Monday, September 28, 2015

150th Anniversary of LSS of MN

Table Grace at 150th Anniversary of LSS of MN
September 26, 2015 in Minneapolis, MN

Gracious God of yesterday, today and tomorrow:  you have invited us to sit at table this evening among this great company of neighbors bound together by their love and support for LSS of Minnesota.

Give us keen memory to reflect back in deep gratitude over a century-and-a-half of expressing the love of Christ for all Minnesotans through service that has inspired hope, changed lives and built community.

Open our hearts to take in the wonder of all the ways LSS of MN still links together staff, volunteers, congregations and supporters to live and work together for a vision of dignity, safety, and hope in every one of Minnesota’s 87 counties.

Grant us inspired imagination to peer ahead, into your own unfolding future, energized by the hope that you will not stop creating innovative pathways for LSS of MN to meet unforeseen challenges to serve the least, the lost and the last.

Furnish us with the unflagging faith that knows you, O God, as the One who is always making these things happen—for you love your whole creation, you have poured out your own life for all persons, and you are making all things new in Jesus Christ.

Thank you, thank you, thank you--God of abundant hope:  for this good food and drink…for this company of fellow travelers…for this night of remembering, celebrating and renewing our commitment to be your hands and feet for the sake of all our neighbors.

We pray all these things through the One who for our sake became poor, so that we and all people might bask in the riches of your grace.   Amen.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Exercising Holy Imagination

Mission:  Imaginable
NW MN Synod Theology for Ministry Conference
Fair Hills Resort, Detroit Lakes (September 22, 2015)
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-14, 24-29

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Does it ever seem as though the church is missing something, lacking something?  

Do you ever find yourself thinking:   if only our church had just a little more--_________(something!) we could serve God’s mission better?

When I ponder that question I find myself saying things like: If only our church had some more money…..or some more members….or some more fervently praying members….or some more faithful, courageous leaders…..or some more something!

In my most recent musings on this question, I’ve been wondering whether what the church really needs right now is more imagination.

We could have all the money in the world….along with scads of faithful, courageous leaders…..but we’d still be dead in the water if we were bereft of imagination!

Albert Einstein famously observed that “imagination is more important than knowledge.”  

In an age when the Internet has dumped a veritable mountain of information upon us, we pine for, we cast about for a vision to shape what we’ll do with all that knowledge.

Thankfully, we are not left alone, staring dumbly at this Mt Everest of knowledge-- including the biblical and theological knowledge we cherish so deeply.

Fortunately God loves to mess with this huge mountain of knowledge.  God loves to jar us loose from our “paralysis of analysis.”  God keeps inspiring us to exercise one of God’s most godlike gifts to us:  our imaginations.

Here in Numbers 11, we observe such stirrings of holy imagination unfolding right before our eyes. 

Moses had led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt.  Under God’s guiding hand Moses had defeated Pharaoh and orchestrated the Hebrews’ great escape, across the Red Sea and into the wilderness of Sinai.

But after wandering in that wilderness for a good, long while, the burden of leadership had grown heavy on Moses’s shoulders.   The Hebrews (600,000 of them!) turned out to be a bunch of whiners, always griping, always craving artisanal Egyptian delicacies, cool clear water, or a dose of reassurance. 

As the pressure on Moses mounts, he seems to lose his capacity for creativity.   He becomes brittle, loses his patience, seems desperate for a quick solution—but Moses can’t come up with any new ideas.

In fact, Moses gets so stressed out that he actually begs God to kill him rather than make him keep leading these crabby, cantankerous Hebrews.

But Moses is not alone here.  This untenable situation stirs up God’s imagination, so that God offers Moses some ingenious relief.

He orders Moses to muster out 70 of the elders of the people—trusted, mature leaders whose hair either was thinning or gray--and God commands Moses to share his burdensome responsibilities with these 70 men.

Sounds like a plan:  If you’ve got too much on your own plate, figure out a way to delegate some of your responsibilities to others.  (I wonder why Moses couldn’t come up with that on his own?)

So Moses calls out these 70 leaders for a meeting by his Tent, outside the camp of the Hebrews.   And when they’re all assembled, God “came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders.” (Numbers 11:25)

When God did that—when God divvied up the Spirit among these new assistants to Moses—all of a sudden these 70 men prophesied.   God’s Spirit took control of them and opening their mouths to praise God and speak boldly about God.

