Sunday, June 23, 2013

Good Shepherd Times Three

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Moorhead, MN
60th Anniversary and Farewell for Pr. Dan Megorden
June 23, 2013
Ephesians 3:14-21 and John 10:1-16


This morning the spotlight in our scripture readings shines on the Good Shepherd times three—the Good Shepherd who is Jesus our Lord….the Good Shepherd community gathered here on your 60th anniversary…and one more good shepherd, our faithful pastor Dan Megorden for whose ministry here over  the past 11 years we also give thanks.


So I’m thinking of this sermon as something of a three-layer salad or a three-ingredient hotdish, with each layer and each ingredient hopefully enriching all the others, as happens at potlucks and other feasts.


“I am the good shepherd, “ Jesus declares in our gospel reading from John 10.   I am a shepherd you can count on, a shepherd who gathers people into community, a shepherd who calls and equips under-shepherds to share in my work.


What does this mean, to belong to such a Good Shepherd?


It means, first that we have a Good Shepherd who knows us better than we know ourselves….a Good Shepherd who reads us like a book—and who even supplies the ending to this book of our lives.


We have a Good Shepherd who knows us forward and backward, inside and outside.    “I know my own and my own know me,” says Jesus.    The sheep follow this Shepherd “because they know his voice.”


 Both my wife and I grew up on farms in southern Minnesota--farms with sheep on them—not metaphorical sheep, but real live sheep--who are, by the way, not God’s smartest creatures!


All it took for my farmer-father was a couple hand-fuls of corn, tossed into the bottom of a steel pail.  All it took was to shake that corn, and softly call ”Sheep!”   That’s all it took to bring the Wohlrabe sheep a’ running. 


My mother-in-law for many winters arose at 3 a.m., heated up some milk replacer on the kitchen stove, donned her snowmobile suit to trek out across the yard from the farmhouse to the barn.  All she had to do was just touch the handle on the barn door to cause a whole flock of sheep to start bleating in the February darkness.   My mother-in-law knew her own and they knew her….and she called them by name:  Huey, Duey and Louie….Midnight, Blackie and Spot…


We have a Good Shepherd who knows us, warts and all, and nevertheless loves us unconditionally.


We have a Good Shepherd whose knowing of us fashions us into his beloved community.   In his wonderful new book, The Relational Pastor,  Andrew Root of Luther Seminary reminds us that that we are who we are only through the relationships that define us—our relationships with God and God’s beloved people.


This congregation, Good Shepherd, has for sixty years been such a flock where there’s room for everyone, a circle of care for one another.  


Imagine:  in this crazy, mixed up world filled with people who spend way too many of their waking hours walking around staring at handheld digital devices….there are places like Good Shepherd where we can still look each other in the face, meet one another’s eyes, know and be known by others, faults and all, beloved nonetheless.


And here in this Good Shepherd place…..there has been a whole succession of under-shepherds, like Pastor Dan.   Since arriving in Moorhead ten years ago, I’ve come to know Dan as a keen observer of persons.  Pastor Dan gets a kick out of knowing you and figuring you out and discovering what makes you tick.


That care and attention to real live persons has been a gift, especially in these last four years as our church body moved moved through some hard discussions about human sexuality….I have admired how good shepherd Dan helped keep this flock together, listening and speaking to one another, knowing and being known.


What does it mean to have a Good Shepherd?   In the second place, it means that there is Someone who is hands-on with us, who rolls up his sleeves and rescues us when we need rescuing, sets us free when we’re stuck.


As a young lad growing up on our family farm, one of my summer jobs was to walk the fenceline that enclosed our pasture, looking for sheep that had gotten their heads stuck in the wire mesh as they tried to stretch their necks toward the greener grass on the other side.


Jesus, our Good Shepherd specializes in stuck sheep.   Jesus does not leave us to our own devices when we’ve messed up.   Jesus refuses to let us stay stuck in sin, captive to death, paralyzed by the power of the devil.   Jesus our Good Shepherd doesn’t let us live in denial.   He wakes us up, goes after us, uses his shepherd’s crook to rescue us, his shepherd’s staff to goose us back onto his path.


The same sort of thing happens in Jesus-communities like this one.    A congregation at its best is a community of radical honesty and deep healing.   We don’t just accept one another and sing another round of “Kumbaya” together.    We call one another to account, to dive deeper, to break out of our cozy cocoons, and to serve God’s mission of redeeming and blessing the whole world in Jesus Christ.    That’s the kind of congregation you here at Good Shepherd have been since 1953.


