Go see: Rob Bell’s “What Is the Bible?” blog series

Rob Bell is one of the better Christian writers these days, and one thing I’ve always loved is how deeply Biblical his theology is, while still showing a very different angle of view from the standard American Christian perspective.  (If you’re looking for a book on heaven and hell, for example, his book Love Wins is just about the best out there.  You may not agree with him, but he lays out the important questions–and ways to think about them that you might never have thought of before–very clearly.)

So you have no idea how excited I was when I found his blog and realized he was working on a long series of posts exploring “What is the Bible?”  Like all Bell’s writing, it’s a simple enough style that anybody can pick it up and read it and get what he’s saying.  There’s no jargon.  There’s no expectation that you already know about the subject.  You can come to his writing knowing absolutely nothing about the Bible and understand what he’s saying.  It’s like having a conversation.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking his writings are simplistic.  He deals with deep and profound issues of faith and Biblical interpretation.  I have a Masters of Divinity, I read theology for fun, and I learn from him, too.  So no matter whether you know a lot about the Bible or very little, I highly recommend his blog series.  It starts out with Part One: Someone Wrote Something:

I’ve had a number of conversations recently that somehow led to the Bible. I say somehow because these weren’t conversations with particularly religious friends, and yet what they talked about was their interest in the Bible. 

For some, they readily acknowledge that this particular library of books (Yes, it’s a library. More on that later…) has deeply shaped western civilization in countless ways and yet they haven’t the foggiest notion what it’s actually about other than vague references to David killing Goliath (Although in the book of 2 Samuel it’s written that a man named Elhanan killed Goliath) or ominous warnings about the end of the world (Like in the recent movie This Is The End where Jay Baruchel keeps reading passages from the book of Revelation to Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill and James Franco-as if that’s the book to help you understand why the sinkhole in your front yard just swallowed up Rihanna…) or stories about Jesus doing things like turning water into wine (Really? That’s his first miracle? He makes it possible for people to keep drinking for days on end? Is this why Jesus was accused of being a drunk?)

For others, they’ve heard someone quote the Bible and something about what the person said made them think there’s no way that it actually says that. And yet they don’t have some better or more informed way to counter the explanation they heard other than you can’t be serious, that’s crazy.

And then for others, the Bible caught them off guard. They had an experience, they tasted something, they felt something, they endured something-and they discovered in the Bible language for what they’d experienced. They were wronged by someone and in moments of honesty realized that they wanted that person to die in a violent and gruesome fashion-only to discover these exact impulses described in vivid detail in the Psalms. How is it that someone writing thousands of years ago in a different place in a different language in a different culture could describe with such startling detail exactly what I’m feeling here and now in the modern world? How could something so many have discarded as irrelevant be at times so shockingly relevant?

Good questions.

Part One: Someone Wrote Something

Each blog post is self-contained.  They’re short and easy to read–if they were a book they’d be a few pages long.  You don’t have to read the whole series at one go.

At the bottom of each post is a link to the next one.  Usually it says something like “Next: What is the Bible? Part ___”

However, this series has been written over the course of a year and there are a few posts where he forgot to go back and put the link to the next post after he made it.  So here are the links to follow to get to the next post:

Part 30: The Genius of the Dogs and the Pigs

Part 49: Here is the World

Part 54: Predestination, Election, and the Burning Feeling in the Pit of your Soul

Go, read, learn, and enjoy!

The Difference Between Healing and Curing

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, February 8th, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

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.

There is a difference between healing and curing. And, if you’ve spent much time in hospitals or doctors’ offices, you probably know what I mean. Modern medicine can work miracles of curing: we have machines that can see inside your body and tell doctors exactly what the problem is. We have blood tests that can tell us how your body’s doing. We have surgeries to cut out tumors or fix blocked arteries or replace body parts. We have antibiotics and antivirals to knock out disease. We’ve got physical therapy to help get you back on your feet as quickly as possible. We have chemotherapy and radiation to kill cancer cells. We’ve got vaccines to prevent us from catching deadly diseases in the first place. We’ve got inhalers to manage asthma and other lung conditions. We’ve got drugs to regulate your heart, your kidneys, your thyroid, your lungs. We’ve got drugs to regulate brain chemistry if you have seizures or depression or anxiety or schizophrenia. And, if whatever ails you can’t be fixed, we’ve got all kinds of assistive technology: high-tech wheelchairs that respond to the touch of a finger. Oxygen bottles you can carry with you anywhere. Prosthetic legs good enough to dance or run or play basketball with. I thank God regularly for all those things.

