Wars and Rumors of War

25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15th, 2015

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-13


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. Amen.

Wars and rumors of war. What a thing to read about the Sunday after 43 people were killed in a bombing in Beirut and 128 died in shootings in Paris and the Iraqi Kurds repelled a massive ISIS attack earlier this month. We have certainly had wars and rumors of war. Then Jesus says that there will be earthquakes and famines, too. I don’t know of any famines that are especially bad right now—that doesn’t mean there aren’t famines, just that famines in some places are so “normal” they don’t make the news—but Japan had an earthquake this week that touched off a tsunami. Fortunately, it was a lot smaller than the one a couple of years ago, and the damage was manageable. Jesus’ predictions were right on the money. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because they’ve been right on the money for the last two-thousand years. There have always been wars. There have always been catastrophes. There have always been famines, persecutions, betrayals. These are not signs of the end of the world, Jesus says—the end is still to come. This is what it means that the world is broken by sin and death. God’s kingdom will break in; God’s kingdom, when it comes, will break all the chains of evil, but we’ve got to live in the meantime. Jesus knew what his disciples would have to face, and he knew what we would have to face. And he wanted to give us comfort, cold though it sometimes is, to face it.

Our Gospel reading takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus was taken away and crucified. Jesus was at the height of his influence; his disciples were sure that any day now, a rebellion would begin and Jesus would sweep out the hated Roman oppressors and their toadies, replacing them with his loyal followers. They were high on life; they thought for sure that with Jesus at their side, nothing could touch them. Everything was going to go perfectly, because, after all, he was the Messiah, right? The great palace and temple in Jerusalem would be theirs for the taking—and that was saying something. In Jesus, day, the Temple was a pretty amazing place. It had been built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built by Ezra and Nehemiah, and greatly expanded by King Herod, making it one of the grandest buildings in the Roman Empire. It was huge, and it was grand, and it was glorious. It wasn’t just a building, it was a whole complex—they’d had to build out the top of Mount Zion so that it would fit. It was designed so that all visitors could see the glory of God. But it wasn’t just a pretty building. It wasn’t just the core of Jerusalem. It wasn’t just a place of worship. It was a symbol.

That Temple was the core of Judaism. It was most obviously the center of Jewish religious practices of the day, but it was also the center of Jewish culture and the center of Jewish politics. God could be anywhere, of course, but he was especially present in the Temple. Nothing too terribly bad could happen to the Jews as long as the Temple stood, because it showed that God was with them and they were faithful to God. Being Jewish meant worshiping at the Temple. Take the church building you love the most—multiply that feeling by ten and add to it the feeling you have for every iconic building in Washington, DC—and you can imagine what they felt like. The Temple had withstood invasions, wars, earthquakes, famines, every catastrophe imaginable, and it stood. It would always stand, they believed. Because God was with them, and the Temple was God’s, and God would not let the Temple fall.

The disciples looked in awe at the great and mighty Temple, and one said to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” You can almost hear them nudging each other and giving each other meaningful looks—what’ll it be like to live in the best houses in Jerusalem and come to the Temple every day? What’ll it be like when all this glory and grandeur is theirs? But Jesus knows that, in this life, the Temple will never be theirs. He’s not going to reign in glory in this life, he’s going to be crucified instead. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Now this, to the disciples, was the greatest catastrophe they could imagine. For some, it might have been more than they could imagine. This isn’t just the end of their hopes and dreams, this is the end of their whole people, their culture, their religion, their everything. The Temple, destroyed? The heart of their faith, gone? The proof of God’s presence, smashed? How? When? Why? They pestered Jesus with questions, anxiously needing answers. Would it be part of his battle with the powers that be, after which the Temple would be re-built even grander? Would it be part of the end judgment of the world? What would happen? They wanted names, dates, a firm timeline.

Jesus didn’t give them one. Because the point wasn’t the Temple itself. The Temple would be destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, in retaliation for a failed rebellion. To this day, only a wall remains—the Wailing Wall, where devout Jews go to pray. There’s a Muslim Mosque where the Temple once stood. But that’s not the point. If they focus on the glory, the grandeur, the ambition, they’re going to be totally caught off guard when trouble strikes. The more they imagine that following Jesus will bring only happy fun times, the more devastating it will be when they realize that’s not the case. And the crucifixion was going to happen in just a few days. They needed to face reality, and they needed to face it fast.

Jesus didn’t give them specifics. He gave them words so generic that pretty much every generation since has tried to claim that they applied specifically to that generation—in every age, there are people who believe these words of Jesus’ mean that the end is coming now, here. Because the point isn’t when these things will happen; the point is not to be surprised by them.

There will be people claiming God’s authority and using it wrongly, to promote their own ends, and they will lead many people astray. As a student of history, I can tell you that in the two thousand years since Jesus’ day, there have been many people who have used God’s authority to do evil, and some of them have been very popular. We vilify the Muslims who do this, while forgetting the crimes Christians have committed—and are committing right now, across the globe—in the name of God.

