Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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.  Amen.

This is the sermon I am going to preach at your funeral, but since you won’t be here to hear it, I’ll give you a little foretaste of it now.  Paul writes: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Death is the enemy of all living things.  Death is the last, great enemy of God.  And death will be destroyed.  In his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set in motion the complete, total, and utter destruction of death.  Death is a dead man walking.  Death doesn’t get the last word.  Death is going down.

In the fallen world we live in now, death comes everywhere life does.  And death is constantly fighting to destroy life.  There’s a reason we call it a “battle with cancer”—when you have cancer, you are directly fighting the old enemy, death, which is trying to drag you down into its clutches.  But death comes in many other forms, too.  From hunger to heart attacks, depression to drunk driving, brutality to blood clots, abuse to addiction, death comes in many different forms, some of them obvious and overt and some of them subtle and insidious.  And sometimes death wins!  Each one of us will die in the end, and be laid in the grave.  But when Christ comes again the graves will be opened, and we will rise as our Lord did, and death itself will be destroyed.

Christians talk a lot about sin, but if you ask people—even many Christians!—what sin is, or what makes something a sin, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  And many of those answers will be incomplete, and some of them will even be wrong.  For example, a lot of the time people will say something along the lines of “sin is stuff that God doesn’t like.”  But the obvious question, then, is why God doesn’t like it.  And the reason that God doesn’t like some behaviors, the thing that makes them sinful, is that they hurt people.  They add to the destruction and death in the world.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that the wages of sin is death.  Sin leads to death.  And people assume sin leads to death because God doesn’t like those thoughts and behaviors and so he punishes them.  No!  It’s the other way around!  God doesn’t like them because they lead to death!  God loves all his children, all living creatures, and God wants us all to be happy and healthy.  But there are some things we do, as individuals and as groups, that hurt people.  Those behaviors add to the destruction in the world.  And it may be our actions leading to our own death, but all too often it’s our actions leading to other peoples’ death.  Our sin hurting ourselves and others.

A specific action or thought may not cause a death right then and there.  But sinful thoughts and actions add to the unpleasantness of the world.  Lies, jealousy, theft even on the pettiest level, abuse, neglect—they all add to the general harshness and evil in the world.  They make violence and neglect seem more normal.  They make the world a worse place.  They make it harder to live in.  They make people more likely to lash out at others, they make people more likely to kill, or just shrug and stand aside while others kill.  And so we get shocking crimes committed at a few people’s initiative, lots of people’s blessings, and everyone’s passive acquiescence.  All these sins, large and small, they add up.  They create conditions that make death more likely—the death of hope, the death of love, the death of the soul, the death of the body.  And death is the enemy, our enemy and God’s enemy.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been constantly adding to the death in the world.  And sometimes we do it obviously, by directly killing people.  Sometimes we do it indirectly, by causing or allowing the conditions that lead to death.  Sometimes we do it by creating a world and society where exploitation and violence and strife and oppression and greed and all the worst parts of ourselves are seen as normal, and sometimes even explained away as good.  We have been digging our own graves ever deeper.

But through the grace of God, those graves will not swallow us up forever.  Death is not the end of the story.  You see, God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to destroy death.  God sent Jesus into the world to shake things up and overturn the whole system that leads to death.  By dying for us and then rising from the grave, Jesus gave a knockout punch to death that will destroy it forever so that it can’t ever enter the ring again.

Now, we still die.  Because the destruction of death will not be complete until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  You know how sometimes someone gets hit on the head but they think they’re fine until a few hours later, when they collapse and it turns out that blow to the head caused a fatal aneurism, but it just didn’t rupture right away?  That’s death, right now.  Death is walking around this world thinking it’s the king of the hill, but its time is numbered.  Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus has dealt death the fatal blow.  Death is a goner, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And yeah, death can rage.  Yeah, death can do a lot of damage in the here-and-now.  Yeah, death can make life here on earth really nasty for a while.  But when Christ comes again, death is gonna be toast.

Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.  Christ’s resurrection is not a one-off event, it’s the first sprout in the field, poking up above the earth.  The rest, all those who have died, will rise when Christ comes again.  All those who now sleep in the earth, and all those who will die and be laid to rest between now and the second coming?  They will rise again from the grave just as Christ did that first Easter.  We will rise again.  The tomb will open for us just as it did for Jesus.  And on that day all people, living and dead, will be judged, and God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, and we will all be changed.  All of the chaff in our souls will be sifted out and burned, leaving only the good wheat.  Evil will be gone.  Death, the last great enemy, will be destroyed.  A new heaven and a new earth will be created, where all the things that led to death—all the sins that caused pain and suffering—will be gone.  There will be no more mourning or weeping, only joy and laughter and delight.  There will be no hurting or destruction.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox.  There will be only life, no more death, because Christ will have destroyed death forever.

