Saturday, January 28, 2017

Broken, Leaky and Blessed

Installation of Pr. Sheila Michaels, Lutheran Campus Pastor
White Earth Tribal and Community College
January 29, 2017--Epiphany 4/Year A
St Columba’s Episcopal Church, White Earth, MN
Matthew 5:1-12

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

So let me begin this afternoon with a confession.  For most of my 35+ years of pastoral ministry I avoided preaching on this beloved passage that marks the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Although I’ve always loved reading the Beatitudes—it’s preaching on them that has been a stretch.

And with good reason!

These verses, after all, are already part of a sermon delivered by Jesus himself.   Who am I to create a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus?   What could I possibly add to or clarify in what Jesus has already uttered?

How could a Minnesota farm-boy possibly dare to preach a sermon based on a sermon by Jesus?   That’s just ridiculous!

What’s more, the Beatitudes have always seemed to be calling us to some kind of moral crusade or a course of self-improvement.  

Too often we hear these verses and imagine them calling us to transform our lives.   We have the sense that Jesus is saying to us:  “Don’t just sit there:  do something!”   Be more humble, practice mercy, make peace…and much more..   

And for Protestant Christians that is always dangerous place to be—whenever the good news of Jesus comes off like good advice from Jesus.

So for most of the time since 1981 when I was ordained I simply “ducked” whenever this gospel lesson popped up in the lectionary…..until two preachers[1] wiser than me opened my eyes to what’s going on here in the first twelve verses of Matthew 5.

One of these wise preachers suggested that the Beatitudes aren’t so much a strategy for moral improvement as they are Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech.

The Beatitudes are Jesus’ “I Have a Dream” speech.  Ponder that for a moment—perhaps with Martin Luther King’s soaring speech in the back of your mind.

The Beatitudes are not about self-improvement or “making this a better world” as much as they are a chance to hear from Jesus, very early in his ministry, a vision of how God sees the world and all of us—both now and in God’s future.

The Beatitudes are framed, not as demands, but as promises throughout, promises of what is and what shall be, in the tender compassion of our God.

What does Jesus see as he looks out over the crowd?     

Jesus sees a graced, gifted, blessed life where others see only pain, heartache, deficit and loss.   

Jesus sees poor souls seemingly bereft of riches….

Jesus envisions sorrowful mourners, humble nobodies, hungry hearts….

Jesus looks at the profoundly sincere, the makers-of-peace, the persecuted….
…and all around them Jesus bestows, Jesus promises a circle of God’s blessing.  

Those whom this dying world ignores, bypasses, even curses—all of them are blessed by God, blessed to be blessings.

And this isn’t something we need to do anything about.

This is something that Jesus’ hearers, including you and me--this is simply who we ARE in the mercy of God.

“I have a dream,” Dr. King announced….and then in soaring rhetoric that still captures our hearts he shared a vision not of what he hoped might happen if everybody finally got their acts together….but rather, he shared a vision of what God was already up to, what God was surely bringing about:  a future in which all God’s children would sing—with one voice—“Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”

That, or something very much like it, is what Jesus was doing when he sat down on a mountainside and delivered this sermon.   Not a strategy for moral action, but a panoramic vista on the future that God in Christ is bringing into our lives and our world, even now.

That’s the first fresh thing I learned about the Beatitudes a while back…and the second new insight I received came from a preacher who said this:  in the Beatitudes, Jesus intentionally focuses on all the “breakage” in our lives.

Not just here in these twelve verses, but throughout the Bible, God is always dealing with “breakage.”  

It is, in fact, second nature for God to take the breakage in our lives and transform it into blessing.  What else should we expect, after all, from the One who took the breakage of the Cross and transformed it into the blessing of Easter?

This is, I think, a profound word for you, Pastor Sheila, as you are installed as Lutheran campus pastor for the White Earth Tribal and Community College.

You are already a key bridge-builder and healer in this unique community of learners who bring all the joys and gifts, along with all the challenges and heartaches of young people today.  

Today we publicly name you as pastor within this college, remembering that pastors are instruments through whom God gets close to us, close especially to all the breakage in our lives because of what Martin Luther called sin, death and the power of the devil.

Pastors are persons called to see and not ignore all the “breakage” in our lives.  

Pastors, in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, pronounce God’s surprising, undeserved blessing upon us, precisely in our brokenness.