Jesus said there will be wars, and rumors of war. But when has there ever been peace on earth? There hasn’t been peace on earth since Cain slew Abel in Genesis chapter 4. This is part of the way sin corrupts human nature. We hate. We fear. We betray one another. We hurt one another—and then we get together in groups to do it on a larger scale. There will be famines—and boy, howdy, have there been famines. Some of them are caused by weather or blight; some of them are caused by political corruption diverting food from those who need it most. Earthquakes and storms—those happen all the time, too. Have you ever seen one of those half-sheet inserts from Lutheran World Relief asking for money for the disaster du jour and felt nothing but a drained since of déjà vu? I know I have. And as if that isn’t enough, Jesus says, brother will turn against brother and parent against child.

Quite a litany. All of that to go through. Are you feeling depressed, yet? But the point of these words isn’t to be depressing or hopeful. The point is to be ready. Where’s the Good News? Where’s the Gospel in Jesus’ words? Here it is: the end of all this misery is coming, and we don’t have to face the in-between times alone, and no matter what happens between now and then, Jesus will reign. You see, all of these terrible, horrible, evil things? That’s what the world’s been like since sin came into things. That’s “normal” for Planet Earth. At least, that’s what “normal” has been up till now. But it’s not going to stay normal. The world isn’t trapped any longer in a round of one damned-thing-after-another. It may seem that way—particularly when the news media gobbles up every tragedy, hungry for the most grotesque pictures that will shock and titillate the viewer—but it’s not. These evils are no longer meaningless, because the birth pangs have begun. This is not God’s plan for the world. There will be justice, and there will be mercy. Our call as Christians is to live out faithful lives in the meantime, responding to a broken world with love and justice and trust that this is not the end. This is the beginning.

And we don’t have to do it alone. Whether we live ordinary lives in relatively quiet parts of the world or in places where there is actual persecution, we are not alone, for the Holy Spirit is with us. We don’t have to worry about having all the answers, or solving all the problems, or being good enough or strong enough or brave enough or faithful enough. Because no matter what happens, the Holy Spirit will be with us.

And it doesn’t matter how powerful the things of this world seem to be. It doesn’t matter how much damage any country or ruler or terrorist or corporation or politician or anyone else does—they can’t change the fact that this world is God’s world, that Jesus redeemed it with his sacrifice, and that God’s kingdom will come.


Devouring Widow’s Houses: A Few Questions About the Widow’s Mite

24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 8th, 2015

1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

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.

We all know the story of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus sees a widow give a few coins—all that she has—and praises her generosity, saying it’s greater than the large gifts from the rich people around her, because she gave everything whereas they only gave a small portion of their wealth. We commonly use it to talk about giving—about how all gifts are important, about how much God loves a generous giver. And all of those things are true. But the thing is, the story of the Widow’s Mite is only part of the story. It belongs to a larger section, and it sounds a bit different when we look at the whole story.

First of all, let’s back up all the way to the Old Testament. You see, when God was telling the Hebrew people how to set up their society, he spent a lot of time talking about widows. Not just widows, either, but orphans and foreigners, altogether as a group. And the thing that widows, orphans, and foreigners all have in common is that they were very vulnerable. Because in those days, women, children, and foreigners were second-class citizens. They didn’t have as many rights as men did. They could be cheated and abused quite easily, and most people wouldn’t really care. So God commanded them to be extra vigilant that vulnerable people were treated well—that they received both justice and mercy. It wasn’t enough to just assume that the laws were fair; all of God’s people were to pay special attention to making sure that the widows, orphans, and strangers were given the benefit of the doubt. And even ensuring justice wasn’t enough. God’s people were to see to it that the vulnerable people always had enough to get by, even in tough times. They were supposed to be generous to all those in need, regardless of who they were or why they needed help in the first place.

Now, this special care wasn’t because God loved widows more than he loved anyone else; it wasn’t because foreigners or orphans were somehow more deserving of justice and mercy than anyone else. It was because they needed it more. I mean, if one of the pillars of the community gets in a dispute with a poor widow on the fringe of the community, or with a stranger with no connections to anyone else in town, the community leader has a natural advantage. He’s probably prosperous, he’s going to have lots of friends and resources he can call on to make sure that he gets everything he deserves and more. But someone on the outside, someone poor and alone, they’re not going to have those resources. That’s why they need help—not because they’re more deserving, or better, or anything like that. It’s because they’re alone, and a lot more vulnerable than most people, and it’s all too easy for them to get crushed by the wheels of society. And when times get tough, the pillars of the community have a lot of resources to help them get through, whereas a poor widow or an orphan or a foreigner would be all on their own.

So, in all the laws, a care and concern for widows, orphans, and strangers is one of the common themes. And it’s not just in the laws. It’s in the Psalms, too–consider our Psalm for today.  “The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.”  It’s no surprise that the Psalm contrasts God’s care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow with the ways of the wicked.  Because treating vulnerable people badly is one of the major marks of the wicked!

And it’s all through the Prophets, too.  When you read through the books of the prophets, they spend a lot of time telling the people of Israel that they are falling short of God’s call for them. When the prophets criticize the Hebrew people, it’s usually not for what we would consider “religious” reasons. It’s not because they believe the wrong thing, unless they’re so far astray they’re into outright idolatry. It’s not because they’re not worshipping in the right way. When God gets angry in the Old Testament, it’s because of how they treat the most vulnerable people in their communities—the widows, the orphans, the strangers, the poor people. When the people at the top of society don’t make sure that the people at the bottom get fair treatment and help when they need it, that’s when God starts getting really upset.

