Thursday, December 8, 2016

Installation of Rev. Aaron Kangas at Trinity Lutheran Church, Iuka, Illinois December 4, 2016

            The winding road that God brings us along can be strange and unexpected.  Last week I found the Christmas card that Aaron and Heidi sent to us last year.  “It was so great to see all of you this summer!  God’s richest blessings to you all in this coming year!”  Little did any of us know that we would see each other again down at their place in Tennessee last June, and now again, here, on this day of great joy for him, and for you – the dear saints of Trinity.
            I do not remember when I met Aaron, maybe he does.  But I know we became friends very quickly as we started at seminary together 19 years ago, with just a few stairs between our rooms.  Great enough friends that within four months, I was getting up early to travel from Ft. Wayne to Wisconsin for his wedding to Heidi.  I vividly remember Josiah’s baptism at the seminary’s chapel during our second year.  And the night in our fourth year when Aaron and Heidi showed great hospitality to my wife and me, inviting us over to their place for supper.  So it was quite an honor when your new pastor asked me to preach this afternoon.
            But then after I got off the phone, reality hit me like a ton of bricks as I realized that writing
this sermon would be hard work!  So many things I could say – too many even!  (And neither you nor I want to be here for a sermon THAT long!)  Recently one of my confirmation kids told that her problem with church is that she has to sit and be so quiet.  She loves to talk, and figured that I loved church services because I get to talk all the time!  Little did she know that when my pastor first asked me to consider being a pastor, I wanted to say, “ARE YOU NUTS?” – except that you don’t ask your pastor if he is nuts!  The idea of it scared me silly since I was terrified of having to say things in front of a crowd of people.
 If it were as simple as just saying whatever I want to say off the top of my head, I would feel a lot less pressure.  However, God did not make me to be a pastor so I could do that.  He gave me the task of just saying whatever He wants, of teaching His ways, of rebuking sin and forgiving it in the name of Jesus Christ.  That same Lord of the Church has created faith in the hearts of people at St. Peter’s and St. John’s in Evansville and Ruma (ironically, the congregation where Pastor Schrader comes from.)  In their faith, these people called me out of the seminary because they want to be taught God’s Word – even as you, dear brothers and sisters, by this church service vow to God that you want my friend to teach the same Word to you and for you.
            I feel the pressure of preaching to you today, preparing you as congregation and pastor to walk together in this new relationship with Christ.  Yet I recognize that just like we had no idea the blessings that God had in store for us behind last year’s Christmas card, likewise we have no ideas the blessings and crosses the Lord has in store for the future of your congregation.
            I was ordained in June of 2001 and within a few months our nation suffered the unimaginable
horror of September 11th.  Among other thoughts that went through my head that morning was that the seminary never prepared me for a day like that.  Except that they did!  Our professors taught us to preach Christ and Him crucified, in good times and bad - even in the dark valleys of the shadow of death.     
            Did the Disciples feel like Jesus never prepared them for a day like the weekend of Good Friday?  Except that Christ did prepare them, telling them multiple times that He would lay down His life as He was lifted up on the Cross for our salvation, and then rise again on the third day.  As we heard in this afternoon’s Gospel text, He changed their hearts and their futures in an instant by declaring “Peace to you.”  Even though they were still sinners, still weak and afraid, still would make mistakes in the future, God loved them.  Their fears and doubts were not so great as God’s grace, their sin not so deep as His love.  There was no condemnation left against them in Christ Jesus who stood before them alive after death.  Could anything have prepared them for that moment?
            As I finally sat down to write this sermon, I realized that it was not all that different from what we pastors do when we perform weddings, where the Lord joins husband and wife together.  We do our best to prepare the man and the woman for the unknown and unexpected blessings and crosses the Lord will give to the new family, even as I am trying to do this afternoon.
