Monthly Archives: June 2021

“Believe…” A Sermon on Rainy Butte

Rainy Butte is located near Amidon and New England, North Dakota. Lebanon Lutheran Church in Amidon invited me to join their outdoor worship service on Rainy Butte on June 27, 2021. It was a glorious day in an even more glorious place! The video quality isn’t the best, but it does give you a little feel for where we were worshipping.

Mark 5:21-43 • June 27, 2021 • “Believe…”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Children of God from congregations across the southwestern corner of our synod, I bring greetings to you on behalf of your brothers and sisters of the WND Synod – more than 160 congregations, around 60,000+ brothers and sisters;

I bring greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the ELCA – 9,000 congregations, 3 million brothers and sisters;

and, I bring you greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters in the Lutheran World Federation, of which our denomination of the ELCA is the only representative of from the United States. LWF connects 148 Lutheran denominations, over 77 million children of God, in 99 different countries who, together, are sharing in God’s ministry and mission around the world.

It is such a joy to be with you today as we worship on this beautiful piece of God’s good creation. One can’t help but stand in awe of the beauty of God’s creation – especially the beauty of the prairie of North Dakota.

I also want to offer my condolences on behalf of the western North Dakota Synod following the recent death of our sister in Christ Carolyn Erickson. She was an amazing witness to the grace and unconditional love of God. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet her a few times over the years. And grateful for the tremendous impact that her and Pastor Jerry have had on Christ’s church.

Carolyn was actually one of the first people I talked with after beginning my time serving in the office of Bishop on September 1, 2020. She was making sure that I had this date on my calendar right away – for two reasons, one is that today is her birthday and two was the great celebration of worship on Rainy Butte that was being planned.

Carolyn may not be with us today physically, but she is most definitely present in countless other ways as we gather to worship and give God our thanks and praise!

There are two stories in today’s text from Mark that challenge an interesting group of characters to “just believe.” The story of Jairus and his dying daughter and the story of a woman who has been suffering for 12 years.

Jesus has entered this village on the other side – probably west of the Sea of Galilee. He is met by a leader of the community, Jairus – a significant figure in the synagogue. Someone who should not even be acknowledging Jesus’ existence, much less be seen with him. And on top of that falling at Jesus’ feet begging him to come and heal his daughter. Jairus believes that Jesus can heal his daughter even though his tradition and culture tell him not to believe.

Jairus’ story is interrupted by an unnamed woman who has been very sick with hemorrhages and bleeding for 12 years. For 12 years this woman has been an outcast in society. She is not welcome anywhere or by anyone. Under the law, she is so unclean that anyone who even comes in contact with her will also be unclean. This woman also believes that Jesus can heal her even though her tradition and culture tell her different.

In spite of all the risks that these characters face, they believe Jesus can heal them if they can just touch him.

Which character did you relate to as we heard this text today? Are you like Jairus. A strong symbol in the community of elite social status, great respect, and wealth. Often, these folks feel like the world is on their shoulders and they seem to know just how to keep it under control and under their control specifically. The world runs exactly as they think it should run, until something unexpected happens. Now you turn to Jesus as the only possible source of healing out of your desperation.

Or are you like the suffering woman. You feel invisible and isolated from the rest of the community. You feel abandoned and ignored. If you even touch another person, they will be as unclean as you are. Desperately, you seek human affection to try and feel “normal” no matter what the cost. You believe that if you can but touch Jesus or just get close enough to him, he will make you whole again.

Or maybe you are like the dying little girl. Death looms over you. You feel like your time is running out. You fear that if anyone reaches out and touches you, they may also be threatened with death. You desperately want to be able to live a full life again. You believe that new life will be possible if Jesus can just touch you.

I know I can see myself in all three of these characters. I would guess that you probably can too.

Long before God planted a seed in me around the possibility of a vocation that would one day involve serving in the Lutheran church, I was a professional musician. Standing in front of people to present something on my heart usually took place in a smokey jazz club or on auditorium stage, not in a church pulpit.

In many ways, I can relate to Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman in our gospel today, falling at the feet of Jesus, in search of something they didn’t know quite how to find.

