Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Church That's All About GOING

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?  
Toward a Church That’s All About “Going”
Bishop’s Bible Study on Matthew 28:16-20
Based on a message Bp. Wohlrabe delivered at a Joint Lenten Service
Sponsored by the ELCA Congregations of Fergus Falls

“Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’”   Matthew 28:16-20

Coming to Church

 I grew up in a church that was all about “coming.”[i]   Whatever kind of question or longing or concern you might have could be addressed if you would simply come—come to church.   Church was a place where you came to learn about Jesus, where you came to get close to God and your fellow Christians, where you came for the “straight scoop” about all the big religious questions, where you came to be nourished with God’s Word and Sacraments so that you could face all the ups and downs of life.

This church of my youth—which was all about “coming”, coming to church, coming to God—this church worked best for those who were already part of it.   In fact, we regularly thought of this church as our church, a church that sturdy, no-nonsense German Lutherans-- “our kind of people”--had built and sustained.

It’s not that others weren’t welcome.   Far from it!  Among many other good things we were doing—we were a church that engaged in “mission work,” especially in far-off parts of the world where folks very different from us hadn’t yet heard of Jesus.    We sent brave missionaries to those exotic places so that they could invite people to come—to come to Jesus, to come to faith, to come to church.   We gave some of our money so that churches could be started in those far-flung corners of the world so that Christians would have some place to come, too.

Closer to home, we honestly weren’t aware that we might have near-neighbors who didn’t know about Jesus.   In my little town in southern Minnesota everyone came to a church (or so we thought).  If newcomers showed up in town they certainly were welcome to come to our church.   We even left the doors to the church building unlocked on Sunday mornings.  If they really wanted to come to our church, no one would stop them.  Shoot!  We might even make space for them in one of the pews that weren’t already taken by some of our long-time, faithful church members.

I grew up in a church that was all about “coming,” and perhaps you did, too.  I am thankful for this church of my youth.  It’s where faith was planted and nurtured in my life.  I’m glad I came to church as a boy; it’s become a habit I haven’t yet broken.

I grew up in a church that was all about “coming.”

Going As Church

Today, I am growing into a church that is all about “going.”    This “going” church feels a lot messier than the church I grew up in.  Things aren’t all buttoned up and nailed down.   There is more movement in this “going” church….it’s a much more mobile and portable and (at times) chaotic than the church I grew up in.

This “going” church isn’t so much a place as it is a movement.   Hard to capture it in a snapshot—the church I’m growing into is best imagined in moving pictures, testimonies, interviews with real live people…because this “going” church is a people more than it is a place.   And these people are going somewhere, somewhere where Jesus already has gone, somewhere where God is leading them to go.

This church of today is less defined by what happens in just one place.  It is more about how the people who gather together every week are scattered into the mission field that is all around them.   Ideally, this church is aimed at those who AREN’T already part of it!

The church into which I am growing is a going church that continually sends people like me into the world to carry Christ and to be Christ wherever life takes us.   “Mission” isn’t one of many extra-curricular activities of the church.  No--“mission” is the flaming center of this church.

Today’s “going” church doesn’t just leave the door unlocked on Sunday mornings, in the hope that some stranger will happen by and enter.   Today’s “going” church goes to, intentionally seeks folks who haven’t yet heard the gospel in a believable way.  Through words and deeds and simply by “being” the Body of Christ in the world, this church goes to whomever Christ is beckoning us, whether that person is a near-neighbor or someone who lives far away.

Many of us grew up in a church that was all about “coming.”   But we’re growing into a church that is all about “going.”

And we believe that this isn’t just a fad that will be popular for a while before it fades away.  We believe that this is actually a return to the church God always intended  us to be.

Jesus’ First Word

Because after his resurrection, the Risen and Living Lord Jesus’ first word was:   “Go!”   “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.”  Be and bring forth a church that will be all about going.

And this isn’t just a demand Jesus lays on us.  It is an energizing invitation to be about what Jesus himself has always been about.

We are growing into a church that’s all about going because we belong to a God who is all about going.

The God we meet in the Bible is a traveling God, don’t you know?   Not enthroned, aloof, out of touch—

God is always on the go throughout the scriptures.   God walks with our first parents in the Garden.  God accompanies Abraham and Sarah to a land he would show them.  God escapes Egypt with Moses and the Hebrew slaves.   God leads Joshua into the promised land.   God sojourns with prophets, priests and kings. 

And when the moment was right God went into the world—intimately, personally—in the flesh and blood of Jesus.

Jesus, who had no place to rest his weary head, was always on the go, forever gathering up a people who would be on the go with him.   Jesus was always moving—healing diseases, casting out devils, throwing parties for sinners, confronting opponents, recklessly proclaiming God’s rule over all things,  marching into the palaces of worldly power, trudging to the Cross, entering the grave, and on Easter morning getting up and going once again.

