Monthly Archives: October 2021

“Called to Serve” October 17, 2021 Sermon

This sermon was offered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Bismarck, ND on October 17, 2021

Mark 10:34-45 • October 17, 2021

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

I give thanks for the invitation to be with you today Lutheran Church of the Cross. For your elected leaders. For Deacon Janie. For Murray Sagsveen who serves so graciously and selflessly as our synod’s attorney.

 And for Pastor Lisa, whom we celebrate today for all that God has done and continues to do through the ministry God calls her into.

I’m able to be in a different congregation of our synod nearly ever Sunday of the year – about 40-45 Sundays. It is a great blessing to be able to worship with so many of our congregations and one of the joys of serving as your bishop.

God is good.

There are a lot of good things happening on the prairies of western North Dakota because God is good and at work through people of faith in congregations like yours.

Congregations who take seriously Jesus calling us into a life of service toward our neighbors, not the other way around.

I also want to take a minute and bring greetings to you, members of Lutheran Church of the Cross, from your brothers and sisters in Christ of the WND Synod – more than 160 congregations, 55,000 or so brothers and sisters serving the western two-thirds of our great state;

I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters across the ELCA – around 9,000 congregations, about 3 million brothers and sisters across the United States and the Caribbean;

and, I bring you greetings from your siblings 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, we are serving on every continent, except Antarctica.

I offer those greetings from our synod, the ELCA, and LWF every chance I get. They are important for us to hear because they help us center ourselves on just how big the church is that we are connected to – beyond the walls of our local congregations.

And they remind us of who we are, as people of faith who have been called by the Savior of the world into a mission and ministry that is anything but easy – after all, as Jesus tells us in the verses immediately before the ones we heard today…there is a cross and a crucifixion along this path.

Today’s gospel starts with a couple disciples discussing, maybe even arguing about, who is Jesus’ favorite. To which Jesus, in true Jesus fashion, offers a teaching on power and importance as it relates not only to this world, but to God’s kingdom – this world and beyond so to speak. Today’s gospel also speaks to how God’s kingdom looks is nothing like what anyone of us thinks it’s supposed to look like. No matter how many times or in how many ways Jesus tries to show the disciples this fact, the disciples never seem to quite get it.

Remember, Mark’s gospel is the gospel that ends with the disciples running away from the empty tomb in fear and trembling and telling nothing to anyone about it.

If all we knew today of the Jesus story was the disciples account of it from the end of the gospel of Mark, I’m not sure there would be a Christian church today.

Or, more so, followers of Jesus like you and me.

Long before I realized that God had already planted a seed in me, that would one day grow into a vocation 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.

Another part of my story that I want you to hear…I didn’t grow up Lutheran.

I grew up Roman Catholic.

My family was active in church when I was growing up, but I really struggled to connect.

Yea, I believed, after all, my mom and grandmothers told me I should. But I didn’t really know Jesus as the Messiah or that trying to follow Jesus was going to have a fairly significant impact on the how, what, and why of my life.

You see, I had a lot of questions, and I don’t think my self-absorbed musician ego really cared much about other people or what other people thought – especially not in the way Jesus calls us to think about in today’s gospel.

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

In the ELCA, I felt welcome.

I felt accepted for who I was,

even though I often sounded a lot more like the disciples at the beginning of our gospel today and nothing like a disciple who was willing to actually become the servant Jesus was asking me to become.

And in spite of that, during this time, I was encouraged to ask challenging questions. Questions about faith and God, Jesus and politics, scripture and church hierarchy.

To dig deeply into things about the church that I disagreed with or simply didn’t understand because I thought it was too difficult.

As I look back now, what I think was happening during this season of my life is this…I was encountering people of faith, who called Jesus the Messiah. People of faith who shared in the communal experience of trying to make sense our shared call in life that is rooted in service toward others, not being served by others.

Like James and John, you and I are quick to assume that following Christ Jesus leads to success, power, and glory – especially if we are getting our information on following Jesus from most Christian media today.

You’re not alone in that.

I know that’s what my heart and ego told me as a young musician what being a Christian was all about.

Like James and John, we ask for what we know and think we want, or maybe even think we need – and we know that that always involves success, power, and glory.

The good news of following Jesus is that, this Jesus turns our lust for success, power, and glory on its head: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Being a servant toward others in life-giving and selfless ways is at the center of life together in Christian community.

In this first year serving as your bishop, I’ve spent a lot of time in devotion and prayer walking through the small catechism. Each day I reflect and pray through one part of the catechism.

What does it mean when we pray – as we will today in worship today  – “thy kingdom come”?

Well, according to one of our church’s core teachings, the Small Catechism, it means “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us. This comes about whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity.”

Pastor Shane Claiborne was speaking at a national youth gathering that I attended several years ago. He talked about his faith journey and call into Christian leadership. I don’t remember all the details of his testimony, but I do remember this.

He said that before he started following Jesus, he had everything in his life together. Everything made sense. And everything was under his control.

And then he met Jesus, and everything in his life was turned upside down. Claiborne told the crowd of 30,000 or so Lutheran youth from across the United States that he didn’t think about helping people or loving people unconditionally or serving people, before he met Jesus.

