The Freedom of a Christian: Memorial Day 2017

Memorial Day Service, May 28, 2017

Micah 4:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Luke 6:20-31

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Birka Lutheran Church, Rural Washburn, ND

 

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

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

Our first reading was one of George Washington’s favorite passages, and he quoted it a lot, particularly verse four: ‘they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.’  It’s a picture of what God’s kingdom will look like, when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead.  But it’s also a picture of what Washington dreamed America could be: a peaceful place, where all citizens were prosperous and happy, and never needed to be afraid.  This is, at its heart, what we dream America could be like.  There has never been a place, anywhere in the history of the world, where this has been true for all the citizens of any nation.  There has never been a time in American history when all Americans of every tribe and race were prosperous and happy all together, but it is what we hope for, it is what we work towards.  It is, in a very real sense, what we send our soldiers out to fight and die to protect and try to establish: a world where all people are prosperous and happy.

I don’t know if that is possible in this broken, sinful world.  Human beings are flawed creatures who seem bound and determined to keep finding new ways to screw things up.  We also find new ways to fix things and make things better, but too often it’s one step forward, two steps back.  I don’t know if it will be possible to achieve that before Christ comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Whether or not we humans can achieve the good and godly society the prophet Micah dreamed of, we know that God can.  Whether we succeed or fail, we know that Christ will return one day and establish his kingdom.  In that kingdom, we shall beat our swords into ploughshares and our spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall we learn war any more.  It won’t be necessary.  God will arbitrate between peoples; we shall all be fairly judged, and all people will truly learn to walk in God’s footsteps.  There will be no evil, no pain, no hatred, no fear, no jealousy, no grief, no pride, no boasting, nothing that could possibly lead to violence.  Nothing that could require good men and women to lay down their lives.

I am very grateful, as I know you all are, for the many courageous men and women who have done just that, and are still doing that today.  I am grateful that for all the veterans who have defended this country and protected us from evil, but I am especially grateful to those who have given the last full measure of devotion.  I am grateful for their sacrifices, and for those of their family and loved ones.  And I pray, vehemently, for that day when it will no longer be necessary.  When nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, with no need to fear.

Washington was a soldier; he had seen the cost of war.  He knew, as any veteran does, just how important it is to know what you’re fighting for and what you hope to accomplish.  If you don’t know what you’re fighting for, you can’t possibly choose the right tactics to accomplish it, and in the end you achieve nothing but death and destruction.  We’ve seen that in America’s wars.  Sometimes, there has been a truly good cause worth fighting and dying for, something that could only be achieved through violence, something worth the sacrifices demanded.  Other times, we have fought because of pride or fear or political advantage, and what was gained was never worth the lives it cost.  We have a responsibility, as citizens of this great nation, to ensure that our leaders keep their eyes on the goal that Washington and our other Founding Fathers set.  We have a responsibility to ensure that when our leaders send our men and women off to war, they do so only when it is absolutely necessary, when the cause is worth their lives and their blood.  We have a responsibility to make sure that their lives and their sacrifices are not wasted.  We have a responsibility to make sure that when our people are sent into harm’s way, it is to build up a world where justice and freedom reign for all people.

Freedom.  That’s an important word for us as Americans, but what does freedom mean for a Christian?  Is freedom the same for us as it is for other people?  All too often, when people talk about “freedom” they mean a very selfish thing.  They mean that nobody can make them do anything they don’t want to do, and if they want to be a jerk to others, or stand by as their neighbors suffer, they can do so.  This is not what the freedom of a Christian is, at its heart.  The freedom of a Christian is not about politics, or legalities.  The freedom of a Christian is not about political systems.  The freedom of a Christian is a spiritual gift from God, and it comes with responsibilities.

