Saturday, May 30, 2015

Majesty Mercy Mission

Sion Lutheran Church, Lancaster, MN
May 31, 2015
Sunday of the Holy Trinity
Isaiah 6:1-8

This may come as a surprise to you, but many pastors fear this day, Trinity Sunday.   They get so nervous that they avoid preaching today because the doctrine of the Trinity spooks them.

So some pastors even schedule their vacation to be gone on this Sunday (though I’m sure that’s not why Pr. Melodi headed home to Ohio!)  

Or they let this be the Sunday we recognize our graduates or our veterans or our quilters.  Anything to sidestep preaching a sermon on the Holy Trinity!

Why is that?   

I think it’s because some preachers have gotten it into their heads that they need to EXPLAIN the doctrine of the Trinity. 

“If I don’t understand the Trinity for myself,” a pastor might well wonder, “what makes me think I can explain the Trinity to others?”

Earlier in my own ministry I shared this same nervousness about Trinity Sunday, until it dawned on me that Trinity Sunday isn’t about explaining the Trinity as much as it’s about adoring the Trinity. 

Trinity Sunday is more about praising the Triune God than it is about diagramming the Triune God!

And with a text like this one from Isaiah 6 before us, how can we not stand in awe of our astounding, mysterious God….who meets us in his majesty, his mercy and his mission?

Here in Isaiah 6, the prophet finds himself suddenly transported into God’s heavenly throne room.   The vast space is filled up—just with the hem of God’s royal robe!   There’s smoke in the air, the foundations are shaking (as in an earthquake), and a band of  seraphim--monstrous six-winged creatures are flying around and crying out:  “Holy, holy, holy!” (v. 3)

Encountering God in God’s “Godness”—in God’s majesty—produces a sense of awe, an awareness that God is God and we are not! 

Nearly a century ago a book appeared entitled, God is My Co-Pilot.  That title later inspired a bumper sticker that read:  “If God is Your Co-Pilot, You’re Sitting in the Wrong Seat!”

There is a vast distance between us and God—a distance that you and I cannot traverse.  We can’t get from here to there, we can never grope our way to God—God is that high, that mighty, that “beyond” us!

Such a sense of awe is healthy for us.   We need such awe in our lives, because awe “locates” God in God’s place and puts us in our place, cuts us down to proper size, humbles us in God’s overwhelming presence…

…..and, in fact, awe does even more than humble us! 

Encountering God in God’s majesty magnifies our awareness of our sin.

So Isaiah cries out:  “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”(v. 5)

When Isaiah beholds God in his holiness and majesty, he can only confess how it is with him:  Isaiah has to confess his sin—both Isaiah’s own sinfulness, and the collective sin he shares with his people.

A man once requested an appointment with his pastor because he had some sins to confess.   “What’s troubling you,” the pastor asked.  “What have you thought, said or done that’s so sinful?”
“Oh, I didn’t come to confess my sin,” the man replied.  “I’m here to confess my neighbor’s sin!”

Sin-talk in the Bible never lets you or me off the hook.   It’s always less about “them” and “their” sin—and always more about me and my sin, our sin. 

My lips, my heart, my hands are unclean….and I live among a people who’re all in the same boat!

Awareness of God’s majesty magnifies our unworthiness….and opens us up to the second characteristic of God that shines through here in Isaiah 6:   God’s mercy.

Sinners deserve to die, as Isaiah acknowledges, but God never takes pleasure in the death of even one sinner.  God’s majesty could easily have snuffed out scrawny, sinful Isaiah….but God desired not to kill Isaiah, but to forgive him.

So one of the seraphim, who moments before terrified Isaiah, suddenly becomes an instrument of God’s mercy:   “Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’”

God’s preferred path isn’t to catch people in their sins or keep a ledger of their sins or punish sinners—but to forgive sins and rescue sinners.

And there’s a reason for that:   God saves us in order to send us.
As soon as Isaiah’s sin is blotted out, he has ears to hear what God is saying.   

