Saturday, April 11, 2015

God is the Cook!

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Fergus Falls, MN
April 12, 2015
Second Sunday of Easter
John 21:19-31

If faith was something you could cook up in a kitchen, how would you do it?   What equipment would you use—a microwave oven?  Or a crockpot?

I know that sounds silly, but play with me for just a few moments.  Is faith an instant micro-wave thing or a slow-cooking crockpot thing?

It’s tempting to say that faith is obviously a microwave matter.   It comes as a sheer gift from God, transforms us at our core, makes the lightbulb come on—just like that!  

Here in John 20, Thomas (who was absent when the Risen Jesus first appeared to his disciples Easter evening)…..Thomas, having voiced his doubts about the resurrection, shows up with his fellow disciples one week later…..Thomas is there, he sees Jesus with his own two eyes (doesn’t even have to touch Jesus’ scars as he said he would)….and Thomas just blurts out:  “My Lord and my God.”

Set the microwave on 10 seconds cook-time and out pops the grandest confession of faith in the whole Gospel of John!

And that’s how it happens, or seems to happen, for many folks.  

It’s an especially American thing, this predilection for imagining faith as a micro-wave, all-at once-reality.   

American Evangelicals, long before Billy Graham, championed the revival meeting as the best means for evangelizing and bringing persons to faith. 

Lay down some sawdust, pitch a huge tent, bring in a fiery preacher, round up all the local sinners, sit them down in the front row for a rip-roaring sermon, plead with them to “make their decision,” help them pray the sinners’ prayer, and convert those lost ones!  Usher them from sin to salvation, from death to life, right here, right now—just like that.

We may roll our eyes when we hear stuff like that, but honestly, don’t we Lutherans have our own take on “microwave-faith?”

In fact, we saw it happen just moments ago.  

Sienna and Oliver were brought to the baptismal font, and in the twinkling of an eye they were rescued by the water of their Baptism into Christ, transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, signed, sealed and delivered into the loving arms of God forever.

Set the microwave on 10 seconds—and the deed is done!

And we really and truly do mean that.   Baptism into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus….being buried with Christ and raised with Christ in baptism…..this “baptism now saves [us]” as it says quite clearly in I Peter 3:21.

So there you have it:  whether you’re an American Evangelical or a true-blue Lutheran….faith is clearly a microwave thing.   Faith comes to us from heaven above, faith changes us and makes us new, just like that!

Except that it doesn’t always happen that way….or, more accurately, faith doesn’t happen only in that way.

There is this another way.  Faith and dwelling in faith often seems more like a slow-cooking, long-stewing crockpot.

So here in John 20, it’s not the first time we meet the disciple Thomas.

Although he’s mentioned in all four gospels, Thomas only speaks here in John’s Gospel.  Thomas has four brief “lines” in John’s dramatic script—and when Thomas speaks, it’s always with the voice of cold, hard realism.

In John, chapter 11, when Jesus tells his disciples that his friend Lazarus has died and they must go to him, Thomas--always Mr. Sunshine!--glumly responds: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

In John 14, just after Jesus tells his disciples that they know the way to the place where he is going, Thomas the Realist begs to differ: “Lord, we do not know where you are going.  How can we know the way?”

And then, here in John chapter 20, we see Thomas in all his skeptical glory.  Demanding certified proof--visual and tactile evidence--that Jesus is really alive again:  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

You gotta love a guy like Thomas--unvarnished skeptic that he is.  His story didn’t get edited out of the Scriptures! –it didn’t wind up on the editorial cutting-room floor.

What this string of brief Thomas-sayings in John’s Gospel suggests is that Thomas had been stewing on matters of faith, believing in Jesus THROUGHOUT his whole time of following Jesus-in-the-flesh.

Thomas’s last and greatest word here “My Lord and my God!”—DIDN’T just pop into his mind like a bag of microwave popcorn!    It was, rather, the product of a long, twisting, turning pilgrimage with Jesus, a conclusion formed and shaped by the Holy Spirit who had been brooding over Thomas for years!….

…..and Thomas’s bold confession here wasn’t the end of his story, either!

Although the Bible doesn’t tell us how Thomas’s life later unfolded, historians of the earliest church tell us that all of Jesus’ closest followers proclaimed the Good News, started Christian communities, were persecuted for their faith, and were scattered across the whole world.