The world does not want anyone to be free, and it comes with traps to break us and chain us and keep us from God.  These chains look different for everybody, and they come even for those of us who are lucky enough to have political freedom.  They can look like power, or self-righteousness; they can look like fear, or jealousy; they can look like ambition that drives us to cause harm in the name of advancement or sloth that convinces us there’s no point to even trying.  They can look like a hate that drives us on to attack people we think are our enemies, or a love that causes us to excuse and cover up the harm our loved-ones do.  These chains can even take the form of Christianity, driving us to make noise about the outer forms and ignore the heart of God’s Word.  In all cases, these chains harm us and those around us.  These chains break us and twist us and the world around us, and sometimes, we can’t even see them for what they are.  That’s what sin is: a chain that binds us and twists us.

The freedom of a Christian is that God has broken those chains.  Jesus Christ died for our sins, and taught us to love one another in word and deed.  We are redeemed through his sacrifice for us.  And even though the chains of sin are still at work in us and around us, God sends the Holy Spirit into our lives to inspire us, to fill us with God’s fire and keep us free from all the evils that want to entangle us.  The freedom of a Christian starts with this: we don’t have to drag around the dead weight of sin in our lives any more.  We don’t have to let the world’s chains drag us down.  We don’t have to live in fear; instead, we can focus on the work God is calling us to do.  The freedom of a Christian is not the freedom to be idle, or the freedom to focus on our own little corner of the world and ignore the suffering and evil around us.  The freedom of a Christian is the freedom to act.

Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran church, said it this way: “A Christian is the perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is the perfectly bound servant of all, subject to all.”  In other words, we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  Our chains are broken, and we don’t have to work to earn our way into heaven or anything like that.  We are saved, and we are free from the chains of sin and evil, we are the children of God, and no one can force us to do anything or constrain our consciences.  But being a child of God comes with responsibilities.  We don’t need to earn our salvation—that is a free gift from God.  But we do need to act like it.  Because we have been saved, because we are free, that means we are free to act.  We are free to do God’s work in the world.  We are free to work for justice and peace even when the world would rather have fear and oppression and senseless violence.

That work can look like a lot of things.  It can look like volunteering and donating to the local food pantry.  It can mean standing up against bullies. It can mean loving people that the world tells us should be our enemies.  It can mean serving in the military.  It can mean honoring our veterans, not just on Memorial Day and Veterans Day but by being there for them throughout the year and working to make sure that all veterans and their families receive the support they need.  It can mean holding our leaders accountable so that none of our servicemen and women are sent into harm’s way unless it is truly necessary for the safety of America.

I am so thankful for the political freedoms which our brave men and women have died to give us, and I am thankful for the spiritual freedom Christ brings.  I pray for the day when no more of our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers need to to go into harms way and perhaps die.  I pray for the day that the prophet Micah promised, when the Lord will judge the nations, and there will be peace, and everyone shall sit under their own vines and fig trees, free from fear.

Amen.

What Would We Have Done?

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2017

Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 14:1-14

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, O Lord.

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

In first-century Judea, there were problems.  First and most pressing was the problem of the Romans.  The Romans, who had conquered their country and ruled it with an iron fist.  The Romans, who imposed heavy taxes on ordinary people and used the money to build huge palaces and fund the very army that was oppressing the Jewish people.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the Romans were monotheists who wanted everybody else to worship their gods.  So while technically they allowed the Jewish people to worship their own God, the true god, they also pressured people to worship Zeus and Hera and Athena and all the rest.  They mocked Jewish customs and beliefs, and under this pressure many people turned away from their heritage.  Everything that had once made Judea great was under siege, and people were abandoning the very core of what it had always meant to be Jewish.