With that in mind, let’s go back to today’s Gospel reading. In the verses before today’s reading, the religious leaders and community leaders have been all up in Jesus’ face, trying to trip him up so they can discredit him. As usual, they only succeeded in showing that they were in the wrong. That’s where our Gospel for today begins. Having just proven that he knows the spirit of God’s law better than they do, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses … they will receive the greater condemnation.” In other words—the people at the top, who work to make themselves look good and have the best stuff in society, look at how they got that way. They should have been taking care of widows, and instead they’re taking advantage of them. They may have a good life now, but they’re going to be judged harshly.

Then he turns around and sees lots of rich people giving large donations, and a poor widow with almost nothing who gives everything she has. He talks about powerful people devouring widows’ houses, and then he sees a widow with nothing. And the question I have to ask is, why did she only have two small copper coins? Why is that “all she had”? If those rich and powerful people who were going around in fancy clothes and taking the best seats in the house and making a big deal about their generosity, if they were actually doing what they should be doing, that widow would not be down to her last penny. Because they would have made sure she was taken care of.

And yes, that widow’s generosity was wonderful. It was awesome. God calls all of us to be generous with what we have—our money, yes, but also our time, our attention, our love, our talents, everything that we have and everything that we are. The widow is a wonderful example of this, and our first lesson gives us the story of another generous woman, the Widow of Zarephath. It was a great drought, nobody could grow crops, and God sent the prophet Elijah to a town outside of Israel, to a foreign woman, and she had nothing. She was down to the last flour and oil she had, and once it was gone, she and her son were going to starve to death. But God sent Elijah to her, and he asked her for bread, and even with starvation waiting just around the corner for her and her son, she shared what little she had. That’s a kind of abundant generosity we don’t see too often. And it’s a generosity that God rewarded—she and her household were saved from starvation. God kept that little bit she had and gave more, so that she and her family had food even in the midst of starvation. It wasn’t a great feast, but it was enough. By sharing what little she had, she blessed Elijah and God blessed her in turn.

Let’s contrast that with the scribes and community leaders in the Gospel reading. They’re the ones that people look up to in the community. They dress nicely, they go to all the right parties and know all the right people. They give to all the right causes, worship regularly, on the surface they look like exactly what every faithful person should aspire to be. And yet, in their midst was a woman with nothing. Maybe she’d had a run of bad luck. Maybe she’d done some stupid things and wasted what she had. Maybe she’d been cheated out of her pension. Maybe her children didn’t take care of her, or maybe she had no children. We don’t know the exact circumstances of her misfortune, how much of it was her fault and how much of it was other peoples’ fault and how much of it was nobody’s fault. But the thing is, it doesn’t really matter, in the end, why she was destitute. What matters is that nobody seems to care. The whole society has been charged by God to see to it that vulnerable people aren’t left destitute, and here she is, in the midst of their prosperity, with literally only a penny to her name. And she gave it, and I am sure God did many great and wonderful things with that penny that you and I can’t even imagine.

But it makes me wonder. What kind of a job are we doing? Are there people in our midst that we have forgotten about, pushed out, ignored as they struggle? Who are the vulnerable people in modern-day America, and how are we treating them? Who are the vulnerable people in our community? North Dakota has had a lot of strangers over the last several years, with the oil boom, and when things go well they make good money … but it’s so easy for something bad to happen, and they’re left with nothing. How good a job do we do about making sure that the outsiders receive justice and mercy, fair treatment and help when they need it? Are we the widow, generous with everything we have, or are we the leaders who focus on our own wealth and status while forgetting she even exists? Have we built a society with justice and mercy for all people, especially the most vulnerable, or have we built a society that works to benefit the people who already have more than enough? If Jesus were here, today, watching us put our offerings in the plate, who would he point out that we haven’t even noticed?

I pray that we may work towards a world where all people receive justice and mercy as God would want.


Living in the Story

Reformation Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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.


Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Today is Reformation Sunday, the day we celebrate the formation of the Lutheran Church—and all other Protestant Christian groups, such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and all the rest. And continuing in God’s Word was one of the big themes of the Reformation. You see, before the Reformation it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local language. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek; European Christians used a Latin translation for study and worship. But by the 1500s, the only people who understood Latin any more were scholars and priests and nobles. Your ordinary Joe or Jane on the street couldn’t read it, so they couldn’t read the Bible. They knew Bible stories—they knew the stories backwards and forwards. The stories got told and re-told, used as the basis of plays and songs and such. But only the church hierarchy read them directly from the Bible, and so only the church hierarchy could interpret God’s Word. Everyone else just had to accept what the priests and bishops told them.

This was to protect people from error, the church said. I’m sure many of you have had times when you are talking with someone about the Bible, and they come up with something that is completely out of left field, something that goes contrary to everything you believe about God’s Word. Well, if only the clergy can read the Bible—if ordinary people can’t read it, much less study it—that can’t happen, because the church is in control. (This assumes, of course, that the church hierarchy will always interpret God’s Word correctly.) This was a matter of theology; it was about saving souls by protecting them from error. But it was also about protecting the church’s power. And so throughout Europe it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local languages of English, German, and all the rest. And by illegal, I mean it was a capital crime. William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible. John Wycliffe died of natural causes, but they dug up his body from its grave, burned it, and scattered his ashes in the river. And the only reason they didn’t kill Luther for translating the Bible into German was because he went into hiding until enough powerful people listened to his message that he would be safe. All for the crime of wanting people to be able to read the Bible. Wanting people to be able to dwell in God’s Word.

