Tag Archives: North Dakota

“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.


Love God. Love People. Love Self.

Just catching up on things after failing to post on the blog in a while. Here is a sermon offered during the Opening Worship of the 2021 Western North Dakota Synod Assembly.

2021 Synod Assembly • June 4, 2021Matthew 22:34-40

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

To this year’s voting members – either joining us in person in Minot or via our digital community – and to everyone else joining us via the livestream, I bring greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the WND Synod – more than 160 congregations, 10’s of thousands of brothers and sisters serving together in the western two-thirds of our beautiful state of North Dakota; I bring greetings on behalf of your brothers and sisters across the ELCA – 9,000 congregations, around 3 million brothers and sisters serving together across the United States and Caribbean; 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.

Those greetings have become repetitive and second nature for me as I’ve traveled across our synod in these first few months serving as your Bishop. They are greetings that I believe are appropriate and important to offer every time I speak on behalf of the church or proclaim the gospel good news in worship.

I think they’re important, because often times we get stuck believing God’s work is only happening through the church when we can actually see it with our own eyes in our little corner of the world.

I also think those greetings are important because so often you and I live out our faith as Jesus commands us to do in today’s gospel by putting greater importance one part and less importance on other parts.

Jesus commands us to love God. Love people. Love self.

Love God – you bet – I get that.

Love self – absolutely – after all, you have to look out for number one, right?

Love neighbor – eh – if I have time or feel like doing it someday, I might get around to that one.

I’m not sure if this is only a condition for people who live in extremely affluent parts of the world like we do or if it’s just a part of the human condition in general.

Our love of self is always comes above everything else. Or, maybe I’m the only one who gets stuck in the darkness of the sin of self more often than I will admit in public. Maybe you never experience that.

I mean, you and I are okay with loving God – as long as God is the god we think God should be.

And, if we have the energy or time, we’ll love our neighbor.

Maybe.

But they better look like me. They better vote like me. They better have the same viewpoint about masks and covid-19 that I had. As long as they _________, you insert whatever you want…we all place conditions on what it means to love our neighbor.

Notice, Jesus’ doesn’t place any conditions or restrictions or qualifications on what loving our neighbor is all about.

If you’ve paid attention to anything I’ve written or spoken since September 1, 2020, you know that Jesus’ commands to us in the gospel of Saint Matthew have become kind of a theme verse for these early days serving in the Office of Bishop.

I’m not sure if they will always be central, but they will always be part of who I am – or at least who I’m trying to be – as a child of God who has been called into this holy and mysterious vocation of Bishop.

Let’s face it, these are easy words for us to hear. And at the same time, they are incredibly difficult words for us to live out. Maybe we could think about it like this…living our lives as Jesus commands us to live…takes practice.

After all, practice makes perfect, right?

Back in the early ‘90’s, psychologist Anders Ericsson conducted a research project. His research involved examining distinctions among piano students of differing abilities, including those who performed at elite levels and those who were merely average. His research suggested that the key difference between a musician capable of performing at Carnegie Hall and one who just plays as a hobby was the quality and quantity of practice.

I’m not sure if I’m ready to admit this or not yet, but one of my former teachers may have been right. Her name was Norma McNamara. She was my guitar teacher as a child. She loved to say to me “practice makes perfect. And, Craig, it’d be great if you could spend a little more time practicing this week.”

Now, Dr. Ericcson’s theories have been challenged and fine-tuned over the past three decades. Additional scientists have taken a closer look at elements of performance in music, athletics, language acquisition, etc. What they’ve discovered is that things like memory, physical characteristics, age of learning certain skills, and even how people deal with their mistakes can contribute to high achievement. What they’ve also discovered is the truth that repetition and careful practice remain critical elements. [www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/October-20-30-a-matthew-2234-46]

Here’s the thing with repetition and careful practice as it relates to our faith journey and Jesus commandments in today’s gospel – Jesus’ words are not simply a moral saying or something that Jesus is okay with us only doing if we ever get around to feeling like doing it.

Embracing our faith and allowing God to work through us in the ways Jesus commands, takes practice – scripture study, worship, service, prayer, giving of ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially.

