Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Persecutor Becomes a Proclaimer

Where Are You Leading Us, Lord?
A Persecutor Becomes a Proclaimer

One of the critical milestones in the first century of Christian mission was the “conversion” (more accurately, the call) of Saul of Tarsus to become a follower and proclaimer of Jesus Christ.

The back-story may be familiar to you.   Saul first shows up in Acts, chapter 7, as a witness to the martyrdom of Stephen the deacon.  The writer of Acts observes that “Saul approved of their killing him,” before going on to describe the severe persecution of Christians that followed Stephen’s death.  “But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8.3).

In chapter 9 of Acts, however, the tables are turned on Saul.   En route to the Syrian city of Damascus, a heavenly light blinds Saul, and a voice confronts him:  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).   The voice belongs to Jesus, who takes the persecution of his followers quite personally!

You can read the entire 9th chapter of Acts to learn how Saul the Persecutor became Saul the Proclaimer of Jesus Christ.   The story was so crucial in the life of the early church that the Book of Acts reiterates it two more times (in chapters 22 and 26), and Saul himself writes about it in the first chapter of Galatians. 

Missionary to the Mediterranean “World”

We, of course, know Saul the Pharisee better by his Greek name, Paul.   We think of Paul as a writer of epistles that make up much of our New Testament.  We remember him as a founder and pastor of early Christian congregations.   All of this activity of Paul, though, reflected his role as a missionary in the ancient world.

As a youngster I learned about the three “missionary journeys” of Paul, throughout the world as it was known at the time (largely the “world” around the Mediterranean Sea, see the map above).   The first journey is narrated in Acts 13-14, and it begins and ends in the city of Antioch which was apparently the “home base” for Paul’s missionary work.  The second journey plays out in Acts 15:40 through 18:22.   The third journey is described in Acts 18:23 through Acts 21:14, before Paul journeys to Jerusalem where he was arrested and eventually taken to Rome where he was martyred under the cruel emperor Nero in the mid-60s, A.D.

The picture I developed of Paul the missionary in my Sunday School days was rather simple, even simplistic.   I envisioned Paul as

·        An intrepid traveler who braved hazards and opposition, largely on his own;

·        A compelling speaker who won over non-believing Gentiles simply through the pure power of God’s Word; and

·        A highly successful spreader-of-Christianity who moved from triumph to triumph as he established and supported fledgling congregations around the Mediterranean Sea.

Although there is truth in each of these early impressions of St Paul, the Sunday School “picture” I had of him was incomplete.

This fact was brought home to me recently as I read a new book, The Triumph of Christianity:  How the Jesus Movement Became the World’s Largest Religion by Rodney Stark (HarperOne, 2011).   Stark, who grew up as a Lutheran in Jamestown, ND,  is a historian who teaches at Baylor University in Texas.  What makes Stark’s book so intriguing is his use of the techniques and principles of a social historian—someone who looks at sociological “facts on the ground” such as recent archaeological discoveries, new demographic information about the ancient world, and an awareness of how social interactions influenced the rise of Christianity.

A More Nuanced View of Missionary Paul

Stark questions the impression folks have of Paul as an intrepid, solitary traveler on his missionary journeys.   Stark writes:  “In the beginning Paul and Barnabas may have just walked into a town with several apprentices in tow and started preaching in the synagogue.  If so, Paul soon learned better and refused to go anywhere without careful prior arrangements and some commitments of support.  Typically, he began a visit to a new community by holding ‘privately organized meetings under the patronage of eminent persons…who provided him with…an audience composed of their dependents.’  Paul did not travel alone….(but) was often accompanied by a retinue of as many as forty followers, sufficient to constitute an initial ‘congregation,’ which made it possible to hold credible worship services and to welcome and form bonds with newcomers.”  (pp. 61-62)

