Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
This weekend I am celebrating my 3rd year anniversary as your pastor here at Lake of the Isles. Yes, we have moved together through the entire three-year lectionary of Sunday morning readings. When I was working with young intern pastors, I taught them to stay in their first parish for three years, complete the lectionary series, make all their mistakes, and then move on quickly. It was sound advice- and so for my first five parishes, I served them for three years each and moved on quickly. Finally, after having made enough mistakes, I stayed in one place for five years. I could see the advantages for the life of the congregation. I simply needed to concentrate on my preaching. After all-you can never use the same sermon twice- in the same congregation. So, now we are back to where we began three years ago; Jesus’ sermon at his hometown in Nazareth.
It is said that “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” It was a part of a 1980’s Procter and Gamble marketing campaign. The campaign was effective because it fit our understanding of the world. You only get one chance to make that first impression. It takes just one quick glance, perhaps only three seconds, for someone to evaluate you for the first time. In this short time, the other person forms an opinion about you based on your appearance, your body language, your demeanor, your mannerisms, and how you are dressed. You may not even have chance to open your mouth and speak. That first impression can be nearly impossible to reverse or undo. And so whether you are in your career or social life, it’s important to know how to create a good first impression. Among pastors, this is a small grace period. it is said that you are only as good as your last sermon, so I am glad that you have all chosen repeatedly to give me a second chance.
Jesus was aware of the importance of first impressions as well, even in his own home town of Nazareth. According to St. Luke gospel, this was Jesus’ first public appearance as a preacher. It was his key note address, inauguration ceremony and installation service rolled into one. Surely the choice of reading was not accidental for Jesus. Oh, it’s true the worship assistant handed Jesus the scroll of Isaiah, but then Jesus found the place where it was written and read these particular words from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus had been teaching in the Galilee before this sabbath day. But St. Luke reports that this was Jesus first sermon in his hometown. The friends of the family, co-workers in the carpentry trade, and old neighbors would all be there to hear what the favorite son of Nazareth would have to say.
I know that when I began my ministry here at Lake of the Isles there were those who were eager to hear, or perhaps at least remotely curious to know what I believed was at the heart of our ministry together. They wondered whether I preferred Marty Haugen to J. S. Bach, and the old Lord’s Prayer to the revised ecumenical version. Now people simply wonder why I am so taken by the music of Dieterich Buxtehude. These were all interesting topics, and yet I don’t believe they are at the essential core of who we are as God’s church here on the shores of the Lakes of the Isles. My friends, let me share with you today, three words that I hope will continue to color our ministry and life together. They are Follow, Lead and Set Great Goals.
Christian churches and communities in the heart of the city are changing faster than any time in their history. Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church is no different. Congregations were once a mighty fortress protecting a pure cultural and ethnic heritage. All you needed was a signboard, and the word Lutheran in the name, and people would gather. Those times are past. People today are filled questions and doubts, and they are seeking a place, not simply can affirm their identity and belong, but a place where they can be fed and accepted- even with their questions. This has brought diversity of life experience to our churches. We are no different. Curious visitors join us every Sunday for worship. Here at Lake of the Isles, however, we are limited in what we can do and offer. Over the past three years we have tried to focus on the neighborhood that is around us. We know the challenges. We are located on a one-way street, with no parking lot, and the other side of the street is a lake. This is not the realtors’ ideal of location, location, location. But surprisingly, we are making the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ known, and people are finding their way to hear God’s word and to receive the gifts of his holy table here. That should continue be the hope and future of Lake of the Isles.
For pastors, one of the great challenges is knowing when you should lead and when you should follow. Pastor, you see, don’t always have to lead. Church members need to learn this as well. But like in ballroom dancing, someone does have to lead. Most of us pride ourselves on being self-starters, self-motivated, independent workers. Our supervisors and colleagues appreciate these traits. Pastors are often natural leaders, but like other professionals, we don’t always know when to follow? I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a college registrar. He had the responsibility for the recruitment and selection of incoming freshmen to his small, liberal arts college. As a part of the application process the students were required to write an essay answering the following question, “Are you a leader or a follower?” He read countless essays, but he wrote one letter of acceptance to a young man who answered honestly. “Congratulations and welcome to our school. It is good to know that in our incoming class, we have 300 leaders and one follower.” The best leaders and followers need some idea of where they are going. We can’t rely solely on first impressions. Over the past three years, I believe that we have developed a sense of direction together for this congregation and its ministry.