Another part of my story that you may or may not know…I didn’t grow up Lutheran. I grew up Roman Catholic.

My family was active in church as a child, but I really struggled to connect. Yes, I believed, after all, my mom and grandma told me I should. But I didn’t understand why or how belief made any difference to the life I was trying to live.

I had a lot of questions and rarely did I feel like I found answers to those questions about church or faith in ways that gave me closure or peace.

Often my questions were answered by people saying things like “because” or “that’s just the way it is” or “it’s not our job to ask those questions or know their answers. That’s for religious people to know.” “Just keep quiet and believe.”

Eventually I began to dig deeper into my questions, to no longer be afraid of the questions I was asking, and to engage in deep conversations with trusted friends and family and spiritual mentors inside and outside of the Roman Catholic tradition of my youth.

Conversations about God and Jesus; faith and politics; justice and scripture; church hierarchy and history. Conversations about call and vocation. Belief.

After a few years of exploring and worshiping within many different Christian denominations, I ended up feeling most connected whenever I was in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation.

Now, the thought of being a pastor or the even more remote thought of being a Bishop one day still sounds absolutely crazy to me.

But in the ELCA, I felt welcome.

I was encouraged to ask challenging questions.

To dig deeply into things about the church that I disagreed with or simply didn’t understand.

I wasn’t judged for who I was as a musician or more so, for who I was as a human being.

I began to feel like I had actually touched the cloak of Jesus and was being healed in ways I didn’t know needed healing.

I’m not going to say that I always agree with everything the ELCA says or does, and I think the ELCA knows that – maybe more so than before I was called to be a synod Bishop.

But this church, the ELCA, continues to love me and accept me just the same.

I haven’t found that truth in any other church I’ve explored – Christian or some other faith tradition.

Just believe.

Jesus says to Jairus, “do not fear. Only believe.”

Jesus says to the suffering woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Jesus says to the dying little girl, “Talitha cum.” “Little girl, get up!”

Just believe.

Do you see the miracles taking place in this story?

There are not just two healings taking place.

There is the miracle of the healings, sure, but there is also the miracle of Jesus breaking down barriers that had been created by the community. Barriers that the community built.

Barriers that protected the upper-class like leaders of the synagogue and Jairus’ family and placed them on high pedestals above everyone else.

Barriers that kept people like the suffering woman isolated from everyone so she wouldn’t infect others.

Because Jairus, the suffering woman, and the little girl believed in Jesus – not only were they healed, but barriers came crashing down in miraculous ways for this community.

I don’t know about you, but there are times in my life when I feel like things are out of control. Times of unexpected illness, tragedy, and death.

On March 8, 2020, Wendy and I were enjoying a baseball game watching America’s team play in Mesa, Arizona. A few short months later, on July 28th, Wendy had an accident that although not necessarily life-threatening, has, and continues to be, life-changing.

A few months after that, on October 19th to be exact, my mother died from coronavirus. She didn’t die of or with covid, she died from covid. And my prayer is that her memory is not simply because she is one of the covid death statistics in North Dakota.

There are also times of great joy and celebration in our lives. Joy in new life, new careers and callings, and new relationships.

Wendy started a new job with a fantastic company in April 2020 and I received an unexpected new call from all of you, as the Holy Spirit worked through you, into the office of bishop. A call in which new relationships are forming daily that I give God thanks and praise for.

In this story from Mark’s gospel, you and I are reminded that in good times and bad,

and the Lord knows that we’ve had plenty of both in the past 18 months,

in all those times, Jesus was with us.

Jesus comes to us and says, “Do not fear; only believe.”

And please don’t hear me saying that if you believe, you will be able to get God to do what you want. The good news of Jesus is not about how to get God to do what you want God to. Today’s gospel is a story about who God is, how God acts, and what God is like as we live in relationship with him and with each other as the body of Christ.

That is why I can stand before you today and confidently and boldly proclaim to you as your Bishop and fellow child of God, “Just believe!”

It is one of the hardest things you or I will ever do as followers of the risen savior Jesus.

