Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Truth Shall Make You Odd

Eagle Lake Lutheran Church, Battle Lake, MN
August 31, 2014
Pentecost 12/Baptism of  Aiden Curtis Haugerud
Matthew 16: 21-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.”[1]

That line comes from the great American author, Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic from the deep South.  Her words are a riff on something Jesus says in John chapter 8:  “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.

But, as Flannery O’Connor would have it, the truth….the truth of God’s Word…will make you odd.

The first time I heard this line it made a deep impression on me.   It got under my skin and would not let me go.

And the reason, I think, is that Flannery O’Connor’s version is so jarring, so unsettling, so wrong.

Who wants to be “odd” after all?

As soon as we’re born we begin a lifelong quest NOT to be odd or “off kilter.”

Before we’re even a minute old, a nurse is checking us out to make sure we’re normal.

It’s called the APGAR test which stands for five things: appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration.
 Appearance (is the newborn “baby pink” all over?), pulse (is baby’s heart beating at least 100 times a minute?), grimace—(does baby grimace when poked, are her reflexes normal?)...activity (are baby’s arms and legs “on the move”?), and respiration—(is baby breathing regularly and crying vigorously?)

Think of it, before little babies are even five minutes old, someone has already assigned them a “normality number”--a number that compares each of us to every other baby that’s been born, telling our parents whether we’re normal or whether we’re odd.

Now, even though the APGAR test is given to newborns for important medical reasons, it is our first experience of being tested against a norm, compared to everyone else, examined for any signs of abnormality.

Starting with that first APGAR test, we’re off….pushed out into a lifetime of trying to fit in, attempting to seem like everyone else, avoiding “oddness” at all costs….

This “first day of school” time of the year is such a great example of that.   Although it’s been years since my children headed off to school in early September….I remember well all the pressures, all the back-to-school purchases, clothes and shoes and backpacks and lunchboxes and other stuff our children begged for so they would fit in, not seem strange or peculiar or odd.

And so it goes for so much of life.   We avoid “oddness” like the plague.

So Flannery O’Connor’s little phrase seems, at first, to go against the grain:  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”

This same sentiment, though, is quite in keeping with whole swaths of the New Testament, including our gospel lesson for this morning from Matthew 16…

No sooner had Simon Peter correctly identified Jesus as God’s Chosen One….no sooner had that happened before Jesus was spelling out what, for him, Messiah-ship would mean:   betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection!

And Peter, who had just come up with the right answer, suddenly turns on Jesus and tells him how wrong he is---“No, no, no, Jesus… can’t mean that!   Messiahs conquer, Messiahs drive away enemies, and Messiahs set things right.  The Messiah does not get arrested, tortured and executed….you’ve got that all wrong…..”

But now it’s Jesus’ turn to shake things up as he sharply rebukes Peter, putting Peter in his place and making it clear that his way (Jesus’ way!) will be an odd way—odd to all our business-as-usual approaches to living in this world.

“Get behind me, Satan….stop being an obstacle in my path….stop clinging to human ways of doing things, Peter!”

And then Jesus lays out why his path, his way of living out God’s chosen-ness, will look so abnormal, so different, so odd, so contrary to the way things normally go in this world.

Jesus tells Peter, and us, that his path must be (indeed it will be) our path as well….the path of denying ourselves rather than indulging ourselves, the path of giving our lives away rather than clinging to life with a white-knuckled grip, the path of following Jesus completely—hook, line and sinker.

This is an odd path.  It goes against the grain, it has us swimming against the current.  There is nothing normal about it in terms of following the human way of living in this world into which we have been born.

Indeed, the only way to make any sense of what Jesus is after here is to think in terms of another birth into another world….a second birth, into a new world that is fashioned not after us and our image….but a new creation that comes purely as God’s unexpected gift to us.

And that new birth, that new creation is what we’re here for this morning!

In fact, this new birth will happen in a few short moments for little Aiden Curtis.

He has already lived through his first birth, which took place at 11:49 a.m. on July 1.  Aiden has already passed his first APGAR test for life in this world, the world of his first birth, the world that takes its cues from the human way of doing things.