Stark also sketches a more complex picture of how conversions actually happened in Paul’s missionary work.  Paul preached Christ crucified, of course, though even he seems to have had doubts about his own ability as a proclaimer (see I Cor. 2:1)—doubts shared by some of his critics!   But Stark suggests that conversion was more complicated than simply hearing the Word and believing it.  He writes:  “For generations it was assumed that religious conversions were the result of doctrinal appeal—that people embraced a new faith because they found its teaching particularly appealing….Surprisingly, when sociologists took the trouble to actually go out and watch conversions take place, they discovered that doctrines are of very secondary importance in the initial decision to convert….Conversion is primarily about bringing one’s religious behavior into alignment with that of one’s friends and relatives, not about encountering attractive doctrines.  Put more formally:  people tend to convert to a religious group when their social ties to members outweigh their ties to outsiders who might oppose the conversion, and this often occurs before a convert knows much about what the group believes.”  (pp. 62-63, emphasis in the original) 

In this regard, Stark nuances the picture we have of “Paul the apostle to the Gentiles.”   While it is true that Paul’s missionary work did contribute to Christianity moving beyond the confines of Judaism, the means whereby Paul seems to have done this involved his deep connections with Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews and Gentile “god-fearers” who were already interested in and obedient to the ways of Judaism.   (pp. 69-70)

Finally, the picture we have of Paul moving from “triumph to triumph” as a missionary in the Mediterranean world is belied by the ways even the Book of Acts (see Acts 14:8-20 and Acts 17:16-33) portray the mixed results of his missionary preaching.   Again, Stark writes:  “Given how conversion actually occurs, it follows that Paul’s visits were more like evangelistic campaigns, such as a Billy Graham crusade, than they were like a visit to a community by a missionary.  Graham did not found churches, nor did he often bring the irreligious into faith.  What he did was to greatly energize the participating local churches by intensifying the commitment of their members, which often led them to recruit new members.  So it was with Paul’s visits.  When he spoke to the unconvinced as in Athens and Lystra, the results were meager, at best.  But when he spoke mostly to the converted or to converts-in-process, as he usually did, he aroused them to far greater depths of commitment and comprehension.”  (p. 64)

Implications for the 21st Century Missionary Church

So what might we learn from Rodney Stark’s provocative insights on the missionary work of St Paul?  How might this more nuanced “picture” of the Apostle Paul inform our participation in God’s mission?  Let me share three observations on how 21st century mission outreach is happening:

1.      Lutherans have long valued social networking (even if we haven’t always used the term) as a means whereby God’s Word engages the lives of non-Christians.   For example, members of Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham (and other neighboring ELCA congregations) have been showing up at worship services of our new Waters of Grace Lutheran Church in the Frazee-Vergas area to help “prime the pump” in the outreach work of Pastors Phil Johnson and David Beety.

2.      In our Companion Synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church, social networking happens through the “Bible Women” ministry.   “Bible Women” of the AELC befriend and walk with Hindu women who are considering the claims of Christianity, in transition toward becoming disciples of the Lord Jesus.   The Word of God is powerful, not only in its message but also in the means of social interaction whereby living, breathing human beings walk with one another during the daunting process of conversion.

3.      Lutherans have a natural affinity for “relational evangelism.”  The message of Jesus Christ has its best shot at winning new followers as this message is embodied in the daily lives of ordinary Christians engaging with their family, co-workers, neighbors and friends.    We understand how doctrine plays a critical role in embracing the way of Christ.   In this regard Rodney Stark’s comments on the role of doctrine make sense to Lutheran ears:  “To say that doctrines play a quite secondary role in conversion is not to suggest that doctrines remain secondary.  Once immersed in a religious group, people are instructed as to the significant implications of the doctrines, and most converts soon become very strongly attached to the doctrines—as are their friends.” (p. 64)

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.

