Saturday, April 28, 2018

Under the Knife

Easter 5/April 29, 2018
Calvary Lutheran Church, Park Rapids, MN
Installation of Justin Fenger
John 15:1-8

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

A pastor once began a Confirmation Sunday sermon like this.
He brought a beautiful potted plant into the pulpit and held it up for all to see its lush, green loveliness.   “This is what your life in Christ looks like,” the pastor told the confirmands.   “As you live like this plant, rooted in Jesus, you are full of life and health and promise.  And you produce good fruit!”

Then the pastor grabbed the green plant in one hand, and a machete in his other hand.   “And here is what your life looks like when you become separated from Jesus Christ,” he said, as he quickly swung the machete, severing the plant from its stalk, and causing the pot and the soil in it to crash to the floor.

Besides making a mess in the chancel…the pastor gave those young confirmands a striking, jarring image of Christian life they would not soon forget….a little like those old TV commercials showing an egg still in the shell alongside another egg being cracked and fried…as the announcer grimly intoned:  “This is your brain…and this is your brain on drugs!”

Now I tell this story even though what the pastor did was a little  heavy-handed--not the kind of thing impressionable adolescents, visiting relatives, and doting godparents need to be hearing on Confirmation Sunday!

How much better it would have been had the pastor just left his machete in the toolshed—if he had just held up that lush, green plant, still rooted in the soil of the flowerpot.  

That’s how we prefer to picture today’s gospel lesson here in John, chapter 15, isn’t it?  Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, and isn’t that wonderful?    Everything is green and growing, a vine laden with bountiful bunches of juicy, purple grapes.  The fruit of the vine is abundant—and that’s how we want to picture our life in Christ, too, isn’t it?

But to do that—to focus just on the vibrant vine, the green branches and the luscious fruit—we have to ignore much of what Jesus says here in John, chapter 15.

Because, no matter how you slice it (no pun intended!), if you and I are branches on Jesus the vine, we’re going to come under the knife!   And we know that because Jesus says so.

I am the true vine and my Father is the Vinegrower, declares Jesus…and the Vinegrower always is sharpening his knife!

The Vinegrower’s knife is his primary tool, and it’s good for two things.

The knife is good, first, for trimming away dead wood—branches that have shriveled up—become fruit-less.  The Vinegrower is no sentimental softy when it comes to dead branches.  He simply doesn’t allow dried-up wood to occupy space that could be filled by living, fruitful branches.  

But it’s not just the dead branches that feel the blade.   The fertile, fruitful branches feel the knife, too….not a destroying knife, though, but a pruning knife.   The Vinegrower “wounds” the healthy branches, trims them back—not to lop them off into the fire—but to spur them to greater growth and fertility.

When in our baptism we are grafted into Jesus Christ the true vine, we come under the “care” of this Vinegrower…so we better get used to feeling the blade.

And although that may be the last thing we want to hear on this lovely spring morning, it is surely what we need to hear.  It’s good for us to hear this—because the Vinegrower is not some sadist who gets his jollies out of hurting the branches on his Vine.

No, the Vinegrower is purposeful in what he does with his razor-sharp knife.  He always has the bigger picture in mind, the over-arching mission, the purpose that he’s pursuing with single-minded focus.

The Vinegrower hankers for the fruit, after all!   It’s all about the fruit!  The fruit is why the Vinegrower planted the vineyard in the first place--to harvest the fruit, to reap the rewards of his creativity, to see the whole Vineyard flourish.

OK, so this may be a great metaphor, a wonderful word-picture….but what about you and me?   We’re human beings, after all--not grapevines.    What does all this look like in our very real lives?

Well, right over there is the baptismal font, with water in it, and we make good use of that water, whenever we can.  The font—conveniently located where we have to walk right by it every time we enter this sacred space—the font reminds us of the greatest day of our lives when in our baptism we were grafted into Jesus Christ the true Vine—forgiven, freed, made alive, and joined to the Triune God forever.