But now, in just a few minutes, Aiden Curtis will embark on his second birth journey…..down the birth canal of the baptism font….out into the world of his second birth, a world that is shaped in God’s image, fashioned for the sake of living into God’s ways of doing business.

This second birth, the birth of baptism, if it “works”---this second birth will make Aiden “odd” all the days of his life!

That may not be exactly what you want to hear this morning, Neil and Ali (“you got a really odd kid, there!”)….but it’s the gospel truth.   Aiden’s baptism into Christ, his putting on of Jesus, will make him forever “odd” in terms of what would otherwise be the normal “human” way of living life.

And what will such “oddness” look like?  

Let me describe that with another little APGAR test—not just for the first five minutes after his baptism, but for all the days of Aiden’s life…..

….and, if you haven’t figured it out by now this sermon isn’t just for Aiden—it’s for all of us who have been baptized into Christ, all of us in whom Jesus is being formed and shaped for as long as we live.

The APGAR test for our second birth, our baptismal birth looks something like this:

A stands for Appearance:  As we live into our baptismal life, Jesus shows up and we even start looking  like Jesus.  Rather than being all curled up, turned in on ourselves, God daily “uncurls” us and opens us up to a new way of living in which we trust God, love our neighbors and care for this good earth.

P is for Pulse:  As we live into our baptismal life we come to realize that this life isn’t something we made happen.  We are not self-made, self-directed beings….but rather because God’s own heartbeat, God’s own lifeblood, the “circulatory system” of the Body of Christ courses through our veins, we are given all the oxygen and nutrients we need to live into the new creation of our second birth.

G stands for Grimace:  As new creatures in Jesus Christ, whenever we encounter the hurt, the pain, the need, the injustice of others….rather than turning away or looking past it, our baptismal reflex is to grimace and to respond with the love Christ has already poured into our hearts.   It becomes natural for us to think and speak and act as people who reflexively respond in care and compassion.

The second A stands for Activity:  This new life that flows forth from the waters of Baptism sets our hands and feet in motion….because in the Body of Christ we are God’s hands and feet and voice.  The faith that claims us doesn’t leave us like lumps on a log—but as Luther liked to say this faith is “a living, busy, active thing”….faith active in love, and finally

R is for Respiration:  The new creation into which God delivers us in our second birth is animated by the oxygenating breath of the Holy Spirit.   Every moment we depend on the divine CPR, the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of God’s grace that enlivens us, gives us breath and lets us communicate!

This, my dear friends is the truth of God about the way of God that makes us look odd in this me-first, self-indulgent, curved-in-upon-ourselves world.

It is the oddness of people whom Christ has set free—people who know that the only future that matters is God’s future—and that future is God’s gift to us in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Mission Table Leadership

2014 Bishop’s Monthly Columns
Mission Table Leadership (Part 1)

Note:  quotations in italics are from The Mission Table by Stephen P. Bouman (2013, Augsburg Fortress), pp. 71-80.  .

“ As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.”  (Matthew 4:18-22)

“The only constant is change.”  This statement, which sounds oxymoronic,[1] sums up so much about how life “feels” nowadays—perhaps especially life in the church.

Almost nothing that used to work still works.   The culture, rather than supporting faith and communities of faith, seems indifferent if not hostile to the things of God.   Patterns of “doing church” that sustained us for decades, if not centuries, seem outdated, ineffective.   We grow weary from trying to rethink just about everything.

Stephen Bouman captures the dynamic at work well when he writes:  

The decline of institutional religion is calling us into ministry in a new context here in North America.  Yet the United States remains unique in the world when it comes to spirituality.  Eighty percent of the US population is still convinced that God is real.  So here is our context: institutional forms of religion are collapsing while most people still believe in God.  We are awash in spiritual hunger.  In this in-between place, we do not yet know what forms will emerge.  All things are possible.  In such a time as this, what kind of leadership can come alongside congregations, communities, and spiritual seekers, helping them to imagine new mission tables, revised old ones, and learn from what they see emerging?

Not For Sissies

I’m struck, as I work within our synod, how difficult it can be to surface leaders for mission tables.   Folks are willing to sit around the circle and participate—but don’t ask anyone to serve as chair or convener (thankfully this doesn’t happen all the time!)  It is as if people sense that leadership, too, has changed in the church.  And leadership nowadays is definitely “not for sissies.”

