Thursday, April 25, 2013

Greasing the Skids for God's Mission

Celebration of Mission and Ministry
With the Rev. Dr. Rodney Spidahl
St James Episcopal Church, Fergus Falls, MN
Acts 11:1-18

A man once decided to travel to a very special place in western Ireland.  Being a total stranger to the area, he asked a local resident for directions.   “Can you tell me how to get to this place?” the traveler asked.

“Never heard of it,” came the response.  “But if I were going there, I surely wouldn’t start from here.”  (based on a story from "We Are Here Now:  A New Missional Era" by Patrick Keifert)

As silly as this story sounds it does capture a truth we probably feel in our bones—the truth that if we want to go somewhere, we often wish we could start from someplace other than where our feet happen to be planted right now.

Which is to say:  if things were completely up to us, most of us would probably just stay put.  

But fortunately things are NOT completely up to us.

Wherever you are, wherever you may be heading, the Holy Spirit is already out in front of you, clearing a path, finagling ways, greasing the skids for God to get you wherever God needs you to be.

Whatever it takes, the Spirit, the Pathfinder, opens up possibilities we didn’t even know existed….swinging some doors wide open, closing other doors, cajoling us along in order to move us out into God’s mission field.

In our reading from Acts, we see how the Spirit is even bold to break apart old ways of ordering human life, even within the people of God, for the sake of God’s mission.   Jews and Gentiles had no dealings with one another—that seemed to be written in stone—but then one fine day the Apostle Peter was knocked up the side of his head with a divine 2 by 4—leading him and others to conclude that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).

Old ways of sorting people into this pile or that pile, time-honored methods of ordering life that calcify into rigid boundaries that keep us separated from one another….the Spirit has no compunction about sweeping those away if doing so will break open new ways of making known the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So, in the Book of Acts especially, the Holy Spirit appears in the guise of a demolisher of the old, in order to pave the way for the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ.

But even so, this same Spirit does not lead us into chaos.  

Goodness knows that chaos can do as much damage as hyper-rigidity, so sometimes in the Book of Acts, this same Spirit moves people into novel-but- coherent patterns…ushering  into the messes of our lives a fresh paradigm that helps us be the people God sent into a mission that is purposeful, not chaotic. 

So, in the Book of Acts, we sometimes run into persons who have received the Spirit but not been baptized….and then we encounter other folks who are baptized but still awaiting the Spirit—but, no matter!  The Spirit gets that chaos sorted out, not to bring everyone into lockstep, but to make sure that the Word of God has free course to be proclaimed for the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people.

So, Rod, if you’re still wondering how you got here….a Lutheran lad, a global missionary, a seminary teacher….now hobnobbing with Episcopalians in an exciting missional experiment called Total Ministry…..if you never imagined showing up in a situation like this—welcome, to another apostolic episode in the unending movement of the Holy Spirit who never tires of removing obsolete barriers and imaginatively reordering life so that Christ may be all in all.

In this mission of God there is always a “sending out” and an “inviting in”….there are always disciples-on-a mission being shared  by one community in order to be received by another community.   And this too is the Spirit’s bright idea!

So today, I am pleased  to represent the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as the sending, sharing church.  We are delighted to facilitate Pastor Spidahl’s new partnership here with you of St James Church.   Rod’s pathway from the Church of the Lutheran Brethren through the ELCA and now to you—that pathway looks a little like a tour of a sausage-making factory….but the Holy Spirit rather prefers such twisty, turny, “scenic routes”….because when we don’t simply make an easy beeline from point A to point B we realize that Someone other than ourselves is calling the shots.

Having journeyed with Rod in his vocational discernment, our synod is grateful that the Holy Spirit is using us to empower your ministry.  If we ask Rod to be with us occasionally  for  a few “Lutheran things” like our Synod Assembly or our Theology for Ministry Conference or the regular gatherings of the Ottertail Conference ELCA….it will be so that Rod can be reinvigorated for equipping you and your Total Ministry team for faithful witness and fruitful service here in Fergus Falls.

There is just one last thing I way to say:   as we share Rod with you, we intend to learn from you and this missional experiment.   For six years now one of my synod staff colleagues has been gently, persistently bugging me to learn more about Total Ministry.   What if God is making that happen precisely through this new partnership here at St James?   How odd of God to embed a Lutheran here with you, to facilitate your worship and work and witness….so that, among other things, he and you might teach the rest of us Lutherans a thing or two as we, in so many of our communities across northwestern Minnesota, face the very same challenges and opportunities that you face here in Fergus Falls?   

So thank you, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, for your kind hospitality this morning and for so graciously and eagerly receiving this brother in Christ, Rod Spidahl.  There are all sorts of Lutheran eyes and ears paying attention to you—eager to rejoice with you and learn from you, as together we serve God’s mission of blessing and redeeming the world through Jesus Christ.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013


Senior High Youth Gathering
Camp Castaway—April 7, 2013
John 13:2-13 and Ephesians 5:1-2

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
(Note:  at the gathering a PowerPoint presentation accompanied the sermon; those photos are not included in this post--please use your imagination.)
 I have great news to share with you.

