The Love Mandate

Maundy Thursday, (Year A), April 16, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.” I learned that song in Sunday School as a child. It’s taken from John’s Gospel, not very long after our text. The Gospel of John devotes several chapters to Jesus’ last teaching for this disciples. And the command to love one another is repeated over and over throughout. In fact, the name for tonight’s service, “Maundy” Thursday, is taken from an old Latin word for command: “Mandatum,” from which we get the word “mandate.” Jesus’ last command, his last mandate, was to love one another as he has loved us. On the night before he died, in the last meal he shared with his disciples, the theme was love.

Of course, the theme for all of Holy Week is love, when you get right down to it: everything happens because of love. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save us. Jesus loved us so much that he died for us. That’s the greatest kind of love there is. Being willing to sacrifice for the sake of someone else. And that’s the kind of love Jesus wants us to have for one another.

Sometimes we think of love as something selfish. Think of someone who is jealous that their boyfriend or girlfriend has other friends. Or a dog who doesn’t like you paying attention to someone else, and so shoves his nose in between the two of you. Sometimes, for some people love drives them to hurt the ones they claim to love. There are a lot of abusers who use love as an excuse for their actions. And there are a lot of people who talk a lot about love without ever showing that love in their actions. But these are all examples of a love that is twisted and broken by sin and the powers of this world. Yes, even love can be twisted by sin. The kind of love Jesus was talking about is just the opposite.

Jesus’ love is all about service. That’s what the foot-washing is all about. Jesus shows his love for his disciples by doing something for them that’s a little bit icky. Jesus’ love is not about himself. It’s not selfish in any way, shape, or form. Jesus’ love inspires him to consider other peoples’ needs. In Jesus’ day, they walked everywhere, and they wore sandals instead of shoes. So peoples’ feet got really dirty and smelly, even when you were trying your best to stay clean. So in a rich household, a good host would send a slave to wash his guest’s feet. The host wouldn’t wash the feet himself—washing peoples’ feet is kind of gross. But he’d send a slave to do it. Jesus didn’t send a slave, he did it himself. Why? Because he loved them, and he was willing to do something uncomfortable and gross to help those he loved.

Think about what parents do for their children. There’s a lot of things parents do for their children that are not fun at all. Changing messy diapers, taking care of them when they’re sick, cleaning up all kinds of really nasty messes, tending wounds and fishing toys out of toilets—these aren’t fun, but they need to be done. Nobody does them because they like doing those things. And most parents do them out of love. They love their children, so they are willing to do messy, icky things that otherwise they would never do. That love isn’t just words. That love is shown in everything parents do for their children.

That’s the kind of love that Jesus showed when he washed his disciples’ feet, the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice to benefit others. It’s a love that is shown in actions. It’s not just talking the talk, Jesus’ love walks the walk. And washing his disciples’ feet is just the beginning. Jesus is going to show his love for the entire world by dying. He loves us all—every last, sinful, one of us. And because he loves us, he’s willing to die for us. Not because it’s fun, not because sacrifice is good on its own merits, because we need it. It’s something we can’t do on our own, something we would die without. And Jesus loves us, and he can save us, so he does. Even if it means his own death.

But even dying for us, to save us from our sins, isn’t the only thing Jesus’ love means. Jesus doesn’t just want to free us from sin and death. That’s huge, but Jesus’ goal is bigger than that. Jesus’ goal isn’t just to change what happens to us when we die; Jesus’ goal is to also change how we live. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to be happy. He wants us to be healthy. And in order for us to be healthy and happy, we have to love one another. We have to live lives filled with joy, with relationships that build us up and spread God’s love to every corner of the globe. We have to be willing to open ourselves up to the kind of love that is bigger and more powerful than sin, the kind of love that is more powerful than selfishness, more powerful than hate, more powerful than jealousy, more powerful than fear. In order to live the kind of life God wants for us, we have to love God and one another deeply and truly. So Jesus spent his last night before his death teaching us about love.

It wasn’t the only time Jesus talked about love, or showed what love meant. Jesus talked about love a lot. And he spent his life acting on that love. For Jesus, love was stronger than anything. Love was stronger than politics, stronger than proper behavior. Love was stronger than religious rules, stronger than gender or race. Love was stronger than money, stronger than fear. If there was a chance to show love for someone, Jesus took it. Whether that was healing them, eating with them, accepting them, forgiving them, Jesus always chose to love people. No matter who they were or what they had done. That was actually a lot of the reason the authorities didn’t like him: he showed love to people they believed to be unworthy of it. If Jesus saw someone who needed help, he showed them his love by helping them. Even when it was messy. Even when it broke the rules. Even when they didn’t deserve it. Even when it would cost Jesus.

The disciples had seen this, but they hadn’t really understood it. Jesus had one last night to teach them, to teach us, about what it means to love people as God loves us. So he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet, and commanded them to love one another as Jesus had loved them. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We talk about what it means to be a disciple, what it looks like to follow Jesus. Well, Jesus tells us quite clearly here what the core of a disciple’s life is, and it’s love. The kind of love Jesus has for us. The kind of love that doesn’t ask “are you worthy?” but rather “how can I help?” The core of discipleship isn’t memorizing scripture, and it isn’t perfect morality, and it isn’t worship or any of the common things we think of. Don’t get me wrong, scripture reading and worship and how we live are important parts of the life of a disciple. But they support a life of discipleship, they’re not the core. The core is love. If we love one another as Jesus loved us, we are truly his disciples.

