Thursday, August 31, 2017

Responding to Hurricane Harvey

From Bishop Larry Wohlrabe, NW MN Synod ELCA
August 30, 2017

As we watch the daily news reports coming from the Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Harvey, it's natural for us to want to respond. What's crucial, though, is to step back from that initial impulse and learn more about how we can truly help our sisters and brothers without making their situation worse. Here are some things I've learned over the years in helping coordinate disaster response efforts in two ELCA synods:

First, pray for the victims, the first responders, the representatives of government and non-profit relief agencies, and all sorts of caregivers (including spiritual caregivers)....pray for their safety, their well-being, their faith, and their physical/mental/spiritual health. For the public prayers of the church, check out worship resources for times of disaster at

Second, send financial contributions to reputable disaster response agencies. PLEASE DO NOT start collecting cleaning supplies, tools, clothing, blankets-tangible items that must be packed up, shipped to the disaster area, then unpacked and (in many instances) stored somewhere until they are actually needed for the cleanup phase of the disaster. Money is far, far better! It's easier to "transport" to the disaster area. And sending money helps stimulate the local economy in the disaster area-because monetary gifts will be spent locally at a critical time when the local economy is itself another "victim" of the disaster. See below for the best ways to share financial gifts with disaster victims.

Third, resist the urge to gather up a troupe of volunteers, rent a bus or van, and simply head down to Texas or Louisiana. That's the best way to add to the disaster rather than offer the relief that is needed. Ask yourself: "Whose needs am I trying to meet? The needs of the victims? Or my own needs to 'be helpful' or 'do something.'" STOP. LOOK. LISTEN. BREATHE. AND WAIT until the time is right and the disaster area can receive your gifts of time, energy and expertise.

Here's what our friends in the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the ELCA are telling us TODAY: "When the time comes for response and clean up work, if your church would like to send out muck-out teams, we will be helping to coordinate efforts when that time arrives."

Fourth, stay informed about what's actually happening "on the ground." I advise you (or someone your congregation designates) to check the following websites frequently in the months to come:



Thank you for your deep care and concern for all the folks affected by Hurricane Harvey. God bless your faithful, heartfelt, thoughtful, timely efforts to make a difference!

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Heirs of Risk-Taking Adventurers

Keynote Address at Prayer Breakfast
First Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes
Centennial of the Congregation/August 27, 2017

Thank you for the kind invitation to Joy and me to participate in your Centennial celebration.  Thanks, especially, to Terry Kemmer and Pastor Peterson for helping me understand how you’ve prepared yourselves for this banner day--and what it means for First Lutheran now and in the future.

I greet you on behalf of your sisters and brothers of our NW MN Synod ELCA—nearly 90,000 Lutherans in 229 congregations spread across the 21 counties here in the northwestern corner of our state.   Congratulations, blessings and best wishes today and in all the days yet to come for First Lutheran.   You are a strong congregation, with a promising future.  Thank you for your partnership in the gospel and for your financial generosity last year that moved you to share $29,879.32 in mission support and sponsorship of ELCA global missionary Chandran Martin.

I love your theme:  Celebrating the past, embracing the future.   It’s so true to life, for as Danish philosopher-theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said:    "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards."

Your theme is also true to our Christian life:   Luther’s Small Catechism invites us to begin each day remembering our baptism—something that happened in our past, but continues to unfold in our present and our future.

Celebrating the past, embracing the future—it’s like a two-step dance we’re doing together!

OUR FIRST STEP:  Celebrating our past.
Today we celebrate those flinty Norwegian Lutherans who merged their two congregations together in 1917 to form First Lutheran.   Most if not all of them were immigrants or children of immigrants.
Lately I’ve been inviting folks in our synod to reflect on the experience of immigration, because the Lutheran church in North America has been and remains an immigrant church.  Most of our ancestors came from northern Europe—the birthplace of Lutheranism 500 years ago.

We celebrate the fact that of the nearly 200,000 Norwegians who emigrated to America in the 19th century, some of them found their way to the Detroit Lakes area when Minnesota was still a “new” state.

To fully understand what motivated them, ponder the difference between tourists and immigrants.    Tourists, you see, always carry round-trip tickets with them.  They travel abroad, but always with the intent of returning to their homeland.  Immigrants, on the other hand, carry one-way tickets.

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

What motivated your immigrant forebears to take that audacious step?   

It usually involved some sort of pain—whether caused by war or poverty or oppression.  Many Norwegian immigrants left the old country because they were tired of being dominated by their neighbors, the Danes and the Swedes…because of food shortages, poor crops, farm foreclosures and even the disappearance of the spring herring run.  

These restless, “searching” Norwegians caught a case of what was called “America fever”…described by Lutheran historian E. Clifford Nelson as a “contagion of excitement about the New World which spread over the entire country [of Norway], touching every district, every hamlet, almost every family…”[1]

To be an immigrant is to be moved by both pain and promise—the pain of the old country, the promise of the new country. 

As we celebrate our immigrant heritage, it’s also wise to recall that immigrants tended to “travel light”…bringing with them just the bare essentials.  Our Lutheran ancestors always packed in their emigrant trunks three books:  a Bible, a catechism and a hymnal.