In the same vein we call pastors, under-shepherds to—among other things—set us straight, call us out, help us get unstuck, so that we can follow our Shepherd wherever he is leading us.


During Pastor Dan’s tenure here at Good Shepherd, your congregation moved out in a daring, bold, risk-taking way….when you relocated your whole mission center from your old location near Eventide out to this growing edge of Moorhead.    Pastor Dan, and a host of servant-leaders from among you, looked reality square in the face and pushed you beyond your comfort zone to make this new campus a reality.


A good under-shepherd like Dan knows when the sheep need comfort and when they need a loving nudge with the rod and the staff that are the shepherd’s tools.


What does it mean to have a  Good Shepherd?  Third and finally, it means having Someone whose whole purpose, whose very being, is to open up a fresh future for the flock….to lead the flock to a wide and liberating place, a place of flourishing.


Hanging around sheep when I was a kid, I noticed how they will follow you just about everywhere….EXCEPT through small doorways, narrow valleys, or other claustrophobic places.     There is a reason why the psalmist, exulting in God’s rescuing activity, speaks of being set “in a broad place.” (Psalm 31:8)


Jesus our Good Shepherd through his life, death and resurrection opens up just such a wide and liberating life for us all.  “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture,” Jesus promises.  Whereas sheep-stealers and other thieves come “only to steal and kill and destroy.”  Jesus the Good Shepherd comes “that (we) may have life, and have it abundantly,” life free and wide and open to God’s unfolding future!


For sixty years Good Shepherd Church has grown into being a place, a community, where persons like us can regularly try on our better selves.     We come here to get re-oriented, re-centered, and sent out again with gifts galore to share with our neighbors and care for this good earth.


I don’t know if Pastor Dan was a Boy Scout when he was young….but he certainly acts like someone who follows the scout’s priority to “leave your campsite better than you found it.”  


Dan, as you conclude your ministry here at Good Shepherd, you have more than done your part to leave this congregation better than you found it—and that isn’t just a credit to you and your flock, but it reflects God’s fierce determination (as it says in our lesson from Ephesians) that you “comprehend…what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and…know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”


So we say thanks be to God for Jesus our Good Shepherd….for this congregation named after our Good Shepherd….and for this good under-shepherd, Pastor Dan Megorden.


And now we send you forth, Dan and Mary, to a barren, hot, dry, desert place called Arizona….a brutal environment where there are no muskie-fishing lakes, where you could easily get beaned by careening golf balls, where people have to explain who Ole and Lena are—we send you to a harsh locale that knows not snow-blowers during blizzards or sump pumps during spring floods.


It will be a hard and difficult life, my dear friends—so make the best of it! 


Be of good cheer.  You travel not alone!   Your Good Shepherd goes before you and with you.


In the name of Jesus.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Always Being Made New

Note to readers:   The NW MN Synod Assembly, June 7-9, 2013 at Concordia College, Moorhead celebrated the 25th anniversary of the ELCA and also focused on the faith practice of daily prayer.

Always Being Made New
NW MN Synod Assembly
June 9, 2013
Luke 7:11-17

Preach the gospel always and if necessary, use words.

This famous line, attributed to St Francis of Assisi,[1]  could also be applied to prayer, I think.

Pray always and if necessary, use words.

In truth, prayer is all about words, except--when it’s not.  

Prayer is most assuredly about living life in the presence of God, walking always coram Deo—before God, aware that all of our days are in God’s hands.

And in that respect, sometimes, indeed often-times, no words are necessary for prayer to erupt, to permeate a slice of our lives.

Take this poignant gospel story from Luke 7.

This heart-wrenching scene unfolds in the absence of words.    Two large crowds approach the village of Nain, in Galilee.    Two young men are leading these intersecting crowds.    The crowd approaching Nain is led by Jesus; the crowd departing from Nain is led by a nameless young man who has died.

Two crowds, representing two powerful forces, encounter one another outside the gates of the village.

The crowd heading out of town is a funeral entourage.   It is a crowd enthralled by the inexorable finality of death.

The crowd heading into town is following Someone who is bringing boundless hope, wherever he goes—seeking out the lost, unbinding sinners, healing the sick, raising the dead.

They meet in a moment in time, seemingly wordless, and yet the whole episode is wrapped up in prayer….because some prayers, maybe some of the most powerful and memorable prayers, need no words.

The mourners, led by the young man’s mother, a widow now bereft of her only son, her only chance at a future that would not be marked by destitution….

The mourners’ sheer presence constitutes a praying, a crying out to the heavens, for redress, for divine intervention, for a fresh future somehow to miraculously appear.