If we love one another, we are closer to the kind of life God wants for us. We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world of extreme poverty and extreme riches, a world of hate and violence and fear. We live in a world where most people would rather turn a blind eye to the injustice and abuse around them than lift a finger to help. We’d rather point fingers than fix things. As Paul put it, we have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. And the only way that’s ever going to be healed is through love. Through the love of God, poured out through Jesus on the cross. And through our love for God and one another, poured out in our words and our actions.

So Jesus commanded his disciples, commanded us, to love one another. He showed what that meant through washing their feet, and he showed what that meant again by dying for us all, to save us and redeem us and heal us. Unlike the disciples two thousand years ago, Jesus is not going to walk into the room to teach us this lesson and show us what love is. But Jesus is still with us here and now. Because washing feet and talking about love isn’t the only thing Jesus did that night.

The other thing Jesus did was to share a meal with his disciples. He took the bread, and blessed it, and gave it to all to eat. And the wine, also, he gave them. And he told them it was his body and blood, given to save sinners, and that he would always be present in it. When we eat the bread and wine, we eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood. We hold in our hands a tangible proof of how much Jesus loves us, we smell it and taste it and feel it. Jesus’ love fills us, and inspires us. May we let Jesus show us how to love one another as he has loved us.

Breaking the Cycle

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion, (Year A), April 13, 2014

Matthew 21:1-11, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Matthew 27

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Wow, the readings for today are really an emotional rollercoaster, aren’t they? But then, that’s the story of Holy Week. It starts on a high—Jesus riding into town on a donkey as the crowds cheer—and then it gets really dark, really fast. Jesus is arrested, subjected to a sham trial, tortured, and executed. It ends well, with Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation of the world, but the path to Easter is dark and pretty scary. I hope you will come to the midweek services of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, because each part of the story has an important part to play, and none of the pieces can stand on its own.

Take today, for example. Today is Palm Sunday. It’s a parade! Everyone loves a parade! People cheering and celebrating. But think of what Jesus is going through. This parade isn’t just happening at a random time. Jesus’ popularity in Judea and Galilee had been growing; ever-larger crowds had been coming to hear him teach, to be healed, to be fed, to see miracles. The buzz and excitement had been growing, and this is its peak. I have no doubt the disciples were on cloud nine, as they participated in and led this parade, this celebration of Jesus and his ministry.

But consider it from Jesus’ point of view. Jesus, after all, knew darn good and well what was going to happen. He knew how fickle the crowds were. He knew that when he failed to live up to their expectations—when he didn’t give them what they wanted—they would turn on him. The crowds loved Jesus only so long as they thought he would do what they wanted. When they realized that Jesus couldn’t or wouldn’t fulfill their wishes, things were going to get really nasty, really fast. And there Jesus is, knowing that he’s riding to his death, listening to people shout praises and knowing that in just a few days they will be calling for his death.

Everyone expected Jesus to be a great prophet, a righteous king like David who would create a political and religious revolution which would put them firmly back in charge. They thought they knew who Jesus was, and they knew what they wanted him to do: fight a war for their nation and create a new golden age. For the crowds made up of ordinary people, that was a great thing to be celebrated. For the political and religious leaders, it was a threat. So the leaders wanted him out of the way, and would do anything to discredit and remove him. And when the ordinary people got disappointed in Jesus, they would let the leaders manipulate them into calling for his death.

And the crowds were guaranteed to be disappointed in Jesus, because he didn’t come to lead a political revolution; he didn’t come to provide a temporary fix for one small corner of the planet. He didn’t come to give them what they wanted. He came to give all creation—all of us—what we need. Salvation, healing, hope, and life, that’s what Jesus came to give. That’s what Jesus had been trying to teach them about all along, but they weren’t listening. They heard what they wanted to hear. They needed salvation, but they wanted free food and miracles on tap. Given a choice between the peace and life of God, and a political and social reform, they would choose politics.

I say “them,” but really, it’s “us,” isn’t it? That’s the way the world works. If you look at Jesus’ arrest and trial, nothing in the world has really has changed in the last 2,000 years. Look at modern politics throughout the world. People still look for easy answers and quick fixes, and will follow anyone they think will help them achieve it—and if that person falls short of their expectations, it doesn’t take us long to turn on them. People still use religion as a tool to try to set up a society that benefits themselves, and use God’s word to attack those they don’t agree with. Powerful people still feel threatened by those who work for change, and they still manipulate and cheat and use their power to get rid of inconvenient people.   That’s how the system works. And most people, by and large, go along with it and just accept it as normal.

That’s the reality that Jesus came to change. But it can’t happen by using the same tactics. It can’t happen by political or social revolution. Revolutions come and go, and sometimes they make things worse and sometimes they make things better. But even in the best of times, that fundamental brokenness remains, and in this world no good thing lasts forever. The only way to break the cycle is to heal the brokenness, and that’s what Jesus came to do.