In like manner, when God deals with our sin, when God gets us uncurled—out of the perpetual fetal position sin puts us in….when God liberates us from the self-absorption of sin, when God finishes off the navel-gazing that sin induces in our lives…..when God’s forgiveness gets us looking outward and upward for a change….we become open to the work God wants to do through us…..which leads us to the third reality about God that’s lifted up here in Isaiah 6:   God’s mission.

God is on a mission, a mission that God insists on involving you and me in carrying it out!

God’s mission is to make you and me and all things new.  

God’s mission is to reign over his kingdom, not as a tyrant or a dictator, but as the self-giving, self-emptying Lord of Unfathomable Love.

So the seraph touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal from the altar of God….and as Isaiah’s sin is burned away, his ears are opened up to hear what God has to say:  “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?”

There were all those folks whom Isaiah had already mentioned when he confessed he was a man of unclean lips who lived among a people of unclean lips.   What about them?

God the King of heaven and earth needed someone—God needed a human being who would represent God and seek out all those sinners.

And why, we wonder?    Why doesn’t God just deal with all those sinners himself, directly?

The great 20th century missionary to India, Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, liked to say: “God’s purpose is precisely to break open that shell of egotism in which you are imprisoned since Adam first fell and to give you back the new nature which is content to owe the debt of love to all [people].  And so God deals with us through one another.  One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people.  Each of us has to hear the gospel from the lips of another or we cannot hear it at all…Salvation comes to each of us not, so to say, straight down from heaven through the skylight, but through a door that is opened by our neighbor.”[1] 

One is chosen to be the bearer of the message to another, one people to be God’s witnesses to all people.

Here in our text that one was Isaiah.   The whole reason God caught Isaiah up into God’s heavenly throne room….had Isaiah’s sinful lips cleansed with that hot coal...asked his heavenly court, “whom shall I send?”…..the whole point of all that God did here was to get Isaiah’s feet ‘a-moving, away from himself, out to his neighbors, to share with them the best news ever:  that God is making us and the whole creation new!

On this Trinity Sunday 2015, we know how this saga has played out and how it continues to play out in the realm of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We experience the awe of standing always in the presence of God the Father Almighty.  We behold the majesty of God that puts God in his proper place and us in our proper place.

Standing in awe of God’s majesty, we confess all the ways we and everyone else fail to measure up.  We confess our sin only because in Jesus Christ we have come to know that the God of majesty is also the God of supreme mercy, who would rather die for us (as Jesus poured out his life on the Cross for us!) so that our sin might be blotted out, our guilt burned away by the refining fire of God the Son.

And the point, the goal of all that, is that God the Holy Spirit who saves us from sin, might send us as Isaiah was sent.   You, my dear sisters and brothers, are the way the mission of God encounters your neighbors to make them and all things new in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


[1]   Paul Weston, Lesslie Newbigin:  Missionary Theologian, A Reader (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 50.

Mission: Imaginable

Mission:  Imaginable
NW MN Synod Assembly
May 17, 2015
Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

"How do I figure out God's will for my life?" is one of the questions people ask most often.[1]

“How do I figure out God’s will for my life….for my family….for our church?”

Where is God taking us—and how might we best become aligned with God’s direction?

Questions like these point us to the faith practice of discernment….imagining the contours of God’s promised future and how that future affects the ways God is calling us to step forth right now.

When you think about discerning God’s guiding will—where does that best happen for you and your congregation?

·       Discernment sometimes happens in a retreat setting, with balloons bouncing around, post-it notes plastered over a wall, sheets of butcher paper covered with chicken-scratched notes from brainstorming exercises, as leaders of a church try to puzzle out goals and how to pursue them.

·       Discernment sometimes takes place in contemplation—in silence, in darkness pierced only by candlelight, in centering ourselves, in praying--new insights emerge…

·       Discernment sometimes happens in meetings of chosen church leaders who’ve been reading good books, working with consultants, studying demographic trends, interviewing church members, conversing with neighbors, trying to distill the finest honey from all that rich “pollen.”