And then came along this new sect of Jewish people, who followed a guy named Jesus who had stirred up a lot of controversy.  And after his death, they … didn’t go away.  They declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  Worse than that, they claimed that this Jesus was God’s own son!  They worshipped this Jesus as God!  While still claiming to be good Jews!  Now, as any Jew could tell you, there is only ONE god, and that God is the Holy One of Israel.  There is no other God.  To claim otherwise was blasphemy.  And here are these people who still claim to be Jewish, who still claim to worship the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, who brought them home from exile, and yet they ALSO worship someone else?  Sure, they claimed Jesus was the Messiah sent by God, that he was part of the God their people had always worshipped, but that was ridiculous.  This whole business of worshipping three people—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—it was nonsense.  No matter what these Jesus-followers claimed, they must be pagan polytheists, just like the Romans.  The good and faithful people of God knew what God wanted of them, and it wasn’t this.  They knew who God was, and it was not this Jesus dude.  They knew what God wanted them to do, and it was to resist pagans and all who tried to turn people away from the worship of the one true God.  They believed they knew what God wanted with such fervor that they could not see the new thing that God was actually doing in their midst.

And so they put Jesus’ followers on trial for blasphemy, starting with Stephen.  They couldn’t protect themselves from the Romans, but by golly they could get rid of those Jesus-freaks.  They were so certain that they knew what God wanted that it never occurred to them to wonder if God might be doing something new.  They were so certain they knew how God worked in the world that when God took an active and direct stand in front of them by giving them Jesus and raising him from the dead, they looked at God’s redemptive work in the world and saw only the work of evil, trying to destroy God’s people.  God spoke his Word to them directly, and they couldn’t hear it because they were so certain they already knew what he would say.  I read this story, the story of the first martyr, and I want to believe that in that time and place I would have been Stephen, faithful to God even to the death.  But I have to ask myself, would I have been the crowd?  Would I have been one of the ones who was so certain I knew what God wanted that I attacked the people who were actually doing God’s work?

This is something that has happened throughout history.  God sends people to spread his work and do his will, and when it doesn’t fit into the nice neat assumptions people have about God, they reject it.  They say, no, God couldn’t possibly work that way.  In ancient Israel, people who worshipped God killed or attacked or imprisoned God’s prophets for pointing out the sins of the people.  In the first few centuries of the Christian era, people who worshipped God killed the followers of Jesus like Stephen in our reading today.  In medieval England, Christians burned people at the stake for distributing Bibles in English.  In 16th Century Germany, Christians killed Reformers for trying to bring new life to the church and get rid of corruption.  Every time God has sent people to do a new thing, to breathe new life and salvation into the world, a lot of God’s people have rejected it, at least at first.

This is something we should be wary of.  We live in a time of great upheaval and change.  Things are not ever going to go back to the way they used to be fifty years ago.  Some of the changes are good, and some aren’t.  But as we decide how to respond to all this change, we should be careful to remember that God is at work.  I guarantee you God is working in the world to bring his Word and his love to all people.  And it may look like what we’re familiar with, but it may not.  What God is doing in us and around us may fit our expectations, or it may surprise us.  It is not our job to dictate what God can and can’t do, what is outside the boundaries of what God can want to do.  When people—even deeply faithful people!—try to do that, they have often been wrong.  Just as Stephen’s attackers were wrong in our first reading.  They weren’t evil people.  They were devout followers of God genuinely trying to do what they believed God would want.  But they were so caught up in their own expectations of who God was and what God wanted that they couldn’t see what God was actually doing right there in front of them.  And so they killed Stephen.

But even if we get things wrong, even if we mistake what God is doing in the world or blind ourselves to his actions, that doesn’t mean there is no hope for us.  Even if we go as far astray as anyone possibly can, God can still reach us.  There was a man there, when they killed Stephen, named Saul.  Saul was a deeply faithful follower of God.  Saul loved God, and Saul had studied the holy Scriptures, and Saul believed with all his heart that killing Stephen was the right thing to do.  After Stephen’s death, Saul went and attacked other followers of Jesus, too, and that wasn’t enough so he went to other cities to persecute the followers of Jesus there.  Saul was consumed with hate for those he believed had betrayed God.  But Saul’s hate was not the end of the story.

