In the beginning, it was a mess. God was there. But not much else, maybe even nothing else. Genesis paints a picture of God presiding over this primordial soupy chaos. And then for God’s own inscrutable reasons God calls goodness and beauty into existence. Earth and stars, oceans and rivers, plants and animals are spoken into existence by the God who has always been but now desires something where there was once nothing. And over and again God calls that something good.
Step by step, day by day, God brings order and meaning and life out of disorder. Each thing that God creates has a role to play in the ongoing health and vibrancy of the creation. Each thing that is created is part of something bigger than itself. Then on the sixth day, human beings are created in the image of God.
This, says the book of Genesis, is our origin story. This is how we all got here. This is why we exist. To mirror the presence of God in this world. To be God’s likeness in the world. How do you think we’re doing on that whole thing? It might be what we were made for, but far too often we human beings live for something else. It seems like we’ve forgotten our origin story.
Which is funny because we love origin stories. As humans, we are almost a little bit obsessed with them. We love the stories about companies that start in a garage and turn into multi-billion/multi-national enterprises. We want to know how it all started. We love a good rags-to-riches, self-made person story. Those kinds of origin stories have been woven in the fabric of the American dream. Anybody can begin with nothing, work in their parents’ basement and become the CEO of Facebook. Or the kid who’s a starving artist who worked and worked and toiled away and finally got their big break and made on Broadway or in Hollywood or in the NFL.
We love to think we can make it alone. We want to be able to look back on a life well-lived and proclaim like Old Blue Eyes, “I did it my way.”
But we can’t and we don’t. Nobody does it alone, behind every great story of a self-made person is a partner, or a spouse, or a confidant, or a parent, or a 2nd grade teacher. We don’t come from nothing. We come from God. We come from a network of relationships, a human family that is flawed to be sure, but one that God has looked at and called very good.
You are a part of something bigger. You have a role to play, not just in our own story, but in God’s much bigger story. But it’s so easy to forget that.
In 2007, I was serving as pastor at the Bethlehem Minneapolis campus. I’d been on staff four years and was keenly aware of Bethlehem’s commitment to raising up leaders in the church. The Bethlehem Foundation had provided financial support to seminary students for years. I sensed we were ready for deeper engagement and made a pitch to become an internship site for a seminary student. Leadership liked the idea so we began the process for identifying a candidate. I had four interviews and filled out the paperwork with our first choice. That’s when I got a call from Steve McKinley, the seminary internship coordinator. He asked why I hadn’t identified Ben Cieslik. I told him Ben hadn’t interviewed. “Ben’s your guy.” he said. “let me talk to him and we’ll get an interview set up.”
I didn’t interview with Bethlehem because I didn’t really want to. Sorry but it’s true. I had already made up my mind that Bethlehem wasn’t the right fit for me. I had grown up in a big church. I had worked in a large church in St. Paul as a youth director after college. I didn’t think Bethlehem would teach me a whole lot that I didn’t already know, I thought I knew big churches. So I didn’t interview. I thought I knew where I needed to do my internship, and it wasn’t Bethlehem.
Then Steve called me. He asked me why I hadn’t interviewed with Bethlehem? I gave him the easy answer and told him it was about schedules. I didn’t tell him the truth, that I didn’t think I should do the internship at Bethlehem. He set up another interview. When I begrudgingly trudged into Mary’s office for an interview, I certainly didn’t imagine that I’d be here 12 years later. Or that I’d be co-senior pastors with Mary. Or that this congregation would have taught me so much and inspired me with such regularity.
God created something beautiful and powerful where I saw nothing. God opened my eyes to new possibilities that depended more on God’s ability to provide than my ability to do it my way.
Bethlehem Lutheran Church Twin Cities has its own unique origin story. Three and one-half years ago, two distinct congregations, two congregations with history and traditions and relationships and pride, chose to become a part of something bigger than themselves, together. Together we chose a future that we couldn’t quite see. We both felt as though the future health of the church required innovation and creativity, it required congregations doing something different together.
There was a lot about this to be afraid of. We were leaving behind things that were familiar and meaningful, things that had been core to who we understood ourselves to be. It was risky and there was loss. It cost both congregations something. But becoming something new, becoming something new together, costs something.
We see this most clearly in Jesus. In so many ways this is God’s return to nothingness. God, takes on our human form, God experiences all of what it means to be human. God enjoys the joy and the beauty, but in Jesus, God also knows the pain, the sorrow and the darkness. On the cross God experiences the emptiness and the nothingness of death and from that creates new life — a life that you and I and all of creation have access to. Together, we are given God’s own life, we are given a gift that cost God greatly, so that we could become something new, beautiful and good together.
It’s that promise that we want to lean into as a congregation as we move into the future. We’ve taken incredible risks. We’ve accomplished some amazing things in God’s name. But we don’t have it figured out. We aren’t yet the church that God needs us to be for this hurting world. But we can be.
We are becoming something new, something holy, something healing, something life-changing and world-altering. We are becoming this church together. To be the church of Jesus in this time and place means listening and learning, changing and growing. It means telling the truth about ourselves and our world. We are becoming together.
This is our vision for the near future. Becoming Together: sharing in the work of God’s vision for a healed world.
This work will manifest itself in four ways. In your bulletins you’ll see three listed. But over the last few days we’ve been having important conversation with members of this congregation and we’ve added a fourth. This “new” one was always there. It was the foundation of all of what we’re about to share. But it’s become clear there is power in being explicit about it. So we’re putting it first.
GOD TO PEOPLE
This is where things begin, and it’s where they end. We find ourselves in the God who comes to us over and again offering life and light and healing. We find our identity and purpose in Jesus who gives his life so that we can live. We are loved without condition and without end, so that we can find the strength and the courage to be signs of Christ’s love in the world. God comes to us so that we can live for others.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE
Relationships change us and change the world. By being in relationship with one another we discover more about the challenges that are confronting us as people at this time in history. We hear stories that challenge us and invite us to change. We experience God’s love and care through one another. We share in the joy and pain that is life in this world.
PEOPLE TO PLACE
The number of issues that confront our cities are, at times, overwhelming. From food scarcity to education inequality to healthcare. It can be difficult to know where to start. But home matters. Having access to safe and affordable housing makes addressing all of the other issues just a little bit easier. So we’re committed to working with our incredible, capable partners to help more people have access to a home that allows them to begin to live the life that God created them to live.
PEOPLE TO PLANET
We are creators, co-creators with God in an ongoing project of healing the world. We’ve made a mess of things but God has also blessed us with the power to make things better, to work for change, to care for the creation God loves.
We are both excited about this work. We’ve been having conversations with leadership and staff and other groups of people in the community that has given shape to this vision. We are convinced that God wants to use the full strength of this congregation to become something new. God is the one urging us to let go of some of the things that we are certain about, to engage with others who might challenge us, to extend a warm welcome to those who are different from us. God desires that we are a church that is always growing, changing, evolving into something new.
This won’t be easy. In fact, we are pretty confident that some days it’ll feel really hard. Together we are moving into the unknown. But we’ve done it before and by the grace of God who continues to create newness today and every day, we are becoming together.