“Love that Casts Out Fear”- a Mid-week Lenten Message for Messiah Lutheran, Grand Island, Nebraska

I didn’t take many pictures during my visit to Messiah unfortunately, but I did catch a picture of the photograph of the outside of the church, or at least how it looked many years ago before an addition or two.

It was my joy to be with the people of God gathered as Messiah Lutheran Church in Grand Island, Nebraska on Wednesday March 15, 2023. I was invited by Pastor Steven Peeler. Before worship it was a treat to be able to go out to a neighborhood restaurant for dinner with Pastor Steven and Pastor Steve Meysing. I was invited to preach as part of the congregation’s Lenten series entitled, “Love that Casts Out Fear,” featuring messages about partner ministries and how the congregation is part of the larger church in many different and life changing ways. The theme verse for this series is 1 John 4:18. Additional readings for the evening that I was invited to join the congregation for included: Deuteronomy 10:12-22, Romans 12:9-21, and Luke 6:27-38. What follows is the majority of the manuscript that I spoke from.

Grace and peace from God in Christ, who is with you, for you, and who loves you. Amen.

Good evening, Messiah. It’s so great to be with you. Thank you, Pastor Steven, for the invitation and to all of you for the warm welcome. I bring you greetings from Bishop Scott Johnson, from all of my colleagues on the synod staff, and from your 90,000+ siblings in Christ who with you are the Nebraska Synod. I’m grateful to be with you this evening under your Lenten focus, “Love that casts out fear.” As the writer of 1st John writes, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…”[1] That understanding of vocation, relationship, and our calls and invitations as Children of God and disciples of Jesus holds us together and gives us strength and encouragement to follow where Christ leads, to join in with God in some of God’s on-going work here and now, and to be open to the Spirit’s movement and invitation.

Now, I was asked to share and reflect about who I am, what I do, what a deacon is, and our shared ministry together. Admittedly, that’s a lot to cover. But here it goes.

My Role as your partner in ministry with the Nebraska Synod
Former Nebraska Synod Bishop Brian Maas used to say that he had the best call in the ELCA. Well, I think I actually have the best call in the ELCA. And here’s why. I have the honor and privilege to walk with you, and your 234 partner congregations of the Nebraska Synod, spread across the geography of the whole state from Chadron to Falls City and everywhere in between. As your partner in ministry for Mission, Innovation and Stewardship, I have the joy of being able to help share the story of what God is up to and what God’s people are up to. To say thank you for all that you do as the disciples of Jesus that you are here in Grand Island, and for all that you make possible as the generous stewards of God’s love that you are too. To be able to share the Good News through word and deed, and point to story after story, of how God’s people together, are responding to God’s love known most clearly through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and living out that love and making it real daily.

My role on the synod staff has evolved over the nearly seven years I have had the joy of serving as one of your partners in ministry alongside you. Now one of the biggest parts of my role is being one to ask and hold space for big and deep questions. Questions that disciples and congregations are pondering. About what does this mean? What might God be up to? Trying to make sense of a changed world, changed culture, changed church. Trying to cope with years of anxiety and uncertainty, and pandemic, and wondering about what might be next.

How is this for a sign of the love that casts out fear? As seen in the chapel at Immanuel Courtyard, downstairs from the synod office, during the morning in which we recorded this year’s Nebraska Synod Chrism Mass.

As part of this theme, one of the most exciting parts of my ministry currently is walking alongside the congregations participating in the Nebraska Synod’s Vitality Initiative for Congregations. Through a 2-year process, congregations journey together asking and digging in deep to the big questions of faith and deep listening’s related to: “Who are we?” “Who are our neighbors?” “What might God be up to?” “What’s our next most faithful step?”

And “What might God be inviting next?” The first cohort of this journey has included eight congregations from Sidney, Seward, Lincoln, and the Omaha metros, and other congregations from across the state are currently discerning and applying to be a part of the second cohort. Perhaps these are the sorts of questions your congregation is pondering right now, and this process might be helpful for you too? Whether or not that makes sense for Messiah right now, questions like these are asked deeply in the confidence that “perfect love casts out fear,” and that the promises of God’s love made real through Jesus, our friend, Messiah, and Savior, are true.

What a deacon such as myself might look like in worship sometimes (as seen during the installation service of Bishop Scott Johnson last fall).

The Role of Deacon
In the gospel story we heard read, Jesus puts his own spin on the law. He is preaching in his famous “Sermon on the Plain,” in the Gospel of Luke.[2] The sermon where he proclaims blessings and woes, similarly to his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. But in the portion we heard read, we hear Jesus summarizing the commandments especially as they relate to our relationship with our neighbors. He shares the golden rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you,”[3] and calls all who might hear to show love, not fear or judgment, in saying, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”[4] Jesus is making the case, that perfect love casts out fear. And that matters.