A pious legend, believed to be true by many, holds that Thomas traveled all the way to India, where he bore witness to the Crucified and Risen Christ and was martyred on a hillside near the city of Chennai, close to our companion synod alongside the Bay of Bengal.

Six years ago my wife Joy and I visited the purported site of Thomas’s death and paid homage to his memory in the Santhome Cathedral where a part of Thomas’s body is enshrined.   When we were there we learned that there are still Christians in the Mar Thoma Church who claim St Thomas as their founder and spiritual father in faith.

So, in this telling of the story, Thomas’ faith wasn’t just a one-shot microwave experience.   Rather, it was a long, low, steady “cooking” process.   Thomas was marinated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the rest of his life.  His was more of a crockpot faith than a microwave faith!

So too, with precious little Oliver and Sienna this morning….and so too with our own lives of faith.

We pray, and we have promised to help shape for Sienna and for Oliver a long, slow, steady unfolding of the faith in Jesus Christ into whom they have been baptized.    We have publicly declared that, in both the peaks and the valleys of their faith journey, we and other Christians will always, always remind one another of our Baptism in Christ, as together we follow Jesus toward the open future he has brought into our midst when he stepped out of the Grave on Easter morning.

Oliver and Sienna were baptized here this morning—just like that!
But it is equally true to say that Oliver and Sienna BEGAN their baptism this morning….inaugurated their baptismal life, right before our eyes.   

And this baptismal life will continue for them….until their days on earth come to an end and they begin the next chapter in the story of all that God has in store for all the baptized:  the life of the world to come!

The point isn’t whether faith is a microwave thing or a crockpot thing.

The point is that, thank goodness, God is the Cook!    And God calls us to help out in his “kitchen”….so that Christ might be formed in everyone whom God calls, however God calls, into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord and Savior.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Recognizing and Responding to New Opportunities

Synod Theological Day
“From the Field, For the Field”
April 9, 2015--Fargo, ND

As I prepared these remarks I took seriously the fact that the first word in the assigned topic is "recognizing”….because “new opportunities” may, at first glance, look like anything BUT new opportunities.   They may—rather—strike us as really steep mountains, scary obstacles or huge piles of manure.

So the question is:  out of what sort of orientation toward reality do we approach this world and life as we know it?   It’s easy as pie to operate out of a default “problem orientation,” a way of looking at things that comes naturally for upper Midwestern Lutherans. Such realism-run-amok can shoot down any fresh idea, any new way of thinking—in an instant!

What happens, though, when we look at things from the vantage point of the Empty Tomb on Easter morning?   What happens when God opens us up to embrace a “promise orientation” that steps out of the gloomy house of death into the sunshine of Christ’s resurrection, cracking open God’s promised future in Christ?

“Recognizing new opportunities” involves willingness to reframe just about everything that comes our way—especially the “awful awfuls”—in the light of Christ the crucified and living one.   Such reframing involves looking again at the problems that seem so self-evident, and perceiving within them the possibilities God has tucked inside them.

I want to share two examples from our life in the NW MN Synod over the last five years—realities that seemed at first like anything but “new opportunities”
1.   First, a nagging sense that we’re an aging, declining church with an uncertain future.
2.   Second, the loss of over 10% of our congregations due to disaffiliation—effectively redrawing the very map of our synod.

We could not perceive “new opportunities” in these realities without first staring right at them, taking them in, and wrestling with them—the way Jacob wrestled with God (or was it a demon?) by the River Jabbok--wrestling until Jacob extracted a blessing from his opponent.

So if all we look at is “who shows up on Sunday mornings,” the narrative of aging and declining seems readily apparent.   But when we actually delved into the demographics of our region, another story emerged:  in 17 of the 21 counties of our synod, children and youth age 18 and younger outnumber senior adults age 65 and over.   And between 2008 and 2012 three-quarters of the counties in our synod showed population increases, not population decreases.

Shored up by this “second look” at our mission field; proud of our heritage as a child-friendly, youth-loving synod; aware of our people’s hunger for an alternative narrative to define us—late in 2010 we responded by surfacing and claiming a vision for our life together that would fly right in the face of the story we’d been telling ourselves about ourselves.

Lift up the Next Generation Vision—handout.