Immigrants had the rare experience of starting all over again in a strange new place.  Integral to that “starting over” was their determination to band together for worship, confirmation instruction, and evangelical mission in the wilderness of North America.

This was a matter of urgency for these immigrants.  Often here in northwestern Minnesota congregations were birthed in unfinished settler’s cabins.  Our ancestors frequently established a church community before they constructed a church building. 

This sense of urgency stemmed from our forebears’ conviction that among the necessities of life in their new homeland was their deep need to gather together regularly
·      to hear God’s Word of life, freedom and forgiveness in Jesus Christ…
·      to bring their little ones to Holy Baptism….
·      to kneel together at the Lord’s Table….and
·      to be sent forth to serve in God’s world.

The little two-step centennial dance we’re doing this morning begins with the first step:  celebrating our past…and as we do that we pivot to OUR SECOND STEP:  embracing the future.

At this point a surprise awaits us:  the surprising connection between our past and our future.   For our history is always furnishing us with the raw materials  for our future in Christ.
Let me suggest four ways that happens:

#1:  think of your immigrant forebears as risk-taking adventurers.   Rather than staying mired in unbearable conditions in the old country they “bet the farm” on the promise that God had something better for them in America.  

Your future at First Lutheran continues to be filled with opportunities for risk-taking adventure.   Your $100,000 centennial giveaway is a great example.  I bet that when that idea first surfaced some of you thought it was crazy….but I understand it has turned out to be a satisfying, deeply moving time of “holy hilarity”—a practice some of you believe should continue.   At our best, we Christians are people who get the biggest kick out of giving away all our gifts!

#2:  another gift from your history is the conviction that we Christians accomplish more of God’s work when we do it together.   So, when three Norwegian Lutheran church bodies merged in 1917, it was only natural that local congregations would also look at one another and wonder:   “Why don’t we link arms and join forces for the sake of God’s mission?”   Such “coming together” experiments continue to mark our best efforts in serving Christ and our neighbors.

#3:  yet another gift from your past is the commitment your forebears had to making changes for the sake of forming a daring, living faith in the next generation.   One way that happened in the first decade of your congregation’s life was the transition from the Norwegian language of the elders to the English language of the children and youth.   Living, vibrant congregations—like yours!—are always seeking ways to commend the faith to those who will be the next generation of servant-leaders in our church!

#4:   your forebears also refused to allow faith to be reduced to a “head trip.”   True, they cared about Bible study, pure doctrine and fervent faith—but only because they knew that such faith would be alive as it was practiced, transformed into “faith active in love.”  Today, one of the hallmarks of your church is the way you place faith practices at the center of your life and mission…whether you’re practicing radical hospital, or pursuing passionate worship, or fostering intentional growth in faith, or engaging in risk-taking missional experiments, or giving yourselves away in  extravagant generosity.  

Martin Luther liked to say that faith in Christ is always a “living busy active thing,” and that treasure from your past still lives in your present and informs your future.

So my dear friends….as we celebrate this Centennial remember who you are: 
  • heirs of risk-taking adventurers…
  • pursuers of unity for the sake of mission…
  • change agents utterly committed to passing on the faith….
  • and Spirit-inspired activists who can’t help but show forth the faith that is God’s greatest gift to us.

[1] E. Clifford Nelson, The Lutherans in North America, Fortress, 1975, p. 160.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Fierce, Unflagging, Freeing Faith

Faith Lutheran Church, Staples, MN
August 20, 2017/Pentecost 11
Matthew 15:21-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“I love you…but right now I don’t like you.”

Have you ever said that to someone?  Or:  has someone ever said that to you?

“I love you…but right now I don’t like you” seems, at first blush, like a contradiction.   How can anyone love someone but not like them?

But ponder that for a moment, and you’ll realize that that’s exactly how things work.

We are bound together--with deep bonds of affection and trust—we’re bound together with all sorts of folks who from time to time baffle us, frustrate us, confuse us or simply drive us batty.   So it seems quite natural to look them in the eye and say:  “I love you, but right now I sure don’t like you.”

And, it’s also natural to want to say that to Jesus here in this morning’s gospel reading.

“I love you, Jesus, and I know that you love me unconditionally, but right now I don’t like you…I don’t appreciate how you responded to this Gentile woman—not one bit.”

Jewish Jesus and his Jewish followers have temporarily veered out of the land of the Jews and into the land of the non-Jews, that is:  the Gentiles residing in “the district of Tyre and Sidon.”

As they’re taking this temporary detour, a woman with a deep ache in her heart shows up….begging Jesus for help:   “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

But rather than lending a sympathetic ear (as we might expect Jesus to do!) he simply ignores this woman.  And his disciples—acting as though she isn’t even present—his disciples beg Jesus to dismiss this loud, annoying woman.

Jesus responds, seemingly in agreement with his perturbed disciples:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Here Jesus simply echoes the same instructions he’d already given his twelve disciples five chapters earlier in Mathew:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles…but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6)

Jesus, faced with this needy, pleading Gentile mother, now repeats himself.  He has not come for “outsider” women like this one.  Jesus understands his mission to be with needy Jewish mothers, members of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the anxious woman is not deterred.  Neither Jesus’ stony silence, nor his disciples dismissiveness, nor Jesus’ restatement of his “Israel-only” mission holds her back.