This must have been a powerful prayer experience—though Luke mentions no request being articulated—but it was not needed.    The mourners and the grieving mother didn’t need to SAY what was on their minds for Jesus to know what they longed for and to respond to their prayer.

Sometimes, I think, words may just get in the way of the prayer that bubbles up from the depths of our souls.

Sometimes all it takes is a sigh, or a tear, or a shout of joy, or a moan, or a roar. 

In the 11th chapter of St John’s gospel, when Jesus finally arrives at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, we’re told twice that he was “greatly disturbed,” that Jesus wept, and that he “cried with a loud voice.”    Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:   Jesus in his grief “roared so loud at death that he scared death away.”[2]

Sometimes words get in the way of the praying.   And sometimes not.   Here outside the village of Nain, the prayer of the people comes through loud and clear—as loudly and clearly as Jesus answers their prayers with just seven words:  “Young man, I say to you, rise!”

What these seven words accomplished brought life back, not only to the dead son, but to the whole community that had been carrying him to his grave.  The great crowd from Nain knew once again, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God was in their midst, doing what God always does best, snatching victory out of the jaws of defeat, beating back death, opening a fresh future in which we are always being made new in Jesus Christ.

I have a confession to make now.   I have known some congregational prayer chain members who drive me nuts.   This is a terrible thing for a pastor to admit, publicly….because people on prayer chains offer themselves for some of the most holy work any of us ever undertakes—the work of interceding for others before God’s throne of grace.

But what happens all too often in my experience, is that prayer chain folks are tempted to let their words get in the way of their praying.  

More than once I have informed a parish prayer chain about a situation or a person in need of prayer….and more than once I have been asked:  “So, Pastor, what shall we pray for?”

In other words:  what shall we write down on our prayer chain clipboard—and how will we know when we can put a big red check mark in our “answered prayers” column on that clipboard?

I have wanted to say:  pray, just pray, please, just pray.

Friends, it’s not that hard.    Anne Lamott in a splendid little book (Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow:  The Three Essential Prayers, Riverhead Books, 2012) she wrote last year, suggests that all prayer can be boiled down to just three words:   Help.  Thanks.  Wow.

If your prayer vocabulary included nothing more than these three monosyllabic words, it would be enough.

The first and most foundational prayer is:  Help!  

Here in our gospel lesson, the whole pathetic scene that meets us fairly screams:  Help!    A widow’s only son has died.   This is not just the loss of a mother-son relationship.  It is the loss of the woman’s whole future—her retirement plan, on a bier, about to be buried.   The pathos of this scene is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Help! The whole community wails…

…little realizing that they were being met by the Helper par excellence, the only Helper who actually deals with death.

Anne Lamott says, “If I were going to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence:  that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.”

Out of such deep awareness, the foundational prayer springs forth:  Help!  This prayer, writes Lamott, takes “ourselves off the hook and put(s) God on the hook, where God belongs.”   We pray Help! In the confidence that there is a Helper who hears and acts graciously, on our behalf and on behalf of those for whom we pray.

The second great prayer is:  Thanks!

“Thanks!” (as Ms. Lamott points out) is a prayer that even atheists and agnostics pray when they aren’t paying attention to what they’re saying.    Gratitude springs forth—even if you don’t believe there is Someone to thank!

Here in Luke 7, there is no holding back the flood-gates of gratitude.  As soon as the crowd of mourners gets over their initial shock, they move swiftly to gratitude to God, giving thanks that “A great prophet has arisen among us!”

And their gratitude erupts in action, as is almost always the case.   Again, Anne Lamott:  “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dove-tails into behavior.  It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides….God’s idea of a good time is to see us picking up litter…serving food at the soup kitchen…or hear us calling our meth-head cousin just to check in….You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out too.  Once you learn how to do that, then you can bear someone who is unbearable.”

What ties the first two great prayers together is the third prayer:  Wow!

“Wow!” means” we are not dulled to wonder,” according to Anne Lamott.     She goes on to add that the “words ‘wow’ and ‘awe’ are the same height and width, all w’s and short vowels.  They could dance together.  Even when, maybe especially when, we don’t cooperate, this energy—the breath, the glory, the goodness of God—is given.

Here in Luke 7, the “wow” actually precedes the “thanks.”   Because, Luke tells us, when the young man sits up and speaks “fear seized them all.”

Wow has its way with the citizens of Nain, because it’s so clear that they have a living God on their hands—not a past-tense God we can hold at arm’s length, but a here-and-now God who is right in our faces, waking us up, making us new.

Which is where prayer is always leading us, is it not?   Prayer—however it happens in our lives—ushers us into the presence of the living God who is always making us new.