We take it for granted these days. We have Bibles everywhere, many different translations, which many of us don’t read as much as we think we should. Imagine what Wycliffe or Tyndale or Luther would have thought of that! I’m sometimes guilty of not reading my Bible as I should myself. But I want to back up, a little bit, and think about what Jesus meant when he said we should continue in his Word. Because even when we read the Bible, I think we sometimes miss the point, a little bit.

The word translated here as “continue” is “menw” which also means remain, dwell, abide. Later in the Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him and he will abide in them? The word he uses, that’s translated “abide”? That’s menw. And in today’s lesson, when he says the slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household but the son has a place forever? The word he uses to talk about remaining in the household is “menw”. It means live, stay, continue, dwell. Literally, it means to pitch a tent. This is the word you use when you want someone to pull up a chair, crack open a nice cold can of soda, and get comfortable. It’s not just about plodding through it, or about carrying something around with you. It’s about staying somewhere, building something.

That’s the way, Jesus says, we should approach his Word. But do we? All too often, when people use the Bible, it’s in a fairly shallow and superficial way. We read it because we’re supposed to, memorize bits of it as lists of rules or quotes to stick on things, and then promptly forget about it, God’s Word lost in the busy-ness of our everyday lives. We pull it out when we can use it to prove we’re right and someone else is wrong. We pull it out on special occasions. But we don’t live in it. We don’t dwell in it. We don’t pitch the tent of our lives in it.

I think back to those medieval peasants who couldn’t read the Bible. They never read it, but they turned out in droves to watch plays based on it, they sang about it, they wrote poems about those stories that they had heard and seen, they let those stories fill their hearts and minds. We have the precious gift of being able to read God’s word directly, yet we seldom take it as seriously.

Scientists tell us that human beings think in stories. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are shape how we think and speak and act. The stories we tell about other people shape how we treat them. The stories we tell about life and the world guide how we live our lives. Think about your favorite TV show, book, or movie: think about how it moves you. Think about how you care about the characters. Think about that sense of rightness you feel when something happens that fits with the world as you understand it—or when something in your real life echoes something you saw or read. When a story affects us powerfully, we will look for things in our life that confirm that story as true. We will see patterns that connect to that story, even if they’re not really there and the story is fiction. If you tell someone a fact, and then tell them a false story that contradicts the fact, they will believe the story even though they know it’s a lie. This is how a lot of politicians operate. If you tell a story often enough, people will believe it even if it’s a lie. You know those stories you hear about people using food stamps to buy iPads and things? Those are lies; you literally cannot use food stamps to buy those, the debit card only works in grocery stores and even then not all departments of the grocery store. But it doesn’t matter how often you point this out, people believe the stories instead of the facts. Because stories, even false stories, are more powerful than facts. If even TV shows, movies, and books can do that—if even the lies politicians tell can do that—imagine what dwelling in God’s Word can do.

We have the truest story of all, the story of how God created the cosmos, and us, how God chose us and called us and saves us, the story of God acting in the lives of God’s people throughout history. We call it the Bible. What would it be like if we let that story be as real to us, as important to us, as the stories we watch on TV? If we spent as much time thinking about those stories as we do thinking about Game of Thrones or The Office or NCIS? How would that shape us as people of God? And how could we even do that?

It’s not about reading, or not just about reading. It’s about opening yourself up to the story. Who are the people in the story, and how are they like us? How are they different from us? What would you have done, if you were there with them?   Even if the only time you read the Bible is when you’re in church, you can do that. Listen actively, and put yourself in the story. Because you are a part of the story—God’s Word didn’t stop when the last words of the Bible were written. God is still speaking to us today, through the Bible but also sometimes through our experiences in the world. Let’s take the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” as an example. Now, you may have heard that Martin Luther based on Psalm 46, which we read today, and if so, you probably were confused, because there are some pretty big differences between the two. First off, there are no “mighty fortresses” in the Psalm; instead, the psalmist talks about God as “our refuge and strength.” And “A Mighty Fortress talks a lot about the Devil and about Jesus, neither of which are mentioned in the Psalm.

But let’s consider Martin Luther’s world. It was a VERY dangerous time. The Ottoman Empire—which ruled Turkey—kept invading up into Europe, getting as far as Hungary and Austria, which are pretty close to Germany, where Luther lived. There was religious violence, civil war—you name it, they had it. What kind of refuge and strength did people need in Luther’s day? A big huge fortress to protect them from rampaging armies. So that’s what Luther wrote about. And Luther really struggled with the devil’s influence—he had dreams and nightmares about Satan all the time. So that’s another thing that God was his refuge from, another thing that God gave him strength to deal with. He read Psalm 46 and saw himself in it, and in “A Mighty Fortress” he wrote about what God was doing there in 16th Century Germany. Luther knew that he was a part of God’s story, the stories of the Bible.

