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.

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