That’s why prayer is never “wasted breath.”   Even a groaned “Help!,” even a reflex-action “Wow!” even a routine “Thanks!”…..any of these three tiny words cracks the door open once again, places us smack dab in the hands of an alive-and-well-God, who in Jesus Christ continually throws open possibilities we forgot were available to us.

God invites us into a prayer-shaped life that opens us up to God’s re-creating, renewing presence among us.  

God invites us, all our beloved congregations, our Northwestern Minnesota Synod, and our whole Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and indeed all the faithful everywhere to pray always—and use words if necessary.

And if adequate words for prayer come hard for you—feel free to fall back on these three syllables:  




In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] It is, however, a disputed saying.   See
[2] “The Prophet Mary,” a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor on March 21, 2010 (accessed at

Saturday, June 1, 2013

God's Pick-Up Point

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
Waters of Grace Lutheran Church, Frazee, MN
Pentecost 2/June 2, 2013/Commissioning of Laurie Albertson, SAM
1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

We’re right here, right now because that’s what Christians do.

Christians come together, meet at an appointed hour, rendezvous at a certain place, encounter one another person-to-person…and in so doing we meet the God who became a human person in Jesus of Nazareth.

Christians come to church to be church and “do church”…..even though “church” often gets a bum rap, nowadays.

Two weeks ago, on Pentecost Sunday, our family worshiped at Christ Lutheran on Capitol Hill in St Paul.   During worship representatives of neighborhood ministries who share space in Christ Lutheran’s building offered greetings.

One of them was an African American pastor by the name of Sylvester Davis who works with a ministry called “Rock of Ages.”  Pastor Davis walks around his neighborhood meeting all sorts of folks who are skeptical about the church.

“Folks say to me:  I can be a Christian without going to church,” Pastor Davis shared with us.   “But I ask them—are you sure about that?   Are you sure that you can be a Christian without going to church?”

“Travelers who want to go somewhere  by bus—they meet at the bus station to get picked up, don’t they?   And people who plan to fly somewhere—they gather at the airport so’s the plane can pick them up—right?   Seems to me that if you want God to take you somewhere, the best place for God to pick you up is at church!”

As creatures of space and time, embodied souls who crave connections with others, we need to come together to figure out again just who we all are.   Andrew Root who teaches at Luther Seminary in St Paul says that persons ARE their relationships.   I am who I am only in relationship with you and who you are….and one of the best places I meet you is church, where God also regularly shows up—the same God who took on flesh and became a human person in Jesus Christ.

….which is why we set aside space and time so that creatures of space and time can find one another and be found again by God.

Our First Lesson for today is part of the dedication prayer of King Solomon, who built the first brick-and-mortar church building in the Bible—the great temple in Jerusalem.  

Solomon knew that God and God’s people had mixed feelings about whether this Temple should even exist.

Solomon realized that God isn’t going to ever “hang his hat” or permanently reside in any structure made with human hands.   God is too wild and free for that--which is why before Jerusalem’s Temple was built God mainly encountered the people of Israel in a Tent, a portable worship-space that could be folded, picked up and moved around like an Army M*A*S*H unit.

God refuses to be “boxed in,” which is probably why it took so long (20 years!) for Solomon’s Temple to be conceived, imagined, planned and constructed.

And when Solomon dedicated the Temple, the first line of his dedication prayer reminded everyone that God didn’t need the Temple they had created.  “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (I Kings 8:27).

God didn’t need the Temple, any more than God needs the church….but you and I do.  We need the church and we need to become the church for one another, because we’re persons related to one another and related to Jesus Christ the person in whom God meets us.

Moreover, the world—all our neighbors who aren’t church folks—the world needs the church, too, to be a point of encounter with one another and with God.   In the words of our First Lesson:  “when a foreigner comes and prays toward this [Temple]…, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you.”  (I Kings 8:42-43)

Today, in this unfolding green season of Pentecost, we declare that being Christian and being church are one-in-the-same.   We give thanks for all the places and times God meets us in Jesus Christ….whether it’s at 1401 Madison Avenue in DL….or at the Frazee Event Center….or in over 4000 congregations of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in India…or wherever else Christians meet and gather and re-connect with God and one another.

We take this church-thing so seriously that we keep planting churches, which is why we’re commissioning and supporting Laurie Albertson to invite and gather God’s people in Frazee so that Waters of Grace Lutheran Church might become another “Temple”—another touchpoint on earth where the God of heaven will show up and meet us, person-to-person, in Jesus Christ, and in the people Jesus Christ is pleased to call his church.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.