The story isn’t over. The story will never be over, and we are a part of it. The stories in the Bible didn’t just happen to people with funny names in funny clothes a long time ago; the stories in the Bible are our stories, too. We are a part of them, and they are a part of us. Whether you read your Bible a lot or a little, remember that you are a part of the story.


We Want to See Jesus

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 22nd, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

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.

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the LORD. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A world where everyone knew God, and loved him? The kind of “knowing” that God speaks of in this passage isn’t an academic kind of knowing. It’s not about memorizing facts or Bible verses or bits of theological interpretation and being able to trot them out on cue. It’s not about having all the answers ready to go for any question. No, this kind of “knowing” is about relationship. It’s about knowing God like you know your parents, or your spouse, or your child, or your best friend. It’s about living together and loving and working together through good times and bad. It’s the kind of knowing you only get through experience and trust and being there for one another.

But how do we have that kind of relationship with someone we can’t see? Sure, we can worship, study the Bible, pray, give generously of our time and treasure, but that doesn’t guarantee a relationship with God. There have been times in my life when I’ve done all of that and still felt spiritually empty, dry, wondering if God was listening and sometimes if he even existed. It’s possible to do everything right and still not feel that relationship. Of course, then there have been other times when God has felt so close to me I felt like I could reach out and touch him. Times when God felt like he was sitting beside me in worship, or speaking directly to me from the pages of Scripture. Every relationship goes through rough patches—but when my relationships with my family and friends go through rough patches, they’re still physically there, present, and it’s a whole lot easier to bridge that gap.

Of course, the thing is, even when I’m going through a spiritual rough patch, when I can’t see or feel God, he’s still there. I just can’t see him. And sometimes, it’s because I’m not looking in the right place. I get so wrapped up in my own ideas—in how I expect God to act, and do—that I can’t see him because he’s working in a way I didn’t expect. Other times it’s because I’m so distracted by all the stuff going on in my life that I’m just not paying attention. And still other times even looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t see God, and I just have to trust that he was there as he promised to be. When I’m going through a spiritually rewarding patch—when worship is renewing to my soul, when Scripture is enlightening, when prayers feel like they’re being heard—it’s easy to see God. It’s easy to feel that I know God, that our relationship is strong and that God’s teachings are written on my heart. But other times it’s not so easy. So I have a real feeling of kinship with the Greeks in our Gospel lesson who want to see Jesus, because sometimes I want to see him, too. I trust God when he says he’ll always be there, I just … want a little bit of reassurance.

Some Greeks in Jerusalem came to the disciple Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Don’t we all? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to see Jesus in the flesh? To be able to ask him questions and learn directly from our Lord? What a great opportunity! I wonder what those Greeks thought when they actually did get to see Jesus. If they were following along behind Philip as he went to get Andrew, and then went up and told Jesus there were some people here to see him. Because if they did, if they heard what Jesus said to Philip and Andrew, I bet they were disappointed and confused. He started talking about dying and rising and bearing fruit and glory and service and being lifted up and … okay, after Jesus died and was resurrected, it would make sense, because that was what Jesus was talking about, but these guys don’t know what’s about to happen. They don’t know. They’re looking for God, or maybe they’re just looking for a miracle worker, and what they find is a guy who looks ordinary but says some crazy weird things. He’s not the kind of guy anybody was expecting. I wonder if they went home disappointed, thinking that they’d been wrong about this Jesus guy, after all. Because here’s the thing, even seeing Jesus in the flesh didn’t magically make peoples’ doubts and fears go away. It didn’t magically mean that they knew God in that deep relationship that Jeremiah was talking about.

Here’s the thing about relationships: they take time and effort and attention. They don’t generally just spring into perfection overnight. You have to work at them. You have to be willing to take the time to get to know someone, to learn and grow with them, and to put in the effort to fix things when they’re wrong. You have to be willing to choose love and forgiveness when people mess up. And God is always willing to do that. To take time for us, to reach out to us, to forgive us and love us and go through life with us and experience it with us.

But we aren’t always willing to do that. We aren’t always willing to take the time for God, to let go of our preconceived notions about God and experience God as he is. We aren’t always willing to take the time to learn about God, to follow God, to get to know God. Sometimes we get distracted. Sometimes we get confused, or angry that God didn’t do things the way we wanted him to. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes we just … don’t understand, and can’t trust what we don’t understand. And so we break that relationship. We turn away. For a lot of different reasons—some of them that seem pretty good at the time!—we break that relationship.

But here’s the thing. God doesn’t abandon us, even when we abandon him. God won’t force us, but he’ll always be there to offer us forgiveness and a place with him. God is always working to break down the barriers that keep us from seeing him and knowing him. God is always planting the seeds of a new relationship in us and in the world around us.


The Snake Problem

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 15th, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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.

When people ask for God to save them, I doubt they have the serpent on a pole in mind. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes. You’re out camping in the wilderness, with your whole family, and you can’t just pack it out and go home because you have no home but the one you’re travelling towards. And then, all of a sudden, there are snakes. LOTS OF SNAKES. Everywhere around. You can’t avoid them. You can’t get away from them. And they’re poisonous! If they bite you, you die. What would you pray to God for? Probably to take the snakes away. Right? You would want them gone. And, if that wasn’t possible, you would pray to God that they wouldn’t bite you. First choice, no snakes. Second choice, snakes that don’t bite.