Imagine that!   Seventy wizened Hebrews, pot-belled, long in tooth, all of them eligible for Medicare—imagine 70 Hebrew elders all beside themselves, all glory-hallelujah-ing because they were filled to the brim with God’s Spirit!

God’s imagination pierces through Moses’ paralysis and opens up a path, a rather novel path, we notice… God moves beyond God’s previous “Moses only” solution to the Hebrews’ crisis of leadership.

But this plan, when we think it through, is pretty messy, isn’t it?

It starts with a mess:  600,000 grumbling Hebrews and their leader ready to fall on his own sword…..

….and things continue to be messy, because even with the divvying up of a portion of Moses’ spirit among them….we’re still talking 70 different personalities, each with their own flaws and failings, their own limitations and possibilities….and we wonder:  “Isn’t that just inviting trouble, God?”

But God is never deterred by the messiness of any situation…..and gradually, it seems, Moses starts to be restored and begins to catch on to the wideness of God’s vision.  

Moses, it seems is infused with new eyes to see the fresh new thing God is doing.

So God’s imagination stirs Moses to find 70 lieutenants whom God fills with a portion of the Spirit that had been concentrated in Moses only.

Wait a minute though.  It wasn’t exactly 70 Hebrew elders.  Make that 68 elders instead.

For two of the old guys Moses invited out to his tent were late for the meeting.   I think of them as “Dad” brothers, El and Me. 

Eldad and Medad were still in the camp of the Hebrews when God’s Spirit fell down from heaven.   So, Eldad and Medad started whooping it up right in the middle of the Hebrew camp.   Even though they miss the meeting Moses called, they still get a dose of God’s Spirit.

And that’s when Moses’s right hand man, Joshua, gets his undies in a bunch.   Joshua was a West Point graduate.  He had his policies and procedures manual memorized.   Joshua was a man after my own heart—he liked things neat and orderly--all planned out.

When Joshua hears about Eldad and Medad making a Holy Spirit ruckus in the camp, he immediately tries to put the kabosh on it.   “My lord Moses, stop them!” Joshua frets.  (Num.11:28)

But this time Moses doesn’t act out of his anxiety.   Moses, who moments before had become brittle to the point of breaking—Moses now starts to catch on, to get into the flow of God’s own holy imagination.

Are you jealous for my sake?” Moses responded.   “Joshua—do you think it bothers me that Eldad and Medad got the Spirit even though they missed the meeting?   Not on your life!  Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!"  (Num 11:29)

As God leads Moses out of his own paralysis of analysis, it dawns on him that Joshua was missing something crucial: that the Spirit of God is wild and free and works behinds the scenes in all sorts of messes all the time….and his same Holy Spirit keeps showing up “whenever and wherever God pleases.” (Article V, Augsburg Confession)

The Holy Spirit will not be strait-jacketed by any of our timetables or “to do” lists.  

The Spirit isn’t at our beck and call.  

We don’t manage God’s Holy Spirit.  Rather:  God’s  Holy Spirit leads, forms, shapes and even drives us!

Oh, and by the way—the Spirit can and usually does do that in the midst of chaos, when things aren’t neat as a pin, when we have a “mell of a hess” on our hands!   And that’s about the best news I can imagine this morning!

Exercising holy imagination is more than God’s hobby or sideline.  It is what God does best.

God excels at observing our messes, entering into our messes, transforming our messes, and moving us beyond our messes.  God’s imagination is always cooking—for our good and for the redemption of all that God has made!

Isn’t that just like God—in a great feat of imagination--to free us from our “wouldas, couldas, shouldas”…to see the stuckness of our sin—and to resolve to forgive it, whatever it takes, even if it means the death of God’s beloved Son on a horrendous hill outside Jerusalem.

Isn’t that just like God—in an astounding burst of holy imagination--to undo death by dying, entering the grave with us and for us---loosening forever death’s stranglehold on us, wiping away the gruesome hold death has on us?

Isn’t it just like God—in a breathtaking exercise of holy imagination--to throw open the doors to a future that often seems so foreboding….to step gaily out of the grave on Easter morning, out into the future with us, for us, always ahead of us?

I could never cook up all that stuff—and neither could you.

But God imagines such things, easy as pie.  

And, thank God, praise God--God never tires of inviting us into God’s holy imaginings. 