Such baptism into Christ is “for life”….and not just for eternal life, but for life here and now--a fertile, fruitful life in Jesus Christ.
How does our common baptismal life unfold, though?   How fruitful are we?   How determined are we to “abide,” to stay close to, to live in intimate connection with the Body of Christ?

The life of faith is a life lived “under the knife”—for every single one of us.    Our American evangelical friends are correct:  God has no grand-children!

But what exactly does that look like?   What precisely makes for fruit-bearing in the Body of Christ?

It boils down to God fussing over us, constantly pruning us, drawing us deeper into fertile faith practices that bring out the fruit we were created to bear in Jesus Christ.   There’s an “edge” in each of these faith practices—an edge that cuts in on us, trims back the sinner in us, even as it ushers forth the faithful disciple in us.

So we become more faithful and fruitful whenever we pray.  Praying reminds us that we can’t make it on our own; prayer tunes our hearts to the beating heart of God.

And we grow in faith and fruitfulness whenever we immerse ourselves in God’s Word.   Reading, learning, inwardly digesting the Bible re-orients our lives, away from ourselves and towards God and our neighbors.  The Book of Faith lets God into our frantically-busy lives, so God can get a Word in edgewise.

We become more faithful and fruitful when we gather at least once a week for worship.   Public worship reminds us that God has dibs on the first minute of every hour, the first hour of every day, and the first day of every week.   And we worship best when we worship with others, because we’re in this thing together….there are no Robinson Crusoe branches on the True Vine!

We become more faithful and fruitful when we give away lots of money.   Although left to ourselves we’d prefer to keep every last red cent for ourselves, God prunes us of such selfishness—God’s knife cuts away our greed and lays us open to generosity that flows into us and through us to others.

We become more faithful and fruitful when we serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.  God the Vinegrower slices away our “me-first-ness”….opening us up to our neighbors, giving us excuses all the time to act like Christ in their lives.

Get the picture?   All of this true-Vine-and-branches stuff isn’t just a metaphor or some light and airy way of imagining ourselves.   It’s very, very, very concrete, extremely down to earth:  we feel the knife of the divine Vinegrower in the ordinary, everyday ways we practice the faith that became ours in our baptism.

This morning, the concreteness of God the Vinegrower’s work comes to focus in our welcoming of Pastor Justin, as he joins the ministry team here at Calvary.   Pastor Justin, in company with Pastor Steve and the others on your ministry team—think of them as God’s “assistant vinedressers” in this vineyard called Calvary.  

God will use Pastor Justin and your other servant-leaders to make sure we’re planted, fertilized, watered and pruned in order to be the rich, lush branches that adorn Christ the one true Vine.

That’s quite an assignment for us all, isn’t it?  

Thank goodness, though, that God is the one doing the heavy lifting.  First, last and always this is God’s work in us.  
This is no DIY business (do-it-yourself!).

No, this is what God is doing in our lives:  busily, continually, patiently trimming away all that holds us back….and also pruning us constantly to increase in us the fruits of God’s  creativity and grace.

It’s why God creaed us in the first place.  For we are what [God] has made us,” we read in Ephesians (2:10,) “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

God’s looking for our fruit. 

God trims away all that leaves us dead and dried up. 

And God prunes us, ceaselessly, bringing forth the bountiful harvest he’s been waiting for.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

Friday, April 20, 2018

To Be Known by the Knower

Lincoln Lutheran Church, Hoffman, MN
April 22, 2018/Easter 4, Year B
John 10:11-18

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“It’s not what you know but who you know that matters.”  So goes a familiar piece of conventional wisdom. 

In just about any endeavor of important as education, experience or hard work might be...those who REALLY get ahead cultivate the right kind of connections, build the best social network.

Because:  “It’s not what you know but who you know that matters.” 

And yet our gospel lesson from John 10 turns that little piece of conventional wisdom on its head...declaring to us that ultimately it’s NOT what you know or even WHO you know...but rather who knows YOU that counts.

“It’s not what you know or who you know...but WHO KNOWS YOU that matters.”

That Unconventional Wisdom pops right out of this text, as we hear our Lord Jesus declaring: “I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own...”