And that’s not what God did. Instead of smiting the snakes, vanishing them, or pulling their fangs, God arranged a cure for the poison. An anti-venom. Put a bronze snake up on a pole, and look at the snake, and it will heal you after a snake bites you. I read this lesson and I asked myself, “couldn’t God have just prevented the snakes from biting them in the first place?”

That’s a question that comes up often. Whenever someone gets sick, whenever someone gets hurt, we pray for healing, and we wonder, why couldn’t God have prevented it before it happened? Wouldn’t prevention be easier and cheaper than a cure? All this evil and violence and sin and brokenness in the world—why can’t God just make it go away? Why can’t God get rid of the snakes?

The problem is, of course, that all too often the snakes are us. We human beings cause so much hurt in the world, as individuals and as societies. We hurt one another. We act selfishly. We are broken with sin and death, and we spread that brokenness around. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. We hurt others and ourselves through what we do and through what we leave undone. We don’t always see the consequences of our words and actions—in fact, humans tend to be pretty good at ignoring them—but they can be huge. In the case of the Israelites, their poisonous words came back to haunt them in the poison of the serpents. But it wasn’t only the ones who had been complaining who bore the brunt of the snake attacks. No. The whole community was affected. It’s like that with us, too: the people whose lives are most devastated are often not the ones doing the worst.

In order to prevent evil—in order to keep human beings from screwing up and hurting themselves and each other—God would have to take away our free will. God would have to take away our ability to make choices. Because we choose the wrong thing so often! We choose to spread the poison. We choose to close our eyes to the pain of others. We choose to ignore the way our words and actions affect the people around us and even the people far away. In our first lesson, God could have removed the snakes. But what do you do when the snakes are the people? When everyone is a snake, and everyone is a victim of snakes? Because we are all sinners, and we are all victims of sin.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson about doing things in the dark instead of doing them in the light. What are the things you do or say or think in the darkness—where nobody can see it—instead of the light? What things about yourself do you hide away? What things have you done or said that you sweep under the rug where nobody can see them? I do it, you do it, we all do it. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Even when we think we want the light, we keep doing things in the dark. We talk about how much we love Christ’s light, and yet we keep doing things under the cover of darkness.

Until Christ comes again—until there is a new heaven and a new earth and we are made whole in Christ, we’re going to keep sinning and being sinned against. We are going to keep choosing the darkness because it’s easier, because everyone else does, because we’re ashamed. While we live in this sinful, broken world, that’s not going to change. We repent, we turn to the light, and pretty soon we slide back into the shadows. Or we talk about the light, but we keep the shadows inside us, hidden away so the world can’t see them. There isn’t a way to take the snakes out without taking us out as well. While we live on this earth, there will always be darkness. When Christ comes again, when we stand before the throne, all our darkness will be washed away. Until then, we’re going to have to live with it.

But that doesn’t mean the snakes win. It doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It doesn’t mean the poison gets the last word. When the people of Israel were bitten by the snakes, and they looked up to that bronze serpent, they were healed. The snakes were still there. The bites and the pain were still there. But the poison was gone. They were saved from death. They weren’t saved from the snakes at that point—that would come later—but the snakes couldn’t kill them, as long as they were looking to the serpent on a pole.

It’s a matter of perspective. Where were they looking? Where was their focus? As long as they stayed focused on the snakes, on their own pain and the poison that was killing them, they died. When they looked up—when they looked for the gift God had given them—the poison was healed. It is so easy to focus on the pain, on the suffering, on the creepy and bad things. But if we do that, we may not be able to see the salvation God gives us. We don’t have a bronze serpent on a pole. We have Christ, crucified for us and resurrected. When we focus on the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, it’s so easy to lose hope, to drown in it. But when we remember God’s love, when we remember the salvation and grace given to us in Christ Jesus, when we look to Christ, we know that we are not alone, that we have hope, and that there is a love that will not let us go.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” God has not abandoned us to the poison and darkness of the world. We look to Christ, hanging on a wooden pole for all the world to see. It was our sins that killed him. We look to his death on a cross as an example and symbol of our sinfulness, just as the people of Israel looked to an example and symbol of the snakes that were killing him. And Christ saves us from the poison of our sins and our darkness, just as the serpent on a pole saved the people of Israel from the poison of the snakes, the poison of their own bitterness. In this life, we still have to live with the consequences of our actions, and all too often we have to live with the consequences of other peoples’ actions, too. The snakes are still here, and they still have the power to bite, even if they can’t kill us any longer.

But unlike the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ death on a cross is not a temporary fix, because it’s not the end of the story. Jesus died, but he rose again. And we who look to him are tied to his death and resurrection. Just as he rose, so we too will rise, when he comes again. We will see him, face to face, and we will be made whole and clean so that no darkness or poison will ever be able to get a hold of us again. We’ll choose the light, forever and always, joyfully and freely, and all the pains and hurts that our darkness causes ourselves and one another will be healed. Thanks be to God.


