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.
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 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)
Brothers and sisters in Christ grace and peace to you from God our Father and Lord and Savior Jesus who is the Christ. Amen.
St. John Lutheran Church, it is great to be with you this morning. I’m grateful for the ministry and mission God does through each one of you in this congregation, grateful for your elected leadership, and incredibly grateful for your amazing pastors – Pastor Lisa and Pastor Joe. Thank you for the invitation to be with you today. I have the opportunity to be in a different congregation in our synod nearly every Sunday of the year, it’s one of the great blessings of this call.
I also want to offer greetings to you from your brothers and sisters of the WND Synod – more than 160 congregations, around 55,000+ brothers and sisters;
I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters across the ELCA – 9,000 congregations, nearly 3 million brothers and sisters;
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.
I begin every sermon I offer as I serve as your Bishop with those greetings. They are important for us to hear because they help us re-center ourselves on just how big the church is that we are connected to – beyond the walls of our local congregations.
And just how wide the reach of our shepherd Jesus is – not only for us in the ELCA, but all of God’s good creation.
We’ve been in this chapter of Mark’s gospel for the past few weeks. Hopefully you’ve noticed. There’s a lot going on! Mark is known as the gospel that moves fast – chapter six has things moving at a speed that seems crazy even by Mark’s standards.
Jesus is rejected in his hometown.
The twelve out on their mission.
Jesus feeds five thousand people and then walks on water.
Just last week, John the Baptist was beheaded. Hopefully you received Pastor Joe’s excellent proclamation of the good news last weekend in spite of that most violent and disturbing of gospel readings.
For Mark, the central concern of Jesus’ mission and ministry is the inauguration of the kingdom of God in, with, and through Jesus.
Remember the opening words of this gospel?
“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
This good news is going to completely flip the world upside down!
This good news means that all sheep will be cared for with unending compassion;
all brokenness will be restored and made whole;
everything in every part of creation will be healed.
That sounds fantastic doesn’t it! Those who witnessed these things taking place with their very own eyes in their own time, 2,000 years ago, they thought it was.
2,000 years later, in our own time and with our own eyes, do we think it’s all that fantastic?
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 smoky jazz club or on auditorium stage, not in a church pulpit.
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. Yea, 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 like the priests to know.”
Eventually I began to dig deeper into my questions, to no longer be afraid of them, 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.
After a few years of exploring and worshiping within many different Christian denominations, and even exploring other faith traditions, I ended up feeling most connected whenever I was in an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation.
Now, remember, the thought of being a pastor one day, or the even more remote thought of being a Bishop, 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 with hair that was longer than Pastor Joe’s, or more so, for who I was as a human being.
There are two times in today’s gospel when Jesus is in a boat that arrives at a lakeshore.
When the first boat lands in the first part of our gospel today, people receive compassion from Jesus in ways they have never imagined receiving from anyone before. And they are taught things by Jesus that will change every part of their lives forever.
During that season of my life when I was encountering Jesus in ways I never dreamt of encountering, as I dug deeper into the story of Jesus, I began to understand and see how Jesus’ story, is part of my story. I began to realize that my life, and the life of everyone who has or ever will claim to be a follower of Jesus, we’re not all that different from one another.
You and I live in a broken world that continues to wander through life like a sheep without a shepherd. We long to receive compassion from others. And at the same time, we refuse to see how Jesus is at work in and through us still today.
In the second boat, in the later part of our gospel reading today, healing happens as crowds of people rush to Jesus, begging for the opportunity to simply touch the fringe of his cloak.
I don’t care how big your ego is, or how tough you think you are, you and I have all been part of similar stories at one time or another.
We have all experienced human brokenness like the characters in today’s gospel.
Every one of us sitting in this sanctuary on a beautiful Sunday morning in July or joining us online or on the radio, every one of us is holding onto hidden pains and brokenness. Things that are the result of troubled marriages or other broken relationships, mental illness, loneliness, substance abuse, political divides with -isms of all kinds, unexpected news from your doctor about a health diagnosis, and so on…
2,000 years after this gospel story took place along a middle eastern lakeshore, God’s children are still begging to touch Jesus’ cloak in order to be healed.
Today’s gospel brings us good news that assures us once again that Jesus sees our needs and responds with compassion.
The overarching good news of the savior of the world is that Jesus meets us where we are, knows our name, understands our brokenness and invites us into a relationship that will bring forth a radical new kingdom of grace and peace for all of God’s creation.
Pastor Shane Claiborne was speaking at a national youth gathering that I was at several years ago. He talked about his faith journey and call into Christian leadership. I don’t remember all of 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 got messed up. 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 where every day he felt called to serve the poor, to feed the hungry, 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 purposes of Pastor Claiborne’s ministry today is building movements of Christians that look like Jesus again.
Christians that take Jesus seriously as lost sheep are unconditionally loved back into the flock;
take Jesus seriously as children of God receive compassion that asks for nothing in return;
take Jesus seriously and not be afraid to go into our city streets and public schools and government buildings and profess that Jesus is Lord.
And Jesus shows us again today, we don’t this work by beating people over the head with a Bible.
We do this work by embracing them with the unconditional love of God you and I have already received in Christ Jesus.
Even though many years have passed, I continue to be grateful for brothers and sisters in Christ in an ELCA congregation on the North Dakota prairie. Sisters and brothers who showed me for seemingly the very first time in my life, that I in fact am loved by God unconditionally and held in the Shepherd’s embrace forever.
And today, in these early months of serving as your Bishop, I continue to be grateful for their witness to me, and for the many ways I’m discovering every day, how we as people of faith in the western North Dakota Synod, part of this crazy little church called the ELCA, how all of us are all connected together in the ever-unfolding story of the good news of the savior of the world, Jesus the Christ.
As we share this good news together, 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 faith community I’ve explored – Christian or some other faith tradition.
Brothers and sisters in Christ of Saint John Lutheran Church, I’m grateful for your commitment to God’s work through you. As you leave worship today, push your boats out into the water and embrace the mission God is sending you into the world with at St. John. And as you go “living in service to Christ” may God continue to bless you and keep you as God’s mission to bless and serve the world is fulfilled through you. Amen.