After he met Jesus, he began to think constantly and live his life in ways every day to serve other people – the poor, the hungry, the rich, the lonely. To speak out against things that oppress people, and to love his neighbor unconditionally.

Jesus showed him those things.

And Jesus continues to show him that path along his faith journey.

One of the key parts of Pastor Claiborne’s mission and ministry today is building movements of Christians that look like Jesus again.

Christians that take Jesus seriously about becoming a servant, about being a slave to another;

Christians that take Jesus seriously as children of God receive compassion that asks for nothing in return;

Christians that Jesus seriously and are not afraid to go into our city streets and public schools and government buildings and profess that Jesus is Lord.

Jesus shows us that again today, sisters and brothers, as Jesus invites us into a life of service.

And we don’t do the work of Jesus by beating people over the head with a Bible or arguing over who is the greatest or most important or hating our neighbor because they think different than we do about things like global pandemics and the effectiveness of wearing a mask.

We do this by embracing one another with the unconditional love of God you and I have already received in Christ Jesus.

As we share the grace and truth of Jesus Christ together, I’m not going to say that I always agree with everything our church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, says or does, and I think the ELCA knows that – maybe more so now than before I was called to be a synod Bishop.

But this church, the ELCA, continues to love me and accept me just as I am.

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

A life of faith is expressed through service to one another. The responsibility of each and every one of us, who claim to be a follower of Jesus, is to always remember that individually and in community, we share life together in a covenantal and sacred relationship.

A sacred relationship that is a gift from God.

A covenantal relationship that always calls us to focus on how our life together in community embodies how God wants us to live so that all may be blessed – not just those who sit in a church sanctuary once in a while.

In Pastor Lisa’s 30 years of ordained ministry this is all she has been trying to do.

Whether that was serving on synod council or synod staff, walking with leaders in Luther League or LYO, or listening while helping communities navigate through waters filled with conflict, that was all she was trying to do.

Whether that was serving as a pastor in any number of congregations, congregations with names like St. Paul’s or Grace or Lord of Life or Lutheran Church of the Cross, I believe Pastor Lisa was trying to be a servant in all she said and did.

And even for Pastor Lisa, this self-giving life of service that Jesus has and continues to call her into doesn’t always come naturally.

This is often hard and thankless work.

The same is true for you and for me. If we’re being honest with ourselves.

This doesn’t always come naturally for us – especially those of us living in a country like the United States.

The way of Christian discipleship, and entering fully into a life of faith, calls us into a new set of values.

A new way of seeing the world in which we live.

A new way of life that contrasts with the philosophy of “looking out for number one.”

Again, sisters and brothers of Lutheran Church of the Cross, thank you for the invitation to be with you.

Each one of you is a gift to the work God is calling us into in this little corner of Christ’s church.

I pray that you continue to be abundantly blessed as you seek to serve and not be served in all that you say and do as followers of Jesus.


Fog, Weight, & Gospel

As I was preparing a Saturday morning cup of coffee, I was struck by the view outside of my kitchen window. A thick layer of fog had engulfed the Missouri River valley and much of the city of Mandan. It gave me pause as I reflected upon the past week. A week in which I experienced the incredible weight we are called to carry as followers of Jesus. Weight that can sometimes make experiencing the gospel difficult to see through all the fog.

The fall meeting of the ELCA Conference of Bishops wrapped up on Friday afternoon. Our work as a conference during this meeting included care for our rostered ministers, conversations around our church’s sacramental theology, deep discernment about issues like racism that continues to infect our church and country, and work being done to create memorials that will offer support to victims of clergy sexual abuse.

As our time together concluded, I felt the weight of this call in the office of bishop.

On Thursday this week, our synod grieved the death of another pastor. The fifth death we have experienced in the Western North Dakota Synod in just the past few months. Children of God gathered in worship and experienced first-hand the weight of death and grief.

Sometimes our journey can feel heavy.

The weight can be overwhelming.

The fog so thick that we can’t possibly see a way forward.

Where is the gospel in all of this? Do I still even know what the gift of faith is all about?

In those times, we need to be reminded that Jesus is always beside us and saying to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Whenever I felt like the weight of this week was just too heavy to bear, I reminded myself that I wasn’t alone. That Jesus was with me all along. The burden didn’t feel quite so heavy then. The fog wasn’t quite as thick.

As bishops, we don’t do anything independent of the rest of our colleagues in the conference. An individual bishop doesn’t bear the weight of the entire church on their shoulders. By God’s grace, we do this together. As our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton reminded us again this week, “We are church, we are Lutheran, we are church together, and we are church for the sake of the world.”

As our synod gathered to grieve the death of the Rev. Donna Dohrmann this week, we didn’t walk that journey alone either. Donna’s family, and each of us who grieve, were surrounded by people of faith who prayed, sang, proclaimed the good news of resurrection promises, celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and commended our sister in Christ to God’s eternal care…together.

By the time I finished writing this blog post, the fog that had blanketed the Missouri River valley this morning had lifted. In much the same way that the weight of the past week began to lift a little too.

Please join me in prayer…

We pray for your grace, dear God, to listen attentively and share faithfully.

We pray for hearts and minds that are open to one another,

open to your truth,

and open to whatever you may be doing in our midst.

In the name of Jesus we pray.


(prayer written by Rev. Mark Gravrock, Montana Synod)