That’s what Easter means.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.  We don’t celebrate the resurrection just because Christ rose from the grave.  I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but by itself that would still leave us mired in a world of death.  We celebrate Easter because of what it means for us.  We celebrate Easter because it has fundamentally reshaped the world, and so death does not get the last word.  We celebrate because we know that Christ is only the first fruits of the dead, that we ourselves will be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, along with all our loved ones and every human who has ever died.  And then, at that point, death will be no more, and pain will be no more, and all the things that make our lives miserable in the here and now will be destroyed.  Utterly, completely, and totally destroyed by God, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  No more death, only life.  A life better than you and I can imagine.

We are children of the Resurrection.  We know that no matter how much death rages around us in the here and now, we don’t have to fear it because it will be destroyed and we will be raised with Christ.  All the fears and pains of the world, they’re only temporary.  We don’t have to be afraid of all the things the world tells us to be afraid of.  We are free, free to spread love in a world drowning in death.  Free to spread hope in a world drowning in fear and cynicism.  Free to live, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

We Gather to Eat and Remember

Maundy Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-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.  Amen.

Meals are important.  And I don’t just mean in the literal “if you don’t eat you’ll starve to death” sense.  Meals are important on a psychological level, too, and on a social level.  Meals bring us together.  There’s a reason that pretty much every holiday is accompanied by a special, traditional meal.  Christmas?  It’s a religious holiday, but there are a lot of people (even a lot of Christians!) for whom Christmas dinner is more important than going to worship.  Easter?  Yup.  Thanksgiving?  That one is all about the meal.  Fourth of July?  It’s just not the same without a barbecue.  Birthdays?  Even if you don’t have a special birthday dinner, you gotta have cake and ice cream.  And it’s not just about the food itself.  While a wonderful holiday dinner with friends and family can be a joy and a heart-warming event you’ll remember for years to come, eating the same food by yourself can be just depressing.  We eat when we come together, but it’s not just about the food: it’s about the community, the family, the relationships that are built around that meal.

Those relationships are built partly through the act of eating together, and partly through memories.  The memories that get shared again and again—I’m sure there are some stories your family tells repeatedly at holiday dinners.  The time your brother fell asleep at his own birthday party.  The time your uncles got into a fight and everyone went home mad.  The great aunt who always brings that dish everyone hates.  The time your mom and dad got each other the same present.  There are some holiday stories that happened before I was born, that I know because they got told so often.  And those stories shape us!  They tell us “this is who we are, as a family; this is how we get along (or don’t get along); this is where we came from; these are the things that make us a family and not just a collection of people who happen to share genetics.”  The food brings us together, the food helps us remember our stories by giving us a tangible reminder of times past—smells, tastes, sights—all working together to help make the memories real and relevant to our current experiences.

Tonight we have heard two stories about meals in our readings.  Meals that were remembered.  Meals that were celebrated.  Meals that brought people together and built up relationships.  The first was the story of the first Passover meal, eaten on the last night the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.  This is the night that changed things.  This is the night where God finally convinced Pharaoh to let his people go.  This is the night when they truly became his people, the night that was the foundation for all the rest of their experiences.  This is the night when they passed from slavery to freedom, from death to life.  This is the night when they learned that their God was a God who saves people, a God who frees people from bondage, a God who brings new life and new possibilities.  This meal, this Passover, which God told them to share every year together, is to reinforce those memories. It’s a night to remember who they are and where they come from.  A night to remember who God is, and what God has done.  A night to imagine, a night to contemplate what that means for their lives.  It’s not just about the past.  It’s about what that means for the future.

In the three thousand years since that first Passover, the Jews have faithfully gathered for a Passover meal and to remember God’s saving actions every year.  Two thousand years ago, a thousand years after the first Passover, Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate Passover and share a meal.  They told the story.  They remembered how God saved them from slavery and death.  They remembered what kind of a God they worshipped.  And then Jesus did something different—something that would, as time passed, become a new treasured memory for those Jews and Gentiles who followed him.  A memory that they—we—would tell and retell, that we would re-enact and think about, that would tell us what it means to follow Jesus.