The greatest claim we can make is that we’re known, recognized, claimed, named, grasped, protected, held firmly—forever!--by Jesus the Good Shepherd.

Jesus knows you better than you know yourself. 

You are far more than a blip on some celestial computer screen. 
You are more than a number in a heavenly record book.
You are more than a “to whom it may concern” address on God’s mailing list. 

You are KNOWN in such a way that you will never be “just another face” in the crowd.

The Good Shepherd knows you...with a knowing that recognizes your one-of-a-kind character, a knowing that keeps you from ever falling in the cracks--a knowing that means life for you and a future without end. 

“I am the Good Shepherd,” says Jesus, “I know my own...”

I can still see the image from over 40 years ago. 

It was about 3:00 a.m. on a farm just west of Tyler, Minnesota.  Ma Christensen (who didn’t like it when her son-in-law called her that)…Ma Christensen would rise from her bed, pull on a snowmobile suit, boil water and stir up nine bottles of milk-replacer. 

Then she would trudge out through the brisk late-winter darkness to the barn...where just the sound of that old rusty, creaky doorknob turning would trigger the insistent bleating of nine hungry little lambs. 

Having heard their raucous greeting, the good shepherdess would climb into their pen and feed them...but not until she first called them each by name: Huey, Duey and Luey...Ringo, Midnight and Blacky...Maynard, Snowball and Lamb-chop. 

They just looked like sheep to me:  nine future mutton roasts, nine pre-cooked legs of lamb.  I couldn’t begin to tell one from the other...but Ma Christensen?--she recognized each by sight, by name...she knew them as only someone can who cares enough, loves enough to get out of a nice warm bed and brave the icy prairie wind for the 3:00 a.m. feeding.

“I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own”...I know you better than you know yourself.

Isn’t that incredible…that such words should be spoken to us?  Isn’t it amazing that you and I are are known by such a One?

Maybe...and then again, maybe not.  As we mull it over, perhaps it isn’t as wonderful as at first it might sound.

To be known, after all, doesn’t exactly leave us in charge, in control, or calling the shots.

To be the one who does the knowing:  that’s the more powerful position to hold. 

But to be known: that takes matters out of our hands.

Now that I’m in my eleventh year of serving as bishop, having traveled extensively throughout the 21 counties of our synod, I am still surprised when—in a local cafĂ© or other gathering place—someone recognizes me and asks:  “How’s the bishop today?”

Though well-intended, such greetings still take me by surprise.  It still startles me to be known by people I myself may not know. 

And yet it happens—and there’s nothing I can do to stop it from happening. 

Look at these verses from John chapter 10 more closely.  The Good Shepherd rather selfishly grabs all the verbs, dominates all the action here.  He’s anything but a wimp.  The Good Shepherd knows his own, lays down his life for his own, takes his life up again, brings in other sheep so that there shall be (not might be, but shall be!) one flock and one shepherd.  The
Good Shepherd does it all...insists on having it his way.

There can seem to be a threatening edge to being known by such a One.  Because to be known by this Good Shepherd is to find yourself completely within his power.

What do you think of them apples?  Can we take it—this being known by someone like this Good Shepherd?

Only as our eyes are opened, only as we are grasped by his gracious embrace, only as we are “over-powered” by the ardent love of this Good Shepherd.

Because, you see, this One who knows us better than we know ourselves is hopelessly devoted to us.  That is his power over us.

What makes this shepherd good is that he has more, much more, than a hireling’s ho-hum interest in us.  What makes this shepherd good is that he is good for something, good for us.  He exists on our behalf. 

And this isn’t just talk: it is a passionate suffering, a brutal death, and a grim burial for us.  It is a willful, pre-meditated, eager laying down of a life for us.  It is a Shepherd plunging into the icy waters of a raging river to rescue a wayward lamb:  that is this Shepherd’s power over us...

...which is why his intimate knowing of us threatens no one except the Old Adam, the Old Eve, the ancient sinner in us who always wants to be in the driver’s seat.