And yet, I speak with people who have been in the hospital for a while, or had any serious or long-term illness, and hear them talk about what it was like, and they say that they felt worst in the hospitals and doctors’ offices and therapy rooms. Not because of how sick they were—in several cases, they were in less pain in the hospital than they were at home, due to medication. But because they felt so isolated. So cut off from life. They felt less than human. They felt like a problem to be fixed, not like a person. Even when they had caring doctors and nurses, when they were well-treated, their time in the medical system made them feel less human. Because our medical system—our whole society!—focuses on curing problems instead of healing. We want something simple, easy, quick, something that restores normalcy right away.

I had to face that tendency in myself when I was doing my chaplain training in seminary. For a summer, I worked as a chaplain at Oregon State Hospital, the mental hospital where they filmed One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. In the afternoons I would spend my time on various wards, and then the next morning I would sit with my fellow chaplain trainees and discuss our work with our supervisor. We had to regularly do “verbatims” where we reported whole conversations to the group so we could be critiqued and evaluated. Now, the thing was, none of the patients in that hospital were ever going to get cured. They just weren’t. They had serious mental illnesses that they were going to struggle with their entire lives. They might be able to learn to manage their conditions well enough to leave the hospital for a group home, or even their own home, but they weren’t going to get better. Nobody working there—not the doctors or aides or nurses or chaplains—was going to be able to fix anything.

My God, but that was hard to face. Day after day I’d report my conversations with patients back to the group, and day after day they’d point out that I was trying to fix them—I’d focus on little things that I could give advice about, rather than sitting with them and being with them. We were there to pray with them, to honor their struggles, to rejoice in their successes and mourn their failings, to help them build community even in the hospital, to help them know that they were beloved children of God even as they suffered and were cut off from the larger world. We were there, in other words, to help them heal even as they suffered things that could not be cured. And I was focused more on things like résumés and pill organizers. Because those were the easy things to fix. Facing the stuff that couldn’t be fixed—the illnesses that couldn’t be cured, only endured—was hard. And because I wasn’t willing to face that, I left the people on my wards to face it alone.

Healing, you see, is different. Healing is about renewing the body and soul. Healing is about being raised up. It’s about reconnecting with the community. It’s about becoming most deeply yourself, the person God intended you to be. Healing is about our whole lives as God’s children. Curing wounds and fevers can be a part of it, but only a part. In my time as a pastor, I have seen healing occur in deathbeds and funeral homes. I have seen people cured of disease and yet still lost and isolated and broken. Curing is not the same as healing.

Our Gospel is about healing. The Gospel includes both curing and healing. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, and he took her by the hand and raised her up—and by the way, that’s the same phrase used about the Resurrection, that Jesus was raised up—and she was healed. She was cured of the fever, and restored to her place in the family and the community. And, immediately, she began to serve them. (Have you known people like that, who get right up out of their sickbeds and hop back to work instead of taking it easy and resting a bit? That’s what she was like.) And the word service—the word that they use in Greek is “diakonia.” If it sounds like a churchy word you’ve heard before, good! It’s the word we get “deacon” from. The deacons are the ones who serve, who teach and serve meals and help with the sacraments and lead. She’s not just restored to her normal daily grind, she’s restored to fellowship and to participation in the ministry of Jesus. She becomes part of the Good News, part of the Gospel, part of the community of God’s people. That’s healing.

And you notice that as Jesus goes through Galilee, he spends a lot of time curing the sick, but he spends a lot of time praying and preaching and talking, too. Because curing people is only one part of the package. Jesus doesn’t just want the fever gone and the broken leg fixed—he wants more than that. He wants to heal us. Not just as individuals, but as a community. As a world. He wants us to be whole. He wants us to be renewed. He wants us to be most deeply ourselves and he wants us to be connected with God and with each other. It’s all connected, the individual cures and the larger healing.

But you may also notice that people came to Jesus mostly for the cures. The short-term fixes. Cast out this demon, fix this broken leg, get rid of this fever. Because, you see, healing is hard work. It means being open to change. It means being open to God. It means, first and foremost, acknowledging that things in your life and community and self are wrong, broken, and that you can’t fix them on your own. It means acknowledging that you need God and you need other people. And it also means accepting that God can heal even those parts of yourself that you think are so broken that nothing can ever make anything better. It means letting go of your fear, and letting go of your self-righteousness and ego. Sometimes, healing means learning to live with what can’t be cured. Sometimes, healing means accepting that things can’t be fixed, and accepting that you are a beloved child of God even still.

And healing also means reaching out to other people. Even the people you don’t want to. It means building community and love and acceptance even with people you don’t like or understand. It means being willing to be honest, even if that means facing the parts of yourself and others that aren’t so nice. There is more of God’s healing in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than there is in some churches. You see, churches, like hospitals, can also be focused on cures. Quick fixes. Making things look good, putting a happy smiling face on things. After all, if God is here with us, shouldn’t everything be good and happy and cured? AA isn’t like that. In an AA meeting, the first thing everyone does is introduce themselves and acknowledge their brokenness. And out of that brokenness, they support and love one another. Out of that honesty, they build a community that changes lives. They heal, even as addiction continues to take its toll.