That’s why Jesus rode into Jerusalem, knowing it would mean his death. Because that death would break the cycle. That death would nail the whole stinking system to the cross and provide the cracks for God’s kingdom to break in the world. And the resurrection that followed would widen those cracks so that when Christ comes again all of creation will finally be free from sin and death. We will be free from sin and death. But it comes at a cost, a cost Jesus paid willingly. It comes on Maundy Thursday through Jesus’ feeding his disciples—feeding us—with his own body and blood and commanding us to love one another. It comes on Good Friday, when Jesus was tortured and executed on a cross, abandoned by everyone. And it is shown on Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave, the firstborn of the dead.

Knowing all that, Jesus chose the salvation of the world. He rode on towards his own death, while the fickle crowd cried Hosanna. Thanks be to God for Jesus’ love and sacrifice.

The End of the Story

Lent 5, (Year A), April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The scriptures appointed for each Sunday are supposed to be thematically appropriate for the day, but that doesn’t mean that they always come from the same event in the Bible that is being commemorated. If you pay attention, the texts we read each week often jump around. So, during Advent, when we’re preparing for Jesus’ birth, we’ll have Gospel readings from his adult ministry. In the Easter season we’ll have stories from before Jesus’ death. But today’s Gospel matches up. We are one week out from Holy Week, a week and a half before Jesus’ arrest and trial and execution, and two weeks out from Easter. And our Gospel lesson comes from that time. Today’s reading takes place less than a week before Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and in fact if you read the rest of John eleven you’ll find that this event was the last straw, the final thing the chief priests and the scribes needed to convince them that Jesus was dangerous and needed to be gotten rid of.
Two weeks before his own death, Jesus was called to the bedside of a dying friend. Now, remember that while Jesus knows what is to come, his friends and disciples have not been willing to listen. They don’t want to hear about suffering and death, and have in fact gone to great lengths to ignore or misinterpret everything Jesus has said predicting it. And we look back at them and shake our heads, but really, who can blame them? Who likes to think about death? Particularly the death of someone we love? I can’t tell you how many hospital and nursing home rooms I’ve been in when family members have refused to believe that their loved one will die. “He’ll pull through—he’s strong, and he’s made it this far.” “How can they know she won’t recover? Just yesterday, she was doing fine!” We don’t like to think about death.

Now, in those days they believed that the soul of the dead person stuck around for three days after the death. You will note that Jesus makes a point of not coming until the fourth day. This isn’t the case of someone in a coma. This isn’t the case of someone being only “mostly dead.” This corpse is dead and rotting. And I think Jesus does this to make a point for his disciples. They don’t want to face death, well, Jesus is going to force them to. This is reality, as stark and as bare as it gets: everyone dies. Good people, bad people, friends and enemies. Some die young, and some die old, but everyone dies. Ignoring it doesn’t change that basic fact. You can’t argue it away; you can’t misinterpret it; and you can stick your fingers in your ears and ignore it, but not forever. Death is going to come.

But please remember, this is the beginning of this story. We usually place death at the end of the story, but that’s not where God puts it. No. For God, death comes in the middle. So Jesus comes to Bethany, and Lazarus’ sister Martha comes out to confront him. The first thing she says is “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Where was God when her brother, his beloved friend, lay dying? Where was he throughout the first days of Mary and Martha’s grief? It’s a question I hear often. If God loves us, why does he allow this? Why doesn’t he just wave his hand and fix things?

Jesus and his disciples weren’t there, but I don’t think that means that God had abandoned Mary and Martha and Lazarus. I think the Spirit was with them even in their pain and grief, even as Lazarus died. As for why Jesus wasn’t physically present, well, remember that this is only a week and a half before Jesus’ own death. Two weeks from Easter. And for God, death is not the end of the story.

Jesus loves Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, but he didn’t come to Earth only for them. God was not born in human flesh solely so that one man might be saved. If that was the case, Jesus would have been there when Lazarus caught that first sniffle, and fixed it. No, God was born in human flesh so that the entire cosmos might be saved. If Jesus had been there from the beginning and waved his hand and cured Lazarus when he first fell ill, it would not have solved the basic problem. Lazarus would still die someday, unless Jesus stuck around perpetually to take care of every ache and pain and injury and sniffle. The basic problem of existence is not that one person gets sick and dying. The basic problem of existence is that everything dies. The basic problem is that for all mortal beings, death is the end of the story. That’s the problem Jesus came to Earth to solve. Jesus came to save Lazarus, yes, but also Mary and Martha and the disciples and the thieves crucified with him and the Pharisees and the Romans and the whole entire world. And he’s going to do that by dying himself. His disciples have been trying to ignore that fact, but time is running out. They have to be prepared for what’s coming. They have to be able to look death in the eye.