For reflection and discussion: 
1.      How do the insights of Rodney Stark strike you?   What is helpful?   What is challenging?
2.      In what ways do you see congregations using “social networking” to engage with persons who are exploring Christian faith and life?
3.      How is it helpful to realize that even the Apostle Paul didn’t always “succeed” in bringing others to Jesus Christ?
4.      How does your congregation preach and teach Christian doctrine for the sake of deepening persons’ faith-commitments?

This is the tenth 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.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Come Let Us Reason Together

Although I use this blog primarily to post some of my public writing and speaking, I do occasionally do some "blogging" in the more customary sense of the term.   This is one such reflection--and I remind the gentle reader of my standard disclaimer:  these are my thoughts, not the official position of the NW MN Synod ELCA:
I’ve been reflecting these days on the astonishing comment by Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) who was caught musing aloud about how the fortunes of the Republican Party appear bleak:  We're not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”

So this morning, while enjoying the “free” breakfast in my motel, I slowly realized that two fellows at the next table are among Sen. Graham’s much-desired army of “angry white guys.”

Of course they were watching Fox News on the TV in the little breakfast nook.  And they were offering rather loud and public commentary on every item that popped up on the screen (there were just three of us in the breakfast area at the time). 

I can deal with that.  It’s a free country, and it takes all kinds of folks to make up the crazy-quilt we call America.  We operate on the basis of a two-party political system.  Vigorous, thoughtful, well-reasoned debate is crucial to the American experiment.

But I listened in vain for even a HINT of that in what my table-neighbors were discussing.   And I can deal with that, too.

But the longer I listened, the harder it was to stay there (I carefully shielded my iPad so the guys couldn’t see that I was reading the Sunday Review section of the NY Times).

They freely expressed personal disdain for, not just honest disagreement with, our President….and his wife!

They lamented the decision by one of their older parents who “still votes Democratic”—frustrated that the senior adult mom, “just doesn’t take time to get informed” (presumably by the fair-and-balanced commentary always featured on Fox News).

And when they started speculating on the “coming civil war between the haves and have-nots in America,” I decided it was time for some fresh air and a walk.

Now, I suppose I just happened to be sitting in the wrong place at the wrong (or right?) time.  

Or was I treated to an up-close overhearing of a slice of conversation that is replicated thousands of times in thousands of places, not just across northwestern Minnesota, but across our whole country?

I am cautious about using the word “fear,” but I left this scene feeling fearful about the state of political discourse in our country in this autumn of 2012.

And I couldn’t help but to recall the ancient wisdom of Isaiah:  “Come, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18).    Can we still do that as citizens (not just taxpayers or “consumers of governmental services”) of the United States?   Where is it happening well?   Where does it need to happen more?   In our churches?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Joy in Serving

Joy in Serving
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
September 18, 2012
Colossians 3:12-17

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.

Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.  (The Message, paraphrase by Eugene Peterson)

The fireworks were a dead giveaway that these folks had come together to “cut loose”….with bottle rockets, gaudy balloons, a mariachi band, and lovely young chiquitas in their dancing clothes.

Houston:  we’re not among the Lutherans of the upper Midwest--God’s frozen chosen!

No, we’re in the countryside near Esteli, Nicaragua.  Forty rural families are giddy with joy over a new, hand-cranked well bringing cool, clear water up from 130 feet below ground.   Lutheran World Relief provided the funds, the local well committee made the plan, the community rolled up its sleeves and did the work, and now the beneficiaries of such service couldn’t help themselves.   

“This water is God’s gift to us—of course, we will share it with everyone who is thirsty.”  

Irrational exuberance crowns a service project that means life for God’s people.  El agua es la vida, it says on a nearby sign:  “Water is life!”

The snake-dancing on the floor of the Mercedes Benz Superdome was another dead giveaway.    Thank God the youth of the church had taken control of this stadium in New Orleans, and they were getting pumped as a soulful saxophone led them--35,000 youth and adult leaders--in singing Jesus Loves Me. 

Houston:  these are not the ho-hum Lutherans who furnish ever-ready laugh-lines in Prairie Home Companion monologues.