But so many churches get focused on fixes and cures. And so, when we come across things that can’t be cured—like death, and grief, and long-term illness, and depression, and addiction, and abuse—we either sweep it under the rug or we try and fix it. “Pray about it,” we say. And sometimes, “can’t you just stop it? Get better?” And sometimes even “maybe you just haven’t been praying hard enough. Maybe your faith isn’t strong enough.” We don’t like facing the hard truths, and so we ignore them, and sometimes in so doing we ignore the people in our midst who are suffering, who need healing most of all. It’s hard to feel helpless. It’s hard to acknowledge that we can’t fix things, that some things just won’t be fixed until Christ comes again. But there can be healing even in the midst of pain, and grief, and illness. There can be love and renewal even in the midst of brokenness. There can be hope in the midst of loss. There can be community even when the world tries to isolate us. And when we reach out—when we comfort people who are sick, and bring food to those who grieve, and are willing to be honest and compassionate with ourselves and others, and be there for people even when there’s no quick fix or easy answer—when we do that, we are part of God’s healing. We are God’s hands in the world.

Amen.

How To Pray

Prayer is something we talk a lot about as Christians. But how often do we start with the basics and teach people how to do it? The end result, as several studies have shown, is pews full of people who don’t pray very often or feel their prayers are effective, but are too embarrassed to ask for help because they think they should know this already. This was brought home to me in Confirmation class. This year, we begin each class by praying for one another … and the first thing I had to do was teach the kids how to do it.

The one part of prayer that each of them knew how to do was to ask for God’s help with a problem. Which is good! We should take our problems and concerns to God in prayer. But if that’s all that your prayers consist of, you are in danger of treating God like a vending machine. Prayer is not just about asking God for what we need. Prayer is about talking with God and building a relationship. You know that old hymn What a Friend We Have In Jesus? Prayer is how we build that relationship, that friendship. And any relationship in which one person does nothing but talk about what they want the other person to do for them isn’t a very healthy relationship, is it?

A very important part of prayer is thanking God for what God has done and is doing for us. Thanking God for being with us, for giving us the ability to get through the day, for helping us with our problems—that’s one reason I start of each worship service and class with “God moments.” If you don’t pay attention to where God is working in your life, you can’t thank him for what he does for you. Once you start looking for God in the world around you, and thanking God for what God does for you every day, it’s easier to open up to the desires God has for you.

Thanking God, asking for what we need, those are both very important. But there’s another key component to prayer that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s asking God what God wants … and then taking the time to listen. We get so caught up in what we want, that it’s very hard to listen to what God wants. It takes practice and attention. If you’ve never done it before, you can start out like this: “God, I’ve told you what I want and what the problems are in my life. What do you want? Help me to know your will for me, and to follow it.” Then take time to sit quietly and listen. That’s hard—Americans are bad at sitting quietly and listening! We fill every second of our day with noise and activity. But to hear God, it helps if you leave space for God to speak. You might find that breathing slowly and evenly helps you to stay focused. If you can’t clear your mind—if thoughts keep coming—consider praying for those things that are on your mind, and lifting them up to God.

Prayer should be a time of peace and rest. It should be a relief from the cares of the world. If it isn’t, if bringing everything to God in prayer leaves you more tired and more stressed than ever, ask yourself this: are you leaving those cares at Jesus’ feet, or are you carrying them away with you afterwards? It is really, really hard to give your worries over to Jesus. (I struggle with anxiety, and let me tell you, “laying your burdens upon Jesus” sounds easy but it can be one of the hardest parts of a Christian life.) It is tempting to pick them up and take them with you—after all, we’re taught to be in control of our lives, have a plan, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we can’t control everything, and there comes a point where you can only say “God, help me,” and leave it in God’s hands. If you can do that, trust that God will take care of you even if things are going badly, you will find a kind of peace that you just can’t get anywhere else. (It’s okay if you struggle with this. Being a Christian doesn’t mean getting everything right, it means walking with God even as we get things wrong.)

I encourage you to pray about more than just your own needs. Pray for family and friends, too, but also people across the country and across the world. And pray for your church! At both annual meetings last month, I asked people to pray for each congregation. Birka is wondering when and if they should close, and several members of Augustana have come to me and said it feels like the church is “drifting.” In both cases, our first step should be prayer. What is God calling us to do? Where is God calling us to go? What dreams and hopes is God giving us, and what fears that are getting in our way? We don’t gather as a congregation to be a social club, to reminisce about the good old days, or because it’s habit. We are God’s people, whom God has called and chosen to be his hands and feet in the world. So whatever we do, it should be focused on God’s will for us. But to know God’s will, we have to ask—and that means praying! I hope this helps you deepen your prayer life.