Death is a consequence of the brokenness of the world. You can’t always tie it to specific sins, but the sinfulness of humanity results in the death of all created things. Sin and brokenness creep in everywhere, even where we least expect them. To overcome death, you have to heal the brokenness. You have to atone for the sins. You have to remake the world into the good creation God made it to be. And that doesn’t happen without sacrifice. It doesn’t happen without pain. Because the brokenness of this world is not just going to give up without a fight.
Jesus knew that was coming. Jesus knew that it was his own sacrifice, laying down his life for the whole world, that was going to save things. It was going to be God’s own pain and grief that saved creation. And that salvation was going to come in two phases. First, after Jesus death and resurrection, the followers that Jesus has taught and brought together are going to spread the stories of Jesus. They’re going to tell people what God is like, the God who loves us so much that he became human and died for our sake. They’re going to teach people how to live lives full of love and hope, and they’re going to teach people how to build right relationships with God and with one another. That’s phase one. Phase two is that Jesus is going to come back. God’s kingdom will be established, and all the living and the dead will be raised, sins forgiven and all brokenness will be healed. God’s good creation will be re-established.

That’s what’s coming, in the end. Resurrecton. Not just resurrection of one or two people, but all people. And not just so that they can go on living in the same broken, sinful world they’ve always been living in, but in a new and better world, where there is no pain, no grief, no loss, no fear, and no hate. A world where there is only goodness and kindness, love and hope.

But to get there, Jesus has to die. And the disciples have to be ready for it. They’re going to have to be able to stand at the cross, at the place where all their hopes and dreams are shattered by the cruelties of life, and watch their friend and teacher die. They’re going to have to be able to stand there and see it and not run away. They’re going to have to be willing to stay through the grief and pain of the crucifixion, so that they will also be there when Jesus rises. They’re going to have to be able to look at death and say, “This is not the end of the story. There is still hope. God is still working, even in the midst of death.”

Because isn’t that what the Christian life is all about? Let’s not forget that the symbol of our faith, the cross, is an instrument of torture and execution. When we wear a cross, that’s what we’re saying. Yes, the world is a broken, sinful place. Yes, there is death: horrifying, terrible, death, that leaves people torn by grief and fear. Yes, there are horrors in the world. But they do not get the final word. Death does not win. God is alive, God is present, God is with us even when we can’t see him. God is with us even when we think he is dead and gone. God is with us no matter what, and God is going to turn this world upside down. God’s plan for this world is life, abundant life, joyful life, where sin and brokenness can’t hurt us anymore. And God’s plan is fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was, and who is, and who will come again.

And so, a week and a half before Jesus’ own death, two weeks before his resurrection, Jesus takes the disciples to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He weeps with Mary and Martha. He tells them to have faith in the Resurrection—because he is the resurrection, and the life, even in death when it seems like all hope and life are lost. And Jesus commanded them to take away the stone from the tomb, even knowing that Lazarus had been dead long enough to rot. And he called Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus did. And everyone there could see that death was not the end. Lazarus could see it, and the disciples could see it, and Mary and Martha, and the people who were there. And we can see it, too, whenever we read this story: death does not get the final say. Death is not the end of the story. Because Jesus is the resurrection, and the life.
The story doesn’t end with death, not then and not for us here, and now. We won’t see the resurrection until Jesus comes again, but Jesus will come. Death is not the end of the story. Life is the end of the story. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Fears and Expectations

Lent 4, (Year A)
March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Today’s lessons don’t seem to have a common thread, at first glance. Sometimes you can see very easily why the church decided to pair certain readings together. But I think there are two things that link the first reading and the Gospel, and those two things are fear and expectations that can get in the way of God’s work.

In the first lesson, the prophet Samuel had strong expectations about what kind of a person God is going to want as the next king. God told Samuel to go and God would tell him who. But when it gets to be time, Samuel isn’t just waiting for instructions from God. He sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab. And he thinks to himself, “That’s gotta be the one.” Eliab was the oldest son, he was tall, he was handsome, and he was just the sort of guy people want to see on a throne or leading an army. But no, Eliab wasn’t the one God wanted. God wanted the youngest son, the one who got left behind to take care of the farm while the rest of the family went out, the one who was a cute kid but still the runt of the family. David was not who Samuel was expecting. But God was using different judgment than Samuel was. Samuel was a prophet, but even Samuel needed to learn to listen to God’s desires rather than his own expectations.

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson also had some pretty strong expectations about what God wanted. They had spent years studying God’s word, trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate it into their daily life. And they had turned those ways into traditions, so that there was only one right way to do things, and if you didn’t follow those ways, well, then, you weren’t following God’s Word. There was only one way to honor the Sabbath, for example; you went to worship and you studied God’s word and did nothing else all day but rest. Healing is work—just ask any doctor or nurse. So to the Pharisees, even doing something good, like healing someone, wasn’t honoring the Sabbath. Then along comes Jesus, and he heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Giving someone their sight is a good thing! And in those days, without things like cataract surgery, giving sight to the blind was something only God could do. But they thought that God wouldn’t work on a Sabbath, so therefore it couldn’t be an act of God. This gave them quite a dilemma: if it wasn’t an act of God, what was it? That’s why they spent twenty-five verses trying to figure out who Jesus is and what happened to the man born blind. Their expectations of who God is and what God was doing got in the way of seeing what God was actually doing among them.