Our Lord Jesus calls us to be a going church, not to be something he is not, but to fall in step with him, the Going One, who is always going ahead of us, piecing back together the whole creation, aligning heaven and earth, beckoning us forward into God’s future.

I recently saw a great bumper sticker that read:  Don’t look back.  You aren’t going that way!”

If Jesus drove a car, that could have been his bumper sticker.    

Now at first blush, this sounds pretty exciting, doesn’t it!?   We’re not a bunch of sticks-in-the mud.  We’re a church that’s all about going.  

Tempted to Turn Back

But chew on that a while, and questions will start to pop up.   It’s not easy, after all, to take a church and put wheels under it….to take a comfortable, settled people and make them mobile, send them out, have them go where Jesus is going.

For centuries, you see, we’ve been trying to get the church put together, nailed down, grounded, stable, secure.   And now we’re supposed to pry all that loose and have the church “go mobile?”  Really, now??

This “church on the go” sounds messy and downright scary.   Because if Jesus bids us go where he has gone…to move where Jesus wants us to be….we could find ourselves in a heap of trouble.  

Recently I read a new book entitled Simply Jesus.     The author, N.T. Wright, declared that “the story of 'how Jesus became king'…across the world [as related to us in the Book of Acts] anything but the smooth, triumphant process of a conquering worldly monarch, obliterating the opposition by the normal military methods. The methods of kingdom work are in accordance with the message of Jesus as king: that is, they involve suffering, misunderstanding, violence, execution, and in the final spectacular scene [at the end of the Book of Acts]...shipwreck."  (pp. 200-201).

Ponder that long enough, and we might get cold feet.  We might retreat behind the walls of our well-insured church buildings.   We might prefer being a church that’s all about “coming,” being at the center, getting folks to come to us and adopt our ways and be just like us.   

We might look back and think about where we’ve been and say:  “Let’s just try to be that kind of a church again—all buttoned up, nailed down, safe and secure.”

But remember that bumper sticker on the back of Jesus’ car:  “Don’t look back.  You aren’t going that way.”

For if it’s Jesus we’re following….our noses will always be pointed toward his future, toward God’s tomorrow, toward which our Lord Jesus, in the power of his resurrection said this word first:   “Go!   Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations.”

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

Northwestern Minnesota Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1.      Was the church of your youth primarily a “coming” church or a “going” church?   Or was it both?

2.      Where is your church on the “coming” and “going” continuum right now?

3.      What energizes you about becoming more of a “going” church?   What concerns you about making this transition?

4.      Where and to whom is God calling your congregation to go TODAY?

This is the fourth in a series of monthly Bible studies during 2012 focused on the question:  “Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?”   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.

[i] I’m indebted to Pr. Stephen McKinley who wrote the popular “Pastor Loci” column in the dear-departed Lutheran Partners magazine, for the language of a “coming” and “going” church.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Let's NOT Make a Deal

Moe Lutheran Church, Roseau, MN
March 11, 2012/Lent 3
John 2:13-22

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.
In today’s gospel lesson we meet “scary Jesus”—a Jesus who’s out of control, itching for a fight. And because I’m never quite sure what to do with this scary Jesus, I usually avoid preaching on this text when it pops up in the lectionary….

….but not today, because I’m thinking that some of you might actually want to make sense of this startling story, and as a matter of fact, so do I!
So here goes!

We’re in the Temple of Jerusalem, early in the first century A.D., and it’s not just an ordinary day.  It’s Passover—a feast to remember God’s liberation of his chosen people when they were slaves in Egypt.
The way pious Jews of that day did that was to pack their bags and travel to Jerusalem.  So the city is teeming with the faithful, all of them heading toward the Temple which was their “access point” with God.  

If you’re an observant Jew at Passover time, the Temple is where you meet your God.
So Jesus is in this vast crowd of pilgrims, taking it all in—all the sights, sounds and smells of the Temple.

And Jesus doesn’t like any of it.   Jesus doesn’t experience the silence or solemnity or “gravity” of what a sacred space should be.  Instead Temple is a noisy, bustling hubbub.   There’s a lot happening there—and a lot of money is changing hands.
Because, you see, no one was supposed to come to the Temple empty-handed.  You were supposed to sacrifice something on an altar…whether you could afford a top-of-the-line bull or just a small dove that symbolized your gratitude to God.

No one was to come to the Temple empty-handed. 
And yet, with swarms of pilgrims converging on Jerusalem from all over Israel, they couldn’t all drag along their own oxen or sheep or crates of turtle-doves from home.  So an enterprising business had sprung up in the Temple, allowing you to purchase your sacrificial animal on-location. 

Think of it as the original “convenience store!”
But you couldn’t buy your sacrificial animal with filthy Roman money.   You couldn’t purchase the raw materials for a holy sacrifice to your holy God with a coin bearing the image of the pagan tyrant Caesar.

So before you bought your sacrificial animal, you had to “buy” some holy money, exchanging profane Roman coins for the image-less shekels that had “currency” only in the Temple.
And all of this was GOOD, mind you!   The purpose of this whole rigmarole was sound.