The youth of our church were there in full force last July, listening spellbound as a speaker, acknowledged that some had protested her presence there.   Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber confessed astonishingly that her sharp critics were right about one thing:  she wasn’t worthy to be there, speaking to all those Lutheran young people—“but this is the kind of God we’re dealing with”—the God who is forever qualifying flawed persons to do God’s work! 

And just like that the whole crowd was up on their feet, making a holy racket, giving Jesus another standing ovation.  More irrational exuberance.

Even in the austere, thousand-year-old English cathedral of Durham, dominating the verdant landscape of Northumberland, a heavenly choir signals another dead giveaway about the joy of serving.  Tow-headed little boys who should by rights be running around on a rugby field, instead are decked out in cassocks and surplices, belting out John Rutter’s “Gloria” with their fluty little treble voices filling the sanctuary of a shrine that still holds the moldering remains of old St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne and the Venerable Bede.  I kid you not, you can almost hear the singing of “angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven” in that place.  

Houston:  even the walls of this ancient cathedral cannot contain the hilaritas of the Gospel as it soars in song from the sweet voices of little pre-pubescent choristers.

More irrational exuberance—and where you’d least expect it!

All summer long, I kept stumbling on to it:   the flashes, the outbreaks of evangelical fervor that burst forth whenever (as Eugene Peterson paraphrases our text) “the Word of Christ—the Message—[has] the run of the house.”

This is where our being in Christ and our doing as the Body of Christ lead us:  to the giddy joy that inevitably accompanies even the humblest service, done in the name of the Lord Jesus. 

But really now—“Joy in Serving?”

That phrase has always seemed a little like a “con” to me.   Yes, yes, you worked hard, got sweaty and dirty, rubbed elbows with down-and-outers, but wasn’t it fun?  Isn’t it wonderful to experience such “Joy in Serving?”

Joy in Serving:  Really?

Yes, really!  This hilaritas of grace is what we were created for….and now in the mercy of God, it is what we are being recreated for, in Christ Jesus.

But, in truth, we glimpse flashes of such crazy joy, such irrational exuberance breaking out all through the biblical story….

Miriam and the other Hebrew womenfolk, kick up their heels, shake their tambourines, create a song we’re still singing, and invent the line dance--right there by the Red Sea….even as Pharoah’s army (what’s left of it) washes up on the shore.  (Exodus 15:20-21)

King David, having recaptured the Ark of God, strips down to his boxers so that he can dance “with all his might” in advance of the ox-cart that bears the Ark back to its rightful resting place in Israel.  (II Samuel 6)

Isaiah paints a gaudy, over-the-top portrait of what the exiles’ return will look like, in punch-drunk images of greenery filling the desert, lame beggars leaping like Olympic athletes, stuttering deaf-mutes singing arias like Pavarotti, and a Royal Interstate Highway being carved through the wilderness…talk about “rebuilding the infrastructure!”(Isaiah 35:1-10)

And Jesus, even as Jesus faces the horrors of Holy Week, even Jesus cannot contain his exuberance, in the haunting words of Hebrews, even Jesus “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”  (Hebrews 12:2)

But it doesn’t stop there:   Paul and Silas, shackled in the bowels of a Philippian prison, singing hymns at midnight, so raucously that the ground trembles and the prison doors burst open.  (Acts 16:25-34)

You get the picture….the joy of it all, the joy of being God’s beloved ones, the joy of doing God’s work with the least and the last and the lost, this crazy joy just keeps breaking out….because “this is the kind of God we’re dealing with,” as Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber proclaimed it so powerfully down in New Orleans.

My dear friends, I am not here this morning to encourage you to please be more joyful in your serving.   The last thing I want is for someone to go home from Fair Hills and tell their church council that “now the bishop says we all have to be more joyful.”

Please don’t do that.

No human being can make someone else more joyful.   That’s ridiculous—like trying to make flowers grow by pulling on them!

