Saturday, December 19, 2015

All Stirred Up

Winchester Lutheran Church, Borup, MN
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Felton, MN
December 20, 2015/Advent 4
Luke 1:39-55

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

We’re deep in December, plunged into the darkness of winter, far into a month when we crave the light, plead for the sun to shine once again.
And as usual in this 12th month of the year, you and I feel stuck.
We’re stuck, along with so many other Americans these days, stuck in fear….stuck in anxiety about mass shootings…unnerved by terrorist incidents…bogged down in our suspicion about strangers in our midst.

December is always the month when we’re most keenly aware of what a mess this old world is in.  That becomes clearest every year, right about this time.  

Even if we may not be stuck in the fear and foreboding of this moment--we’re stuck in the memories of Decembers past—the news reporters kindly reminding us, that this past Monday was the third anniversary of that horrific elementary school shooting in Newtown, CT.

We’re stuck in the deep, dark, fearful days of December.   Stuck in the mess that this world seems to be in.

Even if we’re not thinking about the wider world’s affairs, we sense the stuckness in our own little corners of the world.  

Why does it seem that so many people we’ve loved all died in November or December?   Joy and I, in our own little family, remember how three of our parents left us in late autumns past. 
And in this parish, you’ve watched and waited and prayed with your beloved Pastor Karla as her dear Duane was dying of cancer. 

Grief has its way with us all—and December is when we feel that most keenly.

We’re stuck in these December days, stuck, always stuck in fear and darkness and distrust of one another amidst the aching grief of untimely loss.

We’re stuck so badly that we can’t stand it any longer…..which is why on these four Sundays in Advent it’s only natural for us to cry out, to plead with God to get us unstuck.

And that, my friends, is exactly what God does—every December.  

When it seems as though the darkness has won the day—the light starts to return, God takes steps to get us unstuck once again, here and now, on this fourth Sunday of Advent.

This morning God is showing up, to pull us out of the muck of fear and grief and deep uncertainty about everything we thought we could count on.

God shows up, placing on our lips two words about getting unstuck, and those two words are “stir up!”

Advent is the “stir up” season of the Christian year…..and we’re not talking about horses and the kinds of stirrups we find on saddles, either!

“Stir up” are the two words that begin each of the prayers of the day on these four Sundays of Advent.

Sick and tired of being sick and tired, we cry out:  “Stir up!”
Stir us up, God, we pray on two of the four Sundays in Advent:  “Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God,…open our ears to the words of your prophets…Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son,” we pray.

Two of the Sundays in Advent we cry out to God to stir us up.  
And that’s a pretty big prayer…but not nearly as big as what we pray for on the other two Sundays in Advent.

Because on those other two Sundays—the first and last Sundays in Advent, we pray for God, pleading that God would be stirred up for us“Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come….save us from the threatening dangers of our sins….Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come….free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always,” we pray this morning.

It’s an astonishing thing, for mere mortals like us to pray for God, to beg God to stir up God’s very self for us and for this whole aching world.

But that’s what we pray for in this Advent season….and that’s what’s playing out here in our Gospel lesson from Luke 1.   

God is stirred up here….and when God gets stirred up—watch out!   Everything gets turned upside down.   All the stuckness of this old groaning creation breaks loose.   All the messes we’ve made for ourselves get straightened out.  

Things we just take for granted—the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, the powerful keeping everyone else under their thumbs—all of it gets tossed up in the air when God gets stirred up for us and for our salvation.

And the reach of all this “stirring up” is so vast, so far, so wide, so deep that you’d think God would need tons of dynamite or megatons of nuclear power to pull it off….

…..but that’s not at all how it happens.

When God gets stirred up on behalf of God’s whole, sorry creation….God always starts small.   A young girl scurries across the Judean countryside, escaping from her unsettled world, longing for the safety of her cousin Elizabeth’s kitchen.

And then, they’re both there, together, dancing a little jig in Elizabeth’s kitchen:  Mary and her ancient cousin, both pregnant under extraordinary circumstances---because God is stirring in their midst.

Old Elizabeth feels it….the first fluttering of the fetus growing inside her old, dead womb….her child leaping for the first time when Mary crosses the threshold.

