God’s future.  It’s a gift from the Living Lord Jesus who has death behind him, who has promised to continue being Immanuel, God-with-us, forever.

In his name.   Amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Out of the Boat

Grace Lutheran Church, Ada, MN
Installation of Pastor Matthew Williams
Easter 7/June 5, 2011
Acts 1:6-14

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

So it was two weeks ago this past Thursday. I was in a meeting, and I get a text message from my 29-year-old son Erik, who lives in the Twin Cities. Our brief exchange went like this:

ERIK: “Is it true that “May 21 is Doomsday?” Some nut got (on) the front page of the (Fargo) Forum today…

ME: Yeah, there’s a guy who is SURE the Rapture starts on Saturday. From the standpoint of what Jesus (actually) said on the subject, the world will NOT end on Saturday.

ERIK: OK, but just in case you and mom do get raptured, can I have the snowblower?

Now this little text message exchange went on a while longer, but you get the picture. Erik and I were hardly the only ones “buzzing” about radio evangelist Harold Camping’s prediction that the Rapture would happen at 6 p.m. on May 21st. All over the world billboards got put up, possessions were sold, fiery “get-ready-for-the-rapture” sermons were delivered and “Left Behind” parties were planned.

Of course, we know now that our Lord didn’t return two weeks ago to gather up the faithful—all two or three hundred million of the “elite” whom Harold Camping predicted would “measure up” and qualify for the heavenly updraft.

Undaunted, though, Mr. Camping quickly revised his prediction, saying that it would be October 21st, not May 21st when the celestial fireworks would go off….so I’m sure we haven’t yet heard the end of this business.

And really, that shouldn’t surprise us one bit!

Because speculation about the “mechanics”of the End of the World has been around at least since the Ascension of our Christ, as recorded in today’s 2nd Lesson from Acts.

“Lord,” the disciples asked the resurrected Jesus, “is this the time—is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

That question has been asked for nearly 21 centuries. “Is this the time…?” Is this when God is going to wrap up this whole business?

It’s an old, old question….that is also as fresh as this morning’s news. And why does it fascinate us so?

There is, to be sure, something vital at stake here. We long for God’s final purposes to be achieved. We ache for God to consummate, to draw to a decisive conclusion all of God’s saving work.

And the fact that God will do that is taken for granted by Christians of all stripes. The last word about Jesus in our Creed, after all, asserts that “he will come to judge the living and the dead.”

But how and where and when exactly will that happen? The Bible dangles out some hints about that, here and there….and that has led some earnest souls to try stringing together all those hints into some meaningful whole—to produce a heavenly timetable….

….even though the clearest and most compelling word of Jesus on the topic is usually forgotten. It goes something like this: “No one knows. Not the angels in heaven. Not even the Son. Only the Father knows….and he isn’t telling!”

The surest word we have on the “mechanics” of the End of All Things is that it’s way above our pay grade to know all the details….so we would be wise to focus on other things.

And fortunately, Jesus, tells us—flat out—what those other things just happen to be.

Reading from our text: So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ 7He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

It is not for us to be privy to the heavenly timetable. That isn’t within our purview. We best leave it alone by leaving it to God.

What is within our purview, our capacity to grasp and “do something” about is this: bearing witness here and now in this world.

And if Jesus does provide any timetables or itineraries, it’s about this down-to-earth, here-and-now work that we HAVE been given.

Picture it, for the first Christ-followers, as a series of concentric circles…moving outward from Jerusalem.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. It all starts where it all started for Jesus, in Jerusalem, where the Cross was raised up on the city’s garbage heap….and where the crucified Jesus was raised up three days later.

Start here—in Jerusalem…and then move on out to the first ring of witness, Judea and Samaria—walking where Jesus walked….and then keep on moving out to territory the earthly Jesus never covered, “to the ends of the earth.”

This, my dear friends, is what God in Christ would have us be about—speaking, acting, living the Christ life…”witnessing” to the life, death and resurrection of our Lord….to the ends of the earth.

Anything else, everything else, will too easily become a distraction.

One of my seminary professors recalled a bumper sticker that said: “In the event of the Rapture, the driver of this vehicle will not be responsible.”

“Yes, that’s the problem with so-called ‘rapture theology,’” my professor observed. “No one is responsible for God’s people or God’s good earth.” We can become so heavenly-minded that we’re of no earthly use.

We can become so distracted by other things---end of the world speculating, moralizing about other people’s behaviors, arguing church politics, you name it---we can become so distracted by other things (and the Lutheran tribe has its own favorite ways of doing that, mind you!)…we can become so distracted by other, lesser things that we miss the Main Thing, which is sharing Christ.

A Christian leader from Africa put it this way: “Oh, you American Lutherans! You’re always trying to fish INSIDE the boat.”

But Jesus is crystal clear: our place to fish is OUTSIDE the boat, in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth. Move on out, Jesus says.

But all too often, we prefer to hunker down inside the boat. If you follow the narrative here in the Book of Acts carefully, the first followers of Jesus don’t actually DO what Jesus told them to either until the 8th chapter of Acts.

The first disciples got “stuck” in Jerusalem, until the horrific martyrdom of Stephen (which we read about in Acts 7), which in turn led to the first general persecution of the Christian church in Jerusalem. THEN, finally (as it says in Acts 8:1)…”a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.”

The call and command of the risen Jesus in Acts 1:8 comes to fruition only in the persecution “scattering” of his followers in Acts 8:1.

God uses whatever’s at his disposal—even the horror of persecution—to pursue God’s purposes, through God’s people. God didn’t call us to duct-tape together clues scattered across the Bible, God didn’t call us to expend our energy debating secondary, here-today-gone-tomorrow “hot button” issues, God didn’t call us to stay stuck in one place or to even try “fishing inside the boat.”

God in Jesus Christ calls us to move out, to move forward, bearing the Good News about Jesus, wherever we are sent.

And when we get stuck, mind you, God will get us unstuck.

In her provocative book, The Great Emergence, author Phyllis Tickle suggests that every 500 years or so, the Christian church holds a big rummage sale. Every five centuries, give or take, God turns the church upside down, in order to get us off our duffs and move us out once again, to recapture for a new generation the freshness, the sweet inviting aroma of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

I think we’re in such a turning-point time right now. Even the upheaval in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America may be akin to what happened in the first eight chapters of the Book of Acts: God getting us “unstuck,” God getting us all shook up, so that God can get us all sent out once again.

And here’s how it always begins, though: in prayer and worship, as we await with Jesus’ first followers the gift of the Holy Spirit. How apropos for this service of installation for Pastor Matt Williams, whom you have called to help lead you in the two chief activities of the people of God: prayer and work, worship and mission--especially the good “work” of passing on the faith to the next generation of disciples.

Notice how our text concludes, with Christ’s followers caught up in prayer and worshp. Maybe that’s how the next chapter in our lives of faith will always begin: in prayer, gathered around Word and Sacrament, awaiting the fresh air of the Spirit to blow through us and scatter us and send us just exactly where God needs us to be--Out of the boat. Into the world. Bearing witness to Christ

.In the name of Jesus. Amen.