No, it is not up to us to get our acts together and be more joyful.

God is already taking care of that, you see.  God will provide your joy.   God creates the hilaritas of grace, and most of the time we realize that only after the fact, only after a little irrational exuberance has broken out in our midst.

Perhaps you and I simply need to be on the watch for it—and to get out of the way when it comes, this unfathomable joy that inevitably accompanies our serving.

And maybe, just maybe, God might use us to put in place the conditions wherein God’s joy will break out.

Do you know, for example, that we have a few congregations in this synod where the passing of the peace is starting to last way too long?   Why--everybody gets out of their seats, crosses the center aisle, and mills around, administering even hugs and a few furtive “kisses of peace!”

This sort of thing could get out of hand, don’t you think?   Perhaps someone needs to craft a new liturgical dialog for the ELW, for when the passing of the peace goes on too long.  Something like:  “P:  All right, all right, break it up and sit down for Pete’s sake,” to which the only possible liturgical response from the faithful would have to be:  “C:  Nothing doing, Bub!”

For when the joy of serving breaks out, as it will when God’s message of mercy “has the run of the house,” our best response is just to stand back, let it happen and simply be carried along by its swift, overpowering current!

For if it is God and God’s people whom we serve, how will we do so with anything less than the hilaritas of our Savior,  “thanking God the Father every step of the way?”

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Dying, We Live

Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN
September 16, 2012—Installation of Pr. Ingrid Skilbred
Mark 8:27-38

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 “Christian’s the name—confessing’s the game.”

That’s a little too cute, I realize--but it does get right to the heart of this gospel text.  

To follow Jesus is to confess Jesus.   A church caught up in God’s mission is always going public with God’s astonishing mercy in Jesus Christ.

This morning, as we dive deeply into this story, we learn at least three things about what such confessing looks like:  

·      We learn how chances to confess often come on the margins of life, when we’re “in the thick of it.”

·      We learn that confessing is more than sharing information or passing on gossip.  

·      And most importantly, we learn how confessing with our lips inevitably moves us toward doing costly deeds of self-forgetful, self-emptying love.

1.     The first thing we learn here is that confessing Christ often happens on the margins, when we’re under stress or affliction.   Most of the time confessing Christ isn’t something we do while sipping tea in the parlor—it’s not  an armchair exercise for persons who dabble in religion. 

No.  Confessing Christ happens most often when you and I are in “the thick of it.”

Here in Mark 8, Jesus and his disciples are leaving the comfort of their own land and traveling into the non-Jewish villages of Caesarea Philippi.   Leaving the familiarity of home, they venture out into alien territory, a veritable religious marketplace.  Before they head off into this frontier region, Jesus schools his disciples in the art of confessing.
We live in a 21st century religious marketplace.  Long gone is the day when we could assume everyone’s a church member or a Christian.   Nowadays it’s easy to rub elbows with persons captive to other values, living out other scripts, following other “gods.”    What opinions they have of Jesus (if any) are probably all over the map.

We’re also living under unsettled economic conditions, enduring a contentious election season, in a society that’s increasingly polarized, and in a church body wrestling with all sorts of vexing questions.
Hot enough for you?

So, when the time comes, when someone pitches us a slow ball right over home plate!—what will we say?   When it’s time for us to speak up for Jesus and his way of life—what words fall out of our mouths?

Pastor Ingrid, God has called you here for such a time as this.   You “get it”—that pastoring in the 21st century is all about being ready whenever and wherever the opportunity arises to bring Jesus into the conversation and make Jesus real in fresh ways.   God has especially gifted you for making vital faith-connections with persons in the first third of life and with the families of those “first-thirders.”  We are glad that you are “in the thick of it” here at Christ the King!

2.   The second thing we learn in this story from Mark’s gospel is that confessing Christ is about so much more than sharing information or passing on gossip.
That’s how it seems to start out here in our text.  Jesus asks his disciples for the local skinny—“What are folks saying about me?”