One of the cities Saul travelled to in order to persecute Christians was Damascus.  But on the way there, God struck him blind and gave him a vision.  I have no doubt that God had tried to reach Saul before, that God had tried to turn him away from the path of violence and hate, but it wasn’t until God struck him down on that Damascus road that Saul realized what God truly wanted of him.  God struck Saul down and gave him a vision, and then sent a follower of Jesus to open his eyes.  And Saul realized what he had been doing, changed his mind, and became a devout disciple of Jesus Christ.  Saul was the one who followed God’s call to go out and spread the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, not just to his fellow Jews.  While preaching to the Gentiles, Saul used a Gentile version of his name—Paul.  That’s right, the guy who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, whose words we read in worship almost every Sunday, he started out not only opposed to Jesus but actively working to kill Jesus’ followers.

God works in mysterious ways.  And God does things we don’t expect and could never have predicted beforehand.  God is constantly working new ways to bring his love and salvation to the world.  We don’t always understand what he’s doing; we don’t always like it.  Sometimes, we let our own expectations blind us to what God is doing.  When times of change and turmoil come, may we be like Stephen, open to God’s will and faithful to the last.  But if we find ourselves in Saul’s shoes, may God give us the same grace he gave Saul: to turn us around, give us hearts for God’s love, and send us forth to be God’s hands in the world.

Amen.

Our Refuge and Strength

Reformation Sunday, October 30th, 2016

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.

When I was a kid and I first heard that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46, I was pretty skeptical.  Because there are, on the surface, a lot of differences and not a lot of similarities between the two lyrics.  A Mighty Fortress is all about, well, God as a fortress.  By contrast, there is not one mention of fortresses in Psalm 46.  The closest it gets is describing God as a “refuge.”  And I don’t know about you, but when I think “refuge” I don’t think “fortress.”  I think of wildlife refuges, where strict management of the local ecology gives a safe space for animals, plants, birds, and fishes, where they can grow and thrive in harmony.  And “refuge” also makes me think of “refugee,” of victims of violence and oppression forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live.  A Mighty Fortress also spends quite a lot of time talking about the devil, who is nowhere to be found in Psalm 46.  The greatest similarity between the two lyrics is the part about the dangers of the world, the nations raging and kingdoms shaking, and God responding by destroying the weapons of warfare.

But A Mighty Fortress was never meant to be a direct paraphrase of Psalm 46.  A Mighty Fortress was Luther’s attempt at taking the feeling of the psalm—the sort of thoughts and emotions it evokes in its listeners—and expressing those through the vernacular of his day.  Psalm 46 is all about reassuring frightened people.  It faces head-on that there is evil and violence in the world, that there is destruction, that there are very scary things going on all around us: war! Natural disaster!  Nations crumbling!  There is no attempt to whitewash things or put on a Pollyanna-ish positive spin.  There’s some terrible thins happening.  But even in the middle of that, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how dark the day, no matter how many disasters shake the foundations of our world, we don’t have to be afraid because God is always with us.  The God who has been with our ancestors back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was with us through times of slavery and freedom, exile and homecoming, crop failure and bountiful harvests, and everything that life can throw at us, that God is our God who is with us and will always be with us.  Even though there is some terrifying stuff in the world, when we take the time to stop and breathe and clear our heads, we know that God is God, and he is going to be with us no matter what.

That is a very powerful message.  No matter what happens, we do not need to fear, because God is with us and will never abandon us.  It was a message that people desperately needed to hear in Luther’s day.  After all, there was a lot to be afraid of in the 1500s.  The economy was shifting, enriching some and impoverishing others.  This brought about civil unrest, rebellions and uprisings as poor people tried to strike back at those who were oppressing them.  And I’m not talking about protests and the occasional riot, here, I’m talking about full-scale pitched battles between armies numbering in the thousands.  As if that weren’t enough, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly sent armies up through the Baltic and into Austria.  While there was little chance they could ever set foot on Luther’s own native country, they were still a threat to his neighbors, and there was a widespread fear of them throughout Europe.  And as if that weren’t enough, social change was spreading quickly.  The very ideas of what a family was and how it functioned were changing.  The place of women in society, how people thought about sex, the role of family in the community, everything was changing.  Sound familiar?