Bearing the Cross

Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 1st, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

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.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it. I’m talking with someone about their day, and they mention some little thing that annoys them that they can’t change—maybe it’s a co-worker’s irritating habits, maybe it’s a relative’s drama that keeps spilling over to the rest of the family. “Well,” they say, “I guess that’s just my cross to bear.” Really? Jesus’ death on a cross, his sacrifice and agony, compared to Aunt Ethel’s temper tantrums? That’s what you’re comparing it to? When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me,” you think he meant having to deal with a co-worker who sometimes grabs your lunch by accident or can’t get important paperwork done on time? Really?

Sometimes when I hear that phrase it’s sadder. There’s something truly horrible in someone’s life—abuse, for example—and they don’t think there’s any way out. Maybe they’re scared, maybe they don’t think they deserve anything better, maybe they feel guilty or ashamed. And that’s how they comfort themselves: “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.” And it’s good that their faith is a comfort to them, but at the same time, calling that suffering their cross to bear can trap them in it, make them less likely to reach out for help, because they think their suffering is God’s will. Jesus came that we might have abundant life, that we might be saved and healed, that our sadness and grief and pain might be wiped away. Jesus died on the cross so that we might be saved, connected to God, so that God’s love might be poured out on the world. Jesus’ suffering and death are not meant to trap us in our own suffering, but to free us. To open us up to possibilities.

Devout Christians use that phrase a lot, but I’m not sure we take much time to ask ourselves what Jesus meant when he said it. What is the cross, and what are the crosses that Jesus might be calling us to carry? We tend to apply it to any problem, big or small, that we don’t think can be changed. Sometimes those really are the crosses God has given us to bear. But sometimes, I don’t think they are. So let’s ask the question: what is the cross, and what does it mean to carry it?

First of all, the cross was painful. It was big, and heavy, and public, and nasty, and torturous. It was a big deal. It was an agonizing, painful death, and it was reserved for the worst of the worst. Slaves and foreigners and murderers were crucified. Not citizens. Not anybody who mattered. Nobody was watching Jesus and going, “what a great guy he is for being able to endure that.” They weren’t saying, “gee, isn’t it too bad?” No. They were looking at him and going, he must be scum to deserve that. What a horrible person that Jesus is! They saw him, and they despised him, and they mocked him. The cross killed him, but that wasn’t the only thing it did. It changed how people saw him, from then and ever after.

It even changed how the disciples looked at Jesus. I mean, here Peter is, Jesus starts talking about the cross—talking about the fact that he’s going to have to suffer and die—and what does Peter do? He tries to shut Jesus up. He doesn’t want to think about it. It’s too hard, too bad. Peter wants to think about all the nice, pleasant, good things that Jesus could do. He wanted to think about public respect, and power, and glory, and miracles, and political power. So when Jesus starts talking about the cross—that huge, painful, shameful thing—Peter tries to shut him up. Peter doesn’t want to have to deal with the pain and shame and grief and loss that are going to come hand in hand with Jesus’ death on the cross. He doesn’t want to hear that salvation is going to come through pain.

So when we look at life’s little annoyances and call them our cross to bear, we are really, really misunderstanding what the cross was, and what it did. It was not an annoyance. It was not something to be sighed over and swept aside. When we have crosses to bear, they are big, and they are heavy, and they hurt. Maybe not physically, maybe not where people can see, but they are going to have an impact. And a cross may make people look at you differently. It may make them look at you funny. It may be something that sets you apart, something that people would rather sweep under the rug and ignore, just as Peter wanted to ignore Jesus’ cross. It may be something that causes people—even other Christians!—to be uncomfortable or ashamed or judgmental.

The other thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that you have to look at what came out of it. Yes, it starts with pain and grief and shame and loss and horror. But that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it means. Because that pain and suffering did something. It changed the world—it changed us. Jesus died, but he rose again, and when he rose we were dragged with him from death into life. We are tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It matters. Jesus’ suffering brought new life, abundant life, and healing, and hope, and joy, and love. It was hell to go through, but it made a difference.

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he isn’t saying that suffering is good on its own. He’s not saying that pain, by itself, is a good thing. Pain is bad. What he’s saying is that sometimes it’s necessary to achieve something else. Jesus didn’t die on a cross because he liked pain or because he thought pain was good for him. He died in order to save the world. He suffered so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s what taking up our crosses means. It means doing the right thing even when it hurts. Taking up our cross means following Jesus and being his hands in the world even when it’s not nice, or convenient, or happy. It means living out the Gospel even when your friends shake their heads at you. It means reaching for life and healing even if that means pain in the short term. Taking up your cross means living a kingdom-centered life in a world that wants everyone to focus on money, power, and prestige.

Taking up your cross isn’t about dying. It’s about living. What kind of life are you going to live? Here and now, where are your priorities? What’s most important in your life? Not the stuff you think should be most important—the stuff that you actually treat as most important. Where do you focus your time and energy? Because a lot of people will say “my family and my faith are most important!” but they actually spend more time and energy and attention on their jobs, their sports, their favorite TV show, their latest toys, and keeping up with the Joneses. Because that’s what our world values. That’s what our culture pushes. The rat race: work hard and make more money and look good and do all the right stuff and buy all the right products and you’ll be happy and people will love you and none of the bad things in the world will happen to you. And so people chase those goals, and they get busier and busier and more and more distracted by all sorts of things they chase after in the name of happiness and security, and all too often we don’t even notice the people we hurt along the way, and we try to fill the emptiness by working harder, and you know what? Bad things still happen. The busy-ness and distraction won’t prevent them or fix them.

