Saturday, February 15, 2014

God Gives the Growth

Augustana Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls, MN
Epiphany 6/February 16, 2014
Installation of Pastor Benjamin Durbin
Deut. 30:15-20; I Cor. 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

This morning, Pastor Ben, you become a permanent fixture in the history of Augustana Lutheran Church.  

For as long as anyone pays attention to Augustana, there’ll always be at least one line in this congregation’s narrative about you.   Your mug will be there, in ever collection of former pastors’ pictures!

Now that’s sort of a heady thing to think about…for one so fresh to the role of pastor.   It might even give you pause, to see your photo with a little brass plate that reads:    Pastor Benjamin Durbin, 2014-“whenever”!

If all of this is true, though, why does it matter?  What’s the point?   What are you here for?   Why does anything you might think or say or do make a difference?

You are here at Augustana, Ben, to stand on the side of life—God’s life, for the life of the world, and the vitality of this congregation...including everyone who’s impacted by Augustana.

It’s about life, Ben—the life God lavishes upon us in Christ Jesus, God’s beloved Son.

You are here to tend this full, free life in Christ…which is why I love the imagery of our Second Lesson for today.

I bet you appreciate this imagery too, because inside you lurks a farmer (I’ve seen your Facebook page!)

The Corinthian congregation was in a snit over which of their former pastors had been their shiniest penny!   Some liked their first pastor Paul, others were still gaga over that flashy preacher Apollos, others preferred some other former pastor….

Here in our Second Lesson the apostle cuts right to the chase and proclaims that all these pastors, with their gifts and personalities, collectively tended the life of God in the Corinthian church:  “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. …”   

Pastor Ben, a whole succession of “farmers” have cultivated this garden called  Augustana since 1877.  Today you fall in line with them…nurturing the life of this Christ-community for a few planting seasons.  The Holy Spirit got here ahead of you, Ben--and long after you’ve departed the same Spirit keep fussing with the folks here at Augustana.

You are here to stand on the side of life, Ben, inviting God’s people (in the words of our First Lesson from Deuteronomy) to “choose life,” to embrace even as they are embraced by the life of God in the world.

Moses still speaks to us from our First Lesson, as he pleads with the people of Israel who’re on the cusp of crossing over the Jordan River into their Promised Land.

Moses cajoles them to dive into the deep, rich life God is dying to give them:  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him…” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

“Choose life!” Moses pleads….and how hard can that be?   Not much of a choice, really—life or death?   “I think I’ll take life if that’s OK,” we say to ourselves.

But therein lies the rub!

“Choosing life” is never as easy or natural or automatic as we imagine it to be.

For we are a self-focused people who consistently swerve toward death—whether or not we always realize it.    Even when we think we’re choosing life, in fact, it’s usually not the life that God wants to give us that we’re choosing.

When we choose life, we usually choose life on our terms, not God’s terms.   We suppose that life is within our grasp, something we can create for ourselves, fashion in our own likeness.

Which is to say that we’re almost always ready to settle for something far less than what God wants to give us.

So (shifting gears now to our Gospel lesson) we imagine that on our own we aren’t doing all that badly.   We choose life (we think) by keeping our noses clean, staying out of trouble, obeying the rules.

We may even be rather proud of ourselves:  “I haven’t committed first degree murder.  I’m still married to my first spouse.  Folks take me at my word” we tell ourselves.

But here in Matthew 5 Jesus barges in and pours cold water on all such self-satisfaction. 

In a relentless string of  you have heard…but I say to you” declarations, Jesus demolishes all our self-satisfaction, leaving no one standing when he’s finished with us.

We may not have committed homicide…but have we displayed anger, hurled insults, resorted to name-calling?

We may not have committed adultery with our hands…but have our eyes wandered?  Has our lust overtaken our imagination?

We may have not sworn falsely…but have we ever “shaved the truth” or propped up our words with pious palaver?

When Jesus takes the Law into his own hands….no one is left standing!…

….which is the point, after all.   None of us ever “stands” on our own two feet, when all is said and done.  

If we stand, we stand in the strength and the confidence that always comes to us as sheer gift from God’s open hand.

If we stand, if we choose life, it is only because God has first chosen us for such life.  In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ God has gratuitously decided to bestow on us a Life we could never fashion on our own.

Pastor Ben, this is the life-giving, death-defying Word you are called to tend here, for the life of this congregation and all who are touched by its ministries.

You are called here to stand on the side of life, not a life of our own choosing, but God’s overflowing life.

That is why you’re taking your place here at Augustana this morning.

It is to hold forth the life that God desires for all people—a life that trusts God completely, loves our neighbors unreservedly, and cares for this good earth unstintingly.