It’s always easy to speculate on what others are thinking, right?   We hear their words, watch their body language, intuit their opinions.   
And who doesn’t enjoy passing on a little gossip—always, of course, juicing it up just a little bit in the process?

So when Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?”   The disciples are bursting with answers:   Some say you’re John the Baptist—back from the grave.  Others think you’re Elijah, who was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind.  Still others see you as the second coming of some other Old Testament prophet.
But that sort of talk isn’t “confessing.”   Imparting information, passing on gossip—that’s not “confessing.”  

We get to “confessing” only when we hear Jesus’ second question to his disciples:  “But who do YOU say that I am?”
At this point in the story an uncomfortable silence descends upon the otherwise-chatty disciples.    Because now they have to “speak for themselves”—now Jesus is getting personal, putting them on the spot, peering into their hearts, seeking their own response.

And they suddenly get tongue-tied…all of them, except for Peter.   Never adept at biting his tongue, Peter blurted out what he’d probably been thinking for quite a while:  “You are the Messiah.”  “Jesus, you are God’s ‘one and only’—you are the one we’ve been waiting for.”
And of course, Peter was exactly right!   Peter had Jesus’ identity down pat!

Pastor Ingrid, I believe God has brought you here, not only to help these good folks “get it right” about who Jesus really is.
But I believe you are here to help them with their own confessing of Christ beyond these four walls.   For this congregation doesn’t just need three great pastors…but rather Christ the King needs to form, nurture, shape and send out 2100 confessors of Christ as you continue to be one of the “growingest” congregations in our whole synod.  

And you, Pastor Ingrid, get to be right “in the thick of it”—helping these folks speak up when someone pitches a slow ball right over home plate to them, modeling for them ways to bring Jesus into their conversations.
Third, this beloved gospel story shows how confessing moves beyond bold words, to costly deeds of self-forgetful, self-emptying love.  Because speaking up for Jesus inevitably leads to acting up like Jesus, out in our world.

Confessing Christ aligns us with God and God’s ways…and therefore setting ourselves against everything that opposes God and God’s ways.   Confessing Christ puts our lives on the line.   Our feet follow our tongues, serving God’s mission to rescue and redeem a hostile, but hungry world. 
Peter the great confessor nailed it when it came to naming the identity of Jesus—but Peter “slipped on a banana peel” when it came to naming the way of Jesus—the way Jesus would act as our Messiah. 

I think that’s because Peter was smart enough to know that if Jesus truly was going to be a Messiah only by way of the Cross…the same life-script would beckon all who follow this Messiah, including Peter.
And that is how Jesus enacted the role of Messiah:  he opted to give it all up, to toss it all away, to let go of everything and open himself up to the very worst we sinners could dish out.    Peter couldn’t stomach that—couldn’t bear to think of the cost—the “blood, sweat and tears” price-tag of our redemption.

So Peter quickly offered a counter-confession to Jesus—“God forbid!”

…to which Jesus fired back just as strongly:  Get behind me, Satan.”  

“Stand aside, Adversary…..I’m doing things God’s way, not the same old, same old human way.”
So Pastor Ingrid, as you take up your calling here at Christ the King, you will want to avoid Peter’s path of least resistance.   You will, instead, help the people of this congregation learn how to die--to let go of all that we might cling to and to give ourselves away for God in the world.

This past week at a retreat for Christian leaders from across our state, I heard one of my ministry colleagues say something that has stuck in my craw..
“You know, it really helps, to have died a few times already,” my friend observed.

Listen to that again:  “It really helps, to have died a few times already.”
I don’t think my friend was talking about near-death experiences in hospital emergency rooms.

No, but rather this Christian leader was thinking back over long years of life and work that had included several reversals-of-fortune, times when she had to say goodbye to certain jobs or securities or ways of being in the world.    She referred to those experiences of loss as times when she had died a little—yet still lived to tell about it.
What Peter and the other disciples had to learn, and what we too are forever learning is that with Jesus, dying doesn’t mean that life is over.