Just when the latest mess seems most overwhelming, leaving us brittle and unsure and ready to call it quits…..just then God thinks a new thought and shares that new thought with us, usually when we least expect it.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Will Our Faith Have Children?

Faith Lutheran Church, Staples
September 20, 2015/Vibrant Faith Weekend
Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7 (Narrative Lectionary)

The great American poet and author Carl Sandburg once said that “a baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”[1]

How true!   What wondrous hope is rekindled in our hearts every time another child comes into the world.  We feel in our bones that every newborn infant is a downpayment on the future—a sign that life indeed goes on.

Alongside this deep investment of ourselves in bringing babies into the world, there is the heartache of those who find it difficult if not impossible to conceive and bear children.   The pain of that can be so raw.

So imagine the kind of emotional environment in which Abraham and Sarah must have lived!  They had longed for children for decades—but to no avail.   The biological clock was ticking, and the alarm of menopause had already sounded—“ it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” (Gen. 18:11)

Abraham and Sarah had been long resigned to the reality of childlessness, when three strangers stopped by their tent and surprised them with a prediction that could only make Sarah chuckle: “ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’"  (Gen. 18:10)

You can’t blame Sarah for laughing.   She knew the score here: it was her body, after all, that had already gone through the “change of life.”

But the visitor to their tent by the oaks of Mamre did blame Sarah for laughing, because he had not just told a joke here—they had moved into the realm of God and God’s astonishing, reason-ignoring, death-defying promises.

Barrenness of the womb was what it was (so Sarah and Abraham thought):  a high, thick brick wall between them and the future.

But in God’s economy, in God’s realm, such brick walls are trifling things, with nowhere near the power we assign to them:  “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14)

So when Abraham by rights should have been drawing Social Security, his elderly wife Sarah conceived and bore a son—and Medicare picked up her hospital bill!   Instead of meeting with their lawyer, their accountant and their funeral director to “set their affairs in order,” Abraham and Sarah were comparing paint swatches for their nursery—their days now punctuated by the pitter-patter of tiny feet.

And, just so they would always be reminded of God’s promise, their incredulity, and God’s last laugh-- Abraham named their baby boy Isaac, which in Hebrew means “he will laugh.”   Little “Ha Ha” growing up under their ancient noses!

And this child, this baby truly did embody (in the words of Carl Sandburg) God’s opinion that the world should go on.   For little “Ha Ha” was the child of promise—God’s promise—the progenitor of a people in whom  “all the families of the earth shall be blessed,” (Genesis 12:3)   

The babies would keep coming, for generation after generation among the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, and one of those babies would arrive in the fullness of time (Galatians 4:4)—and his name would be, not “Laughter” but “Jesus” for he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

Now the year is 2015—over twenty centuries after  the Real Child of Promise was born…..and although physical barrenness (“infertility issues” as we like to say) still happens….there is a plethora of medical treatments that can be tried….some of which transition a couple from no kids to almost too many kids! 

Physical barrenness may no longer be the impregnable wall it once was….but I wonder whether it might have been replaced, with a kind of spiritual barrenness we feel keenly nowadays.   

Will Our Children Have Faith?  Is a landmark book written by Christian educator John Westerhoff in 1976 (and still in print!).....a book whose title some folks have turned inside out to craft an even more plaintive question:  “Will our faith have children?”
Childless couples can explore fertility treatments….but what about this other body, the Body of Christ?   Our numbers as Lutherans have been slipping for decades in North America.  We seem to have lost the knack for bearing and birthing children of God.  My friend Dr. David Anderson likes to say that the prayer uttered most often by Lutherans is:  “Dear God, please get my grandchildren to church.”

This “barrenness” of the Body of the Church looms like a high, thick wall between us and the future, and we are tempted to lose heart…..

…but when such ruminations  lead us to start sinking into a slough of despond, that question comes back—a question posed to our great-grandparents in faith, by the oaks of Mamre so long ago:  “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

The “infertility issues” we recognize within our branch of the Body of Christ need not have the last word.   God has given us all that we need to start bearing children of faith once again.

And the “cure” isn’t some exotic, new-fangled concoction.   The treatment for our loss of capacity to form Christ in our young ones is right under our noses, graciously given to us by God.

This treatment starts with the Gospel itself—God’s sin-forgiving, barrier-breaking, future-opening Word in Jesus Christ—who lived, suffered, died and rose again for us and our salvation.