Around June 1 Joy and I will become grandparents.    Our daughter Kristen is expecting a little girl—and we couldn’t be happier.

Here’s what the baby looks like right now (PPT: picture of a pineapple).   Well—that’s not exactly what she looks like—but it’s how big she is….

The birth of this little girl will probably be the best thing that happens in our family this year.  

And already this little girl is very much on our minds.    We think about her every day.   We wonder what she’ll be like.   We have hopes and dreams for her. 

And we pray she’ll be healthy…..happy….smart…..loving….strong…..imaginative….and fun!

We’re also already praying that our grand-daughter will be filled with faith in the God we know best in Jesus Christ.

Because I want my granddaughter to know Jesus, I’m planning to start reading to her from the Bible and the Catechism as soon as she’s born.  I can’t wait to teach her some of the wonderful ideas, deep concepts and vital facts of faith.

Of course she won’t be able to take all that in right away.  Newborns are too tiny and hungry and sleepy for that.  So, I’ll wait until she’s about a month old before starting her instruction to be a Christian.  

That should work, because I’m sure our granddaughter will be an amazing child!

OK, you know I’m pulling your leg.   No tiny baby, not even Super-Baby!, can fully understand God or faith or being Christian at the ripe old age of one month.

But our granddaughter will start learning all that, the same way we all started to learn it.   She’ll start to learn as she notices and imitates others doing things that matter.

The first thing my granddaughter will notice are these faces—her Mom and her Dad, smiling down at her, making a fuss over her, giving her a smile she can imitate!  

She will learn that these two persons….and a whole wider circle of others can be trusted….to feed her, cuddle her, bathe her, change her, love her.

When she’s laid down in her crib at night, she’ll start hearing things:  “Mommy and Daddy love you and Jesus will watch over you.”   When a little baby hears that goodnight blessing a couple hundred times, they start believing it.

As my granddaughter grows, she’ll notice how her parents care for her….and also how they care for each other.   Love that’s expressed between a mom and a dad makes a home feel safe and secure. 

My little grand-daughter’s first inklings of what God is like will come through her experience of her own parents as caring, trustworthy, protective, ever-present.

As she grows my granddaughter will be caught up in some predictable routines and rhythms:  getting dressed, eating, sleeping, going to bed.   She’ll notice that when mom and dad eat, they first say a prayer…and when she goes to bed they say a prayer.   

The day will come when my granddaughter will fold her hands for the first time—and that will go into her baby book, right along with her first words and first steps.

Most every Sunday her mom and dad take her to a big interesting place called church, filled with other people who’ll make googly eyes at her and pinch her little cheeks.  At Christ Lutheran Church in St Paul my granddaughter will imitate those people—sing their songs, pass the peace, listen to Pastor Gary, pray the prayers, hold out her chubby little hands when bread and wine is shared.

And so it will go for this little person our whole family is dying to meet.   Before she can really think, before she can truly speak, my granddaughter will know how to imitate…and by imitating others she will start to grow up into her Lord Jesus Christ.      

We sometimes think that believing in God and thinking about faith come first….leading to actions that flow from such faith.

But in reality…..most of us start out our Christian lives by watching and doing and imitating others, long before our brain cells fully understand.

There’s a new word that describes that:   neuroplasticity.  It’s a word that tells how our experiences shape the ways we think and behave, how imitating others even changes the ways our brains work.  

Imitate others….repeat certain actions over time, and those actions will mold how you think and believe and live.

That’s why we talk a lot about faith practices (6 photos)….stuff we do….to help us believe and think with the mind of Christ.   So we say our prayers….we open our Bibles….we give money to church and charities….we serve our neighbors….we show up for worship every week...

…We do all those things, we imitate other Christians doing those things, we do those things even when we don’t feel like doing them….because we know that doing those things, imitating those actions changes us, forms us, molds us into the believers, the disciples Jesus is creating us to be.

“Neuroplasticiy” might be a new word to us, but it names a very old reality.

In the early years of the Christian church, when someone was coming to faith, preparing for baptism, the local church didn’t ask them to read a bunch of books or memorize a catechism (though there was a creed everyone learned and recited before being baptized)….

Coming to faith in Christ wasn’t so much a “head trip” in the earliest church as it was a hand-and-foot trip.   It was not about memorizing facts as much as it was walking on a pathway…..and not walking alone, either.

The first Christians recognized early on how every neophyte, every newborn believer needed a guide, someone who had been walking in the way of Christ for years and years….someone who walked the walk in such a way that others would imitate.

But this whole approach to forming persons in Christian faith and life was even older than the early church.

It went right back to Jesus himself who always let his actions do the talking for him.

Sure Jesus told fascinating stories and delivered deep sermons and taught lofty wisdom….but mainly Jesus acted.   Jesus did things that others picked up on, reflected in their own lives, imitated.