 

The kingdom of God has come near

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 25, 2014

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-14-20

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.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news—that is, the gospel—of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” And in our reading from First Corinthians, Paul writes: the appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.” Two thousand years later, it’s kinda hard to believe that the time has grown short, or been fulfilled. And a week after having two funerals in the congregation, with another member in his last weeks and months, Paul’s instructions not to mourn seem … off, if not cruel. If the kingdom of God has come near, where is it? If the time between this world and God’s kingdom to come is short, when is it going to get here? And just what is the good news, anyway?

This is one of those places where our modern, high-quality, literalistic educations get in the way of reading the Bible. We are trained as children to take things literally. 2+2=4, history is about a provable series of names and dates, time is measured precisely down to millionths of a second, poetry can be logically analyzed. If something can be proved in a science lab or a court of law, we’re good. We understand it. But when you start talking about intangible things, about the things that don’t fit into nice, neat, logical categories, that can’t be proven—or disproved—in a science lab or court of law, the deeper mystery at the heart of existence … that’s when we trip up. That’s when we get confused. That’s when we try and force that mystery into nice, neat, logically-provable categories that are easily understandable to modern people with fact-based educations. And, all too often, we try to do that with the Bible. And that’s a problem.

You see, in Jesus’ day, they looked at the world almost exactly opposite to the way we do. We see the provable facts as the most important thing. They saw the intangible mysteries of the universe as far more important. Sometimes, when they’re talking about those deep mysteries, we try to interpret their words as if they’re talking about literal, easy-to-prove things. So when they start talking about the time being fulfilled, about the time being near, we expect that in a few hours or days or weeks (sometimes even a few years), the time will arrive. And it should be obvious from an objective, fact-based point of view. So when we read passages like this, it’s not that we doubt it—obviously, if Jesus said it, it must be true—but we sort of gloss over it. Because any ‘time’ that was near two thousand years ago can’t possibly also be near to us. And the Kingdom has not obviously shown up in the last two thousand years and the present form of the world hasn’t passed away, well, we start to wonder where it is. And since we can’t see it, we stop looking for it, and continue on about our daily lives. Business as usual.

And yet, Jesus says, the Kingdom of God has come near. What does it mean for the Kingdom to be near? What does it mean for the time to be at hand? Obviously, he didn’t mean that God’s kingdom was going to visibly take over the world in the next few years, because that didn’t happen. Yet all throughout his ministry, Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of God being near, and the time being close at hand. So what does he mean?

Well, first and most obviously, the kingdom is near because Jesus is near. Jesus is, after all, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace. And his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world. And you know what? Jesus may not be physically present any more, but Jesus is still with us, in our hearts and minds, in our community and in communities across the globe. I mean, this is basic stuff, what we teach to our children. Jesus is always with us even if we can’t see him. So if the king is always with us, even when we can’t see him, does that mean the kingdom is, too? Does that mean the Kingdom of God is, right here and right now, one of those deeper mysteries that we can’t see or touch but can experience through the love of God? Does that mean that even when the kingdoms of this world overwhelm us and break us down and lead us away from our Lord, God’s kingdom is surrounding us, too, building us up and healing us and calling us back to faithfulness?

When Paul says that the present form of the world is passing away, is that what he means? When we participate in God’s kingdom, when we treat others according to God’s will instead of the world’s power, are we helping God’s kingdom to poke through into our everyday reality? When we live a God-filled life, are we helping God to replace the kingdoms of this world with his own? When we see people act according to the love of God even in the midst of hate and fear and conflict, are we seeing the present form of the world pass away, to be replaced by the world God is calling us to?

And the time has come near, Jesus said that and Paul affirmed it. Does that mean that the time has come for us to live kingdom centered lives? Does that mean that the time has come for us to stop listening to all the cares of the world that drag us down and keep us tied up in ordinary pettiness and pain, and let God open us up to the joy of the kingdom? When Paul says not to mourn or rejoice, is he talking about the kind of mourning and rejoicing the world shows us: shallow, selfish, and brief, and not at all the kind of deep abiding joy the kingdom brings? Because Paul mourned with his congregations and he rejoiced with them, we know that from his other letters. Grief is natural and right, and so is joy … but there’s a difference between the kind of hopeless, carefully stage-managed and abbreviated sorrow you see in the world today, and the kind of grief that knows however much we miss those we have lost, we will see them again, and God will be with us in the midst of our sorrow. And there’s a difference between the kind of manufactured artificial happiness you see on television with smiles pasted on, and the deep and abiding joy that God’s love can bring.