One of my favorite hymns in our hymnbook is written by a friend of mine whose name is Handt Hanson. It’s a hymn with the title “Good Soil.” I think the words of this hymn may help each of us understand the good news of Jesus for us today, inviting us to come before the feet of Jesus and say, “I believe.”

If you know it, join me…I’ll do my best with the pitch and melody.

“Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your word. Lord, let my heart be good soil, where love can grow and peace is understood. When my heart is hard, break the stone away. When my heart is cold, warm it with the day. When my heart is lost, lead me on your way. Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart, Lord, let my heart be good soil.”

May your heart be good soil sisters and brothers in Christ. As you believe in the good news of the savior of the world Jesus the Christ, may God continue to bless you and keep you as his mission to bless and serve the world is fulfilled through you.

Just believe. Amen.


“In the Storms…Peace, Be Still”

A sermon offered by Bishop Craig at First Lutheran Church in Williston, ND on June 20, 2021.

Mark 4:35-41 • June 20, 2021

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

First of all, Happy Father’s Day! Happy Father’s day to my dad as well as my father-in-law. Happy Father’s day to everyone who has been a blessing to me as a father figure. And even, Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who struggle to be a dad. All of us get this dad-duty wrong from time to time. And some, get it wrong more often than they get it right. You are not alone if I’m speaking to you. There are many ways you and I can grow and get better at being a dad most especially by surrounding ourselves with other dads along the journey.

So…to all the dads…Happy Father’s Day!

Second, this may just be my least favorite time of the year. We celebrate the Summer Solstice this weekend. For those of us who live this far north in the hemisphere, the solstice is the beginning of the end. It is. It’s the start of shorter days, which all too quickly bring us back to the darkness and cold of winter.

And for some reason – I’ll let you pick whatever reason you’d like to pick – this year it seems even more significant that summer is already on its way out. It’s all downhill from here folks…snow shovels and winter coats will soon be part of our everyday life on the prairie once again.

Third, it is a great joy to be with you in worship again. I am so excited to be celebrating the installation of Pastor Madsen – albeit a bit delayed because of all of the storms we’ve faced in the past year – so, this day, without question, is a great day of celebration. Thank you, for the invitation to be with you!

Finally, I do this at every opportunity I have, I bring greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the Western North Dakota Synod – more than 160 congregations; I bring you greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters who are part of the more than 9,000 congregations within our Lutheran Christian denomination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and, I bring greetings on behalf of the Lutheran World Federation, of which we are the only Lutheran body represented from the United States. LWF encompasses 148 Lutheran churches, more than 77 million children of God serving in 99 countries around the world.

 The gospel before us today involves boats and fishermen; storms and the power of God; and, the faith of people who claim to follow Jesus – or lack of faith as we just heard a few minutes ago.

Certainly, storms are something we can all relate to as people of the prairie. I live in a house that overlooks the Missouri River valley. My backyard has an amazing view of the western horizon. As I look west, the view of storms rolling in is incredible – regardless of the season.

Being a native of the North Dakota prairie, I find myself more often than not, standing in my backyard looking across the valley, watching a storm roll in, even when I probably should be taking shelter in a safer location like the inside of my house.

This week’s gospel is found in three of the four gospels. In Mark’s telling of the story, I’ve always been struck by verse 36 that says “other boats were with him.” Why is that little piece of information important to Mark and not to Matthew or Luke?

Well…one theologian believes that it helps us see that we are in the “other boats” as we are called to faith by God. From the very earliest days of Jesus’ ministry among the first disciples and through-out our own life of faith as Jesus’ followers, we are invited to come along.

After all, you and I believe that Jesus, the Son of God, is not merely a first-century miracle worker. We believe that Jesus is the very presence of God conquering evil from the beginning of time and through any and all storms that we will travel through in our own lifetime.

Over the past year, and probably even since I was last with you just a few short months ago, you and I have faced storms.

Storms that have affected our families.

Storms that have impacted the communities in which we live like greater Williston and Williams County areas.

You all had a pretty intense thunderstorm in Williams county just a few days ago.

Other storms that have maybe have even happened within First Lutheran Church’s mission and ministry over its long history in this community.