He put on a towel and went to wash his disciples’ feet.  Now, that was a bold statement.  It’s not something a lord would do, or an ordinary citizen—it’s something that a slave would do.  Washing someone means serving them, and it’s an intimate form of service.  If you’re not doing it because it’s your job, you do it out of love, like a parent giving their child a bath or a friend coming over to take care of you when you’re weak and sick from chemo.  This is what it means to be a follower of God, Jesus says.  This is what should guide your life: love.  I love you, and I’ve put that love into action, so you, too, should love others, and put that love into action.

Then he returned to the meal.  And as they shared the Passover wine and bread, he added a new layer of meaning: this bread, the bread of affliction and freedom, is Jesus’ body.  Jesus’ body, that will be broken for us so that we might be freed from slavery and death.  This wine, the wine of God’s promise, is Jesus’ blood.  Jesus’ blood, which will be poured out for us and for all people to fulfill God’s promise of salvation.

The first Passover celebrated God’s saving work.  It taught them that their God was a God of salvation, a God who brought people from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from pain into joy.  It taught them what kind of a God they worshipped, and who they were as God’s people.  And that was a lesson they learned every time they shared that meal and told those storied.  When Jesus celebrated it with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, before he was handed over to sin and death, it was a potent reminder to them: the God who saved their ancestors, who brought them out of slavery and death, was still saving people.  God was saving people from slavery to sin and death of body and soul.  And it wasn’t something that happened to other people, a long time ago, far away.  It was something that was happening right there and then.  Because saving people is God’s nature.  It’s what God does.  When God sees people in bondage, whether physical or mental, God acts to free them.  Sometimes it’s big showy acts, sometimes it’s little things, and often it’s through other people.  God saves people.

And God does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus washing their feet symbolized.  God loves people—even smelly, dirty, weak, sinful humans.  And that’s not just an abstract feeling; God acts that love out in many and various ways.  God loves people, and so God helps them, and saves them.  That’s who God is.  That’s what God does.  And that means that if we’re going to be God’s people, we can’t ever forget that.  We need to remember who God is, and what God calls us to do.  We need to look for the love and salvation and freedom that God gives us every day, and we need to let that love shape us and form us as God’s people.

That’s why we remember this night, every time we celebrate Communion and especially once a year on Maundy Thursday.  We remember who God is and what God has done.  And we know that God is present with us, here, now, giving us his love and salvation and strengthening us to be God’s people, to do God’s work in the world.  Because when Jesus said the bread and wine was his body and blood, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we proclaim his death until he comes again.  We know that he died for us, but that death was not the end of the story.  We know that he is here, with us, that in this bread and wine we can touch and taste and see and smell him, that in this bread and wine he is strengthening us and forming us as his people.  We remember, but we know there is more to this meal than memory.  It’s about who God is—the one who saves, the one who loves—and who we are as God’s people: the ones who are called to put that love into word and deed and action.  Even when it’s difficult.  Even when it’s smelly or unpleasant, like washing feet.  Even in the midst of betrayal like Judas’ betrayal, and anger like the Elders’ anger, and even when it’s in the middle of pain and sorrow and suffering.  Even when love seems like the hardest thing in the world.  We worship a God of salvation and freedom and love.  And so we love, as God first loved us.

May these memories, shared around this meal, form us as God’s people and help us to truly know God’s love and salvation, and follow his command to share that love with all the world.

Amen.

Choosing Life

Lent Wednesday 5, March 16th, 2016

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 16, Galatians 2:15-21

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.  Amen.

Our readings tonight have two common threads: they talk about God’s commandments, and about life.  Now, whenever we talk about the law, we can focus on two aspects: the legalistic aspects of it—what’s the minimum I need to do to skate by—and the spirit of it.  When Jesus was asked about God’s commandments, he summed up the whole law this way: love God with all your strength and heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.  The law, the commandments, the prophets, the Gospels and letters, everything in Scripture, Jesus said, can be summed up by those two statements.  Love God, and love your neighbor.  If you love God and your neighbor, and you put that love into action, it doesn’t matter whether or not you fulfill the legalistic parts of the law, because Christ lives in you.  And if you follow all the law’s demands, but don’t love God and your neighbor, you actually haven’t gained anything.

At a very fundamental level, it’s about what kind of life are you going to live.  Are you going to live in Christ, a life that leads to more love in this world and blessings in the next?  Or are you going to live a life that leads to more pain and fear and death in this world, and draws you away from God?  To quote Moses from our first reading, the scriptures put before us life and death, blessings and curses, and asks us to choose life, so that we and our descendants may live.