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan river…as we are baptized

Jesus was tempted to sin…as we are tempted.

Jesus invited others to join him….as we form groups.

Jesus ate and drank, often with persons who were unpopular…as hopefully we also do in our schools and circles of friends..

Jesus prayed…as I hope we also do.

Jesus stood up to bullies.

Jesus touched sick persons.

Jesus forgave sinners.

Jesus got angry at things that were just wrong.

Jesus held little children.

Jesus told uncomfortable truths.

Jesus suffered.

Jesus died for us and all people.

Jesus was buried.

And Jesus rose from the dead—Jesus broke out of the grave….as we too shall arise.

Jesus did all that and more so that you and I could see, hear, smell, taste, and imitate the ways of God.

One of the most powerful things Jesus did, the night before he died, was to wash his disciples’ feet.

It was something people in his day always did to themselves.  Not even a slave could be forced to do this!   Jesus got down on his knees and washed the filthy feet of his followers.   This just wasn’t done—which is why Peter, at first, didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet….but Jesus insisted because there was no better way to express his deep, deep love for his friends.

Jesus did that because he wanted them to have an example worth imitating...and we’re still “doing feet” today!

If you Google the phrase “washing feet”…..hundreds of pictures like this one pop up.  

This just happened a week ago Thursday—Maundy Thursday--in Rome.   Who’s the man in white?   Whose feet is he washing?   (young people…in a juvenile detention center….boys and girls….Christians and non-Christians, insiders and outsiders)   The pope didn’t just wash their feet…but he kissed them, too.

I’m thinking that Pope Francis is a different kind of pope.   He doesn’t want to be treated like a king.   He has a heart for the poor.   He “gets down” with folks (his security detail must be having fits!) 

The pope is acting a lot like Jesus.

He’s acting the way Jesus-in-you-and-me acts:   connecting with all sorts of people--especially people in trouble, washing the feet of insiders and outsiders, being a servant not a master, showing love for all.

Dear God, keep our eyes and ears open.  Help us notice you as we imitate those who belong to you.  Make us people worth imitating—persons in whom others can see Christ.  In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Prayer as Protest

Devotions for Synod Theological Day on the Faith Practice of Prayer
Cormorant Lutheran Church, Lake Park, MN
April 4, 2013

It is a precarious thing, to say just a few words about prayer.   It’s perhaps even more dangerous to say many words about prayer….but that seldom stops us, and today will be no exception.    We can abide words about prayer, whether they be few or many, as long as those words about prayer lead us to pray.

So, Anne Lamott says that, when you get right down to it, there are just two kinds of prayers.   There are the help me, help me, help me prayers…..and alongside them—the thank you, thank you, thank you prayers.  And “that dog can hunt,” for most of us.

But the aphorism about prayer I’ve been pondering most of late comes from Karl Barth, who said this:  "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world."

Let me say that again:  “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Barth points us in the direction of prayer as protest, and that’s what has captured my imagination lately—how prayer is always, in one form or another—an expressing, a speaking out, a protesting against my old self and against the way things seem to be.    Prayer says that the way things are isn’t the way things were meant to be—and, in these Great Fifty Days we hasten to add:  prayer proclaims that the way things are isn’t the way things shall yet be in God’s New Creation that stepped gaily out of the tomb on Easter morning.

So when we clasp our hands in prayer, when we open our mouths to speak—daringly—to God, we are articulating a protest of sorts.    We are joining in an “uprising against the disorder of the world.”

We need look no farther than the quintessential prayer, the one that Jesus taught us, to see how protest weaves its way through the whole thing.   Although I have no claim on God, I am bold to say “Abba-Father.”   Although we spend most of our waking hours focused on our solitary selves, we pray, “Our Father.”   Although we’re surrounded by pretenders to the throne and alternative kingdom-visions, we protest:  “Holy be YOUR name, YOUR kingdom—bring it on, YOUR will—make it so.”   Always too easy to accept hunger or put up with endless strife, we beg for “our daily bread” and “forgiveness” and “deliverance” from all that is not right.   Famished for hope, maybe now more than ever, we insist that “the kingdom, the power and the glory are YOURS—O God!—forever and ever.”   And in the face of all this world’s “No”s we stubbornly, rebelliously insist on shouting an Amen!—a big fat YES, at the end of this and all our prayers.

So, let us think on such things today, and let our thinking and speaking and pondering about prayer, lead us to pray.   Here is one of my favorites, to lead us into this day:

Redeem us, O God, out of all our poor ways into thine.  Teach us thy will for us by calling us back each day to the things which we know are most certainly true.  Direct our lives by the constant pressure on them of other lives that have felt the touch of thy hand and loved the beauty of thy peace, until our faces be set toward thee, and all our hopes hid forever in thine.  For Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

For All the Saints:  A Prayer Book For and By the Church, Vol. II, p. 973.