So, when all our sources of security are broken open, we realize how “poor in spirit” we truly are.

When all our hope for heaven on earth is broken open, we become people who can only “hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness”

As we name the hope that is in us—a hope that runs right up against the grain in this world—we’re broken open in the act of suffering, being persecuted for being out of line with the world.

Each of these beatitudes begins with some experience of brokenness….a brokenness that opens us up to God who delights in filling that brokenness with blessing.

When we’re most keenly aware of being broken, bereft, at the end of our rope—like those whom Jesus addressed in his Sermon on the Mount--here is what God in Jesus 
Christ says to us: 

You are blessed.  

You are the apple of God’s eye.  

You are Jesus’ joy and delight.  

You will not be disappointed.  

In God’s good time—in the future that God alone holds in the palm of his hands—in that future your future is disclosed, for the sake of God’s beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

It would be so wonderful if blessings came in a less painful way.  We wish God simply doled out blessings the way Ed McMahon used to pull up to some unsuspecting soul’s house, scrambling out of the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes prize van, with an over-sized check for a million dollars.

But in God’s Kingdom, it doesn’t work that way.   In God’s Kingdom we are broken open, so that God has space to redeem and restore and bless.   Blessing enters in most readily, clearly and unmistakably wherever there is “breakage” that opens up room for blessing, thus making everything and everyone new, in Jesus Christ.

But even that is not the end of the matter.  

The same preacher who taught me about “breakage” in our lives went on to say that God’s blessings are always “leaky.”    

God never blesses any of us in such a way that we just hang onto that blessing and hold it in, purely for ourselves. 

No, blessings by their very nature tend to “leak”—to leak out of our hands, into the hands of other broken ones, all around us….

…and in fact, that’s exactly why God put us here:  to leak God’s blessings to us so that others might hear Jesus’ own “I Have a Dream” speech…and in that way, be blessed forever.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] I think the first of them was David Lose, and I know the second of them was Martha Stortz who spoke to the ELCA Conference of Bishops some years ago.

Saturday, January 21, 2017


Ordination Sermon for Kent Krumwiede
January 21, 2017 at Trinity Lutheran Church, Truman, MN
Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

These verses from Matthew 28 are like a pair of old shoes for you, Kent.   As you told me, this passage has been “visiting” you at key junctures in your life….hovering over your own Baptism….on your lips as the script for a worship skit you were in as a Sunday Schooler…and, almost inevitably, on your confirmation day, your Bible verse was this one, the Great Commission.

The more these verse have “visited” you, the stronger your own sense of call has grown, and so it makes perfect sense that today as your life comes full circle, once again, you are under the banner of the Great Commission.  

But this is about so much more than good memories regarding all the ways God has been getting at you over the decades….wooing and wheedling and working on you to become a pastor in the church.

You will always “look back” when you consider Matthew 28, but in these next moments I invite you also to look forward, to the many years of pastoral ministry that await.   This text is a rich, rich tool-kit for ministry, and you will never exhaust its treasures. 

Let me name five of these treasures.

First there is the treasure of honesty humility in this text.

“Humility” might not be the first word we associate with the Great Commission.  Some have been uncomfortable with the triumphalistic ring about the whole notion of making disciples of all nations.

It does fire the imagination—to envision Word of Christ encompassing the globe.   Reminds me of the old Lutheran Hour Rallies I attended as a kid growing up over by Amboy.  The venerable Oswald C.J. Hoffmann would preach a fiery sermon, but only after the “parade of nations”—local folks, arrayed in clothing reflective of all corners of the globe, filing into the arena, all singing:  “Jesus, shall reign where ‘ere the sun, does its successive journeys run.”   Hard not to get a shiver up your spine—when you sing bold words like those!

And yet there is a tone of sober realism at the beginning of this passage, because it says that the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them (Matthew 28:16).    Eleven disciples—that doesn’t sound right---weren’t there supposed to be twelve?  But there was a dropout, who abandoned Jesus and skipped out on the apostolic adventure, the Betrayer Judas.

So the eleven remaining disciples arrive at the mountain, and the Risen Jesus is there, and they worshipped him—but some doubted.    Isn’t that stunning:  the glorious Risen Christ right before their eyes, but some still doubted?

The Great Commission starts with honest humility:   a realistic reminder that ministry in the name of the Risen Christ always involves working with dropouts and doubters.   It was precisely for such folks, people like you and me, that Jesus came into the world---to call us dropouts and doubters to follow him.  