·       And then discernment sometimes happens in the midst of chaos.  Discernment can bubble up in clutch moments, when a crisis suddenly emerges and action must be taken.   Even in times of chaos –when everyone’s asking “what do we do now, for heaven’s sake?”….discernment happens, albeit by the seat of our pants!

This peculiar narrative in Acts 1 was a discernment moment—the first time members of what would become the first church engaged in communal discernment together. 

And the eleven apostles seem to have employed various pathways to discernment…in the midst of a crisis, with a wing and a prayer, in the confidence that God can and will work through just about any means.

This story--truly a discernment story!--has a shape that starts to sound familiar as we listen to the story with care:

First, there was an elephant in the room--the “elephant” being the absence of one of the Twelve.   One of them had disappeared, not by accident, but by treachery, betrayal and a gruesome death (described here in Acts 1 with more graphic detail than most of us prefer!)

The reason why Judas’s death posed a problem to the remaining eleven disciples is that Jesus had very intentionally chosen Twelve (not eleven nor thirteen) disciples to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel, the whole people of God, whom Jesus was reconstituting through his self-emptying  life, saving death, and surprising resurrection.

The defection of one of the Twelve, Judas Iscariot, the Betrayer, diminished the potency of that symbol of the Twelve constituting a New Israel, the vanguard of the whole people of God.  So what should be done about that?
Discernment of God’s will for people and faith communities often begins with the reality of “elephants in the room”—uncomfortable truths that aren’t being talked about openly, honestly.

        So I ask you, dear friends:   what “elephants” lurk in the     shadows of your church building?   What uncomfortable        truths do you tend to dance around?   What hard realities         tempt you to look away and whistle in the dark, hoping no       one will notice?  Pause.

Back to our text….

Aware of the “elephant in the room” here in Acts 1, the second thing that happens is that someone breaks the silence.  

A pastor-friend of mine says:  “When you realize there’s an elephant in the room, please introduce it to everyone else!”[2]

In this story it’s Peter who names the elephant in the room.   And that’s noteworthy for two reasons:
1.    It’s the first time after Jesus’ Ascension that one of his followers stands up and starts exercising servant-leadership in the emerging church; and
2.   It’s the first time here in Acts that Jesus’ followers start looking forward, not backward!  

Exercising servant-leadership  isn’t for sissies!   When you’re in a discussion at church, it takes gumption to speak up—and even more guts to join a leadership team, not to mention serve its convener. 

But the church of Jesus Christ needs such brave, willing, imaginative servant-leaders….now more than ever!

Peter stepped out and invited the early church to dance with the Risen Lord in his ongoing mission of reclaiming the whole creation, starting with the Cross and the Empty Tomb, moving not backward but forward, into God’s promised future in Christ.
        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your faith community        form and call forth servant leaders?  How do you support    the leaders you have?  What obstacles are sometimes put in     the way of such leadership?   And which direction is your   church facing—backward, or forward?  Pause

Back to our story in Acts 1…

There’s an elephant in this room filled with about 120 followers of Jesus.   Peter gets up the gumption to name this elephant and propose that they do something.   In so doing Peter points the fledgling church forward, not backward.  

Judas Iscariot’s gory death has diminished the apostolic ranks by one.   Somehow that must be addressed, so that when the Holy Spirit falls upon them they are poised, ready to move out into the world at full strength.

The third thing that happens here is that the disciples generate possibilities for a successor to Judas.  They had no succession plan, no governing documents to rely on, no workshop on leadership replacement they could all go attend, no “apostolic head-hunter” they could hire to conduct a nation-wide search. 

Instead, the eleven relied on their sanctified common sense, focusing on just one criterion for replacing the 12th disciple: “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us…—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

Thus was convened the first nominating committee in the history of the church!   The group soon surfaces two candidates for the open seat in the apostolic circle:  Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias.”