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says—the time is now! God is here, with us, now, today. God’s kingdom is here, with us, now, today! Get off your hind ends and live like it! God’s kingdom is deeper and more real than the kingdoms of this world—they will pass away and God’s kingdom will remain. That’s the good news! That’s the Gospel! All the problems of this world, all the things that drag us down, all the injustices large and small, all the pain, all the hatred, all the evil, all the banal mundane awfulness, that’s all temporary. And you don’t have to live your life as if this world is the most important thing. You don’t have to struggle alone in a sea of worldly concerns disguised as ultimate truths. You can follow Jesus instead, into a life filled with God’s love and joy, a life that sees and celebrates the kingdom of God that is poking through in so many different ways in so many different places.

“Follow me,” Jesus says to the fishermen beside the sea. “I’ll make you fish for people.” This isn’t about ordinary life being swept away, this is about ordinary life being changed into something better. They were fishermen before Jesus’ call, and they were fishermen after it—but their ultimate goals changed. They left their nets by the sea to follow Jesus’ call, but they came back to those nets regularly. Think of how often in the Gospels we hear about the disciples fishing or being out in boats. And really, the area that Jesus preached and taught in wasn’t that large. It’s about the equivalent of calling local Underwood farmers to go out and farm for people and mostly spending time in the communities between Wilton and Max, with occasional trips to Minot and Bismarck. They’d still see their family and friends a lot. They’d have time to participate in the ordinary life. They could still help out some on the family farm.

And yet, in and among those ordinary days of work and family and friends, in and among those ordinary communities they grew up in and knew well, something extraordinary was happening. God was there! God was with them, in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom was breaking in, little by little, and they were learning to live according to God’s time, not the world’s time. They were learning to live according to God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world. They were learning to follow Jesus, and learning that in the darkest times imaginable—with the world against them and all hope lost—God was still with them. God was there, in their darkest days of grief and happiest days of joy, in their confusion and doubt and faith, the kingdom of God was near, working in them and through them and around them. All they had to do was learn to see it. And to see it, all they had to do was follow Jesus, and keep following, no matter what.

May we, too, learn to follow Jesus and see his kingdom.

Amen.

An epiphany in the wilderness

Baptism of our Lord, Year B, January 11, 2014

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

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.

There’s a movie in theaters right now called “Into The Woods.” It’s based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim that throws several well-known fairytales—Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel—together and intertwines them. It’s called “Into the Woods” because that’s where all the action takes place, where the characters meet and collide and scheme and cheat and help one another and learn and grow. In the woods—far away from their ordinary daily lives, from the patterns and social expectations that guide their normal behavior and perspectives—change is possible. Growth is possible. Learning is possible. Magic happens, and ordinary things become extraordinary, in the woods.

In the Bible, the wilderness functions kind of the same way. It’s the place where change happens. It’s a place that God is most likely to be able to take someone and turn them around, break into their life and make them new. In the wilderness—whether a physical or a spiritual kind of wilderness—you can’t hide behind anything anymore. You don’t have your normal job or what the neighbors will think or anything else to distract you. God often appears in the wilderness. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush in the wilderness, and it was during a forty-year stay in the wilderness that the Hebrew people learned to trust God and follow him again after generations of slavery in Egypt. It was in the wilderness that God renewed the faith of a despairing Elijah. And it is in the wilderness that John the Baptizer appears, the messenger preparing the way for Jesus.

And it is in the wilderness that John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Repentance literally means “turning around.” You go out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist, and that’s what’s going to happen. You will be turned around. You will be re-oriented. Your priorities will change. But the baptism of John was just water—water, and the wilderness. John knew that something was coming, something new, something extraordinary, beyond human understanding. John knew that God was coming. “I have baptized you with water,” John said. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” An ordinary repentance—even one in the wilderness—may not last long. When you go back to your normal life, it is all too easy to slip back around into the way you’ve always been. But it’s not quite so easy to slide back when God is the one to turn you around, when you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus came to the Jordan River, he was one of many. At this point, Jesus looked like a fairly normal guy—nobody looking at him would see anything special. Yes, he was the Son of God, but he hadn’t really done much to show it. His time to teach and preach and heal and feed people and die had not yet come. His baptism was the turning point. Jesus, being fully God as well as being fully human, didn’t need any sins forgiven—he’d never sinned in the first place. But this was the turning point, when people begin to see how incredible this ordinary-looking person really is. This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is when things are set in motion. This is when God manifests—not just the Son by himself but all three together, Father, Son, and Spirit.