May such honest humility always be your starting point in ministry, Kent.    You will do your best work, pray like crazy, preach your heart out….and some will not buy it and others will have doubts.   But why should any of us pastors be exempt from challenges that even Jesus faced?

The second treasure in this text is the solid grounding of our ministry, based solely on the saving work of Jesus Christ.    The grounding of our ministry—the only reason we even attempt this audacious work—is that the Risen Jesus has death behind him and now sits at the control panel of the cosmos:    “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

Again, what an audacious claim!   On Good Friday, at the cross, Jesus seemed utterly powerless.   But in the wild unpredictable way that God does business with us—making power perfect in weakness!—the Biggest Loser turned out to be the true Master of the Universe, God’s universe!

Kent, you didn’t get yourself into this business.  God called you, and God in Christ will continue to call you.   Some days—perhaps most days—that may be the only thing that keeps you going as a pastor.   As we shall shortly hear in the rite of ordination:   Be of good courage, for God has called you, and your labor in the Lord Is not in vain!

The third treasure in this text is that tiny word:  GO.    Pastors are persons on the go; they reflect a “going” God,;  they serve a church that is on the move.

“Go, therefore….”the Risen Christ commands his followers.  “Go!”   We never outgrow our need to hear that tiny word, because the longer we live in this world, the easier it is to get settled and comfortable and, frankly, immobile.

The church of our youth, Kent, was a church that emphasized “coming” more than “going.”   Come to our church where you’ll come to know God.  We’ll even unlock our doors every Sunday and at other times, precisely so that persons can come to God, present themselves before their Creator.

The church of today and tomorrow, is increasingly a church about “going.”   And that isn’t some fancy new fad.  It is rather about taking Jesus at his word when he commanded his disciples:  “Go, therefore…”  

A going church is more about people than place, more about moving than settling in.   A church that hears Jesus’ “Go!” clearly will be a movement more than an organization.   We take our cues from a peripatetic Savior who hardly ever sat still, but was always seeking, searching out sinners, setting them free.

Pastoral ministry that reflects Jesus’ own ministry is about such going, seeking, searching finding and liberating sinners.   It is about mobilizing an all-too-often immobile community, just because Jesus told us to “GO!”   Get out there.   There’s a whole world dying to hear what God has to say, and pastors provide the vocal cords to make that happen and the hands to raise up a whole community of Good News speakers.

So we go….and we move….but this is anything but mindless activity on our part.   Jesus’ Great Commission zeroes in on specific, potent ways of continuing Christ’s work on earth.    So hot on the heels of Jesus’ command to go comes the fourth treasure in this text, the sharp focus for ministry that flows forth from making disciples…baptizing…and teaching.

The momentum Jesus produces when he commands his people to Go, is purposeful.   There’s an agenda here.   Disciples who themselves are still trying to get the knack of following Jesus are empowered to start making others into followers of Jesus.     The path begins in the water and Word of Baptism, and it continues through a lifetime of feasting on the Word made flesh, in the bread of life, the cup of salvation.   The path is widened and deepened as disciples are taught what they need to know to heed the Great Commission.  

So you’ll receive some gifts today, Kent.   If you’re lucky you’ll get a good walking stick, a baptismal shell, a communion kit (though you may already have one), and—believe it or not!--a few more books. 

Now, you and Lisa might think your house already has more than enough books—you’ve finished seminary, after all!   But don’t forget that “seminary” means a “seed bed.”  All seminary really accomplishes is to give you a good start on a lifetime of learning so that you’ll never run out of things to teach the people of God. 

You and I and every other pastor needs to be a disciple always in formation, an administrator of the sacraments who never plumbs the full depth of baptism and the Supper, and one who teaches the faith in the face of your awareness that the more you learn the more you know how much you don’t yet know.

Finally, the Great Commission provides one last treasure for ministry:   the promise of our Lord’s stubborn, come-what-may, abiding presence.    For all the highs and lows, the ups and downs on pastoral ministry there is one thing you can always count on:   that Jesus has your back!   

That’s why Matthew’s gospel ends as it began, with the promise of Immanuel, God-with-us (Matthew 1:23).   No words are sweeter to the ears of every believer, every pastor, than Jesus final words in this gospel:   “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28:20)

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.