We have found that this Next Generation vision “has legs.”   
·       When our synod downsized its staff in 2010, we sought out a way to sustain our long-standing commitment to bringing together middle school youth and high school youth for faith-nurturing mass gatherings that are integral to the youth ministries in many of our congregations.  
   We retained our synod LYO board as one of the ways we not only sustain these gatherings as youth-led faith experiences, but also as one of the ways we train up younger leaders.
·       We set forth the Next Generation vision in a series of bishop’s Bible studies in 2011.
·       Our spring 2013 EEEvents, a.k.a. church council training events, featured breakout sessions on topics related to the theme:  “Living into the Next Generation Vision.”
·       And at last year’s synod assembly we agreed to partner with Vibrant to offer training and coaching for congregations hungering to help homes and families reclaim their role as primary arenas in which faith is formed.   Share brochure.

Regarding the other problem we had—the loss of over 10% of our congregations since 2009 due to disaffiliation—a generative discussion began at a retreat for our ten conference deans held in February of 2013.  

We talked first about the pain and disruption caused by losing 33 congregations to disaffiliation--leaving one of our conferences a shadow of its former self, and significantly altering the landscape in two other conferences.     Clearly, we didn’t need to maintain our 25 year old ten-conference structure.   Isn’t it time to “redraw the lines” to come up with a smaller set of larger conferences, giving each conference a critical mass of congregations to live and work together as near neighbors?

But then the deans shifted to a more basic question:   why have conferences at all?   What are they good for?   What is the purpose of the conference in our way of being church?   As we pondered that deeper question, mindful of all the ways neighbors help neighbors, one of the participants dared to recast the whole issue by asking—what if we had 20 smaller conferences rather than 7 or 8 larger conferences?  

In that moment, when we took a second look at what at first seemed like a little map-redrawing exercise, we knew we were looking at something bigger.  We recognized that we actually had, not a math problem or a geography conundrum, but a “new opportunity.”

So our synod council invited a group of about 20 folks from across the synod and its varied constituencies to gather and do more than redraw a map.   We named this group our synod “Rethinking Conferences” Task Force.

The group met regularly throughout 2014 and did several things.
We learned some of the history of how our old 10-conference structure came to be.   An older member of the group recalled a time long ago when every pastor and congregational president went to conference gatherings because that’s how you got the “stuff” for the coming year—the paper resources and “hard copy” curricula—that fed congregational programming.

We learned that if you go all the way back to 1988, the synod had actually diminished in size by 67 congregations—from 300 in 1988 down to 233 in 2014.

We pondered all the realities that fed our earlier pattern—where county lines were drawn, where school district boundaries were set, where local phone service was a factor.  Revisiting this history, all the changes that have happened since 1988 came into sharper focus—especially the overwhelming influence of the Internet, cellular phone technology, and “virtual reality”—a phrase not even in our vocabularies in 1988.

As we rediscovered our history, we examined again, with great care the one small paragraph in the ELCA Constitution for Synods that describes conferences.  Two things captured our attention on the Rethinking Conferences Task Force:   the varieties of configurations mentioned and the missional purpose for such ways of connecting with one another.

So, having recognized we had a new opportunity on our hands, we responded by doing some cooking and stewing.   We shifted from thinking of this as a microwave oven project, to realizing we had a crockpot project on our hands. 

We took our time, talked and listened to one another, dreamed together as people among whom the Holy Spirit was moving--and out of all that,  a proposal emerged (described on the handout) that is now before our synod, to move in three directions simultaneously—involving clusters, conferences and networks.
   To invite congregations to be parts of 26 clusters  of churches and ministry agencies in close geographic proximity to one another.
·       To form these clusters into eight conferences to choose leaders, gather at least annually (perhaps on the same Sunday afternoon, perhaps with some shared programing developed in collaboration with the synod), and to tend legislative functions such as supporting conference shared ministries, nominating persons for synod council and CWA voting members, and surfacing resolutions for consideration at synod assembly.
·       To open the door to non-geographic networks, using social media platforms like Facebook…networks of folks coming together around shared affinities and ministry priorities, e.g. networks of Vibrant Faith congregations, multi-point parish leaders, a congregations developing relationships with congregations in our companion synod in southern India.

Postscript:  My remarks, obviously, are retrospective in nature.   In truth, we did a lot of “wandering around” before noticing the possibilities tucked inside these two problems.   That’s what the church is always doing, which is why the most honest way to describe God’s guidance is to say: I’m not sure right now--but I’ll get back to you, after enough time has passed that God’s fingerprints have become visible!