Saturday, June 25, 2016

No Turning Back

100th Anniversary of First Lutheran Church, Karlstad, MN
June 26, 2016
I Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

What is it like, to emigrate from—to leave behind--the only home you’ve ever known? 

What is involved in pulling up stakes, boarding a ship, turning your back on the land of your birth, and heading off to a land you’ve never visited--fully intending to live the rest of your days in that new country?

That’s a good question for us to ponder as we celebrate the Centennial of this congregation. 

It’s good to reflect on the experience of immigration, because the Lutheran church did not originate here in North America.   We are a transplanted, immigrant church.   Most of our Lutheran ancestors arrived here on boats from northern Europe—the birthplace of Lutheranism.

Today we celebrate the fact that in November of 1916  fifteen immigrants from Norway—14 men and one brave woman—voted  to organize a congregation they would call the Karlstad Norwegian Lutheran Church.

To fully understand what motivated them we need to recognize the profound difference between tourists and immigrants.

Tourists, always carry round-trip tickets with them.  They travel abroad, but always with the intent of returning to their homeland.

Immigrants, are something else.   Immigrants carry one-way tickets.

To be an immigrant is to decide that your future is no longer in the land of your birth.  To be an immigrant is to set your face toward a new future, in uncharted territory.

What motivates immigrants is usually pain—the pain of war or poverty or dispossession.  To be an immigrant is to hurt badly enough that you honestly consider leaving your homeland for good.

To be an immigrant is to leave the land of your birth because you know your destiny lies in a home you will build in a land you will adopt, for the rest of your days.

Some ancient Vikings symbolized such radical relinquishment by burning their boats on the shores of whatever country they were conquering.   Burning their boats was a way of saying:  no turning back.   

To be an immigrant is to travel light…to bring along just enough—the bare essentials--so that you can build a new life. Our Lutheran immigrant ancestors packed their travel-trunks very carefully--and invariably they included three books:  a Bible, a catechism and a hymnal or songbook.

To be an immigrant is to start all over again in your adopted homeland.   And integral to that “starting over” was the decision by our immigrant forebears to band together for worship, confirmation instruction, and evangelical mission in the wilderness of North America.  

Sometimes our ancestors even erected a church building before they had finished their own homes on the prairie.  

It’s as if our immigrant forebears knew that among the necessities of life in this New World was the essential act of gathering together regularly to hear God’s Word of life, freedom and forgiveness in Jesus Christ…to center themselves around the Baptismal font….to kneel at an altar and feast together on the Lord’s Supper….and to be sent to serve in God’s world.

To be an immigrant is to be moved more by the promise of your future than by the memories of your past.   To be an immigrant is to “set your face” toward God’s tomorrow, to cast your lot with the New Creation that God is always calling forth in Jesus Christ.

This immigrant experience is the true “backstory” of your centennial celebration.  And, when you think about it, it’s a pretty amazing backstory!!

But there is precedent for this.

This is how God operates, as we behold here in our lesson from I Kings 19.    The God we know through the story of Israel and Israel’s greatest son, Jesus—this God embraces our past, our present and our future.  

This God calls us and empowers us to do the same:  to embrace our past, where we have come from….our present, the urgent problems and possibilities of this moment….and our future, God’s unfolding tomorrows that beckon us forward.

Here in I Kings 19 we see the prophet Elijah having come through a rough patch in his life.   After he triumphed over the prophets of the false god, Baal, on Mount Carmel—Elijah was forced to flee from those who wanted to kill him.  

Elijah grew so weary of running away--like a refugee!--that he finally pleaded with God to take his life.

But God would hear nothing of that!  God still had too many plans for Elijah.  God let Elijah know that even if he felt that he (Elijah!) was at the end of his rope, God was just getting off to a good start.  

God’s unfolding future included some assignments for weary Elijah.  God shook Elijah out of his anxiety and depression by giving him a daunting “to do” list—there were kings to anoint and a successor for Elijah who needed to be called. 

God was doing what God is always doing:  looking to the future and convincing folks like Elijah to do so, as well.

Indeed Elijah’s successor, Elisha, was proof positive that God wasn’t finished yet.   Even after Elijah finished his assignments, there would be more work to do.   Elijah’s casting of his mantle on the shoulders of Elisha his successor signified that God was still at work on the earth.

For Elisha the successor, it would be a kind of immigrant experience.  

Elisha, after all, had a pretty good thing going.   He had 24 oxen—no small investment in livestock!  Elisha had the means to cultivate the land on what was probably a pretty successful farm. 

That was the life Elisha had known—the future he thought was his--until Elijah came along and tapped him on the shoulder….granting Elisha a new future—a calling as prophet that Elisha embraced, signified by his generous offering to God of those 24 oxen, served up on a fire kindled from the wooden yokes that would no longer be needed. 

It’s hard for me to envision this part of our text from I Kings without also picturing the timbers of those old Viking ships burning on the shores of their new homeland!

Here is, finally, a word for you and me on this anniversary celebration.   You didn’t invite me to preach this morning so that I would simply tell all the old stories of this congregation that you never tire of hearing.  You have your elders, old-timers who can regale you with tales of your history.

You invited me to preach today because it’s my job to point you toward God’s promised future in Jesus Christ.  

In your anniversary booklet there’s an interesting tidbit that almost passes unnoticed:  for the first leg of your 100-year journey you were yoked with four other Lutheran congregations—three of which no longer exist.

It’s been happening for decades—congregations being started, flourishing, declining and closing.

Some congregations in the upper Midwest choose to close after they have made it to a milestone—like their Centennial.  Some of our prairie churches choose to say, right at the point you are at today:  Mission Accomplished!  We’ve run the race.  We’re calling it quits.   “To God be the Glory!”

But you have not chosen that path.  You believe God isn’t finished with you yet.  You still have a mission: “to be witnesses to God’s saving grace in Jesus Christ, and to serve the needs of the world in fellowship with all other believers.”

What shape might that mission take as you embark on your second century of life?   You’ve accomplished much since 1916: passing on faith to generations of children, serving your community, resettling refugees, welcoming seminary interns to your pulpit. 
But one thing I didn’t notice in your history booklet—unless I missed it—was any mention of a service of ordination for a son or daughter of this congregation who had entered the pastoral ministry.

What if that became one of your goals for the next leg of your journey?  

I remember the old hand pumps we used to have on the farm.  There was always a tin cup attached to these pumps—a cup that had two purposes.  First, you drank from it.  Second, you filled it up and left water behind for the next user of the pump—water, not to drink, but to use to “prime the pump.”

What if First Lutheran church pondered all the ways you might “prime the pump” for those who will come after you?

You can think about that, because God isn’t through with you.   God has a future for you in this good land.   God has more work for you to do. 

It is God’s work, in fact, that God will accomplish with our hands.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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