When I meet with a couple where the man or woman has been married previously, I tell them that this new marriage will be different from the previous one.  It seems obvious, but it is important to intentionally keep in mind that the new spouse is not the same person as the former spouse.  They speak differently, think differently, act differently – even if there are some things in common.  Aaron, when you have those conversations you have had 100s of times with members of previous churches, remember that the person you are talking with has not had that conversation yet, and be patient with them.  Members of Trinity likewise, when you discuss things with Pastor Kangas, you may have had those chats with previous pastors, but not with him. 
            I also go over some difficult questions with the pre-marital couple about their prior relationships.  As they look back on their previous marriage, I ask them about the good stuff and the bad stuff, where things went right and wrong.  Specifically I ask where they recognize they were not the husband or wife that God intended them to be – where they were to be a blessing, but behaved with a selfish love for themselves.  Rev. Kangas and members of Trinity, you both have years of experience to look back upon, to see where that relationship between Pastor and Congregation was great, where it went wrong, and where you want to do better.  Be open and honest with one another about this.  Ask one another to pray to God to strengthen the weaknesses so that your relationship will bring Him glory.
            Christ will be the center of your relationship.  I intentionally am avoiding telling you to put
Christ in the center – because you do not put Christ anywhere.  He puts Himself where He belongs.  As we are approaching Christmas, remember what happened when Christ was put inside of Mary – it nearly broke up her relationship to Joseph!  Joseph was no dummy.  He knew the birds and the bees.  So he assumed Mary had not been faithful and decided to divorce her quietly.  Praise God that He sent an angel to tell Joseph that Mary had in fact been most faithful; and it was better than that, for the Holy Spirit had conceived inside of her Joseph’s Savior and our own.
            Like Joseph, my dear friend Aaron, you may jump to some conclusions that are wrong; and dear members of Trinity, you might make bad assumptions too, whether about your pastor, or about each other.  What are you going to do then?  Well, if you want to be Christian about it, then I can tell you what you are going to do – you will ask for forgiveness and you will give forgiveness, just as God in Christ forgives you.    
            Rev. Kangas told me that it will take some getting used to your altar being against the wall because at his previous congregation it was away from the wall, so during the prayers and during the Lord’s Supper liturgy he stood behind the altar, facing the congregation.  My dear friend Aaron, it took me some years to get used to looking away from the congregation also since I serve at an altar against the wall.  However, on Sundays, when you pray and celebrate the Supper, do not think of it as turning your back on the people.  Instead, recognize that you are facing the same direction as your people are facing, turned toward the same Savior Jesus as they are turned toward.  As pastor and people stand together and join in prayer, Jesus is with you; Jesus is hearing you, Jesus is forgiving you – congregation and pastor both. 
            Here at this altar, as you regularly receive forgiveness and peace from Jesus, especially in His Body and Blood – here is where you will find healing and reconciliation.  Rev. Kangas, when you are tired and impatient and frustrated, when you feel the weight of the world on you, or when you are proud and think you have accomplished something, come to this altar and be humbled and comforted as the Lord provides what you need.
            People of Trinity, when you are tired and impatient and frustrated, when you feel the weight of the world on you, or when you are proud and think you have accomplished something, come to this altar and be humbled and comforted as the Lord provides what you need.
            Here at this altar, during the Communion liturgy, your pastor will face you and speak the words which Jesus first spoke to His disciples that Easter evening which has made Christians glad for nearly 2000 years now – “Peace to you.”  Jesus is still speaking those words to you through your Pastor’s voice.  In those words are your forgiveness, your life, and your salvation.  In those words are how you live together as pastor and people.  “Peace to you.”  And did you notice that Jesus says “Peace to you” to the Disciples in the upper room twice?  He gives peace to spare so that you have peace to share!
            As Pastor and people, listen to His Word speak to you together.  Pray to Him at His table here and pray at your table in your homes.  Worship Christ in good times and bad, during church meals and at the hospital bed and at gravesides.  And whatever you are doing, let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts and minds. 
            People of Trinity and Pastor Kangas, I speak for my brother pastors here this afternoon saying that we are thrilled to celebrate with you this wonderful day of a new relationship.  We pray for you and bless you.  God grant that your life together be a preview of the relationship of peace that all God’s children will have in His Kingdom which has no end.  Amen.