        So I ask you, dear friends:  how does your congregation      invest imagination in generating possibilities for serving       God’s mission in this time, this place?   How do you give       yourselves the gifts of time and prayer and reflection on the   things that matter most?  Pause

Back to our text…

Fourth and finally, the disciples acted.   There’s no record of them conducting a Minnesota Statute 604.2 background check on Joseph or Matthias.  The eleven didn’t declare 40 days of fasting…didn’t spend time second-guessing themselves. 

Instead they decided, by praying and casting lots.  

St Augustine, a fourth century bishop in northern Africa, said:  “Pray as if everything depends on God, work as if everything depends on you.”[3]   The eleven disciples seemingly anticipated Augustine’s approach—putting themselves in God’s hands through prayer; then doing the “work” of casting lots.

The result was that Matthias was chosen to assume the position of 12th disciple, restoring the “apostolic strike force” to full strength.

And once Matthias was elected—he was never heard from again, at least in the pages of the holy scriptures!

It’s as if Matthias’s only job was to “be there,” to be chosen, to transform the eleven survivors of Good Friday….into the Twelve missionary-witnesses to the Resurrection.   That was enough!

If that seems a little anticlimactic to you, just remember that the Book of Acts itself concludes its 28 chapters in sort of an inconclusive manner.    As books go, Acts is something of a cliff-hanger…

….and I think that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit intended! Some books aren’t supposed to tie up all the loose ends.

God, you see, is still writing the ending to the Acts of the Apostles through the likes of you and me, latter-day successors to the apostles, whom God is still calling and sending forth as witnesses to the Resurrection, people who point unceasingly toward God’s promised future in Christ.

As God crafts the conclusion to God’s great story, we take our places, play our parts, in ways that may wind up seeming as obscure as the rest of the story of St Matthias, the blessed replacement.

And that’s OK.  It is enough, more than enough, simply to be swept into this Story of how God is making all things new in Jesus Christ.

It is enough that we get to repeat and stake our whole lives on  the greatest “lines” in our episode of God’s Mission Imaginable:   Christ has died.   Christ is risen.   Christ will come again!


[1] Richard Jensen, Working Preacher (2009), accessed April 5, 2015 at
[2] Pastor Paul Rohde, campus pastor at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, said this in a sermon I heard several years ago.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Welcome to the Heart of God

Trinity Lutheran Church of Moorhead, MN
May 3, 2015; Easter 5
Installation of Pastor Tessa Hansen
Acts 8:26-40

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (Acts 1:8)

These are the last recorded words of Jesus before he ascended into heaven, as the author of Acts has it, in chapter 1, verse 8.

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

There is here a trajectory, an “itinerary” that the Risen Jesus sets before his followers.   They will tell his story first of all in the city where Jesus was crucified, Jerusalem, at the heart of it all.  And then they will move out into the world….starting in the regions right around Jerusalem (“Judea and Samaria”)…and eventually they will travel every which-way, “to the ends of the earth.”

This noble vision, this stirring commission with its soaring view of the world and its expansive perspective on a vast future….this lofty vision played out (as it were) in a markedly step-by-step, down-to-earth, often messy fashion.

So, the Holy Spirit fell down from heaven at Pentecost….the community of Christ grew by 3000 baptized souls just like that….a fresh way of living out faith flowed forth…obstacles emerged and were overcome….all in the context of a brewing threat from the same mad mob that sought Jesus’ death…..until one of the Christ-followers, Stephen, was brutally stoned, triggering the first outbreak of persecution that compelled Jesus’ followers to leave Jerusalem and head out into the surrounding regions.

From Acts 1:8 to Acts 8:1, the spreading of the Christian movement happened--motivated by fear and necessity, the followers of Jesus fanned out in every direction, having all sorts of adventures as they put distance between themselves and the epicenter of it all in Jerusalem.

So one fine day, a follower named Philip met up with a traveler on a desert road…and came face to face with what this new life in Christ-crucified-and-risen would look like.

What Philip encountered that day, what all the followers of Jesus ran into as they moved out, beyond Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria and finally “to the ends of the earth”—what they met up with was all the messiness of life.