Yet there has never been a time in the whole long life of God’s people when leaders have not been called forth—when leadership has not emerged.   And even today, the need for leadership has not diminished.  Despite the ways that church leaders in the 21st century may need to learn how to lead differently from the way leadership has functioned in the past, some bedrock realities about leadership have not changed:

Leadership in a missional church is spiritually-grounded.   Leadership at its best emerges from men and women of God who pray, worship, dwell in the Word, serve, give and struggle for justice.  Writes Bouman:  “Mission leaders build tables that are spiritual oases of service and solidarity with the lives of communities in this secular yet believing context.”

Such spiritual leadership doesn’t produce Supermen or Wonder Women leaders, though.    Bouman draws attention to the biblical picture of humility in leadership that characterized Moses and Jesus himself.   Such humility “wears well” in our 21st century context, in which the church is often on the margins, no longer at the center of things.   “The church’s mission needs leaders infused with the presence of God, confident in the promises of God, and filled with the hope that comes with being humble before God.  In that humility is strength, integrity, resolve and a single-minded embrace of the possibilities the risen Christ makes present.”

Leadership in a missional church is baptismally-endowed.   When I preach at ordinations or installations of pastors, I often remind them, “You didn’t get yourself into this mess!  God has called you!”  

The same goes for the whole people of God, not just pastors.    When God saves us through our baptism into Christ, the Lord simultaneously sends us to serve Christ’s mission of reclaiming the whole creation and making all things new.   Therefore, “we cannot talk about leadership in the church without talking about the call every Christian receives at baptism to be part of God’s mission in the world, to be part of the priesthood of all believers.  The church today needs leaders who are committed to agitating and winsomely engaging its members and neighbors around that call.”

So, what does such spiritually-grounded, baptismally-endowed leadership look like today?

A Mission Leader is Relational

Every year, on Pentecost Sunday, we read from the second chapter of the Book of Acts.   I wonder, though, if we always notice both the public and the relational sides of this amazing story.    The public side is what we’re most familiar with:   the Holy Spirit descends in a fiery public demonstration of evangelical power, leading Peter to preach a sermon that immediately draws 3,000 persons to be baptized into Christ.   Wow!

But the relational side of the Pentecost Story is just as amazing (see Acts 2:42-47).   Immediately those who are baptized enter into relationship with one another!  The impulse to gather together seems to be intrinsic to being joined to the Risen Christ.   Community—the first church—is formed and takes shape.   The public event of Pentecost produces the relational reality of the church-in-mission.

We live in a time when the relational side of the church’s life needs to come to the fore.   This might come as a surprise to us as we’ve watched life in the 21st century unfold.   Doesn’t it seem as though life has become more “atomized” as persons seem mesmerized by their precious digital devices?   We watch people walking down a sidewalk, each one focused on his or her iPhone or Droid—it’s amazing that they don’t run into one another more often!

But look more closely.    Our hi-tech world carries with it a hunger for hi-touch encounters.   The implication for a church in mission is that leaders will “put in the time and energy needed to build relationships within the congregation and in the community….Relationships are the synapses[2] of mission.”

A Mission Leader Pays Attention to Institutional Relationships

In other words, a mission leader cannot afford—ever!—to be a lone ranger.   Writes Bouman:  “Studies of new mission starts have shown that where local networks and relationships are strong, and connected to the wider church, so is the fledgling ministry.  It takes a village of tables to nourish and raise a new one.”

For this reason our synod continues to provide a means whereby we cultivate connections with new ministries.    I invite you to ponder and pray for the ministry partners we support together through our life as the Northwestern Minnesota Synod:

A Mission Leader Has an Entrepreneurial Spirit

Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence, observes that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale….about every five hundred years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at the time, become an intolerable carapace[3] that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”[4]

If we are living through one of these 500-year-rummage-sales, and if new forms of “doing church” are emerging, chances are the leaders God is calling forth will seem similar to entrepreneurs in the business world.    Entrepreneurs aren’t shopkeepers or minders-of-the-store.   They have no knack for conducting “business as usual.”   They are the visionaries who dare to try new things—and to risk failure in the process.