All of this was spread and encouraged by new technologies like the printing press that made it easier for people to communicate and spread ideas quickly across great distances.  People were becoming more literate, and as they spent more time thinking and studying, old certainties on which their whole world was based seemed to crumble.  Morality was changing.  Some things that they had thought wrong and evil were being declared good, and vice versa.  People were changing what they thought about sex and intimate relationships.  Nothing could be taken for granted any more, not religion, not the family, not morality, not the economy, not the way society worked.  Everything that people had thought was a firm foundation was crumbling.  Sound familiar?

People were afraid.  People grasped at straws, they hopped on fads and bandwagons that promised to give them certainty in a world that seemed to be disintegrating.  They covered up their fear with anger and hate, blaming their enemies for everything they thought was wrong with the world.  In this world, where the nations were raging and the kingdoms were shaking and cities and countries were tearing themselves apart, Luther read Psalm 46.  And he asked himself, what image—what metaphor—could he use to help people see the strength and hope in God even in the midst of their world shaking and changing beyond all recognition?

For 16th Century Germany, that image was the fortress.  Every city had a wall to protect itself from bandits, civil wars, and foreign invaders, so that even when armies did come marching up to their gates, their people would be protected and kept safe.  All the local people from all the towns and villages around could go to the city, where the walls and the local fortress would serve as a refuge from violence and destruction.  Everyone knew how that worked; they’d lived with those protecting walls all their lives.  God, Luther said, was like the greatest and best fortress ever, which can never be destroyed or damaged by any enemy, no matter how cunning or brutal.  So it doesn’t matter how much your world is shaken, it doesn’t matter who’s prowling outside your door—God is the fortress that keeps you safe, God is your refuge and strength, God is with us.  Always.

It seems to me that we’re in a time of change at least as great as in the Reformation.  Our economic system is in a time of chaos, as the old industrial system is breaking down and we’re not sure what will replace it.  We don’t need to fear an army invading, but there is plenty of violence in the world you can see any time you turn on your tv.  There is civil unrest, protests, and deep disagreements on how the country should be run and how justice should be administered.  There is deep social change.  Families are structured differently than they were a generation ago, and that change doesn’t seem to be stopping.  The way we think about morality is changing.  Some things we declared evil even ten years ago are being re-thought by huge numbers of people.  The role of women in society is changing.  Everything about the way we think about the world and ourselves seems to be up for grabs, and this is spread more quickly and easily by new technologies such as smartphones and the internet.

And people are afraid.  People are grasping at straws, grasping at anything that will give them back that feeling of certainty.  Sometimes they cling to old ways of thinking and acting; sometimes they cling to new fads and social bandwagons.  We feel threatened by a world that seems to have no sure foundations, and so we lash out at one another.  We don’t want to feel scared, so we get angry instead.  We feel threatened, so instead of talking and working out our differences or even just agreeing to disagree, we attack.  We don’t want to take the time to let our fears and anxieties out from the corners of our minds we’ve shoved them to, and so we don’t take the time to be still and listen to God, either.

In Luther’s day, the symbol of safety was the fortress.  What is our symbol of safety?  What do we count on to protect us and help make us secure?  Bike and motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, Kevlar flak jackets, blank vaults?  What else can you think of?  If you were going to put the message of Psalm 46 into a modern metaphor, what would you use?  What imagery best symbolizes God’s protection and security to you?

There have been times of great upheaval before.  Morals, economies, political systems, countries, technology, family structures—all of these have changed radically more than once in the 2,000 years since Christ, and probably will again.  If we put our trust in them, if we make them our foundation, we are left with nothing but broken pieces when times of transition hit.    There is only one foundation we can count on that will be stable and strong no matter what happens in this world.  There is only one refuge that will keep us safe from the storms of life, from the chaos and destruction that accompanies upheaval and change.  And that foundation—that refuge—is Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born to break the cycle of violence and death, to set us free from all the things that bind us—even the chains that we don’t realize are there.  That foundation is Christ, who suffered and died so that we might be forgiven and healed and restored.  That foundation is Christ, who is with us even as the earth shakes under our feet and the nations rage.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  God is our mighty fortress, our foundation, our stable rock in an unstable world.  May we learn to truly put our trust in him.