This messiness met Philip in the form of a stranger who had at least three strikes against him:  he was a foreigner, from Ethiopia….he was dark-skinned, a man of another race….and he was a man who wasn’t fully a man, his masculine identity having been marred, likely at an early age.

This unnamed Ethiopian eunuch was someone Philip might otherwise have shunned or simply ignored, pretending not even to notice him….were it not for the insistent demand of the Holy Spirit who told Philip:  “Go over to this chariot and join it.”

Pastor Tessa, this story speaks volumes about what it might mean for you to bear the title:  Pastor of Hospitality….

…Because this story says, first of all, that hospitality in the community of Christ is about so much more than smiling a lot, being nice, always looking for novel ways to welcome folks, and displaying the best of manners and decorum.

Hospitality in the name of Christ is first and foremost about meeting people in the extreme messiness of their lives…..finding ourselves drawn toward perhaps the very last persons we might want to meet.
It’s hard to ignore the fact that three of the markers that created distance between Philip and the Ethiopian still contribute to the messiness of our lives in this time and place: race, ethnicity, and sexual identity.

Hmmmm—is this ancient story really all that ancient?

I wonder, Pastor Tessa, whether this text might be asking you and all the followers of Christ here at Trinity:  how widely are we willing and able to open up the doors of this faith community?   As you engage that kind of messy, complex question you will come close to the heart of what we mean when we speak of Christian hospitality.

If saying this ups the ante a little too high, please remember two other things.

God wants us smack dab in the messiness of peoples’ lives.   The ministry of hospitality involves inviting us to do what God already ardently wants us to do!  God is on your side here, Pastor Tessa, because God is the minister of hospitality par excellence!

Notice, please, how utterly God-guided Philip was here, directed by God to the right road, drawn by God to the Ethiopian’s chariot, prompted by God to ask the right questions and empowered by God to speak the right words at the right time.

The Book of Acts takes pains to show God being utterly in charge as the nascent Christian community stretches its boundaries, crosses ancient barriers, and embraces the heretofore untouchable!   God is no less here, present, effectively guiding you and those you serve, Pastor Tessa.

And second, the one who is welcomed, often shows us the way, if we but have ears to hear and eyes to notice.

There is something about this story in Acts 8 that seems a little too easy, as if the dice were loaded before the game began:   Philip goes to this particular road, finds this particular God-fearing man, reading this particular passage from Isaiah 53, wondering just who it was who was “led like a lamb to the slaughter.”  

Talk about a slow ball pitched right over the plate!!

No wonder Philip can step right up and “proclaim to him the good news about Jesus!”

And then, as if all those coincidences hadn’t piled up a little too neatly, some water appears—water, in the desert, mind you!--just as the Ethiopian wonders about being baptized!

Tessa, things may not always come together that neatly in your ministry of hospitality here and out in the community, on behalf of Trinity...

But please never underestimate the ways those to whom you seek to minister will minister to you.   The ones we would welcome often show us the way—simply by the questions they ask and the ways they ask them.

"About whom,” the Ethiopian asked Philip, “does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"

Why did the eunuch inquire about the identity of the suffering one in Isaiah, the one who had been cut off, whose life had been taken away from the earth?

It was because this was the Ethiopian’s own heart-felt life story.   He had been cut off.  His life—his future guaranteed by descendants—had been taken away.   The Ethiopian was fervently fixated on this passage from Isaiah, I dare say, because he was trying to find himself in God’s story!

So also, in all the ways we welcome one another into fullness of life in Jesus Christ, we encounter persons who are already trying to discover their place in God’s story.

Their questions, their longings, set us up to do what Philip did:   to “proclaim…the good news about Jesus” who for our sake was cut off, so that we might never be cut off from the forgiveness, the freedom, the future God has in store for all of God’s children.

So welcome to Trinity, Pastor Tessa!   Welcome to being Trinity’s Pastor of Hospitality!  Welcome to the adventure of  meeting others in the messiness of their lives and welcoming them—not just into this community of care—but into the depths of Jesus’ own story—into Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for us and our salvation.

Which is to say:  Welcome to the delight of welcoming folks into the very heart of God.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.