The Good Shepherd’s knowing of us puts to death the self-focused, stay-in-charge-at-any-cost sinner in that a new person, a newborn lamb with ears keenly attuned to the shepherd’s voice might come forth.

Only then do we know even as we have been known.  Then we know our Knower because we have first been known by our Knower, overcome by his love that will not let us go, embraced in his arms that will never lose their grip on us, enfolded in protection no thief or wolf can penetrate.

“I am the Good Shepherd; I know my own and my own know me...”  This knowing of the Good Shepherd comes full circle only when we know our Knower...and not us only, but all of those “other sheep” as well.

That fleeting reference to “other sheep” here in our text, reminds us that the Good Shepherd’s flock-tending is not yet finished. 

There are still some “other sheep” out there!  Maybe you even know some of them.

“I must bring them also,” Jesus declares.  “So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.”

When he thinks of those “other sheep” the Good Shepherd never mutters under his break, “Leave them alone and they’ll come home, wagging their tails behind them.” 

No.  The Good Shepherd doesn’t practice the Little Bo-Peep Method of Sheep-Tending. 

The Good Shepherd has a restless passion for those other sheep that matches his passion for us, a passion he shares with us so that we, too, start to  “feel” for those other sheep.

“I must bring them in too,” he declares.  “I must bring them through the still water of Baptism, I must welcome them to my banquet Table, I must draw them within earshot of my Voice so that they might know me even as I already know them...”

And we who all-too-often are sheepish about our part in the Good Shepherd’s ardent mission…we find ourselves nodding in agreement, echoing the shepherd’s resolve, getting caught up in his search for those beloved “other sheep,” sensing deep in our bones that it really can be no other way for us who are known by such a Knower. 

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Beautiful Feet

Ordination of Laurie Lynn Albertson
Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
Isaiah 52:7-10

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

If this sermon had a title it would be just two words:  “Beautiful Feet.”

Beautiful Feet?   Really, now?   Truth be told, most of us (myself included) would hesitate to slap those two words together because, frankly, we’re embarrassed by our feet—especially ashamed of how our feet appear to be anything but “beautiful.”

Beautiful feet?   To many of us that actually sounds like an oxymoron—you know:  a contradiction in terms—along the lines of :   “living dead” or “crash landing” or “civil war” or “jumbo shrimp.”

And yet our First Lesson for today, from Isaiah 52, weds those two words together:  “How beautiful are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news…”   What was going through Isaiah’s mind when he put those two words together?   And why, centuries later, did the Apostle Paul quote this passage in the 10th chapter of his letter to the Romans?

What is so beautiful about these “beautiful feet?”

Well, for starters, the feet Isaiah described were beautiful because they were so eagerly anticipated.   

Beautiful feet are longed-for, anticipated feet!

The picture the prophet paints here is pregnant with pathos.  Old watchmen who should have cashed it in years ago, old watchmen who should have  been retired and living off their Social Security…..old watchmen are standing lookout on the ruins of the walls that once surrounded their holy city, Jerusalem before it was sacked by their enemies, the Babylonians, in 587 B.C.

Old, over-the-hill watchmen ache with longing for some shred of good news, some slender sign that the Lord might yet vindicate his exiled people, that the Lord might even bring back a remnant to Jerusalem, from far-off wicked Babylon, in order to repopulate the Holy City.

Picture these wizened, ancient watchmen on the crumbled walls of Jerusalem, doing what watchmen do best—that is:  watching, gazing off toward the northeastern sky, looking to the mountains between sacred Jerusalem and sinful Babylon, stubbornly waiting, eagerly anticipating a messenger whose winged feet might bring good news to famished, ravaged Jerusalem.

What makes these feet beautiful is that they are anticipated feet, creating the footsteps that the faithful watchers on the walls are pining to hear.

Dear Laurie, in the pastoral ministry that you’ve already been trying on for several years, you have no doubt come to recognize when members of your flock long to hear your footsteps on their front steps, your knock at their doors.   For truly, this world is filled with folks just aching to hear someone’s footsteps….folks deeply longing for a sign—any sign!--that God is alive and well and has everything in hand.