If it were a Sunday morning and I was preaching and here with you, you might notice something different in my appearance before you. You see, I am not a pastor. I am not a Minister of Word and Sacrament like your Pastor Steven is. So I do not wear a pastor’s stole, but instead a deacon’s stole. In the eyes of the church, I am ordained or set a part for a special call and ministry, just like a pastor. But I am a deacon, a Minister of Word and Service. Called to preach and teach and share the Good News of God’s love, and to serve God’s people through showing and sharing tangible signs of God’s presence. A deacon is often one who is at the edge or the margins, where the church meets the world.

One of the best pictures of this might be to think of it this way. A deacon is someone who stands with one foot in the church, and one foot out in the neighborhood and community around the church. Someone who can lift up the needs of the neighbor and the world around it, in prayer in the faith community and worship. So someone who in worship might lead the prayers of the people, for example. But also someone who might read the gospel, as someone who goes out in the neighborhood and points to God’s love and God’s presence out among all of God’s beloved and faithful people. Deacons can often be found serving in non-profits and serving arm ministries, many of which you are hearing from this Lenten season, as well as on staffs in congregations in roles related to faith formation, discipleship, administration, or music, or on synod staffs like myself- partnering with other leaders and walking alongside congregations.

In the ELCA then, we have two ministry rosters. One is that of Ministers of Word and Sacrament, pastors, like your Pastor Steven or my wife, Pastor Allison. And one that is of Ministers of Word and Service, deacons, like me and about 28 other deacons serving in the Nebraska Synod. Together pastors and deacons serve and point to the good news that God in Christ is for you, with you, and loves you. And together, especially, we both work to lift up all the faithful to lean into each of our baptismal promises, our calls as disciples to follow Jesus, and to live out our various vocations. That’s all of our work. Yours, mine, and all Children of God.

Bishop Scott Johnson as seen preaching for the recorded Nebraska Synod Chrism Mass service this year.

Update on Life of the Synod
You are each part of this work in your own vocations. Your part of this work as part of your whole congregation. And your congregation is part of this work as part of the whole Nebraska Synod just as it is part of this work as part of the whole Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and even more broadly how we are together part of the Lutheran World Federation. We’re in this together as church together. Now amid all of this, here in the Nebraska Synod as you might be aware we have been in a period of change and transition.

You might remember that in early June last year at synod assembly, we elected a new Bishop, Bishop Scott Johnson who was installed this past fall in Kearney. Over the past six and a half months he has been hard at work discerning, listening, praying lots, and learning constantly. As in such transitions, there have been quite a few related synod staff changes and transitions as we adjust to changing needs, dynamics, and challenges that we are all facing. Perhaps one of the biggest changes with the synod staff structure has been the decision to not create roles that are just geographically based as has been the practice of previous bishops, but to have assistant to the bishops and directors who specialize in particular areas of focus. For example, we now have an Assistant to the Bishop who focuses primarily on shared ministries and shared ministry agreements between congregations, and even between congregations of different full-communion partners of the ELCA who partner with ELCA congregations here in Nebraska. This change in focus, is really helping us better resource congregations to meet needs with a great level of expertise. It’s a change, but it’s already proving to be beneficial as we work to walk together with all 235 congregations and 90,000 disciples who are the Nebraska Synod.

I want to give a shout-out to your Pastor Steven too, for serving on the Nebraska Synod Council. That’s an important responsibility, but also a gift for your congregation as he is connected in a deeper way with what is happening across the whole synod and church in more real-time and is able to connect that back to your congregation, while also being able to share what he is seeing and experiencing through and with all of you.

Thank You for Being Part of the Church Together
I would also be remiss if I didn’t take an opportunity this evening to say thank you to all of you for your congregation’s continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering that your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA through which you do ministry that spans the globe and changes lives. Through your mission share you take tonight’s lessons to heart. As you serve and show God’s love made real, as you care for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger as we hear about in Deuteronomy,[5] as you show love and mercy as Jesus calls us all to do so in the Gospel of Luke,[6] and you let your love be genuine, hold fast to what is good, and extend hospitality to strangers as Paul implores in his letter to the Romans.[7]

It gives me great joy to see a congregation display publicly their participation in mission share like this. Thank you Messiah Lutheran for faithfully and generously being part of the whole church together.