Moses is not being poetic, and it’s not just about getting into heaven, either.  It’s about life.  Are we going to lead the kind of lives that inspire and bring about more life and love and faithfulness, or are we going to lead the kind of lives that lead to pain and fear and more death in the world?  Think about it this way: when we’re afraid, or angry, or jealous, we tend to strike out against the people we fear or dislike, sometimes with words and sometimes with physical attack and sometimes with lawsuits or rumors or other means of attack.  And then they fear us, and respond in kind.  And so it escalates.  You expect them to treat you badly, so you protect yourself—and hurt them in the process, so they hurt you back.  And maybe you don’t want to talk about how afraid you are, or how jealous you are, so you turn it into anger and lash out, or you bury it down deep where it eats away at you.

And all of that leads to death.  On an individual level, it can lead to the kind of escalating behavior that leads to fights and a cold war of resentment.  We curse others, and they curse us, and sometimes it’s just words and sometimes that curse bites deeper.  The kind of life where that’s your reality may be living, but it’s not a good life.  Sometimes all those negative emotions boil over into physical violence—sometime even into killing.  Most cases of physical violence and killing are between people who know one another—family, neighbors, coworkers.  Fear and anger and resentment and jealousy, they lead to broken lives and to death.  You can be following the letter of the law, and still be hurting yourself and other people.

But the way of death isn’t the only way.  We can open our lives to Christ, to let Christ live in us, to follow God’s command to love God and our neighbor.  And we may not be able to fix every problem—we may not be able to change other people who are acting out of fear and anger—but at least we won’t be making things worse.  And we won’t be trapping ourselves in all that pain.  Opening yourself and choosing love doesn’t mean that you pretend everything is fine when it isn’t, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you forget what you’ve been through.  It just means that you let go the bad things so you’re not dragging them around with you anymore.  It means that you focus on the good, instead of the bad.  When you are open to Christ, when love of God and others is the guiding force in your life, amazing things are possible.  So chose life.  Choose to bless the world around you, rather than curse it.  Chose the love that can lead to healing and growth and freedom in Christ.  Chose the love that will leave the world better than it was.

We choose between death and life on a community and country-wide level, too.  And again, it comes back to love versus fear and hate.  When we act out of love for our neighbors—not just the neighbors who live next door, but all people throughout our nation and our world—we help those in need and treat one another fairly.  We create the conditions that allow life to flourish.  We create a society that is a blessing for all people, not just us and our friends.  We do this in the things we do face-to-face, through how we spend our money, through how we vote, and in many other ways.  And when we act out of less noble motives—fear and greed and resentment and jealousy and prejudice—we act selfishly.  We look for ways to protect ourselves and hurt anyone who isn’t on our side.  We lash out verbally against anyone who disagrees with us.  We look out for number one, even if it means hurting others.  We follow politicians who say they can protect us from what we’re afraid of, and they enact policies that benefit us at the expense of those we don’t like.  We create a society that is a curse for some people.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, we live in the light of the one who died and gave himself for us.  We live because God loves us more than we can imagine.  We live because God’s generosity is greater than anything else in the universe.  And we have a choice.  We can respond to that love, that generosity, and live in the light of it, opening our lives to Christ and blessing the whole world with the love of God.  Or we can turn away.  We can say “yes, but real life isn’t like that” and ignore the love, returning pain for pain and lashing out so that we deepen the curse of sin that lays on the world.

I have set before you live and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.

Amen.

Seizing the moment

Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 13th, 2016

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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.  Amen.

You know, maybe it’s that we’re in an election year—and a particularly nasty one, at that—but Judas comes off a lot like a politician in this reading.  Maybe you noticed.  Judas is about to betray Jesus, and he’s been dipping into the group funds; he’s as crooked as they come.  But he doesn’t want to look crooked.  So he accuses someone else—Mary—of wrongdoing in order to divert attention from his own crimes, and in the process make himself look pious.  Can’t argue with charity, right?  That always plays well.  “Will someone think of those poor starving children!”

Of course, usually when a politician pulls this, they’re attacking another politician who may very well be no better.  In this case, however, Judas is attacking Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, one of Jesus’ closest followers.  She is a better disciple than the Disciples, and after the resurrection Jesus will make her the first apostle.  (Apostle literally means “one who is sent,” and that’s the word the risen Jesus uses to send her to tell the rest of his followers that he had risen from the grave.)  And here she is, showing a devotion and a love of Jesus that none of his other followers can match.  Not just in words, but in deeds—she is literally putting her money where her mouth is.  A few days later, Jesus will wrap a towel around his own waist, and wash the feet of his disciples, telling them that it is a sign of love and service, and that they should do the same for each other—which they don’t, at least not then.  But here is Mary, washing Jesus’ feet, showing her devotion, anticipating Jesus’ words before he’s spoken them.

