Tag Archives: Western North Dakota Synod

“Living in Service to Christ” 07.18.21 Sermon

“Living in Service to Christ” was a sermon offered on July 18, 2021, at St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Dickinson, ND.

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 • July 15, 2021

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.


“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.