Or storms, that are often the most painful kind, storms that happen within our individual lives.

We can identify some of these storms easily as things like addiction, broken relationships, a global pandemic, sluggish energy prices and an uncertain future, drought that is directly impacting ever part of our state’s economic engine, or any of the -isms you can think of that occupy news headlines and social media pages this days, like racism, sexism, nationalism, ageism, elitism, etc.

As you and I sit in this boat, that the church of today calls a sanctuary, with all of the storms that rage within us and around us, how are you doing? Are you panicking? Are you asleep? Are you afraid? Have you reached a point where you have yelled out to Jesus because we are perishing!?!

In your own journey as a child of God, follower of Jesus, which has been greater in your recent faith life…fear of the storm or fear of the power of God?? Because fear is at the heart of everything that tears us away from being in relationship with the God of all creation.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t fear the storm that has come upon the boats they are in. If we look at the rest of the story of Jesus that we have in the gospels, Jesus doesn’t fear any of the storms he faces.

And, as we see over and over and over again, he definitely doesn’t fear the power of God.

In fact, throughout the gospels, Jesus embraces the power of God in order for God’s power to be a blessing to God’s children.

Jesus’ clarity about God’s power keeps his head above the swirling waters of anxiety and fear that submerge his disciples. Faith – not lack of care – is what drives Jesus’ character.

As faith communities, our churches act like the disciples on that boat all too often, don’t we?

Do we allow God’s power to bring peace in the middle of the storms that rage around us?

Or, do we continue to allow destructive behaviors to persist in our lives and the communities in which we live that feed storms with fear. Fear that strengthens their ability to destroy our relationships with each other and with God?

A good friend of mine offered a blog post early in the pandemic of 2020 called “My House Has Seen A Lot of Days.” He has lived for the past 20 years in a house in small eastern Pennsylvania town that was built around 1860. That’s before North Dakota was even a state. He was reflecting on all the things his house has experienced – the Civil War, two World Wars, assassinations of legendary leaders with names like Kennedy and King, the civil rights movement, two waves of the Spanish Flu.

As he pondered the stories the walls of his house contain as he wrote, “We can search ourselves, finding ways to contribute and change the world for the better. Or we can sit around pushing disproven conspiracy theories and inflammatory garbage on social media. We can approach our problems and each other with the intention of finding both solutions and unity. Or we can come at everything and everyone with a shield of self-righteousness: ready to fight, be right, and win.

Our outcomes are not guaranteed.” he wrote. “What we say or don’t say matters. What we do or don’t do matters.

Years from now people will sit around in what’s currently my living room, talking about these extraordinary times, what it must have been like to live through them, and how we reacted to our situation. If part of me is somehow still there in spirit, I hope I can listen in proudly.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, as we continue our journey of faith together as brothers and sisters in Christ of First Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota, called into ministry and mission together as the Western North Dakota Synod, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran World Federation, remember always that Jesus is with us.

When storms rage around us that stand in the way of God’s mission and ministry for us in this time and place, Jesus is there to rebuke the wind.

When storms rage that cause us to cower in fear, Jesus is with us, Jesus is there to say Peace, be still…to the waves and to our fear-filled bodies.

When storms rage that try to convince us that the power of God is not with us, Jesus is with us to us that the power of God is always with us to bring blessing.

Will future generations of the Lutheran Christian tradition believe that we actually lived out our faith confident that Jesus was with us? If we could hear their conversations taking place in our boat 10, 20, 100, 500 years from now, what will you and I  hear them say?

In a few minutes, we will have an opportunity to exchange the peace of Christ. Take note that for followers of Jesus, this isn’t another opportunity to say good morning to one another. This isn’t a simple greeting to friends we know well who are sitting next to us only to ignore friends we don’t know who are also sitting next to us.

The greeting of peace within a Christian worship service – whether you are online or in-person today – is our opportunity to fully live into who we are as  Christian community. A community that is unlike any other community we are part of, because this community believes that Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the one who can command the storms of our lives to be still.

Sisters and brothers in Christ of First Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota, Jesus is saying to any storm that may be raging in your life or in this congregation today…peace, be still. Peace, be still. Amen.