I wonder if it made Judas uncomfortable.  He, the faithless one, is being shown what faithfulness looks like.  He’s considering betraying Jesus to his death, and here Mary is showing him what he should be doing instead.  I wonder if he had trouble looking her and Jesus and the rest of the disciples in the eye, or if he decided to brazen it out and make a fuss about the cost of it to distract himself.

I wonder about the other disciples, too—how uncomfortable were they?  After all, Lazarus had been dead for four days, and Jesus raised him.  This wasn’t a case of a coma mistaken for death—he’d started to rot.  And here he is, alive and well, sharing a meal with them.  More than that—the smell of the perfume Mary used filled the house.  And in those days, perfume was used mostly to cover up unpleasant scents.  For example, the stench of death.  Dead bodies were coated with perfumed ointment to cover up the smell of rotting flesh in the time before they were buried.  Remember, they don’t have embalming fluid or refrigerated morgues, and they live in the desert.  Bodies start to smell pretty darn quickly.  So you have to use a lot of perfume to cover it up.  The smell would fill the house.  You know how some smells make you think of Christmas, or other holidays?  Well, this smell would make them think of death.  And here they are, gathered for a meal in the house of a dead man, and the smell of perfume starts to fill the house.  And Mary starts to wash Jesus’ feet, showing a care and love that they claim to have but have never been willing to put into action.  And then she begins to anoint him—just like you would anoint a body for burial.  Jesus has been predicting his death for a while, now, and the disciples have been trying to deny it, and here she is anointing him for burial.

I bet that was one uncomfortable meal.  I imagine a silence you could cut with a knife, as the disciples hold their breath and try to ignore the meaning of what she’s doing, the love and the acknowledgment of death both.  I imagine them trying to find some way to change the subject, stop her, get the perfume back into the bottle and the smell of death out of the air.  I bet a couple of them agreed with Judas—yes, what an excellent way to stop her, change the subject, get them back into their comfortable habits.  They’re used to charity.  They like doing it, it makes them feel good, and they know that caring for the needy is something Jesus approves of.  They don’t like witnessing this love Mary has shown—it points out where they fall short, and it rubs their nose in the thing they want least to acknowledge: the reality of Jesus’ coming death.

And I wonder about Mary.  I wonder what gave her such clear vision, such great love, when most of the people around her were deep in denial.  She had broken all social rules to join publicly in learning from a male teacher like Jesus.  She had taken a risk that few people would have, to step out of the conventional role assigned to a woman and dedicate herself to learning about God and serving him.  And then her brother died, and she grieved his death, and then Jesus raised him from the dead.  And now here she is breaking convention, again, by showing such attention to a man she’s not related to.  She’s showing her love, and she’s breaking the silence about what’s coming.  They all have to know, by this point, that the authorities hate Jesus and his disciples.  They all have to know that they are under suspicion, and that things are getting dangerous.  They’ve been warned, by friends and relatives, by religious leaders, by Jesus himself that death is coming.  And everyone else is trying to bury their heads in the sand and pretend they’re safe, but not Mary.  Not Mary.  Mary faces it.  If Jesus is taken and executed, who knows if they’ll get his body back to bury it?  This may be her only chance to anoint him.  This may be her last chance to show her love and loyalty, because they could all be arrested at any moment.  And so Mary seizes the moment, and acts.  In normal circumstances, this would be extravagant and wasteful.  But these aren’t normal circumstances.

Mary knows who Jesus is.  And she knows how much the love of God means; she knows that even in the middle of a dangerous and deadly situation, God is with them.  She believes in the resurrection; she’s seen it, a foretaste of it, in her brother’s rising.  She knows there is death all around them, but she also knows that there is hope.  And everyone else may be willing to pretend they’ll get through this without any pains, but Mary knows better, and Mary is acts on that knowledge without counting the cost, because she trusts God in Jesus Christ that their pain will not be in vain, that evil will not win, that death will not get the last word.  And so she anoints Jesus here before his death, and after his death she will go to his tomb to finish this grim task, and find him risen, and he will send her out as his apostle to tell the Good News to the disciples.