Amen.

Where do you put your trust?

Third Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 10C, June 5th, 2016

1 Kings 17:1-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

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

 

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

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

We have a very different idea of what a prophet is, today, than people did in Bible times.  We tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future.  Which confuses us when we come to a passage like today’s Gospel, where Jesus heals someone and everyone responds that a prophet has come.  But you see, in those days predicting the future was only a small part of what a prophet did.  A prophet spoke God’s Word, in both speech and action.  A prophet told people what God wanted and put it into action.  A prophet used actions to show people what God said, not just tell them.  On those rare occasions when a prophet predicted the future, it was mostly designed as a way to confirm that the prophet did come from God—you’ll know that he really does speak for God when his words come true.

The two greatest prophets were Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery into freedom in Israel, and Elijah, who did great deeds of power to call people back to God at a time when most people had forgotten about God.  You see, in those days, one of the so-called gods people worshipped was named Ba’al, and Ba’al was the god of the storm.  The Holy Land depends on rain completely for its moisture—there are no great rivers to use for irrigation.  If it rains, they could grow food.  If it didn’t, they starved.  So you can see how attractive it would be to worship a god who claimed to be able to send rain on cue.  “Trust Ba’al,” his priests said, “and you’ll never have to worry about having enough water or food again.  Worship Ba’al, and you’ll have everything you want and need.  That thing that keeps you awake at night?  Ba’al can save you from it.  Those problems you have?  Ba’al can solve them for you.  All you have to do is put your trust in him.”  It was like a protection racket.  Sacrifice to Ba’al, and he would keep you safe.  Don’t sacrifice to him, and, well.  You don’t want to find out what happens when you do that

Of course, there are two problems with that.  First, is that Ba’al isn’t really a god; he can’t really do anything.  There is only one God, lord of heaven and earth, and he can’t be bribed or bought.  No sacrifice to Ba’al, no matter how great, is actually going to accomplish diddly squat, because he was just something a bunch of people dreamed up to make themselves feel like they could control the world around them.  And the second problem is even worse.  Because Ba’al was a bloodthirsty god.  He didn’t just want the occasional calf of goat or dove.  No.  According to his devotees, Ba’al wanted children.  If you wanted Ba’al’s favor, and it was really important, you would kill your own child and burn the body on Ba’al’s altar.

And that’s just what Ahab, the king of Israel, did.  Sure, he worshipped the Lord God Almighty, but he decided to hedge his bets and worship Ba’al, too.  Just in case.  And, after all, his wife Queen Jezebel was a princess of Sidon, which worshipped Ba’al, and Sidon was a powerful country, so their god must be powerful, too, right?  So he set up temples to Ba’al and prayed for Ba’al to send rain, and even sacrificed his own son to Ba’al.  And in response, God stopped sending rain.  To prove that worshipping Ba’al would not bring rain, God sent a three-year drought, instead, and he used the prophet Elijah to do it, and to tell everyone why Ba’al had failed.

Three years of drought.  Three years of scarcity and hunger.  Three years of futility, as they prayed and prayed to Ba’al to save them.  And in those three years, the prophet Elijah lived with a widow in Zarephath, and her food never ran out.  Now, the important thing to remember here is that Zarephath is not in Israel.  It’s not a Jewish town.  Zarephath is in Sidon, Queen Jezebel’s home country, where they ALL worshipped Ba’al and the true God was unknown.  Now, this widow was poor.  Of all the people in Zarephath, she had the fewest resources to make it through the time of famine.  As it didn’t rain, and didn’t rain, and crops withered, food would have become ever more expensive.  And as a poor widow, she had no money to buy it with.  But God sent Elijah to her, and God gave her food to sustain her and her son and their household and Elijah, too.  Abundance, in the middle of scarcity.