When Jesus went down into the water in the wilderness, he said good-bye to his normal, ordinary life. When he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit came down to him and the Father said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s like a family reunion, a big group hug before Jesus begins his ministry, before he puts himself on a collision course with the powers of this world which will eventually result in his own death. I love you, the Father says. I will always be with you even as you walk towards death, the Spirit says. And if you think I’m putting too much weight on Jesus’ death here, at the beginning of the story, think about this: the word Mark uses to describe the heavens tearing apart? That word is only used one other time in Mark: when Jesus dies, and the curtain of the Temple that separates ordinary people from the Holy of Holies is torn in two. Jesus’ whole ministry is bookended by this tearing: the things that separate us from God—whether the curtain of the temple, or the heavens themselves—get ripped in two. And it’s not just a simple slice, easily mended. This is a rip, a shredding. There’s no putting it back together again. God is coming into the world—God is coming to be with us.

This is the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is about revelations, about God appearing, and as we move through this season, I want you to listen to the readings each week I want you to listen for the epiphanies, the revelations, in each one. In our reading today, it’s obvious—God tears the heavens open and speaks directly, and the Holy Spirit takes visible form like a dove, coming down. But although this epiphany seems to be mostly for Jesus—we’re told he heard the voice of God and saw the Spirit, we don’t know whether anyone else did—baptism is not just for Jesus, it’s for us. Because John’s baptism is only with water, but after this, every baptism done in Jesus’ name involves the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. That baptism with the Holy Spirit that John talked about that was coming? That’s the baptism we experience every time we bring a child or adult to the font and splash them with water. It’s not just our words. It’s not just our water. God is present.

In each baptism, the heavens are torn open a little wider and the Holy Spirit comes down, dancing over the water just as the Spirit danced over the waters of creation. In every baptism, God claims the one in the water, saying “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” No matter what else happens, God is there, present in the whole community, welcoming and claiming each child and adult as God’s own. God is working. God is calling us and turning us around. We can still walk away from God—but God will never walk away from us, because God loves us and has chosen us. No matter where we go—no matter where life takes us—whether we are faithful or not, whether we walk by still waters and green pastures or through wilderness and temptation—God is with us. Sometimes, especially when we’re walking through wilderness and temptation. Even when we are blind to him, when our own fears and dreams drown out his voice, God is with us, calling us and guiding us and hoping we will turn to him and follow. Hoping that we will see him all around us.

Because God doesn’t just come to us once. God doesn’t just have one epiphany. God keeps coming to us, all the time, in many ways. In good times in bad, at home and when we wander and stray far away. We don’t always notice God—we’re not very good at seeing God’s presence in our lives. When good things happen, we attribute them all to our own skill or luck or deserving, instead of to God’s gifts. When bad things happen, we ask why God allowed it even while we ignore the ways God supported us and carried us through the wilderness. But even when we don’t see God, God is there.

We don’t always see God, but whether we see him or not, God is there. And when we do see him, when we look up from our distractions and our cares and see him, that’s an epiphany. What have the epiphanies been in your life?

Amen.

A barn for a home

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

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.

One thing that struck me, as I was listening to the radio this December, was how many Christmas songs are about being home for the holidays. There’s I’ll be Home for Christmas, There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, and many others. They’re all very heartwarming, and they really strike a chord with me, because I’m so far from home myself. I, too, am going home for the holidays, but not until tomorrow, obviously. And I can’t wait to see my family and friends, do all the Christmas things my family has postponed until I can get there, have a big ham dinner with all the trimmings.

But let’s not forget that when Joseph and Mary headed to Bethlehem for the first Christmas, that wasn’t the kind of homecoming they were expecting. I mean, obviously, they were Jewish, so they wouldn’t have been eating ham. But even though Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town, the town his family was from, there was no welcome for them there. None of his family opened their arms to the holy family; nobody offered them the guest bedroom or even a spot on the living-room floor. No one invited them in for a big family meal. And so they ended up in the stable. As you’re gathering with family and friends, think of that. Being in your own home town, with nobody to take you in. That’s what happened to Mary and Joseph, and to too many people in this world.

Now, we don’t know why nobody welcomed Mary and Joseph in. Maybe most of the family had moved away from Bethlehem, as Joseph had. Maybe there were only a few of his kin living in town, and they were already full up—although I don’t know about you, but I would imagine that most families, if a family shows up expecting a baby, they find a place for the mom-to-be even if they have to turf out somebody else. But maybe Joseph’s family just didn’t want to make room for them. Maybe they knew that Mary had been pregnant before she and Joseph married, and maybe they were punishing them for the shame and scandal of it. Maybe they didn’t want to associate with those kinds of people, or maybe they didn’t want their kids exposed to that sort of thing. I don’t know why; the Bible doesn’t tell us. But when Joseph and Mary went back to Joseph’s family’s home town, they had to go to the inn. And the innkeeper didn’t have room for them, either. Maybe his inn was bursting at the seams. Maybe he knew about the scandal. Maybe he thought that it would be better for Mary to have some privacy as she was giving birth—privacy she wouldn’t have gotten in an inn where there were probably several families in each room. Whatever the reason, Mary and Joseph ended up in the barn, and that’s where Jesus was born.