This desperate Gentile mother can’t take “No” for an answer.  Kneeling before Jesus, assuming a posture of worship, she pleads “Lord, help me.”

…to which Jesus responds with a common Jewish slur against Gentiles, saying:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

You’d think that would have been the end of this episode.

But no!  Even in the face of such a stinging rebuke, this tenacious Gentile woman barrels ahead, relentlessly pleading her cause, daring even to take Jesus’ taunt and turn it to her favor:  “‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

It’s as if the woman is saying:  “OK, Jesus, you can regard me as just one more Gentile ‘dog.’  I’ll own that if I must, as long as I get to decide what kind of dog I am--not some filthy feral canine roaming the streets--but one of the house dogs, living with you Jewish chosen ones under our Master’s roof.   I don’t want any of the bread intended for your favored ones…but as a watchful puppy under the table, I will be there, ready to gobble up even the smallest crumb that might fall to the floor—and that—that crumb!--will be enough for me!”

Only in offering this astounding response to Jesus does the woman finally grab a hold of him in such a way that he cannot miss the fierceness of her daring trust: “’O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

[PAUSE]  I love Jesus, and I know you do, too….but it’s hard to like the Jesus we meet here, at least at first, in this gospel story…

And yet, in some way we don’t fully understand, Jesus initial ignorance of this woman….Jesus’ insistence that he has been sent to the Jews before the Gentiles….Jesus’ harsh words to this woman…..all the stuff we don’t like about Jesus here!—it all somehow sets the stage for this outsider to reveal just what great faith looks like.

How can that be?  

Most of the time in the gospels, when Jesus is among his Jewish insiders, his closest followers, they disappoint him.   They are slow to catch on.   They keep missing his point.   They display faith, but it’s too often a weak, tepid, puny faith….

But when Jesus ventures out into foreign territory, when he encounters someone not of his tribe, when he’s accosted by this one who simply will not take “No” for an answer….only here does Jesus uncover the great faith, the mega-faith that he prizes more than anything else.

It’s as if Jesus’ initial silence toward her, his disciples disdain for her, their fruitless efforts to silence her and make her go away….it’s as if all such opposition acts like a whetstone that only sharpens this woman’s faith to a razor’s edge, transforming it into such a faith so tenacious that it sniffs out and exploits even the tiniest opportunity.

Just a crumb—just a crumb—will be enough for this amazing mother and her demon-possessed child.   “O woman, great is your faith!”

There is something for us here, something we perhaps did not come to church expecting to receive this morning.

What’s here for us is a powerful, graphic, unforgettable testimony to the fact that faith shines brightest and surest when it’s most under attack.   As Martin Luther said:  it is in the nature of faith to “step gaily into the darkness.”[1]

We receive that astounding reality in this gospel story that is simultaneously deeply troubling and powerfully liberating.

And, just for good measure, we receive one more gift here:  a fresh, eye-opening awareness that no one—absolutely no one!—will be denied access to God’s life-rescuing, death-defying, future-opening freedom in Jesus Christ….freeing faith that stubbornly clings to God’s goodness in spite of whatever might call that goodness into question.  

I started out by confessing that I love Jesus but I don’t like how Jesus treats this woman here in Matthew 15…

….but by the end of this story, it seems as if this stranger somehow needled Jesus into seriously rethinking his mission in the world.  

This Gentile woman, with her nagging incessant pleading for a demon-ravaged daughter, this woman pried open Jesus’ own understanding of his mission, a mission that could no longer focus solely on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but that now encompassed a whole host of others:  indeed, anyone and everyone who might imagine that Jesus came into this world to save and bless us all.

And that, my dear friends, is another good gift our ears are hankering to hear this morning.

Jesus came into this world for everyone, PERIOD.  

Jesus, the man from Galilee, may have grown up absorbing all sorts of first century Jewish assumptions…..Jesus may have thought, at least at first, that the best way to pursue his mission was to focus on “the lost sheet of the house of Israel,”….

….but by the end of Matthew’s gospel (having learned from human encounters like the one with this tenacious Gentile mother!)…by the time we get to chapter 28 of Matthew, in the blazing light of the resurrection, it was crystal clear that no one—absolutely no one—lives outside the scope of God’s all-encompassing love in Christ….

…which is why Jesus’ final word in Matthew’s gospel is: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”

My dear friends, we need to be very clear about this—especially as we Americans wrestle with issues of race, ethnicity, and nationality in the light of the inexcusable ugliness that bubbled up a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In the community of Jesus Christ, there can be no room for prejudice or bigotry or hatred based on class or creed or color or any other category we use to wall ourselves off from one another.  

For we are the community of Jesus Christ, who “on the cross, opened his arms to all[2]…and in the power of his Resurrection commissions us all to make disciples of all nations.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen. 

[1] Roland Bainton, editor (1948), Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Augsburg Press, p. 51
[2] “Thanksgiving at the Table,” Form V, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 65.