God’s gift of hope and new life and a fresh start is what people are looking for, longing for, aching for.    People right now are living in anticipation that someone will come along, bursting with the joyful tidings that God is making all things new, setting the world right, restoring all things for the sake of the crucified, resurrected Jesus Christ, our Savior.

The bearing, the bringing of that news--so eagerly anticipated!--is what makes your feet beautiful.

Second, the beautiful feet of which Isaiah speaks are beautiful because they come from someplace else—those feet aren’t from around here.   These feet are beautiful because they make their way toward us from beyond us:   bringing a message that isn’t “old hat,” bearing astonishingly good news that isn’t already at our fingertips.

No one needed to tell those venerable old watchmen on the ruined walls of Jerusalem that they were fresh out of hope.   They already realized the folly of poking around in the rubble at their feet, combing through the ashes for some hint, some glint of good news that they might somehow “gin up!”

Those watchmen didn’t look deep within themselves for good news.  No, they were on the lookout, necks craned toward the distant horizon, pining for a liberating word that could only come from beyond them.

Dear Laurie, there are folks in this broken world who are utterly empty, fresh out of hope, incapable of producing the very good news they long to hear.

There are persons who’ve had it up to here with self-help quackery or the nostrums of “look-deep-within-yourself” counselors.   They get it:  they understand that the terrors they face and the death that awaits them simply cannot be remedied by any do-it-yourself project of their own making.

All of which is to say:  we are surrounded by persons who hunger deep within themselves for good news that can only come from outside ourselves.   Martin Luther used a Latin phrase, “extra nos” which means literally “from outside of ourselves.”  

Luther reveled in the “extra nos” of the gospel, the outside-of-ourselves-ness, the sheer breath-taking graciousness of what God has done, is doing and will keep doing through a Savior named Jesus who ceaselessly delivers forgiveness for every failing, freedom from every fear, and a future without end.

What makes your feet beautiful is that they’re feet that follow a Savior we didn’t manufacture, a Redeemer who isn’t from around here, but who showed up here in the fullness of time, to bestow on all of us gifts beyond measure—pure grace with no strings attached.

Third, the feet that Isaiah calls beautiful, are feet on the move.   A single snapshot of these feet will never do them justice.   These feet simply are never “frozen in time.”  No, it has to be a moving picture, a from-there-to-here dynamic image of feet in motion, feet coming to us, feet accompanying us in our journeys.

Laurie, you already have been living in the 21st century reality that “church” is about so much more than getting people to come to us.   You’ve been putting into practice what it means for church to be out-and-about, “on the go,”  leaving our treasured church buildings, moving out, finding those whom God is calling, accompanying them in their faith-filled journey toward God’s New Day.

Your feet are beautiful, because they’re feet on the go, feet that head out to where folks actually live,  feet that fall into step with them and accompany them in the adventure of a living faith in a hurting world.

Now, I realize, that really none of what I’ve said is exactly new to you, Laurie. 

You’ve been about the good work of pastoral ministry for a while, growing deeper in your awareness of how persons long for the gospel, how people are hungry for good news that comes from beyond themselves, how “doing church” in this 21st century always involves getting off our butts, not waiting for others to come to us, but continually seeking them out in order to deliver to them the always-fresh, ever-new message of Jesus Christ who died for us, Jesus Christ who was raised for us, Jesus Christ who will come again to make us and all things new.

You already get all that, Laurie.  You’ve been growing into this ministry for years.   So what makes this day so special?

I think it’s simply that God is “sealing the deal” for good, spreading some sweet frosting on a delicious cake--in such a way that you joyously, unreservedly can’t help but respond:  “I will, and I ask God to help me.”

Thanks, dear Laurie, for giving us the privilege of sharing this holy day with you—and for allowing us, on behalf of Christ’s whole church, to promise to be there for you, for as long as God gives you faith and life and hope to keep setting your beautiful feet in motion, always in God’s service, for the sake of all to whom God sends you.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.