THAT’s what things look like when God gets stirred up!  

God enters into this messed up world in the smallest of ways….in the word that Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, will soon proclaim as he points to his cousin, God’s barrier-breaking, sin-obliterating, future-opening Word Made Flesh:  Jesus the Christ.

When we are most stuck, most deeply sunk in fear and distrust and suspicion of one another….God in the tiny child comes among us to get us unstuck, to uncurl us from our fetal position, to turn us away from ourselves and our anxieties, to return us to God, to turn us inside out toward our neighbors:  able to trust again, love again, risk ourselves again as God in Christ has risked all for us.

And this shall be a sign to you:  expect God to start small….in a baby, lying in a manger.

This shall be a sign to you:   anticipate God starting small in the baptismal splash, the morsel of bread, the sip of wine, the word that strangely, unexpectedly stirs you.

This shall be a sign to you:   perceive God coming to us in the stranger who’s starting to look more like a neighbor.

This shall be a sign to you:   behold God replacing fear with faith, suspicion with trust, hatred with hope.

This shall be a sign for you:   realize that sin no longer has a hold on you, the devil no longer has you under his thumb, death never again will have the last word with you.

This shall be a sign for you:  because God is getting stirred up, this world—your world--will never be the same again.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Religious Freedom and Love of Neighbor

On December 10, 2015 I participated in a meeting of the board of directors of the Minnesota Council of Churches.   The following statement was approved by the board for sharing with the member faith communions in Minnesota.   I invite you to pass on this document to others, including your own faith community.

Respect for Religious Freedom and Love of Neighbor: A Call to Offer These Christmas Gifts
Minnesota Council of Churches
Statement of the Board of Directors
As Christian leaders who serve as the board of the Minnesota Council of Churches, we want to speak to our communities of faith and to the larger community of people living in Minnesota.
To begin, we want to address the members of all our communities of faith.  We call on people to speak with respect in a tender time when we all feel vulnerable and unsafe after acts of mass violence.  “Be not afraid…” is an exhortation in the Bible, again and again.  Let that be the deep value in which we rest. Courageously reaching out to our neighbors, learning more about their stories, and supporting our newest neighbors is a gift worth giving in this Advent and Christmas season.
Secondly, we express appreciation for and commend consideration of all candidates in our political process who are respectfully engaging the issues of how we best build up the life of our state and nation and serve the common good.  We encourage people in political conversations in family, communities and work contexts to speak with care.  Our words matter.  Let us commit to refrain from using speech that reflects hatred of others and contributes to the division of our society.
We also ask media outlets to tell the stories of candidates, who in their campaigns, debates and addresses are offering constructive proposals for our shared life together.  Your choice of stories matters and can build up or tear down the common good.  When we focus only on the negative or inflammatory, we do not have time to hear the larger conversation and participate in discernment about our shared future together.
Most importantly, in a time when hard actions and sharp words have been directed at our Muslim neighbors, we want to speak a word of support and pledge to walk with them and support their freedom to practice their religion.  This country is built on that freedom.  We pledge to walk respectfully and to learn from one another.  The Islamic community in Minnesota is vibrant and diverse, contributing much to the state - as citizens, teachers, police officers, medical workers, tradespersons, community leaders, mothers and fathers.  We stand in solidarity with the Muslim communities of Minnesota and are ready to denounce the vitriol that comes their way.  As Christians, we are called to love all our neighbors.  Muslims are our neighbors, and we love them. 
Finally, we are committed to continuing our long experience of working with diverse faith communities and of welcoming refugees into our midst, without regard for religion or ethnicity.  We are committed to building communities of respect.  We call for respect, support and helpful curiosity, instead of critique and attack, in the days to come from all people as we seek to build the best Minnesota possible.

We invite the sharing of this statement

MCC Members - Minnesota Jurisdictions of the following:
African Methodist Episcopal Church
American Baptist Churches, USA
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Church of God in Christ
Church of the Brethren
The Episcopal Church in Minnesota
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America  
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
Mennonite Church
Moravian Church
National Association of Congregational Christian Churches
National Baptist Convention
Pentecostal World Assemblies
Presbyterian Church (USA)
United Church of Christ
United Methodist Church

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Border-Crossing Pastor

Ordination of Rufus Kudee
Trinity Lutheran Church, Thief River Falls, MN
November 8, 2015
Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Rufus, you have come a long way to get here--traversed many miles to arrive at this moment.