Specifically, through mission share you help raise up new leaders of the faith who walk with God’s people and proclaim the good news of the Gospel, through supporting new pastors, deacons, and parish ministry associates. Through it you share the Good News near and far by supporting missionaries around the globe, and new and renewing ministries right here closer to home across the Big Red State. Through your mission share you also help youth and young adults know of God’s deep love for them, in part, through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry just as you heard about from Jon Fredericks last week, as well as Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry including Camp Carol Joy Holling. And through your mission share, you not only see your neighbors in need, you come alongside them and meet them where they are at through deep love which transcends all fears through the many serving arm partners of the church like Mosaic, Lutheran Family Services, and Lutheran Disaster Response, as well as Mission Field Nebraska partners like the Followers of Christ Prison Ministries.

That’s just a small taste of all that you make possible. On behalf of your siblings in Christ near and far, thank you, thank you, thank you!

God Is Up to Something in, with, through, around, and for you!
But that is not all I am here to say thank you, to you for. Perfect love that casts out fear is not something that all people always see and experience in the world. But we profess a faith in the One who gave himself for us, who calls us all to be in relationship with one another, and who reconciles and brings us all together as One Body. And your congregation has taken a bold and faithful step to do this in a new and exciting way. Through your support and willingness to launch a Latinx/Latino ministry here as part of your congregation, you are saying to your neighbors that you see them, that you are here, and that you really want to meet them where they are at and will come alongside them and meet them just as how they are. You are living out the gospel in real-time. And you are making space to see and follow what the Spirit is inviting.

Some of the faithful gathered for worship on a Wednesday evening, with Pastor Steven introducing the service. Notice the person in purple third from the left? Yes, that’s Pastor Steve Meysing (my former colleague on synod staff) who just happened to be passing through. What an added bonus for a wonderful evening. These faithful came to worship on the first near 70 degree evening of the year, and for that, I am immensely grateful. (And I’m grateful it was such a beautiful day and evening for a drive to and from Grand Island.)
The beautiful altar area of the sanctuary at Messiah Lutheran, is the perfect reminder of the real love that casts out fear.

God is up to something in, with, through, around, and for you! I’m not entirely sure what that will look like. I know you aren’t either. But that’s a good thing. We’ll lean in and learn together. Your support and partnership with Pastor Ricardo to explore this is inspiring, and I’m excited to see and hear what you learn, sense, and discover through this, and am grateful for the opportunity on behalf of the whole synod to walk alongside you in whatever ways might be helpful too.

There’s no question there is a need for this kind of outreach. There’s no question that it is a faithful response, and a way to share the good news and Jesus’ love genuinely and authentically. Grounded in food and fellowship and Bible Study, it will by its very nature be Lutheran. For it will make space for questions and conversation. Wherever that might lead, it will be God leading the way. And whatever God is up to, I’m excited to see what you all hear and discern and witness. And I am grateful to be able to help share that story and whatever discoveries and questions surface with the whole synod. Taking this bold and faithful step shows me that your congregation is practicing what it preaches. That you trust that the promise that love casts out fear is not just real, it’s a description of who and what we are each called to be as God’s created, claimed, known, and beloved Children.

Love that Casts Out Fear
A love that casts out fear is one that leads us from where we are called and gathered around the word, the waters of the fount, the bread and wine, out into our neighborhoods and daily lives.
It’s one that sees and sends and builds relationships beyond the walls of what we know, and builds bridges and open doors towards new possibilities. It naturally brings questions, and as relationships form, it will mean changes. We all know change isn’t always easy. But it’s a part of life. And with Christ as our host and Savior, we have all that we need to go about this work. For it’s not our work alone, but God’s whose saving love makes all that we do and all that we are possible.

Messiah, I am so grateful for you. Thank you for taking these big and bold steps of faith. Thank you for all that you do and make possible as Jesus’ disciples here in Grand Island, and as the generous stewards of God’s love that you are. Continue to lean in. Continue to open your hands, eyes, and ears outward to meet your neighbors where they are at. Continue to open your hearts and minds to listen and sense what God might be up to and inviting you to be a part of next. For in these acts, you will be changed. But you will also see and witness things that are only possible through God’s deep love which we know brings life out of death, and casts all fear aside. Oh, I am so excited for you and for what God might be up to! And for that we can all say, Thanks be to God! Amen.

Citations and References:

[1] 1 John 4:18, NRSV.
[2] Largely as recorded in Luke 6:17-49.
[3] Luke 6:31, NRSV.
[4] Luke 6:36, NRSV.
[5] Deuteronomy 10:18, NRSV.
[6] As in Luke 6:35, and 6:36, NRSV.
[7] Romans 12:9, and 12:13, NRSV.

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