People get so wound up about Christmas. Everything has to be perfect: food, presents, goodies, trees, decorations, music. You hear people talk, and you think that anything less than perfection means utter failure. And if you’re not home, with your family, well, that’s horrible, too. We have this picture of what Christmas should be like, and yet, the first Christmas wasn’t like that at all. Mary and Joseph were far from home, among strangers, without even a hotel room to call their own, with no feast, no goodies, no decorations—no nothing. And that’s how Christ was born. In that lonely stable, God became flesh. God became one of us.

God’s very nature is relationship. God is three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—together in a great dance of love. The first letter of John tells us that God is love, so that we can’t know or understand God without loving other people. We are made in God’s image, which means that we are made for relationship, too. We are made for love. It’s imprinted in the DNA in every cell in our body. And yet, when God became flesh, when the Son took form in Mary’s womb and was born as the infant Jesus, he came to a family alone in the world, isolated from friends and family, away from home.

I think he did that on purpose. Because even though we were created for love, there is a lot of hate in the world. Even though we were created for relationship, there is a lot of isolation in the world. We hurt other people and we hurt ourselves. We think that it’s better to rely on our own skills than to reach out for help even when help is deeply needed. There are people, right now, tonight, who feel desperately alone. Some because they are alone, and some because their family or friends treat them badly. It’s possible to be alone in the midst of a crowd—even among family—if those family hurt you and demean you. And all too often, that’s what we do to one another.

When Jesus was born in that stable, the love of God became real flesh and blood. And I think part of the reason he chose that lonely stable was to show the world that God’s love is not just for those who already have loving families close beside them. God’s love is also for the loners, for the outcasts, for the ones who have nobody or whose family and friends are worse than being alone. God’s love is for everyone, in every country, in every village, in every city. For no matter whether we are white or black, Asian or Latino or Native American or Arab or Pacific Islander, no matter what language we speak, we are all children of God. We are all loved by God. And God comes to us, in the mess and problems of life, just as God came to that stable 2,000 years ago.

I pray that you all have loving families and friends around you. I pray that you all share the love of God with one another this Christmas. But whether you are in the midst of your family or alone, God is with you. Thanks Be To God.

Amen.

Don’t Panic!

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-28, 46b-55

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.

On the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the words DON’T PANIC are inscribed in large friendly letters. I have often thought that if the angels in the Bible were turned into books, they, too, would have “DON’T PANIC” written on their covers. It is, after all, the first thing most of them say when they greet someone. Gabriel was no exception to this trend. He greeted Mary, and said, “Do not be afraid!” Or, in the slightly more poetic words of the King James Version, “Fear not!” But “Don’t Panic!” is actually also not a bad translation.

Which begs the question, why do angels have to go around telling people this, right off the bat? Part of the reason, I think, is that angels are awesome beings in the old meaning of the term: awe-inspiring and terrible and the sort of thing that makes a person realize just how small they are in the grand scheme of things, and how great the angel is. But the other part of the reason, is that anybody who’s read their Bibles and paid much attention to God’s work around them should be afraid whenever God’s messenger shows up with a mission for them. At the very least, we should be nervous. Because think about it: if God wants us to do something we already want to do or are interested in doing, he wouldn’t need to send an angel or a dream or anything like that. We’d already be doing it! And if it’s something mildly inconvenient, a nudge in the right direction can usually get us pointed in the right direction. We only need angels when we God wants something we would never in a million years choose to do on our own. Something hard, and messy, something that will upset our neighbors or make us look bad, something that will take us in directions we don’t want to go.

Take Mary, for example. We know, looking back on things, just what an important part of God’s work she was. We can see the whole sweep of history. We can see what God was doing in and through her, how God had chosen her to be his mother, to bear the Christ child in her womb and bring him into the world, to raise him and care for him until he was old enough to start his ministry, and set himself on the path to be killed so that the world might live. We know, looking back, that God’s salvation is going to come through her in a very literal way. And we know that she will be honored and admired for two thousand years for her faith and her willingness to follow God’s commands.

And all that can blind us to what she was being asked to do. She was being asked to bear a child out of wedlock. And you all know what life in a small town is like. Even if she told people her baby was God’s child, who would have believed her? No, everyone would gossip about what she did. And that gossip wouldn’t just last for a little while and die down. It would last for years. Decades. Even if she later became a respectable wife and mother, you know that people would still talk about her behind her back. Any time her future children did anything wrong people would shrug and say, “well, you know what their mother did.” And that assumes that any man would have been willing to marry her, a known adultress.