That’s the kind of thing preachers say when someone is about to be ordained.   Metaphorically speaking, every ordinand has “come a long way” to arrive at this moment, the day of ordination.

But in your case, Rufus, I am speaking more than metaphorically.

I mean to say—quite literally—that you have traveled thousands of real miles (5,280 feet long miles!) to arrive here at Trinity on November 8, 2015.

Reading your biography, is like reading a travelogue, a world-spanning, globe-trotting travelogue….

…Because you were born in Zorzor, Liberia, the second largest city in Lofa County, where it was a balmly 82 degrees yesterday morning (our time).   You were born 5,670 miles from here (as the crow flies!)

You have journey far to get here, Rufus, quite literally.

And it wasn’t exactly a pleasure trip, either.   You and your family fled from the Liberian civil war when you were just barely a teenager.  You escaped first to the Ivory Coast, and later lived in Nigeria, and then in 1999 you moved to Ghana where you worked as an evangelist, preacher and church planter at a refugee camp filled with 40,000 other refugees from Liberia.  Finally you crossed the Atlantic and came to America where you’ve lived in Minneapolis; Columbus Ohio; Thief River Falls; St Paul for seminary…..and now back to Thief River Falls before you make your way up to another border—border between the USA and Canada, where the folks of the Bethany-MtCarmel parish are preparing to welcome you to Williams and Roosevelt, where it was a balmy 28 degrees yesterday morning.

You take the prize, Rufus—of all the ordinations I’ve been part of, you and your dear family have traveled the farthest to get here!

And along the way you have crossed many borders.  How fitting--because you belong to a border-crossing God….and it is this boundary-breaking, barrier-bashing, border-crossing God who today calls you into the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Long, long before you showed up on the scene in 1980….your God had been crossing borders for eons.   God whom we know best in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ was crossing borders for millenia before any of us were born.

God in Christ has crossed the borders between heaven and earth, between divinity and humanity, between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, between life and death.  Our God is a border crossing God--for us and for our salvation.

And today, dear Rufus, God is setting you apart to continue being a border-crossing pastor.

There are borders that the church here in our part of God’s world needs to cross, and I think you can help us with that.

We need look no farther than the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ to realize what it means in this 21st century to be a border-crossing people of God.

On a mountain in Galilee, the risen Jesus (whom some still doubted, even after he arose from the dead!)….Jesus commissioned them to cross borders, out of Galilee and around the world, to capture “all nations” for Jesus the Christ.

In this commissioning, this sending of Jesus’ first followers, we notice four action words, four verbs, that move us forward.

First, the risen Christ says GO….”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….”

The church of Jesus Christ, at its best, is a “going” church, a church on the move, crossing borders, reaching out as wide and far as God’s arms seek to embrace.
But along the way, as the church was planted all across this globe, we sometimes became too comfortable, sedate and settled.

Here in North America, the church has been around for centuries.   We’ve subtly shifted from being a “going” church to becoming a “coming” church.   “We’ll unlock the doors of our church buildings on Sunday mornings, so you all can come to where we’re already gathered….you know where to find us.   Come, join us, if you’re bold enough to enter our space!”

Rufus, God calls you to help the church cross the border from being “you come to us” communities to becoming “go out into the world” movements of Christ-followers on the move.   You’ve got experience doing that sort of thing, under far more challenging conditions than you’ll encounter in Roseau County!

Second, the risen Christ says MAKE DISCIPLES….”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….help people follow Jesus.”

Not that many years ago, when our ELCA started lifting up the notion of discipleship—some of us North American Lutherans got a little queasy.  We were comfortable thinking of ourselves as receivers of God’s grace, hearers of the Word, believers in the gospel….but disciples who actually followed Jesus?    The very thought of that seemed to jeopardize our understanding of grace by over-emphasizing inappropriately our response to God’s goodness.

One of Martin Luther’s most loyal students during the 16th century Reformation went so far as to teach that good works aren’t just unnecessary to gain God’s favor…..but that good works are detrimental to our salvation.