But why did they cling so hard to their expectations? Why didn’t anyone in that community say, “Wow, I guess we must be wrong—maybe this is a sign from God that we need to rethink some things”? I think it was because they were afraid. There was a lot of conflict in Jesus’ day, and a lot of change. The Jews were pawns in a larger world. They were a conquered people, subject to the Romans, and the Romans made things a lot easier for people who followed Roman ways instead of Jewish ones. And charismatic leaders like Jesus kept popping up, each with their own spin on how Jews ought to live and worship. Other people called for rebellion against the Roman overlords. With the world changing around them, devout people like the Pharisees clung ever more tightly to their traditions and their ideas of what good and faithful people should be like. Their traditions were their anchor in a stormy world; their traditions kept them from being blown all over the place. Jesus was a threat to their stability—he challenged them by telling them that the traditions they clung to weren’t the most important thing God wanted them to be doing.

In this case, Jesus did something he’d done many times before, that always got people upset: he healed on the Sabbath. God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, and they were very strict about doing just that. They clung to their strictness as a protection against all the changes happening around them. And here Jesus is, publicly showing God’s power in a way that breaks their traditions about the Sabbath. If Jesus is right, that means that their traditions—the things that they cling to for stability in turbulent times—are going to have to change. So they’re afraid, and looking for any way they can to discredit Jesus and show that they were right all along. And they let their fear get in the way of seeing God. Their fear of change and their expectations of what God wanted got in the way of being God’s people. Their fear made them blind.

The parents of the man born blind were afraid, too. They were afraid that if they didn’t say what people wanted to hear, that they’d get thrown out. And that doesn’t mean they could just go on down the road to the next synagogue. It means they wouldn’t be able to go to worship anywhere, or go to any festivals or events. Put yourself in their shoes: can you imagine what it would be like to be thrown out of church? To not be allowed in to any community event? To know that wherever you go, people are talking about you behind your back, whispering about what a horrible person you are? It’s no wonder they were afraid. But they let their fear be stronger than their will to follow God.

Back to the story of Samuel anointing David as king. There’s fear in this story, too. At that time, Saul was king of Israel, the first king the nation had ever had. And although he’d started out as a pretty good king, things were starting to go downhill. Enemies were attacking Israel from the outside, and there was strife and deadly politics brewing inside. Nobody knew what was coming, and everybody was afraid. So God tells Samuel to go out and anoint the person who’s going to be the next king. Samuel says he can’t go because King Saul will kill him! He’s afraid. If Samuel followed his fears, he would stay put and Israel would be stuck with Saul as king. But God tells Samuel to go and worship with a religious sacrifice—a perfectly normal action for a priest—and God will tell him to anoint along the way. Well, Samuel decides to trust God despite his fears.

When Samuel gets to Bethlehem, the people of Bethlehem are afraid, too. Remember that things are very unstable, and so when they see Samuel coming, they’re afraid. Samuel is the prophet who put King Saul on the throne (and probably has his ear), and as a prophet he definitely has God’s ear. He can call down an army or the wrath of God. So when they see Samuel coming, the elders of the city came out to meet him literally trembling with fear. “Do you come peaceably?” they ask him. Imagine how relieved they must have been when Samuel said he came in peace and invited them to the sacrifice! I wonder what they thought and felt later, after the conflict between David and Saul put them squarely back in the hot seat?

In both the stories, people are afraid. And in both stories, people have expectations about God and God’s will that turn out to be wrong. In one story, people let those fears and expectations stop them from following God. In the other story, people follow God even when they’re afraid, even when God does something that surprises them. So my question is, which are we? What fears do we have that prevent us from following God? What expectations do we have that blind us to what God is doing in us and around us? And are we following them, or are we following God?

The Water of Life

Lent 3, (Year A), March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

You know, when I wrote last week’s sermon and focused a bit on “being born from water and the Spirit,” I hadn’t yet looked ahead to this week’s lessons, to see that water would be an even bigger part of today’s Gospel. As the story begins, Jesus was travelling on his way, and he had to stop in a Samaritan town. Now, Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans did not get along. There were religious and cultural differences that had led to an enmity stretching back hundreds of years. Think of the differences between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land today. They worshipped the same God, but they told the sacred stories of Scripture differently, and while Jews believed the best place to worship God was in Jerusalem, the Samaritans believed that Mount Samaria was the best place. There wasn’t any danger of war between the two groups, but that was mostly because they tried to ignore each other as best they could even when they lived right next door. Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk to one another. They didn’t do business with one another. They certainly didn’t eat or drink with one another.

So there Jesus is, sitting by a well. It was an important well, with a long history, and a tradition that connected it to Jacob, who was an ancestor to both Jews and Samaritans. Both groups liked to pretend that the other group wasn’t really faithful to God; both Jews and Samaritans liked to claim that only their own people were right and the others were completely wrong. But that well was a reminder that they both worshipped the same God. They might fight—and fight bitterly—about what God’s Word meant, and how to worship God rightly, but they were all children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But beyond its history, reliable wells are incredibly valuable things in dry climates like the Middle East. Even if it was just a random well, it had given water to the community for centuries. The Holy Land isn’t like Egypt or Mesopotamia. They don’t have great big rivers that flow reliably through the country, giving water whenever they need it. They have the rain, when it comes, and they have wells. Each drop of water is precious. It can’t ever be taken for granted, because there is never enough of it. They depend on rain to grow their crops; if it doesn’t rain, the crops don’t grow, and if the well dries up, they have nothing to drink with, nothing to wash with. In Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as indoor plumbing. As in many third-world countries today, collecting water from the well was one of a woman’s most important daily tasks. Every drop the household used had to be carried from the well, sometimes miles away from home. It’s a heavy task, hot and painful. The walk out to the well isn’t bad, but the walk back is hard. Imagine carrying a large pot full of water for a mile several times a day. We today complain when a water line break means we don’t get water to our houses for a few days and we have to get it elsewhere and carry it home, how awkward it is when we don’t have running water for drinking and cooking and showering and flushing the toilet. But imagine living your entire life like that, with every drop of water your family uses carried for miles on your back.