But entrepreneurs in the church can make us nervous.   They color outside the lines.   They try things that don’t always succeed. Their imaginations sometimes lead to flights of fancy.   We worry they might “throw the baby out with the bath.”

In truth, though, the church of Jesus Christ has always been blessed with such reckless risk-takers.  Many of us sense that we need them now more than ever.   If entrepreneurial leaders make us nervous, perhaps we need to all get in our cars and visit a mission start church.    Starting new ministries is just as much a part of our DNA as “preserving sacred traditions.”   As Bouman reminds us:  “In the past, planting churches has generated a restless excitement.  Our communal memory of excitement and bold risks for mission will be a path to the renewal of our beloved tables for the life of the world.”

A Mission Leader is Clear About the Power of Money

Because we are creatures of time and space, seeking to serve God’s mission in the real, tangible world all around us—nothing we set out to do in service to God’s mission will happen without financial resources.   Even though our patterns for how Christians live out the spiritual gift of generosity are changing—along with everything else!—we will continue to need mission leaders who
·        Cultivate in themselves and others a sense of stewardship that is wide and deep;
·        Built strong, sustainable financial models for ministry; and
·        Courageously ask for sacrificial support.

In next month’s column we’ll continue to look at characteristics of mission leaders.    Feel free to read the rest of Chapter 5 in The Mission Table, as you ponder your own gifts and passions as a missional leader in a changing church.

God bless you for being the mission leader God, in your Baptism, has called you to be!

Lawrence R. Wohlrabe serves as bishop of the
Northwestern Minnesota Synod of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

For reflection and discussion:
  1. As you ponder your own calling to be a mission leader, how have faith practices and your baptism into Christ shaped you?
  2. What’s noticeably healthy about the relational life of your congregation?   What could enhance your relational life together?
  3. What connections does your congregation cultivate with any of our synod’s partners in ministry?  
  4. What sometimes holds back mission leaders from boldly asking for sacrificial support?

This is the eighth in a series of monthly bishop’s columns during 2014 on the theme, The Mission Table.  These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry.   Feel free to use each column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.   Readers are encouraged to purchase and read The Mission Table:  Renewing Congregation & Community which can be ordered at .

[1] An “oxymoron” is a  figure of speech in which two words with opposing meanings are used together intentionally for effect.
[2] In the nervous system, a synapse is a structure that permits a neuron (or nerve cell) to pass an electrical or chemical signal to another cell (neural or otherwise).
[3] A carapace is a hard shell on the back of some animals (such as turtles or crabs)
[4] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence:How Christianity is Changing and Why (Baker, 2008), p. 16.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

From the Mountain to the Sea

Salem Lutheran Church, Hitterdal, MN
August 10, 2014
Installation of Pr. Ruth Popkin
Matthew 14:22-33

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

I love a good story—and I bet you do, too!

I love to lose myself in a good story.  I crave the “escape” that reading a good story brings.  I’m glad when a good story allows me to step back from my too-small world, in order to perceive a larger, more intriguing, different world.  

Three things go into a good story:  plot, characters and context.  

  •    The plot, the “action” is what most of us focus on first.  
  •    But a good plot can only take us so far, without compelling characters whom we care about.  
  •    Context usually is third in importance—providing as it does the frame within which plot and characters interact.
Here in this good story, in this gospel text, the context is what we definitely should notice first.   The context in time is that this story comes hot on the heels of the Feeding of the 5,000.   The context in space is focused on two places:  the mountain and the sea.

After the Feeding of the 5,000 Jesus needs to get away and pray.    So he sends everyone away and he climbs a mountain to be alone with God.  

That makes sense within the narrative arc of the biblical story—mountains are places of encounter with God, ideal places to speak with God and hear from God.   In the three-story universe that was assumed by the biblical writers, a mountain was literally a location on earth that was closest to heaven, closest to God.

So Jesus goes up, to a very good place, a holy place, a mountain…..and Jesus’ followers go down,  to a very bad place, a scary place, a place that made them nervous (even the fishermen, perhaps especially the fishermen!).   The disciples climb into a boat and head out onto the notoriously treacherous, unpredictable Sea of Galilee—a body of water on which squalls could blow up just like that.