And thank God, Pastor Ben, you’ve been given all the tools you need to do the job.

You’ve been given the gift of Baptism—your baptism and the baptism you’ll administer here, immersing God’s children in the new life only God can give.

You’ve been given the gift of the Word—that you might be able to speak here, not out of your own intelligence or cleverness, but as a messenger of Christ Jesus, delivering “the goods” that mean life for us sinners.

You’ve been given the gift of the Supper—because God never just plants seeds and forgets about them.  The Supper nourishes what God has begun in us, feeds us with Christ’s very presence, so that we might journey together toward that Final Day when God will make all things new.

You’ve been given the gift of this community—because there are no Robinson Crusoe Christians, because we can’t make it on our own.   So God comes to us in the guise of our neighbors, especially those closest to us, who share with us the rich, rich life of Christ.

You’ve been given the gift of God’s mission of redeeming and blessing the whole world in Jesus Christ.  That should keep you out of mischief, Ben, for as long as you serve here!   You and all these folks serve a missionary God who is forever sending us to bear his Light and woo others to choose the life of the God who has already graciously chosen them.

This is indeed heavy, heady stuff, Pastor Ben.  It is more than you or any mere mortal can handle—which is why God promises to supply you with all that you’ll need.

And these people of God—trust me on this!—they will both love you AND keep you humble.

Years ago I returned to the first congregation I pastored.   Celebrating a congregational anniversary, they’d invited back all the “old pastors” to join them.

Before worship service I encountered in the narthex my old friend Clarion who’d been my congregational president and fishing buddy.  We reconnected, laughed and shared a few stories.

Then I joined my wife in one of the pews.  Shortly thereafter Clarion and his wife sat down right behind us.  I knew that because I overheard him whispering to his wife:  “I just saw old what’s-his-name down in the narthex…..”

“Old  what’s-his-name?”   Here, I’d been his beloved pastor, dear friend, faithful fishing buddy—and he couldn’t even recall my name!

It was then, thank God, that Paul’s word came back to me:  “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. …”

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Pastoral Letter: Addressing the Peacetime Emergency

A Pastoral Letter from Bishop Wohlrabe


February 2, 2014
The Presentation of Our Lord

To:  The congregations, rostered leaders and members of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA

Dearly beloved in Christ,
May Jesus our true Light shine in your hearts and lives during this Epiphany Season.

From time to time we are called upon to address natural disasters that threaten the lives and well-being of our neighbors.    This brutal winter of 2014 has brought us into a peacetime emergency as announced by Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton last week.

Because the extended bitter cold snap has been exacerbated by a shortage of propane gas causing a sharp spike in fuel prices, many folks are being put at risk.   As usual the poor are most vulnerable.

In the last few days two ELCA members associated with Community Action Agencies on the territory of our synod have contacted me. 

Pastor Del Moen of Wadena, who serves on the board of the Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, Inc. in Detroit Lakes, reported that propane prices have risen to three times the normal price (from roughly $2 per gallon to over $6 per gallon).   Mahube-Otwa has received over 600 calls from distressed residents, struggling to pay their heating bills under this intolerable set of conditions.

Mr. Joe Pederson (a member of Rollag Lutheran Church, Rollag) who directs the Lakes and Prairies Community Action Partnership in Moorhead  writes:  “This emergency is likely to become even more critical in the weeks to come. Propane suppliers in many cases have delivered propane to families/individuals who do not have the means to pay their bills. They [suppliers] are not in a position to continue to provide propane without payment.”

In response to this peacetime emergency, I urge members and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod ELCA to please respond in the following ways:

·        Remember those affected by this emergency in your daily prayers and in the weekly intercessions of our congregations;

·        Check on your neighbors (especially the frail elderly and others who are vulnerable) to make sure they are OK, staying warm, and living safely;

·        Open up your congregation’s or community’s “Good Samaritan” funds to supplement the strapped resources of agencies that provide fuel assistance; and

·        Make a special financial gift personally or from your congregation to a local agency that is offering help to poor people affected by this wintertime emergency.  (For information on your local Community Action Agency go to:    Recognizing the seriousness of this situation, Joy and I are making a personal gift, and I am requesting the synod executive committee to release some dollars from the NW MN Synod Disaster Relief Fund as well.

Let us pray:  Eternal God, amid all the turmoil and changes of the world your love is steadfast and your strength never fails.  In this time of danger brought on by bitter cold and a shortage of heating fuel, be to us a sure guardian and rock of defense.  Guide our  leaders with your wisdom, comfort and safeguard those in distress, and grant us courage and generosity to care for all who are in need; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.   (ELW, p. 76, adapted)

Your brother in Christ,
Lawrence R. Wohlrabe
Bishop, Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work.  Our hands.