So a Samaritan woman gets to the well and finds a Jewish man there. A bit unusual, but they’re on the road from Judea to Galilee, and after all, Jews like to come to Jacob’s Well too. She assumes that they’ll just ignore one another as Jews and Samaritans do. But as she’s lowering the bucket into the well, he speaks to her. Unlike Nicodemus last week, this woman was not coming for any spiritual enlightenment. She was just going about her daily chores, probably distracted with all the things that needed to be done that day. Did she have enough food for supper or would she have to go to the market? How much weeding did her garden need?

And then this Jewish guy she doesn’t know speaks up. “Give me a drink,” he says. Now, if he were a fellow Samaritan, this wouldn’t be anything remarkable. After all, what else would you expect someone sitting by a well to ask? But this isn’t a Samaritan, this is a Jew, and Jews and Samaritans don’t talk to one another and they certainly don’t eat and drink together, and here’s this Jew asking her for water? “You do realize that I’m a Samaritan?” she says. And the stranger starts talking about water.

Now, this is a woman who knows about water. She knows to the very marrow of her bones how important water is. She knows the thirst of getting to the end of the day and realizing they don’t have enough and it’s too late to go to the well again and so she’ll have to go to bed parched, lips cracking from the heat and dryness, swallowing repeatedly to try and keep her throat moist. She knows about making the hard choices—when water is scarce, who goes thirsty? What stays dirty? She knows how quickly people get sick and die without water. She knows the weight of water, carried step by aching step from this well back to the village every day of her life. Water? If there’s a better way to get it, she wants to know.

Jesus tells her, “Those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Jesus isn’t talking about the kind of water you can get in a well, he’s talking about living water, the kind that nourishes your soul and not your body. We tend to concentrate on the needs of our bodies—food and water and clothing and shelter. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with tending physical needs! But our souls have needs, too. Our souls get thirsty, too. Our souls need the water of life just as deeply as our bodies need physical water.

While we focus on our bodies, we let our souls wither away. We thirst for a deeper connection, with each other and with God; we can bury that thirst in all kinds of things. We go out looking for the water of life and try to convince ourselves that other things will do just as well. We fill our stomachs and hope that will fill our souls. We post the best parts of ourselves on Facebook and Twitter and hope that getting a lot of “likes” will fill our deep need for friendship and connection. We drink and hope that the oblivion of alcohol will soothe the hopes and fears that plague us. We put one another down and hope that feeling superior will fix the cracks in our own lives. We build rules and walls and hope that we can build something that will fill our souls. We look for living water in all the wrong places, and we pay heavy costs for things we think will fill that thirst.

But here’s the thing about living water: it’s free. It’s a gift that is free for everyone. Whether you’re an insider or an outsider; whether you’re good or bad; whether you’re a man or a woman; whether you’re rich or poor. All you have to do is ask. The woman at the well, and thousands like her, work hard every day for water, but the living water flows freely for everyone. It comes through Jesus, in the love he has for each and every one of us. It comes as God comes to us, calls us by name, and builds a relationship with us. Jesus knew that woman, even though she didn’t know him; he knew everything she’d ever done. He knew the good parts and the bad parts, and he loved her and called her, warts and all. Just one encounter with him was enough to change her life. She still had to go to Jacob’s Well for water to drink, but her soul’s thirst was quenched.

And her encounter with Jesus didn’t just change her life, it changed her community’s life, too. She told them about her experience with Jesus, and that experience brought others to Jesus, too. She didn’t have any fancy training; she was no Bible expert. She didn’t win them over by quoting long passages of Scripture. She told them about her experience with God, a God in human form who knew her better than anyone in her life ever had and loved her and called her by name. Jesus gave her the fountain of living water, and through her that living water came to her whole community. The divisions between Jew and Samaritan—that great gaping chasm that ruled their lives—wasn’t important any longer. The old barriers were knocked down. The living water is for everyone. God’s love is for everyone. It’s not a scarce commodity to be rationed out by the cup to those who deserve it. It’s a wellspring that gushes forth with more than enough for everyone in the whole world. We go out looking for things to quench our soul’s thirst, and all the time Jesus is giving out living water. May we hear him when he comes to us.

Amen.