Quite the contrary:  with Jesus, dying is when a better life begins.  Dying to whatever has its hooks in us marks the start of really living—no longer under our own power, but in the uncanny strength that comes from God alone.

Pastor Ingrid, God has brought you to this congregation to help these beloved ones learn how we are always being transformed by God, even through the “deaths” that come our way—all so that we might be ushered afresh into the new life that only Jesus the Risen One so graciously gives.

Help us, dear Jesus, with these three things:
To see you more clearly,
To love you more dearly, and
To follow you more nearly.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Living Boldly--Living Well

Living Boldly—Living Well
NW MN Synod Women’s Organization Convention
September 8, 2012
Calvary Lutheran Church, Park Rapids, MN
Isaiah 35:1-10
One of my favorite Prairie Home Companion sketches is entitled Rhubarb.   It’s a story about Dorothy the cook at the Chatterbox CafĂ©.  
Dorothy makes the best rhubarb pie on the planet.   When she bakes a fresh batch of rhubarb pies, word travels quickly up and down the main street of Lake Wobegon…and before noon all the pie is gone.
Patrons in the Chatterbox (mostly men)  moan and groan in rhubarb-induced ecstasy.   They fairly swoon over Dorothy’s great pie.   Tears of gratitude stream down their faces as they toss down their  2nd and 3rd helpings.
There’s just one thing, though:   Dorothy herself never eats her own wondrous creation.   She bakes the most scrumptious rhubarb pie in the galaxy—but she never quite gets around to sampling her own masterpiece.
"How can the bringer of such good things derive no enjoyment from it?" Pastor Ingquist  of Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church wonders, as he sits on a stool at the Chatterbox counter, savoring the last morsel of his piece of rhubarb pie.
I’m going to guess that most of you have a bit of Dorothy in you.   You are hard-working servants.  People look to you for leadership in your women’s group and congregation.   You are often the first worker to show up and the last worker to leave, whenever there is a church “doing”.
And I’m also guessing that sometimes you’ve had it up to here with all of that!   
…because you serve others to the neglect of your own needs—you make the best rhubarb pie in the world, but seldom save a bite for yourself.   And that, my friends, is a “health and wellness” issue.
So it is to you specifically that I want to speak.   It is your self-sacrificing, servant hearts that I wish to address in these moments.
Let me suggest three reasons why folks like us don’t always derive the joy that we might from serving God and his people
First there is the tyranny of time.   I bet that most of you are busy folks.   You burn the candle at both ends and have a hard time saying “no,” don’t you?
Although we have all the time in the world, it never feels that way.  So we complain about being “short” on time or “out” of time….and we also want to make the most of our time (that’s in the Bible, isn’t it?)….but no matter how hard we try to do that, we always come up short.
So much to do; so little time to do it.   The tyranny of time sucks the joy out of our serving.
Second, there is the weight of sin--our own sin and the sin of those all around us.  That, too, robs us of happiness as we bring God's good things to others.
Of course everyone on the planet is a sinner….but servants of God feel the weight of sin more keenly, because (frankly) we live with such high ideals and lofty expectations.
We servants expect a lot of others and even more of ourselves.   Because we serve God and God’s people, how could we not?
But our high expectations and lofty ideals set us up for miserable failure.   Christians are supposed to be joyful, loving, generous people….never cantankerous or impatient or grumpy or (as we like to say) dysfunctional.   And yet, with breathtaking frequency we are all of those things….and that too—the weight of sin--robs us of the enjoyment we should derive from delivering the good things of God.
Thirdly, there is the burden of servanthood that also blunts our joy as workers for God.   Because servanthood is hard work, entailing deep sacrifice and often yielding little thanks for our efforts.
I remember how my late mother used to slave away when it was our family's "turn" to host the relatives for holiday meals.  She would rise long before the first rays of sunlight pierced the eastern sky--peeling potatoes, stuffing turkeys, and baking pies.  She would fuss and stew all morning, worried that something would not turn out just right.