Jesus doesn’t give us a free pass, if we choose to ignore God’s commands to love God, love people, love self.

As Christians, practice focused on these things is at the core of who we are as followers of Jesus – especially if we look at it from the Lutheran branch of the Christian family tree. Don’t believe me – take a few minutes over the next few weeks  and review the promises made in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as just one example.

Former ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson was asked the question “Why Lutheran?” at an event in 2010. Part of his answer to that question was, “To be Lutheran is to always define ourselves in relationship to others, not what sets us apart from others. We will relentlessly define ourselves in how we’re related to you, not what sets us apart from you.”

Bishop Hanson went on to say, “To be a Lutheran is to understand that the God who has named me and claimed me, called me by name in the waters of Baptism, has not chosen to develop a relationship that’s just with Mark Hanson, but is so gracious, that God always is restoring me to community.”

As we begin this journey into a world and a church that is quickly moving, and unfortunately forgetting, about the global pandemic that we’ve been through over the past year, let’s not move too fast.

Let’s take time to reflect on how God is restoring us to community.

And to get there, I believe we need to take time to confess – individually and communally within each of our local faith families.

To take time to confess the many ways we really didn’t care about being in community with others during this pandemic.

Confess the times when we really didn’t care about our neighbor – especially when we found out they voted differently than we did or because we disagreed on how society addressed the pandemic or because the other person Jesus thinks I should love has a different skin color than me or a different sexual orientation or gender than I am, and because of those things, not even Jesus can make me be loving toward them.

Notice, again, this isn’t how Jesus teaches us to behave as his followers – in these verses or in any other verse in the gospels.

In fact, if you can show me one verse of scripture when Jesus teaches us that we can pick and choose who our neighbor is, and how we do or don’t care from them, point that out to me – I’ll buy you lunch!

I’m pretty confident I won’t have to do that anytime soon.

At least not for that reason.

During this season of the church, maybe words from the 20th century church reformer and activist Dorothy Day can be helpful.

And maybe sting just a little too.

Day is often credited with saying, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, take all the time…take all the time you think you and your congregations need in this season. But, I beg you, do not ignore taking time for the work of confession.

Receiving God’s unconditional and unmerited grace in forgiveness is the only way that we will move forward as children of God, as a church, as a human family.

Love God. Love people. Love self.

I believe this holy ritual of confession and forgiveness will be one of the grounding pieces that can help us move forward as followers of Jesus; unite us once again as communities of faith across the western North Dakota synod; renew us as one of the sixty-five synods of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; and restore us globally and eternally together as children of God in the one body of Christ; commanded by our savior to love God, love people and love self.

And finally, it is my hope and prayer that the 2021 Western North Dakota Synod Assembly provides each one of us with an idea or two – a little spark of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration – that will empower us to love God, love people, and love self in ways we’ve never dreamt of experiencing before.

Theologian Brian McLaren closes his most recent book, Faith After Doubt, with a blessing. I close my first sermon before a Synod Assembly with McLaren’s words.

Blessed are the curious, for their curiosity honors reality.

Blessed are the uncertain and those with second thoughts, for their minds are still open.

Blessed are the wonderers, for they shall find what is wonderful.

Blessed are those who question their answers, for their horizons will expand forever.

Blessed are those who often feel foolish, for they are wiser than those who always think themselves wise.

Blessed are those who are scolded, suspected, and labeled as heretics by the gatekeepers, for the prophets and mystics were treated in the same way by the gatekeepers of their day.

Blessed are those who know their unknowing, for they shall have the last laugh.

Blessed are the perplexed, for they have reached the frontiers of contemplation.

Blessed are they who become cynical about their cynicism and suspicious of their suspicion, for they will enter the second innocence.

Blessed are the doubters, for they shall see through false gods.

Blessed are the lovers, for they shall see God everywhere.

Whether you are in Minot or online for this year’s Synod Assembly, I’m glad you are here. May God bless our time together and keep us wrapped in the unconditional love of our savior Jesus.

Love God. Love people. Love self. Amen.