Rufus, God calls you to be a pastor who leads people into a genuine, wholistic life of faith, hope and love….a life in which we don’t just hear and receive the Word but in which we open themselves to being transformed by that Word.

Rufus, God is setting you apart to be a pastor who crosses the border from receiving Christ to following Christ, out into the world, as people of a going church that is itself an extension of God’s great rescue and renewal movement, God’s mission in our world.

Third, the risen Christ says BAPTIZE….”Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

All too often in America we reduce faith to a head trip.  We exchange the Good News of Jesus for a dose of Good Advice from Jesus.

Rufus, God calls you to be a pastor who crosses the border from faith as a headtrip to discipleship as a transformative experience of the seeking, saving, sending God we know best in Jesus Christ.   Our God doesn’t just give us good advice that we have to make a decision about.  No!   Our God just comes flat out and pronounces his freeing forgiveness, washes away our sins, and feeds our hungry souls with the Body and Blood of our Savior.   Our God continues to be enfleshed, incarnated in the proclamation, the Bath and the Meal that make Christ real and alive in our midst.  

Fourth, the risen Christ says TEACH…”go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them….and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

Rufus, the mission field you’re entering is filled with folks who sometimes succumb to “magical thinking”—imagining that we’re done when we’re baptized or when we’ve joined a congregation or when we’ve been confirmed or whatever.  

Truth be told, all those sorts of things are entry points, not end-points.   If people come
 to you to have their child “done” in Holy Baptism, Rufus, you have my permission to tell them that that’s impossible.   We’re not done when we’re baptized or when we’re brought to faith:  we’ve just begun, or more accurately God has just begun in us the good work that God will surely bring to completion by the Day of Jesus Christ.

Well, there you have it:   four verbs, four action words that will make you a border-crossing pastor:   go, make disciples, baptize, teach.   It’s as easy as that, Rufus, right?

No, far from it.  There’s nothing easy or automatic about any of that.   If you’re honest, you’ll feel inadequate, unable to do justice to any of those four verbs.

When you feel inadequate….give thanks to God!   Because your sense of inadequacy will signal that God is helping you cross another border:  the border between self-sufficiency and utter dependence upon God to make it so.

That’s why these four verbs in Matthew 28 are wrapped up inside two astonishing, mind-blowing promises:  

One—that the Risen Christ who calls you to be a border crossing pastor has received “all authority in heaven and on earth”….and

Two—that this One, our Lord Jesus Christ, is always with us, “to the end of the age.”

So my final word to you, Rufus, as you prepare to leave this place and head up north to your first Call:   lift up your eyes and look ahead.    Someone is already out there, ahead of you, blazing the trail, preparing the way for you to join him in God’s barrier-bashing, boundary-breaking, barrier-crossing, future-opening work.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Slender Thread of Survival

Trinity Lutheran Church, Crookston, MN
November 8, 2015
I Kings 17:8-16

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Once upon a time....long ago....before "living simply" was a lifestyle choice.....there was a woman who had no option but to live simply.

She had slipped through the primitive social safety net of her day, having lost her provider--and apparently having no one else (that is: no other man) to care for her and her young son.

As if all that were not dire enough straits for this forlorn widow, her land was enduring a drought that had dragged on for almost three years.

Although the woman scrimped and saved and stretched her paltry resources as far as she could....she was down to the last handful of flour and the final few drops of oil. Mother Hubbard 's cupboard  was bare.

As she set out to gather wood to build a fire to bake her last little bit of beggar's bread....the woman was greeted by a stranger, a foreigner.

Though she had never laid eyes on the man before, the foreigner asked her to fetch him some water. Typical man! As she set off for the nearest well, he had the gall to toss in another request:   "How about a little bread,   too?"

Well-water was free.....but bread was another matter. "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in ajar, and a little oil in a jug," the woman replied. "I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die."

I ask you: in the whole Bible is there a more pitiful sentence than this?  

But the stranger is not taken aback by the pathos in her situation. He tells her not to fear....but to make that last little flour cake and to give it--not to her precious starving son!-­ but to him, a total stranger.