And then her son died.  This poor widow, kept alive by the grace of a god she didn’t really believe in, with nothing in the world but her son.  And he died.  She blamed God—of course she did.  She was used to Ba’al who demanded children’s lives in payment.  Why wouldn’t she think God had taken her son?  And so Elijah prayed to God, and God gave her back her son, raised him from the dead.  Ba’al was a god of death, a god who promised abundance but only in return for the things they held most dear, and even after sucking them dry could not truly deliver on his promises.  But our God is a God of life, who brings life even in the midst of death and abundance even in the midst of famine.  Our God is a God whose promises are always true and reliable.

Nobody worships Ba’al anymore, but we do worship a lot of other things we shouldn’t.  Martin Luther defined a god as the thing in which you put your trust, the thing you look to in times of trouble, the thing you think will save you.  And there are a lot of things out there in our modern world that we look to for protection and salvation from the problems of the world.  Careers, political parties, money, health, the list goes on.  A lot of things that promise to fix our problems for us … if only we’ll put our trust in them.  A lot of things that promise they’ll keep us safe from all the things we fear … if only we’ll sacrifice for them.  We put our trust in all these other things, and then, just like the Widow of Zarephath, we blame God when things go wrong, even though God is working to provide for us and save us.

This is particularly obvious every election season.  When Barack Obama was elected for the first time in 2008, I was working at a church in Pennsylvania, and spent the day after the election visiting shut-ins and the sick.  The Democrats were sure that the country had been saved, and the Republicans were sure that the country had been doomed, and to both groups I had to say the same thing: Jesus Christ is lord of all, and he was Lord of All before the election, and he was Lord of All the day of the election, and he will still be Lord of All millennia after the United States of America has been forgotten.  No human being—especially no human politician, good or bad—can save or doom the world, any more than Ba’al could send rain or raise the widow’s son from the dead.  No matter what we think, no matter what or who we put our trust in, there is only on Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three.

In good times and in bad, in scarcity and abundance, life comes from God.  It doesn’t come from politicians, or economic systems, or jobs, or money, or physical health.  Don’t get me wrong, these things can all have a big impact on our lives, but there is something bigger and deeper still.  And none of these things are bad on their own; but when we put our ultimate trust in them, they will inevitably fail us.  When we put our ultimate trust in them, they will demand sacrifices from us that we should not give.  Sacrifices of time, attention, of relationships.  Sacrifices of people forgotten or shoved aside.  Because politicians fail and fall short; economic systems do as well.  Empires crumble and fall.  Businesses fail, health falls short.  Money can buy houses and food and cell phones, but it can’t buy love or life.  If we turn to all of these things and put our trust in them, our world and our lives will always be built on a foundation that crumbles and falls apart around us.

There is only one true foundation, and that is God.  There is only one who gives life, and that is God, who brings rain and sun, who raises people from the dead, who sent our Lord Jesus Christ that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  So whenever anything or anyone asks you to put your trust in them, whenever they claim to be able to save or protect you from all the problems in the world, be wary. And look for what they want you to sacrifice.

May God keep us safe from harm, and may we always trust in God, even when other things try to claim our faith and trust.

Amen.

We Gather to Eat and Remember

Maundy Thursday, March 24th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

When the Light Breaks In

Lent Wednesday 1, February 17th, 2016

Isaiah 42:5-9, Psalm 119:17-24, Acts 26:4-18

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 once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. We romanticize light, and sight. Oh, how wonderful to be able to see clearly! Oh, how precious is the light, particularly when all else is dark! And certainly that is true. But we don’t like to admit the downsides of seeing, and the light. We don’t like to talk about the consequences of seeing clearly, the difficulties and hardships created by stepping from darkness into light. And we like to assume that we can already see, that we are already walking in the light. (It’s only other people who need to be enlightened—after all, we see clearly—don’t we?) But the story of Paul tells a different story. Because even people who are walking in darkness assume that they are walking in the light. They assume they can see, when they’re blinded by their own assumptions and prejudices. The first step is recognizing that you are blind, and most people don’t want to admit it even when it’s true! Seeing is hard. Stepping into the light is difficult. And it can have severe consequences! But it’s still worth it.