This treatment focuses on recovering our capacity to drench, indeed to marinate our young ones in the promises of God…from the cradle to the grave.   

This is what your congregation’s embrace of the Vibrant Faith Frame this weekend is all about.   You are opening yourselves up to the “fertility treatment” God provides in widening and deepening our appreciation for ALL the ways God labors over us, with us and through us to “form Christ” in the next generation of believers who are already in our midst.

Let me describe five principles that undergird this understanding of how faith is formed in us and our young ones:

First, God invites us to remember that faith is formed by the power of the Holy Spirit through
personal, trusted relationships, often in our own homes.

Since at least the 1950s we Lutherans have tended to “outsource” Christian formation to the professionals, to think of our church-based Christian education programs as the main (or in too many cases the only) means by which Christian faith is planted and grown.    Just drop your kids off at our church building for one or two hours a week and we’ll teach them how to be Christians.

God invites us to recover the other 166 or 167 hours in every week—to discover and leverage all the ways that passing on faith happens through forming and sustaining Christian relationships.

Second, God invites us to broaden our view of “church” as a living partnership between the ministry of
the congregation and the ministry of the home.  Your involvement in our synod’s Fostering Vibrant Faith project will help you re-envision your congregation….to shift from seeing it as an Old Country Buffet where we gorge ourselves with enough spiritual food to last us until the following Sunday….and, instead to view Faith Lutheran as a well-stocked grocery store where we pick up in and take home the spiritual food we’ll eat throughout the week.

Third, God opens our eyes to see that where Christ is present in faith, the home is church, too.   Jesus is surely present here in this congregation gathered around Word and Sacrament—that is and always will be the flaming center of our life in Christ.    But it is from this flaming center that we pick up the embers (the fire starter!) to kindle the fires that burn in all the places where God’s people live and learn and work and love one another. 

Fourth, God surprises us with the awareness that faith is caught more than it is taught.    As we grow deeper into reclaiming the other 166 or 167 hours of every week in every place where the baptized children of God live….we remember that there are not only facts to memorize but practices to embrace… daily prayer, dwelling in God’s Word, having caring conversations, serving our neighbors, giving generously.

Fifth, God speaks to us the truth that if we really want Christian children and youth, we need Christian adults.   I often hear the question: “What’s wrong with kids these days that they aren’t coming to church?”   That’s NOT the issue.   The issue is how are we Christian adults making good on the promises we utter at every baptism here in this congregation?

For in a great act of recklessness, the same God who has saved us in Jesus Christ has also sent us--entrusted us with the holy privilege of passing on Jesus Christ to others, starting most often with those who eat out of the same refrigerator, under the same roof.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Joy Amidst Sadness

NW MN Synod Women’s Organization 
Convention Theme:  Joy!
Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN
September 12, 2015
Hebrews 12:1-3

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith; who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart."

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

The last movie that my wife and I went to was the Pixar animated film, Inside Out.  Perhaps some of you have seen it.

Inside Out is the story of an 11-year old girl named Riley.   The story plays out on two stages:  the external stage of Riley’s daily life with her mother and father…..and the internal stage of Riley’s mind, where five emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust) are constantly interacting with one another-- personified as characters all vying to sit at the Control Panel of Riley’s life. 

Filled with mayhem and fast-paced humor, silly moments and poignant moments…..Inside Out focuses especially on the interplay between two of Riley’s emotions:   Joy and Sadness, personified as characters in Riley’s mind.

Joy, of course, thinks she should control Riley’s whole life.  Joy wants Riley to be happy from dawn to dusk.  Joy especially wants to keep Sadness as far away as possible from Riley’s internal control panel.

(As I started watching the movie I found myself pulling for Joy to be the main, if not the only, emotion in Riley’s life.   Who wants to see any young child unhappy or sad, after all?)

But when Riley and her parents move from Minnesota out to California, she experiences a whole gamut of emotions….all of which, tangled together, produce a bout of serious homesickness. 
Joy desperately tries to maintain control of Riley’s life….but that is not to be.  This normal little Minnesota girl becomes a sad, fearful, angry, depressed Californian.   The homesickness becomes so unbearable that Riley runs away from home, purchasing a ticket to take a bus back to Minnesota.