Judas was a traitor, and though he wanted to stay close to Jesus, he was more concerned with covering up his own sins than with following Jesus.  The disciples were better, but they purposefully closed their ears and eyes to any truth Jesus told that they didn’t want to hear, and let their fears keep them from hearing Jesus’ message about his death … and that same refusal deafened them to the hope that would be found in his resurrection.  Mary listened better, and Mary let her love for Jesus be stronger than her fears.  Mary let her love for Jesus guide her actions.

I wonder, which of them are we more like?  Are we like Judas, aware of our guilt but trying to hide it rather than atone for it?  Sometimes, I think.  Sometimes, we would rather get away with our sins than repent of them; and then we attack the ones who remind us of them.  Or are we like the disciples, only listening to Jesus when he tells us things we want to hear, and closing our ears when he speaks grim truths—even when that means we cannot hear the hope and new life that Jesus promises?  Do we, like the disciples, stay silent when people are attacked for doing the loving—but inconvenient—thing?  Or are we Mary, knowing the hurts and dangers the world keeps waiting just outside the door, but filled with the Spirit to act in love even when staying silent would be easier?

May the Holy Spirit fill us with love and courage like Mary’s, that we may see the truth and act in love and grace.

Amen.

Baptism of Our …

Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B), Sunday, January 8, 2012

 

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

 

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

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

As you may know, I went home for the week after Christmas.  On December 30th, my mother and I went shopping in the mall near my home, and they already had the Valentines candy and Easter outfits on display.  The tinsel and lights and presents of the December holiday season were already packed away in their boxes to await next year’s sales.  And yet, we here in this church are still in a season of gifts.

No, it’s not still Christmas, even here—the twelfth and last day of Christmas was January 5th—but now we are in the season of Epiphany.  The festival of Epiphany is January 6th and celebrates Jesus Christ as the light of the world.  It also celebrates the coming of the Magi following the light of a star to lead them to Christ.  And what do the magi bring?  Presents!  So it’s no surprise that the readings of the season of Epiphany usually focus on either light, or gifts.  And today is a day of celebrating gifts—in this case, the gifts God has given us.

Specifically, we are remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through water and God’s Word, in baptism.  If ever there was a gift that kept on giving, there it is.  We start off the readings with the breath of God—the Spirit—sweeping over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation.  You see, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  God created it out of nothingness.  Everything in this world, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, from the smallest microbe to you and me, was and is created by God.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from the creative work of God.  Our existence and every good thing in our lives is a gift from God.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit was there, moving through it and working with the Father.  One thing I notice is that whenever I come across references to the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s always moving, or doing something.  The Spirit never stands still.  The Spirit is never stagnant.  And it was moving in Creation, as the world was called into being.  The Spirit was moving in the primordial chaos of the formless void, and the Spirit was part of the Father’s creative work.

The Holy Spirit is still moving in the world.  But the Holy Spirit is also moving in us, specifically and uniquely.  That gift was given to us in our baptisms, as we are united with Christ in his baptism, and the Father claims us as his beloved children.  What greater gift can there be than for God to claim us as God’s own?

John the Baptist knew that.  “I baptize with water,” he said, “but there is one coming after me who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  You see, John’s baptism was a form of ritual bathing common in Jewish religious life.  When you committed a sin, one of the ways to purify yourself and make yourself right with God was to symbolically wash the sin away.  It was a public statement that you understood that you had done wrong, and a promise to do better next time, to turn away from the thing that made you unclean and separated you from God and from other people.  But it wasn’t permanent.  Everyone sins, and so then you would have to go back and be cleansed again.  It was a never-ending cycle.

Jesus’ baptism is not like that.  Jesus’ baptism is not about our commitment to do the right thing, and it’s not something we can fail at and redo.  When Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down on him.  And God said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus baptism is God’s public declaration of love and relationship.  And that’s the baptism that we are baptized with.

When we are baptized, we are claimed by God.  The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins moving in us.  And God our creator speaks those same words he spoke to Jesus in the Jordan River: “you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  There is nothing we can do to break that relationship; God will love us no matter what.  The Holy Spirit will move in us no matter what.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how much we mess up, God is with us, claiming us as God’s own and leading us back to wholeness and goodness.  Think about that, for a second.  God is with us no matter what.  God loves us no matter what.  And through us, God is doing amazing things.  What greater gift could we possibly receive?