And when dinner time arrived Mom would make endless trips back and forth between the kitchen and the table, bearing platters of steaming food, obsessed with making sure that all her guests were well-fed.
Only after repeated pleas, only after everyone else was stuffed, would my mother FINALLY sit down and eat her own tiny plate of the now-cooled-off food that she had so lavishly dished up.
Is that the model of servanthood too many of us have embraced-- a model in which we take "losing ourselves" too seriously, a model in which we take ourselves too seriously?   Must feeding the hungry forever entail the starving the one who feeds?
You know how, just before takeoff, airplane flight attendants always runs through the safety instructions.   One of the things we’re told is that if the passenger cabin should lose air pressure, oxygen masks will automatically fall down above each seat.   When that happens we’re commanded to do something that always seems wrong to my servant-heart:   put your own oxygen mask on before you help your neighbor put on his or her oxygen mask.
No, no, no.   That can’t be right.    Shouldn’t we help others before we help ourselves?  
Not in a jet plane flying at 39,000 feet above sea level….because if you don’t put your own oxygen mask on first, you may not be conscious or even alive to help your neighbor.   You owe it to yourself and to others to breathe first, before helping others breathe. 
That is why I am so glad you are here today.  I rejoice that God has cut through the tyranny of time for you to be in this place....where you can lay aside the weight of your sin and reconsider the burden of servanthood.
Think of this day as your opportunity to strap on the oxygen mask and breathe deeply from the restorative oxygen of God’s Word.
And who better to guide us than old Isaiah the prophet?   Faced with the question of why the bringers of good things derive no enjoyment from it, Isaiah doesn’t scold us or tell us to get a better attitude or suck it up or try a little harder.
Isaiah points us instead to God, to what God is doing in our midst.
Did you notice, here in Isaiah 35, that excess, that over-flowing-ness in the Word of God that is always catching us up short?  This passage is about the wilderness, after all—the dry, parched places of life where we feel utterly cut-off, bereft of all hope.
But this wilderness in Isaiah’s prophecy is turning lush and verdant, as God renews all things.   “It shall blossom”—not just a little bit, not just “enough”—but “abundantly( v. 2).
And the lame don’t just limber up—they aren’t merely content with hobbling around—no, “they leap like a deer!”  (v. 6)  
The speechless manage to do much more than croak out a few syllables—rather, “they sing for joy.” (v. 7) 
The dry land doesn’t just show a few hints of greenery—it becomes like a northern Minnesota wetland in summer, teeming with life.
And right through the middle of this barren, God-forsaken “dead man’s gulch”—the kind of place any sane person would avoid at all cost—right through the middle of it we see not just a narrow rocky trail—but a wide highway, the Holy Way, the way back home for God’s exiled people.
Here in Isaiah 35 God invites us to set our hopes too high for a change—because the higher we hope, the higher will God outdo us in giving us all that we will ever need. 
If the tyranny of time, if the weight of sin, if the burden of servanthood leave you parched, dehydrated and shriveled up...unable to enjoy the good things you are constantly bearing to God's people....I invite you stop, here and now, and listen to these words:
It is for you that God is at work, reclaiming the whole creation in life, death and resurrection of  his Son, Jesus Christ. 
It is for others, too--make no mistake about it.   But right now, in this moment, it is for you.
It is the tyranny of your time that God means to undo, in order to say to you:  "Be strong, do not fear!"


It is the weight of your sin that God in Christ chooses to bear to the Cross and the Grave--freely, willingly, fully...so that you might be numbered among the redeemed and the ransomed.


It is the burden of your servanthood that God would lift from you, at least for today....so that God's own everlasting joy might be upon your heads, so that sorrow and sighing might flee away.


You have God's word on it.


In the name of Jesus.  Amen.