Here the story gets even weirder, for the stranger promises that once the woman has used up her remaining store of flour and oil, she will still be able to do some more baking for herself and her son.

The stranger commands the woman to use up the last of her food…in order to make space in her pantry for the food that God would now wondrously provide.  "For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth. "

Astonishingly, the woman did just as the stranger asked her to do.....and, lo and behold, the stranger's word held true. Once the woman 's food was gone, God's food kept replacing it.

But not all at once, mind you.  God didn't suddenly stock her larder or fill her pantry to overflowing….

No. The woman received her miraculous replenishment one day at a time. She kept turning back to the same crude flour jar and the same tiny oil cruse…and only day by day were they replenished, until the drought finally passed.

In this astonishing way, not only were the lives of the woman and her son spared, but so also was preserved the life of Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of Yahweh, bearer of the word of God.

What are we to make of such an odd story?  What is this text telling us?

I think, at the very least, it is telling us something about what it means to pray: "Give us today our daily bread.

There is an element of the fantastic in this story. The flour kept being replenished—the oil kept being restocked!  But only in daily, bite-sized doses!

God could have plopped down a mountain of grain in the woman's backyard—like the huge hills of corn and soybeans we see near countryside elevators in these days of another Minnesota autumn.

But instead of working the wonder that way--in a manner that might have removed any need for the woman and her son to live by faith--God doled out the miracle one day at a time.

And, come to think of it, isn’t that just like God?  Doesn't God still work that way in our midst?

Don’t our pantries continue to be replenished in much the same way?  

And we know how that works.   We know something about the “supply chain” that brings the grain from the farm to the flour mill and the flour to the bakery and the bakery to the grocery store and the grocery store to our homes.

But, even knowing all of that, there are still gaps in our knowledge of just how our daily bread comes to us.  How exactly does that ''first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear" thing really work?

And we wonder not just how it works, but also why it works.   Most good farmers will at some point confess that they don 't know, only God knows.

Are there not wonders still to behold in the daily-ness of the miracles by which God sustains us?

This ancient story is telling us something about how God still performs miracles in ways that don’t overwhelm faith—or make faith unnecessary--but rather in ways that feed faith, instill trust, and revive hope.

As indispensable as daily bread happens to be, there is an even greater wonder here in this story—and that’s the fact that God’s Word is never silenced in this wicked world.

Here we need to remember the backdrop of this story of the widow of Zarephath.

The people of Israel were living in desperate times, because their king, Ahab, was nothing but bad news.   Over the course of 22 years on the throne, Ahab’s was the most shameful reign of any ruler of God’s people:  "Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD...Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the LORD, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him."

Ahab—idolater and ruthless tyrant that he was—Ahab did his best to silence the Word of God in the land of Israel.   And often it looked as though Ahab might succeed at that....were it not for God's fierce determination to preserve his Word, by however  slender a thread.

It’s as if God said to Elijah: "Ahab has put a price on your head. The land is devastated by a drought. Every creek has dried up. So I tell you what, Elijah:  how about you head for a little foreign village? There's a destitute widow in Zarephath who's only got enough flour left to make a last meal for her and her son. She'll be ideal for saving you, the way I intend to save you, Elijah. This widow is going to become a slender thread of survival not only for you, but for the Word that I have given you to proclaim.”

And it was so:  the miracle behind the miracle in this text is that God never leaves himself without witnesses in the world.  Because the flour and the oil held out, so also God’s Word held out.

Even in the midst of a 3-year drought, Elijah 's vocal cords did not dry up--and therefore God was not left without voice in Israel...

.....any more than God is left without voice in our world.   By whatever means, no matter how slender or precarious, God is not going to let anyone or anything stifle the Word of God:  the Word of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for us.

God’s Word never has been silenced—and it never will be silenced.  God sees to that.   God makes sure, by whatever means necessary, that God will not be left without witnesses in our midst.  In fact, I’m looking at some of those witnesses right now.

All of you, who have wheat bread and corn bread and rye bread on your tables….all of you also have the Bread of God’s Word, the greatest Bread there is, because it sustains us not just in life, but in death as well.

Thanks be to God for this way station, this feeding station, where God's Word will be heard, where that Word  will continue to have its way with us and all who are hungry for the bread that never fails.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.