As everyone knows, some gifts are better than others.  And I’m not talking about how expensive they are.  When I was a child, there were some gifts that I loved and played with for years, and others that I thanked the giver politely for and promptly put on a shelf and forgot about.  Probably the single best gift I ever got was my oboe, a very high quality instrument.  My grandparents gave it to me in High School, and if you were here for the second service on Christmas Eve you heard probably heard me play it in the prelude.  Fifteen years after they gave it to me, it is still a cherished possession that I regularly use.  Most of the other gifts I received then have long since been outgrown or worn out.  But the Holy Spirit is a gift that doesn’t just gather dust on a shelf, and it can never be outgrown or worn out.

Remember earlier I mentioned that whenever the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, it’s doing something.  The Spirit moves, it dances, it inspires people to participate in God’s saving work in the world.  The problem is, so often we don’t listen.  We get so caught up in our busy lives and our daily worries that we ignore the movement of the Spirit in us and around us.  We get so used to our ordinary world that we miss the extraordinary presence of God in our midst.  The Spirit invites us to join in God’s work in the world, to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of the time we don’t even realize it.  When we do hear the Spirit’s call, all too often we find reasons to ignore it: I’m too busy, it’ll never work, I’ve never done it before, what will the neighbors think, let someone else do it.  We treat the Holy Spirit as if it were an ill-fitting sweater given us by some well-meaning relative, that we can exchange for something we like better.

And yet, the Spirit will not be silenced, and the Spirit will not be still.  God has done marvelous things, from the creation of the world to the present day, and God is still doing marvelous things.  God has given us our very lives, everything that we have and are, and God has given us the gift of God’s own presence.  I wonder, what would the world be like if we let the Spirit stir us?  What would Somerset be like, if we let the Spirit call us into wholehearted and joyful participation in God’s work?  What would this congregation be like if we opened ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in us and around us?

As we come forward for communion, you will notice that there is a box, wrapped up as a gift, sitting at the font.  In that box we are asked to place our commitments of time, talent, and treasure.  In this way we give back just a small portion of the many blessings God has given us.  This is not just about money.  This is not just about keeping the lights on and paying salaries.  Through our gifts of our time, our abilities, and our treasures, we participate in God’s work.  We come together to minister to one another, to our community, and to our world.  We share the Word of God and all the gifts God has given us with all creation.  I hope that you have been praying about how God is calling you to participate in this congregation’s ministry, and I pray that you have reflected that call in your commitments.

But these commitments are not the end of our participation in God’s work.  Answering the call of the Holy Spirit is not just something we do once a year and then put it back on the shelf and forget about.  Following the Spirit’s call is the lifelong vocation of a Christian.  As the Spirit is always moving, always calling, we should always be listening and responding.  As you go through the year to come (and all the years to come), don’t let yourself forget that God is with you.  Keep praying for the Spirit’s guidance, keep responding to God’s word.  May God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit’s call.

Amen.

Day of Mourning

By Anna C. Haugen.  This article first appeared in Gather: The Magazine of Women of the ELCA in the March 2016 issue.  It was written in November of 2015.  For more information on Disability Day of Mourning, see the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Anti-Filicide Toolkit.

As I write this, I have just heard the news that a woman in Georgia has murdered her autistic son, Dustin, and shot herself. It sits in my gut like lead. In the last five years, more than 90 disabled people in the U.S. (many of them autistic) have been murdered by parents or caregivers. More than 90 people betrayed by those who should have protected them.

I sit in the land of death. I close my eyes and pray for young Dustin, and for Tracey, Melissa, Daniel and all those who went before him. I trust they are safe in God’s arms. It’s cold comfort.

I don’t have to turn on the TV to know what some are saying. It’s always the same. “He was such a burden.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be the parent of an autistic child.” “Can you really blame her?” “He was severely disabled—what kind of life would that be, anyway?” It will probably come out, eventually, that his mother abused Dustin long before she murdered him, taking her frustrations out on him (and worsening his condition in the process). If so, few will care.

I’m autistic, and so is my baby brother. I can’t help thinking that if our parents shared that mindset, that news story could have been us. When I share this, people try to comfort me: “Oh, you’re so much higher-functioning. You’d never have to worry about that!” As if the fact that I look more “normal” means I’m more worthy of life, of love. Yes, autism brings challenges. Yes, it has a profound impact on our lives, and sometimes limits what we can do. But there is also joy and happiness and great ability—in spite of our autism and because of it. I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator who made me different, but not less. So was Dustin.

Many people can’t see that. And so, in this sinful, broken world, they take their fear, their hate, their frustration and their grief out on the vulnerable. Sometimes it’s “just” abuse. Sometimes it’s murder. We need better support systems, but more than that, we need to realize that disabled people are people—not burdens or tragedies. Every March 1st, the autistic community joins other disabled groups in a Day of Mourning. We hold vigils. We remember the names and stories of those who have died. We speak out against a society that excuses the murderers and blames the victims. We cry.