The life God calls us to is a life of love for God and for one another. If we are truly living that life—if our priorities are truly on that love—it will affect how we act, what we do, how we treat ourselves and the people around us. And it will mean following God’s priorities, instead of society’s priorities. And our society won’t like that. And your friends and family may not like it, either. And following that love may take you in places you wouldn’t choose to go, and living a life centered on God’s love may mean standing up to the broken, sinful things in the world, to spread life and love where there is precious little of it.

But here’s the other thing about the cross: even Jesus didn’t carry it alone. He did for part of the way, but it was too much for him. He couldn’t do it alone, so a man stepped in to help, named Simon of Cyrene. And together, Jesus and Simon carried the cross on their backs. And we don’t have to carry our crosses alone, either. Jesus is with us every step of the way, and believe me, he knows what it’s like to carry a cross! But God also sends us others, people like Simon, to walk with us and help us carry the cross even if only for part of our journey. And yes, it’s hard to carry the cross. But we don’t have to do it alone.


Who are you?

Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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.

I’m a science fiction geek, and one of my favorite TV shows is an old show called Babylon 5. And there are two questions that Babylon 5 asks over and over again: Who are you? What do you want? Those are really important questions to take seriously. To ask yourself, every once in a while. Because if you don’t, you can end up in places you didn’t want to go, doing things you didn’t want to do, being the kind of person you don’t want to be.

Those are important questions, but they’re also hard questions. You have to stop and think, really think, not just let yourself get swept up by life. Who am I? When I strip away all the unnecessary stuff, all the baggage, all the distractions, all the assumptions, what’s left? Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I the kind of person God wants me to be? And what do I want? When I do something, is it because I want to or because it’s just easier to go along with everyone else? Am I just going through the motions of life? Am I giving lip service to my ideals, or am I living them? Are the things I’m doing getting in the way of being the kind of person I want to be? The purpose of Lent—the reason for the ashes, for the fasting, for the prayers, for the worship, for the confession—is to help us ask those questions, to take them seriously. The rituals are designed to make us stop just going through the motions of life, and take a good hard look at who we are, and what we’re doing.

Rituals can help us. Rituals are powerful things that can shape our understanding of the world. Rituals can help us connect to God and one another and give us tools to build good and loving lives full of connection with God and one another. If we take them seriously, rituals can help shape who we are and what we want. But if we don’t take them seriously, rituals can also be nothing more than empty show, hypocrisy, and pious platitudes.

That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s day. God had called the people of Israel to be his own people, a light to all nations. God had called them to be free to love one another, free to live in justice and peace and harmony. And they had responded! They had said “yes” to God. They chose to be that light. They had agreed to the covenant, to the solemn promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was part of their name: Israel means “God rules.” It’s a way of saying “we’re God’s people.”

And the thing is, they didn’t. They turned away from his ways. Oh, sure, they kept the rituals, the sacrifices and the special holy days and the temples and the fasting and the feasting, and all that, but they didn’t really mean any of it. They did what was easy instead of what was right. Instead of loving one another, they quarreled and fought. Instead of justice, they exploited one another. Instead of working together, they nitpicked and found fault. The powerful ignored the needy. Slavery, abuse, backstabbing, greed, hypocrisy, hatred, fear … those were the things that drove them. They’d go through the motions of doing the religious stuff, and then go right out and do horrible things. They still said they were God’s people, they still said they wanted good and faithful lives … but it didn’t really matter because they didn’t take it seriously. It was easier to just drift along and ignore all the ways they were falling short of who God called them to be.

There were people like that in Jesus’ day, too, which is why he warns the disciples against empty shows of piety. And there are people like that today, too. And before you start thinking of all the people you think are like that, stop and take a good look at yourself. Because human beings are very good at pointing fingers, and not so good at examining our own behavior. And finger-pointing is one of the things that God condemns in our first lesson! Nobody can fix other people; we can’t even fix ourselves! The only thing finger-pointing does is make yourself feel better by tearing down others. We are all sinners, here; forgiven by God, born anew in the waters of baptism, but we are saved only by the grace and mercy of God. Without God, we are nothing but dust, dirt. We keep falling in to old bad habits, destructive and self-destructive ways of thinking and being and acting. But God has chosen us to be his beloved children, washed clean and given new life.

The question is, what are we going to do with that new life? Who are we? God has called us his children, his people, forgiven us, and set us free to live lives of faith and love. But we sometimes use that freedom for other things, things that hurt ourselves and others, things that take us further from God, things that betray our deepest calling and lead us into bad places.  And the road that leads us into those bad places, the road that leads us to hurt ourselves and others … it’s not always obvious, when we set foot on it.  And it’s usually easier to start and harder to get off.  But not impossible.  The first step is to ask the questions: who am I?  What do I want?  Who is God calling me to be?  Even when the world is leading us in different places, taking the time to ask these questions and build our relationship with God can bear great fruit.  And that’s what Lent is all about.