The power of the Word

Lent Wednesday 2—Scripture reading

March 19, 2014

Psalm 119:105-112, Isaiah 55:6-11, Matthew 13:7-13

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

When you hear an American Christian talk about the Bible today, the most common phrase is something like this: “The Bible says it, I believe it.”  And who can argue with that?  But there’s an underlying attitude to that phrase that can be a big problem: it’s a tendency to treat the Bible, God’s Holy Word, like a textbook.  Textbooks explain objectively provable facts with clear explanations that one memorizes to regurgitate on a test.  You can generally boil the facts in a textbook into simple premises to memorize.  You don’t have to spend much time thinking about it; you don’t have to spend time wondering about how it affects your life, you don’t have to wrestle with anything difficult or contradictory.  Once you’ve learned the material, you don’t have to come back and re-read it because it will stay exactly the same.  If you can get a handout from the teacher with a summary of the material, you don’t even need to read the textbook itself, just memorize what the teacher wants to hear!  And if you come back to a textbook ten years after learning the material, well, you’re not going to learn anything you didn’t already learn from it.

The Bible is not that simple.  Isaiah says that God’s Word is like the rain and the snow that come down from heaven, bringing the water that things need to grow.  And God’s thoughts aren’t like our thoughts; they’re greater than we are.  Trying to boil them down into something simple and easy is kind of like trying to predict the weather.  We know that snow and rain will come, but they don’t come on cue.  And even the smartest people with the best equipment can’t completely predict the rain and the snow; the forces involved are just too complicated and too big.  And yet, the rain and the snow come, and the ground is nourished, and things grow.  And the things that grow give life to all of creation.  God sends out God’s Word just like he sends out the rain and snow, and things happen because of it.  Things grow, and that life and growth is a gift to the whole world.  That growth is not just something that can be memorized and put back on the shelf.

Or consider the parable of the sower—in this metaphor Jesus says that the Word is like a seed.  It gets spread everywhere—God doesn’t just give the seed to the good soil, he gives it to every patch of ground there is.  And in each of those places, something happens.  What happens on the path is not the same as what happens in the good soil; instead of new plants springing up from the seed, the seed on the path gets eaten by the birds.  But the birds are God’s creatures, too, beloved by God.  When the Word is spread, things happen.  Those things may not be what we anticipated or expected or chosen, but they are what God has chosen.

Or consider the psalmist’s words: God’s Word is a lamp lighting her way.  It’s not just passively sitting there, it’s doing something.  It’s making a difference in the psalmist’s life, and that difference changes depending on the circumstances.  Think about it: you need a flashlight when you’re taking a walk outside at night, and when the power goes out, or when you’re trying to do something difficult in a tight space.  Each time, that light is necessary, it opens up possibilities, but those possibilities are different depending on what’s going on in your life.

Every week I go to a Pastor’s Bible Study where we study the Scripture readings assigned for the coming Sunday.  For those of you who don’t know, many churches including our own use a three-year cycle of Bible passages for Sunday worship.  So the readings we heard last Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent 2014, we’ll hear again in three years on the Second Sunday of Lent 2017.  They don’t change.  When people hear that, they ask, “so, do you just have three years’ worth of sermons and repeat them?”  No, I don’t; I couldn’t.  You see, when I read a passage from the Bible I usually notice something I haven’t noticed before, even if the passage is an old favorite.  The passage hasn’t changed, but God may be using those same words to say something different to me.  Or maybe it’s that I’ve changed, and with new ears I can hear more clearly God’s message for me.  Or maybe it’s that my life and circumstances have changed, and so I’m looking for different things.  Usually, it seems to be a combination of those three things.  And I’ve asked veteran pastors, retired pastors who had thirty years of preaching on the same texts and preached on each text at least ten times.  Yes, they all say, every time I come back to these passages I see something different.  The letters on the page haven’t changed, but God’s Word isn’t ink on dead trees, or even pixels on a screen: God’s Word is alive, and it does things, to us and to our world.

Instead of a textbook, the Bible is more like sitting on the couch with your grandparents and the family photo album.  You get all the family stories—who we are, where we come from, why we do the things we do.  What’s important to us, and why; what relationships have made us who we are today.  And you get all the little things—recipes and jokes and proverbs and such—at the same time.  It’s the wisdom of your family, passed on to you.  It gives you roots.  You can sit down with the family album many times, but the stories will be told differently each time, and sometimes there will be different versions of the same story.  The Bible is the photo album of the family of God, telling the stories about who we are and why we are the way we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.  We need those stories to give our faith roots, to know who we are and why we are and where we came from and where we’re going.  You don’t get that by memorizing a couple of key verses.  You get that by reading and rereading it, by paying attention to what God’s doing with those words.  In that way, you open up possibilities for God’s Word to grow in you and shine a light on your path.  Thanks be to God for that light, for that growth.

Amen.

The Spirit blowing through

Lent 2, (Year A), March 16, 2014

 Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-15, 13-17, John 3:1-17

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In some ways, Nicodemus is a very 21st Century guy.  We in the 21st Century tend to take things literally—being literal, fact-based, provable with objective scientific accuracy, is a big thing for us.  Have you noticed how often people say “literally”?  Any time you want to say something is absolutely true, you say “literally.”  Even when something isn’t literally true, we try and claim that it is.  We look for rational answers.  We want everything cut and dried and easily explainable.  All laid out in black and white.

That’s kind of how Nicodemus thinks, too.  He knows Jesus comes from God because of the miracles that Jesus does.  And he wants to know more.  He wants to learn about God.  He wants to know more.  All very admirable!  Except, if you notice, he goes away with less certainty than he came with.  He wants to figure things out, and Jesus doesn’t exactly help him out.