Jesus goes up to the mountain, and the disciples go down to the sea….not by their own choice, we need to notice.    Jesus “makes” them do it—Jesus compels, Jesus forces them to go where they’d probably rather not have gone.

And for good reason…because the little sea voyage Jesus sends his followers on takes a suddenly disastrous turn…their little boat is battered—literally “tormented”—by nasty waves.   The wind is against them, making it virtually impossible to follow the course Jesus had laid out for them.

This dangerous tug of war between the beleaguered disciples and the contrary winds and waves drags on for hours, until  the “witching hour” (between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.) when everything always seems most dire, most hopeless, most fear-filled.
Only then, when the chaos of the sea seems to be winning, when the disciples have exhausted all their energies rowing against the wind….only then does Jesus come to them, in the most direct way that he could, walking across the water…..not to put on a show, mind you….not to “demonstrate his divinity”….but to comfort them, to assure them that God was in charge of this storm.
So beside themselves with anxiety are the disciples that at first, when they perceive a dark shape moving toward them across the troubled waters, the disciples assume that a ghost has shown up to heighten their torment….

….until the ghost speaks to them, in a voice that is utterly familiar to their ears:   “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."

Jesus descends the mountain and glides across the sea—not to wow his followers with an amazing parlor trick—but to do what Jesus does best:  to save them, to revive their courage, to be God’s rescuing presence, to steady their fears.

Dear friends in Christ, and especially Pastor Ruth:  we have before us in this splendid story from Matthew’s gospel, a paradigm, a template for what life and ministry together for you will be like here at Salem.

Although we live in a part of the world where mountains are scarce (!), I dare say that these folks and others regard this wonderful stone edifice in Hitterdal as a mountain to which they’re drawn, time and again, because they meet God here….they come into God’s presence in the Word, the Bath, the Meal, the community and the mission that are tended in this place.

As pastor and people you will have mountaintop moments together in this place, I pray, for a good long time.   All of us would be the poorer if we never had such times of awareness and encounter with God!

But only some of your life in Christ, actually only a slender slice of your walk with Jesus, will play out here in this “mountaintop” place.

Most of life happens on the treacherous sea of daily experience, filled with tormenting waves and treacherous winds.   Much of what pastors do, what we most need and want our pastors to do, is to be with us in the hardest parts of daily life… sit with couples whose relationship is unraveling, to pray at sickbeds, to comfort the grieving, to lead in times of uncertainty, to guide a questing people into fresh ways of listening to God, one another and  our neighbors as we make our way along a challenging path.

This will call forth, Pastor Ruth, all your faith, hope and love….along with all your best gifts.

But one thing—let me assure you!—one thing you do not need to do is “walk on water.”   

I’m happy to inform you that this congregation doesn’t expect that of you.   I know—because I checked!—the call committee did not list the “must walk on water” option on Salem’s Ministry Site Profile.

And that is a very good thing, because there’s only one Person who can walk on water, and his name is Jesus.

That’s the point, it seems to me, of the little coda to this story—the part where Peter thinks it would be a wonderful idea if he walked on water the same way Jesus was walking on water.  

Contrary to what many of us were taught in Sunday School, this part of the story isn’t a little morality play designed to suggest  that if Peter (and we just) just have enough faith we can do anything—even walk on water.

No, Jesus knew exactly how this final part of the story would work out.   Jesus allowed Peter to try his hand at walking on water, knowing full well that Peter didn’t have it in him—knowing that Jesus would have to rescue Peter, because that’s what Jesus does best.

For, when all is said and done, this is what the life of faith comes down to:   we sink and Jesus saves.

We sink—we sink in doubt and peril and sin and meaninglessness and death…..and it is God’s good pleasure (in Christ) to save us….always, always, always and forever.

So, Pastor Ruth, the good news is you don’t need to walk on water and you shouldn’t even try….

…but what you do need to do,  and what this congregation has called you to do is to constantly, unfailingly point people both here in this place and across your wider mission field….to point them to the only One who does walk on water--and then some!

Your job, your calling (for as long as you serve as pastor of Salem) is to be on the lookout for fresh ways to say and enact this simple, timeless but also timely message:   we sink, Jesus saves.

We sink.  

Jesus saves.   

End of story!

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.