That’s the other thing. Mary was engaged, which in those days was a far more solemn and meaningful thing than it is today. The word ‘betrothed’ captures it much better. There was a legal contract between her and Joseph, and to break that contract—that agreement to marry—they would have needed a divorce. Once she and Joseph became betrothed, for either of them to have sex with someone else was considered adultery. Joseph could have divorced her for it, and then she would have been on her own, trying to support and raise a child by herself in a world that was a lot harder on women than our world today is. Not only that, but if Joseph wanted, he could have charged her with a crime: adultery was punishable by stoning. That is, adulterers who were caught were taken to the center of town and people threw rocks at them until they were killed. Now, Joseph was a nice guy, and Mary had to know that he wouldn’t do it—the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he had already decided to divorce her quietly instead of having her stoned, before God told him what to do—but Joseph could have. He would have been well within his rights.

All this pain and heartache, all this trouble and danger, and for what? A special baby. But how special? Sure, we know that salvation for the world would come through that baby; we know that he would be God made flesh. But did Mary? When the angel told her, “hey, this is really important!” could she have imagined just how important it was going to be? I don’t think so. Nobody at the time understood just what Jesus meant; you can see them, all through the Gospels and the Epistles, figuring things out and missing the point half the time before finally getting it right. Think about the disciples—Jesus told them all about his mission, about why he was doing what he was doing, and he told them about his own death and resurrection, but it wasn’t until after his resurrection that they were able to look back at everything he’d told them and go, “Oh, I get it!” And Mary had even less to go on than the disciples did. A few lines from an angel, that’s all, telling her that God is going to use her to do something big and important that will cost her dearly. How could she possibly have understood it all?

So God was going to do something big through her, that’s great. But the consequences were dire. I mean, if I were her, I would have been saying, “No offense God, I’m really honored that you’ve chosen me to do this, but the timing isn’t very good. How about we put it off a year until after the wedding?” How often does God call us to do something, and we say, “Gee, God, the timing isn’t right—it can’t possibly work that way—how about we do something different instead?” Because Mary isn’t the only person who’s ever gotten a tough job from God. A job they didn’t want. Mary questioned it, but in the end she agreed to do it. She would take the consequences; she would do something the world just wouldn’t understand. Something even she doesn’t really understand. But she trusts God to know what he’s doing. She wants the salvation the angel promises. She wants God’s kingdom to come. So she takes the leap of faith even knowing that it’s going to be hard.

When the angel comes to her Mary starts off confused and afraid: first, what God’s talking about seems impossible. After all, babies don’t spontaneously happen. The angel responds by saying God will take care of the details; God’s power will do what God has said. Okay, fine. She accepts that. I think that may be the most surprising thing of all, because even devout Christians doubt God’s power. They feel God calling them to do something, but instead they listen to the little voice in the back of their head that says “well, that would take a miracle—I just don’t think it’s possible,” and so they don’t do anything. Mary had that voice, that doubt, but she didn’t let it drown out her faith.

Then the angel, who has given her this huge mission that’s going to be pretty rough on her, tells her about Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth, who was also going through an unexpected God-given pregnancy. Elizabeth, who could support Mary and give her love and help that the rest of the community wouldn’t. Mary had a special role, Mary had a hard road ahead of her, but she didn’t have to walk it alone. God gave her helpers along the way. Her cousin Elizabeth, her husband Joseph—both got instructions to help Mary, and both would heed that call from God. They would stand by her even when the rest of the world didn’t. God rarely gives us solitary missions. When God calls us to action, when God gives us a task to do, God often provides helpers, confidants, support systems. They may not be the ones we’d choose on our own, but they’re there.

And that’s when Mary says yes. She’s been given her mission, assured that it’s really important and that God will do the heavy lifting, and that she won’t be alone. She may be ostracized in the community but she’ll still have someone with her who believes her and cares for her. And that’s when Mary says yes. Her doubts and fears may still be there—she still doesn’t understand why this is necessary and what it’s going to mean for the world—but she trusts that God will take care of the details. And you know what? He did!

Like Mary, we, too, are called by God, as individuals and as groups. We are given tasks, missions, things to do—it’s part of being a disciple. Sometimes those tasks are small—giving a hug when someone needs it, for example. Sometimes they’re pretty big. Sometimes, we do them without realizing we’re doing God’s work, and sometimes God has to nudge or poke us to get us moving. Sometimes, when it’s really big and really hard, people get angels like Mary did. (And sometimes we don’t recognize those angels for what they really are.) But we are all called by God to be his hands and feet in the world. When you realize God is calling you, take a page from Mary’s book. First, don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. It may be hard, but God will not let you do it alone, and God will help. Second, it’s okay to have doubts and questions. It’s okay to wonder how in the world it’s ever going to happen. Mary did, after all. Third, look for the people God has given you to help support you. Then take a deep breath, and say yes.

Amen.