It may strike us as peculiar or arcane, but the intent of all this buying and selling was wholesome—because it was about connecting you with God.
All of this buying and selling in the Temple expressed good intentions….but Jesus was still not happy with any of it.   So Jesus staged his own one-man “Occupy” movement in Jerusalem’s Temple. He disrupted the sacred commerce in the holy place—evicted the sellers, turned all the cattle and sheep and doves loose.  What a holy mess!

Why did Jesus do this?   Here’s his explanation:  Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!”
In the original language of the New Testament, Jesus says:  “stop making my Father’s house an emporium.

That is to say: “Stop making this point of access to my Father a ‘product’ that can simply be bought and sold.”  Stop giving the impression that connecting with God involves some kind of “deal.”
This story is not about the perils of conducting bake sales in the narthex or selling tickets to the lutefisk dinner after worship—though it has been used that way in the past by our Lutheran forebears.

No, there is something different, something far deeper here.  It is about how we connect with God, regularly, wholeheartedly, “savingly.”  It is about how God seeks us out, draws us to himself, opens up the channels of communication with us, so that God can do ‘vital business’ with us and send us back out into God’s world.
God intends for that access to be free and fundamentally open to all and not subject to anything that even looks like a transaction or control on our part.

Let me say that again:  God intends that our access to him be free and open to all and not even look like a transaction of any sort.
THAT’S at least part of what was bugging Jesus enough for him to “make a scene” here in Jerusalem’s Temple.   “Stop reducing this house of prayer for all people to an emporium catering to the few who can pay the price of admission.”

That gets us closer to what Jesus was up to here.   
But there’s even more.

And to understand that we need to ponder the other thing Jesus says in our story:  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
Asked for a sign, a reason to take him seriously and not just condemn him for the mayhem he had caused, Jesus cryptically responds:  “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

At first Jesus’ words simply sail right past his questioners.  They hear “temple” and can’t think beyond the brick-and-mortar edifice that took nearly five decades to construct.
If it all came crashing down--all the walls and pillars and furnishings and roof—if an earthquake reduced it all to rubble, Jesus could construct a new Temple in just 72 hours.  

Yeah, right!
But as usual, the literalists in the crowd were missing the whole point of Jesus’ words.  Jesus reference to “three days” was a dead give-away.   Jesus wasn’t speaking of a chunk of real estate here.

Jesus was speaking of himself, the Word made flesh (John 1:14)--God’s own truth-filled, grace-overflowing presence “tenting” (again, 1:14) among us.
Jesus upended business-as-usual in the Temple because he was making this old bricks-and-mortar Temple obsolete.  Jesus, from here on out, would himself be the one, the only point-of-access between God and us.

In Jesus, the Temple would no longer be a block of real estate in Jerusalem.  
In Jesus, the Temple, the location where God meets us, would forever be “out-and-about,” in the world.   Rather than being a destination for us to get to, this “Temple” was coming toward us, making a pilgrimage in our direction, hunting us down, seeking us out, making God freely and fully available to us, with no transactions, no buying-or-selling necessary for God to do vital business with us.

Here’s where the cleansing-of-the-Temple leaves us in John, chapter two.  
All the merchants, all the critters, all the sacrificial animals are cleared out. 

There is just one Sacrificial Being left in the Temple:  Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).   Jesus is God’s “last man standing,” because Jesus is bringing in a New Regime, a fresh way of connecting with us—in which “business” (as we usually understand that word) no longer plays a role.
There are no more quid-pro-quos, no more “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your back” deals, no more transactions.

Because in Jesus, God is now fully and forever, fundamentally available to us and to all people, for us and for our salvation. 
And where exactly is this Temple whose name is Jesus?

Well, for one thing, Jesus is always out ahead of us, beckoning us forward into God’s future.  I saw a great bumper-sticker on Facebook this past week.  It said simply:  “Don’t look back—you’re not going that way!”
Jesus is out ahead of us, meaning that wherever life is taking you, you can expect to find Jesus there.   But you gotta know where to look, because Jesus the new Temple is always surprising us, popping up where we’d least expect him:  in our points of deepest need…when we’re overwhelmed by all the “no”s of life, Jesus the new Temple meets us with a washing, and a feeding, and a forgiving, liberating Word.

Jesus also shows up in one another.   Jesus might run into you in the form of someone who needs you, someone who’s destitute or grieving or in despair.   Jesus the new Temple shows up always in flesh, not brick-and-mortar.
But most vitally, Jesus the new Temple appears is always with us to set us free.  

If your hope is rekindled, if you no longer feel stuck in sin, if you imagine that God has use for you, if it dawns on you that God isn’t going to let a little thing like death get you down—well then, Jesus the New Temple has caught up to you once again, not to make a deal with you, but simply to set you free, for once and for all.
In the name of Jesus.   Amen.