I sit in the land of death, hearing stories about people like me being abused and killed. I wait for the morning, for the light of new life coming from the empty tomb. I wait for the day Christ comes back and all the dead are raised—including Dustin—and we live in a world free from abuse and violence.

I live in the land of death, but I hope for new life.

Strength in Love

Lent Wednesday 4, March 9th, 2016

2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Psalm 28, Acts 16:11-15

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.  Amen.

How many of you think you make decisions rationally, based on facts and logic?  Most people think they do, except for a few big types of decisions.  We all want to think that we do the smart thing, the right thing, the decision that any unbiased observer would think was right.  We like to think we use our head to make the decisions—large and small—and as a culture we tend to dismiss and belittle those who are too swayed by emotion—particularly the softer emotions.  Bleeding hearts, sentimental, emotional, emo, these are not seen as good things.

And yet, scientists tell us that even when we think we are at our most rational, our decisions are based mostly on our emotions.  Someone you don’t like comes up and invites you to an event—you don’t like them, your heart is against them, you decide not to go, and then you come up with reasons why you can’t come.  It looks like rain.  You have other plans.  You’re just too tired.  If a friend had given you the same invitation, your heart would have been more open.  You might have decided to go, and your brain would have come up with reasons to justify your heart’s decision.  Sure, it’s cloudy, but it probably won’t rain after all.  And the other plans can be put off.  And you’re not that tired.  In both cases, your heart made the decision, based on how you felt, and then came up with reasons to justify your decision.  And then you believe you made the smart choice, the right choice, the logical choice, when it wasn’t really your heart making the decision.  Our hearts guide our decisions, and this is the case whether our hearts are hard or soft, closed or open.  Which means that if our hearts are going to be leading our lives, they are really important, for us and for our faith and for the world around us.

So what kind of hearts does God want us to have?  Does God want us to have open hearts, closed hearts, soft hearts, hard hearts, loving hearts, angry hearts, fearful hearts?  God created us each to be different and unique, which means that there are a wide variety of hearts.  But there are very few people in the Bible whose hearts are described as “hard” or “closed,” and pretty much all of them are like Pharaoh in the Exodus—the villains who try to work against God.  In our reading from Corinthians, Paul says that his heart is open and asks the people of Corinth to open wide their hearts, as well.  Open hearts is a good thing, the Bible says, and closed hearts are bad.  Why?  Well, I think it’s because if we close our hearts to our fellow human beings, how can we open them for God?  If we close out our neighbor, or even our enemy, we are dangerously likely to close out God, as well.  Remember that God’s heart is always open to us, no matter how many times we cause pain, no matter how many times we stray.

There’s a stereotype of people who are soft-hearted, that they’re weak, that they’re easily manipulated, that they’re stupid, that they just don’t understand reality.  The world is a hard, cruel place, full of evil and hate and pain, and common wisdom is that people who are too kind, too loving, are just denying reality.  But that’s not the kind of open hearts Paul is talking about.  After all, Paul had been around the block many times.  He’d started out with a hard heart himself, persecuting Jesus’ followers, before his conversion on the way to Damascus.  And then, after that, as an apostle he had been imprisoned, beaten, tortured, he had faced conspiracies and con artists, injury and illness, greed and hate and fear and anger.  In his service to the Gospel he had seen all the ugliness the world had to offer … most of it bent on making him hurt.  He was not a bystander to the cruelties of the world.  He had inflicted them when his heart was hard, and he had suffered them when his heart was opened.  Paul had been on both sides.  And he knew that an open heart was better.  A heart like God’s was better.

Paul endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger.  Yes, he knew all the evil in the world, but he also knew that it was better to meet it with an open heart than a closed one.  Better to respond in love, and open a space for the healing of the world, than to respond with a closed heart and compound the pain.  So Paul responded with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.  And because he was open, God could work in his heart, and through him, God could touch other hearts, like Lydia’s heart, like the Corinthians’ hearts.  Because his heart was open to God and to all the world, God could work towards the day when pain and evil and hard hearts are gone forever.

Our hearts guide our thoughts, our hearts guide our actions, our hearts can open us up to God and to the world, and our hearts can isolate us.  Our hearts can lead us to heal people, and our hearts can lead us to hurt people.  May God open our hearts, and live in us, that we may know the riches and comfort of God’s love.

Amen.