The turning point in the film (spoiler alert!) comes when Joy finally realizes that Sadness isn’t all bad—that there is, in fact, a role for Sadness--to make us mindful of the times in life when we need the help of others.   When Joy steps aside and lets Sadness sit at the control panel in Riley’s mind, Riley remembers how much her parents have helped her in sad times in her past….moving her to get off the bus….and return to her mom and dad in their new home in California.

A chaplain friend of mine tells me that some of his colleagues who supervise seminarians in their clinical pastoral education will be requiring all their students to watch this movie, Inside Out, as they learn the gentle, subtle art of pastoral care-giving.

Let me be clear:  Inside Out doesn’t portray itself to be a Christian movie.   But it does help us get at a central keynote within the Christian story—namely that joy is so much wider, deeper and more complex than happiness…..that joy in all its fullness cannot and does not exist apart from sadness….that these two emotions, these two ways-of-being are in fact meant for each other.

Nowhere is this interweaving of joy and everything that is NOT joy more evident than in these haunting words from Hebrews 12, about Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith who “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart."

Why did Jesus suffer and die on the Cross?   The author of Hebrews tells us that it was for the sake of the joy that was set before him.

Really, now—joy???  How dare we link the brutality of the crucifixion of the Son of God with the reality of joy?    What joy could Jesus possibly have felt when he was being tortured in the most dehumanizing of ways?  

We could maybe imagine Jesus enduring the Cross….”toughing it out”….because he knew the pain would be temporary….or because he accepted it as his duty, his obligation….or because Jesus trusted that despite his suffering and death he would be vindicated…
But that is not what the author of Hebrews says.   Rather, it was for “the sake of the joy that was set before him [that Jesus] endured the cross, disregarding its shame….so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.”

Jesus’ joy, as he faced the cross, was about you and me and all for whom he offered up his life.   It’s as if Jesus was thinking of us, and that was enough—the joy of you and me and who we would become.

Martin Luther in his Small Catechism, unpacks this for us in his meaning to the second article of the Apostles Creed.  Luther helps us grasp this surprising, uncanny joy that Jesus experienced on the cross.

"I believe that Jesus Christ--true God, Son of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary--is my Lord.  At great cost he has saved and redeemed me, a lost and condemned person.  He has freed me from sin, death, and the power of the devil--not with silver or gold, but with his holy and precious blood and his innocent suffering and death.  All this he has done (listen closely now!)...All this he has done that
•       I may be his own,
•       live under him in his kingdom, and
•       serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness,
just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.  This is most certainly true."

What gave Jesus joy on the Cross?

It was imagining you and me being his own dear children forever.  It was knowing that through his suffering, death and resurrection Jesus would win us…that we would belong to him forever.  No longer “alone in the universe.”  Never again feeling like a crate of unclaimed freight at the UPS depot.  You and I would belong to Jesus forever--that image gave the dying Jesus joy!

What gave Jesus joy on the Cross? 

It was picturing us living under him in his kingdom:  a kingdom built not on violence, coercion or unbridled power…but rather, a kingdom defined solely  by self-giving, death-defying love for us on the Cross.  It was the joy Jesus felt when he imagined you and me, no longer caught in a divided loyalty, no longer torn between God and devil...but living solely under his gentle rule, under King Jesus in his upside-down kingdom.        

What gave Jesus joy on the Cross?

It was the the thought of us serving him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. …the joy of transforming us from "good for nothings" into folks who are good for something:  good for trusting God, good for loving our neighbors, good for caring for the creation. 

In Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection for us and for all people we glimpse all the ways that enduring joy is so much more than fleeting happiness.

In Jesus we see how joy and sadness—far from being opposites of each other—actually need each other….for it is only in the interplay of joy and sadness that life gains depth, produces meaning, and grounds us in integrity.

In your lives of faith, my dear friends, you will know joy—but often it will be a joy that makes tears well up in your eyes and leaves a lump in your throat.   You will live joy—in the mountaintop moments, yes to be sure….but also in the dark valleys.  For in Christ, joy can be found even at hospital bedsides and freshly-dug graves.

In your lives of service to your neighbors, you will know joy…not just when service produces satisfaction for the servant…but also when your service confronts you with the dregs of this life—service for and with the least, the last and the lost.   

For we serve—joyfully, though perhaps not always happily—we serve in the name of the One who “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame…so that you may not grow weary or lose heart." 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.