The first thing Jesus says to him is “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Notice that Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus time to ask his question; Jesus wades right in.  Now, Nicodemus is a very logical fellow.  He takes people at their word.  It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically or spiritually or anything; he takes Jesus literally.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  I ask you.  Was Jesus speaking literally?  No, he was not.  Does Nicodemus even seem to consider that Jesus might not mean literally re-entering one’s mother’s womb and being squeezed out a second time?  No.  Nicodemus thinks in nice, neat categories: babies are babies and adults are adults and once you’re born, that’s it.  He’s come to seek God, but he wants answers that he can easily understand.  Answers that make sense.  Answers that fit Nicodemus’ own ideas of the way the world works.

Jesus tries to expand on what he meant a little bit.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  He’s still speaking metaphorically, which isn’t much help to poor old Nicodemus.  Jesus doesn’t give up on the metaphors and start giving a polished spiel that neatly explains what he’s talking about.  He doesn’t give a step-by-step answer with bullet points and examples and detailed explanation.  He continues to speak in symbols, which is something Jesus did a lot of.  Jesus almost never spoke on a literal level; he spoke in parables and stories and imagery and metaphor.  I think it’s because the reality of God is too big for our mortal, finite brains to handle.  I think that the Kingdom of God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine.  How would you explain the color purple to someone born blind?  How would you explain a symphony to someone born deaf?  Human beings like things to be neat and tidy and easily understandable.  But God isn’t neat and tidy, and God certainly isn’t small enough to fit into our mental boxes.

So there’s poor Nicodemus, listening to Jesus talk about being born again and wondering what the heck he means.  What does it mean to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’?  Well, one thing about the Word of God is that it’s all connected.  What that means is that all the stories resonate with one another.  So when we hear Jesus talking about water, we should start thinking of all the places where the Bible talks about water: the Holy Spirit moving over the waters of creation.  Noah and his family being saved through the waters of the Flood.  The Israelites being led to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, and later being given water in the desert, and finally being led through the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Psalm 51, where the psalmist prays for God to wash him and make him clean.  Isaiah, calling everyone to come to the water.  John in the Jordan, calling all to repent.  Jesus, coming to the Jordan to be baptized.  All of these images and words should be going through our minds when we hear Jesus talking about ‘being born of water and Spirit.’  And the connections don’t stop there: think of our baptisms, where God’s promises come to us through the water, and we are marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

All of those stories talk about change, about something new, something different.  The old is gone, wiped away.  Slavery becomes freedom, becomes a new life in a new community.  Sin is washed away and we become clean.  We are tied through the waters of baptism to all of those stories; we are tied to Jesus Christ through his baptism.  Something happens in us.  Something new.  Something that doesn’t fit into nice, neat categories.  When we come out of our mothers’ wombs, we are born children of a fallen humanity.  When we come out of the water, we are re-born children of God.  We are re-born as children of a God who loves us so much that he was willing to send his only son to die for our sake, to break the powers of sin and death that enslave the entire world.

In the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to us and inspires us and sends us out into the world.  And the Holy Spirit absolutely, positively, can’t be shoved into our nice neat categories.  It’s like the wind.  We all know about wind, right?  It can be powerful.  It can change directions quickly, or it can blow strongly and consistently.  Nothing can control it; nothing can stop it.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The spirit blows us about, turns us around.  Whenever I think I have everything figured out, whenever I think I have God’s plans for me pinned down and explained, the Holy Spirit blows through my life.  And I think that’s true for a lot of people.  Have you ever had the Holy Spirit blow through your life and turn things upside down?

How do you boil all this down to nice, neat, logical, literal categories?  Nicodemus couldn’t, and—at least at that point—he couldn’t take that leap of faith to let go of his literal-mindedness and live in the ambiguity of God’s Word.  He leaves, without saying another word.  He came under cover of darkness, not really knowing what he was looking for, and he leaves Jesus more confused than he was when he showed up.  But this isn’t the only time Nicodemus appears in the Gospel of John, and for those of you reading through the New Testament this Lent I encourage you to look for him when he shows up.  Because this encounter with Jesus will not be Nicodemus’ last.  At this point in the story, Nicodemus can’t open his heart and his mind to Jesus.  But that will change.  Nicodemus might not understand the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is still working in him.

So what about us?  Today, in the twenty-first century, we tend to take things more literally than they did in Jesus’ day.  Like Nicodemus, we tend to want to put things in nice neat categories, and we want easy, logical answers to our questions.  But God defies our expectations, giving us a Word that is messier and more complicated and bigger than we can understand.  We’re not left alone to muddle through it, though.  We have been born anew in the waters of baptism.  We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; it blows through us and through our world just as it did in Jesus’ day.  The Holy Spirit breathes new life into us, breaks up our mistaken certainties, opens us up to the greatness of God’s work in the world.  But are we paying attention?  Are we watching for the wind that blows where it will, or do we focus on the things we can understand and pin down?  Are we going to go away like Nicodemus, with more questions than answers, or are we going to follow God’s Word?

Amen.