Mind you, following is risky business. As God’s faithful people, we need to be prepared to go places that God needs us- and not simply to the places where we want to go. I accepted the call here knowing that there would be challenges, declining enrollment, worship attendance and financial resources. There were days in that first year when I wondered, why I was here, and whether my call to Lake of the Isle was too late to make a change in the life of this congregation. In comparison, Europe was so much more comfortable. We may all prefer leading to following. Sometimes both are wearing. I am reminded of the man who was awakened by his wife, “Dear, it’s time to wake up. It’s Sunday morning. Time to go to church.” Instead, the man pulled a pillow over his head, and sighed. “I don’t want to go. Nobody likes me there. Nobody talks to me. Nobody listens to me.” To which his wife answered, “But honey, you have to go. You’re the pastor.” As faithful followers and leaders, there will be times when you will be ready to throw in the towel, pack up the bags and, at least in mind, head out the door. That is what life is like in the church. You too will be confronted with discouragement and frustration- maybe not with the pastor, but with your fellow members. In these moments, you may ask yourself again, why has God called us to this place to be together?
When I visited with Call Committees in Europe preparing for new pastors, I always shared with them my conviction, that the call process is different from the hiring process. The pastoral call is not simply between the congregation and the pastor. But it is between three partners. In our learning to follow and lead, we ask the question, Is the new call pleasing to the Congregation? Is it pleasing to the Pastor? But ultimately, we must ask is it pleasing to the Holy Spirit? I do believe that the past three years have been pleasing to Holy Spirit.
Knowing our role, however, isn’t always enough. In learning to follow you and I must trust that God will provide us with the gifts and skills needed to complete the task. We may not know what is needed, but God knows. He has set us down together in this place to do his work. He has also brought us together to discover more about ourselves and the gifts that he has given. Learning to lead and follow is more of an art form than a science. The tools for learning are God’s Word, active listening in prayer, daily obedience to his commands, and the life of the spiritual community around you.
Now let us, turn to the final challenge: as followers and leaders Christ kingdom, how do we learn to set great goals for ourselves and for Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church? How do we work together to make that good first impression? There are plenty of things we can do, and ways that we can keep ourselves busy. Some are old and some are new. But we should really ask, are they important to the work of God’s kingdom? Over the past thirty years of ministry, I have learned an important lesson. Never set your goals based solely on who you think you are or what you think you can accomplish. Instead, set your goals based on who you know God to be and on what God can accomplish in you and through you. As a community of faith, we have been called to lead, to comfort and to guide. And as God’s holy children, we can afford to dream great dreams. We can dare to do great things, not because we think we can, but because we know God can. God is the One who is “able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.” That is where we are as we begin the next stage of our journey together. Like Jesus in Nazareth, we too must set great goals.
The worshippers in Nazareth were startled by Jesus words and his goals. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Bring good news to the poor? Proclaim release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. Of course, they thought, it’s possible that the words of Isaiah could have many meanings. Recovery of sight could mean more than physical blindness. We do the same thing today. It’s certainly true that you and I can be captive to forces that are as strong as prison bars-addictions that trap and kill us, or materialism that keeps us on a treadmill working faster and faster, and never gives us enough. But I would like to challenge you to consider that Jesus truly meant what he said? Jesus meant that the church should preach good news for the poor-the homeless ones still on our streets, those who are often hidden to make life more pleasant for the rest of us. I believe Jesus that meant that we should preach not simply about the poor, but that as a church we should do something about it. I believe that Jesus truly meant captives, including those imprisoned in our own time. He spoke of refugees and migrants, not simply in principle, but in reality. Yes, I believe that Jesus truly meant that his followers should do something for those oppressed even in our own society today, those who are treated unjustly. A church’s good impression is not simply made known in words, but it is also made known in acts. The Norwegian literary giant Henrik Ibsen once wrote, “A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.”
My friends, as the members and friends of Lake of the Isles Lutheran Church you and I are being called to follow, and to lead, and to set great goals. And that it the commitment I am renewing with you this day, for another three years. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And that means making a good impression today. Yes, it is making a good impression today, that the faith and hope of men and women who have come to know the presence of God in their lives is alive and active and changing lives. The Christian faith is not an empty hope of the past, but it is a living and witnessing faith in what Jesus Christ can and is doing today. That is my commitment to this congregation. With Christ’s Spirit upon us, “Today, God’s word is being fulfilled.” Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.