Take Paul. Paul was a fairly high-status guy. He was a noted religious leader of his own people, the Jews, and he was a well-educated, well-connected citizen of the Roman Empire, respected by Gentiles, as well. He was fairly well-to-do, he could afford to take time off to travel, and wherever he went, whether in Jewish or Gentile communities, people respected him. He was devoted to God, a man who dearly loved reading the Scriptures and praying and worshipping God. He was truly a righteous man. And so, when he learned about a group of his fellow Jews who were worshipping God in a new way, who were saying things about God that were different than the things he had been taught, he assumed that they were wrong. Because he was a righteous man! He was faithful! Therefore, he could see what God wanted, and anyone who said differently was blinded by darkness. And so he set about persecuting those people who were trying to say new things about God. He had them thrown out of the synagogues, and he had them killed. Because he knew best. He could see clearly what God wanted. He was a child of the light, and they were trying to spread darkness.

Except that he was wrong. Those people who were trying to say something new about God? They were Christians! They really did have something new to say about God, because God had revealed himself to them in a new way through Jesus Christ. They had the light of God. Paul was the one who was walking in darkness. Paul was the one who couldn’t see the truth right in front of him. Paul was absolutely, totally, and completely wrong. But the biggest problem wasn’t that he was wrong, it’s that he was so sure he was right that he didn’t listen to God trying to correct him. Ordinary channels didn’t work. Paul was so certain his vision was right that he refused to see what God was doing. God had to physically strike Paul blind, and appear to him in a vision, for Paul to realize that he was spiritually blind. And then, when his eyes were physically opened, his spiritual eyes were opened as well.

And once Paul’s eyes were opened, there was a cost. Because seeing was only the first step—once he could see, truly see, what God wanted, he had to do it. And what God wanted led him into danger and trouble. God wanted him to preach what he had learned, which led him into direct conflict with all the friends and religious leaders who were just as blind as he had been. They all liked the way things were; they didn’t want to change. So when Paul changed, they stopped supporting him and started persecuting him. And secular leaders, too—both Roman magistrates and the Jewish King, Herod Agrippa—they didn’t like Paul’s new work, either. You see, the early Christians followed Jesus in building communities where all were equal in God’s eyes, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female. This threatened the social order, the way things existed. It threatened the secular leaders’ power. So they persecuted Paul, too, for teaching those things.

By letting God open his eyes, and by following God’s call, Paul had to face up to what he had done. He had to realize that he had imprisoned and killed people. He had to admit that he was terribly, horribly wrong. And that wasn’t all. By acting on the light God shone into his darkness, Paul lost all of his power. He went from respected leader to outcast, he was thrown in prison on many occasions, he was endangered regularly, he faced many hardships, and, in the end, he was killed. His life would have been easier and safer, if he’d continued on in the darkness. Because once he started walking in the light and exposing the darkness around him—darkness in the religious institutions, darkness in the secular social order—those forces of darkness started trying to shut him up by any means possible. Yet Paul said—repeatedly!—that it was all worth it. That he had more joy, and hope, and love, in the light than he had ever imagined possible when he walked in darkness.

And that’s often true today. Yes, the light is better. Yes, being able to see truly is better. Joy is only possible in the light. Love is only possible in the light. Hope is only possible in the light. But there are consequences. Because when you can see—when God opens our eyes—then we can’t ignore the darkness around us and in ourselves any more. And admitting the truth about ourselves is hard. Even harder is the fact that when we act on that light, when we reflect God’s light into the world, when we challenge the forces of darkness, they fight back. And that darkness isn’t just in the secular world, but sometimes in the church as well. The darkness is easier, safer. But the light is better. The more we reflect God’s light, the less darkness there is in the world and in the church, and the better everything gets. May God open our eyes, and lead us into his light.

Amen.

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.

Amen.