Sowing Stories

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 15

July 16, 2017

 

Isaiah 55:10-13, Psalm 65, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

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.

When I first came to North Dakota, Gene Wirtz thought that I needed to learn a little bit more about farming if I was going to be a pastor to so many farmers.  (He was probably right.)  And so, my first year here, he invited me out to ride along in his tractor when he planted and to ride in his combine as he harvested.  So, out I went.  And the thing that impressed me the most, particularly in the spring planting season, was the absolute precision of modern agriculture.  GPS-driven tractors with computers controlling the placement of each seed, making sure that every seed is planted in the optimal way for it to grow, and that every inch of field is planted in the most efficient way possible for the most number of healthy plants.  This is big business.  People spend lifetimes studying the best possible way to manage and utilize land, soil types, rainfall, irrigation, plant varieties, fertilizer, and more, and then developing new techniques and plant varieties to make things even better.  Everything has to be precise so that nothing is wasted and everything grows.  The idea is to spend the least amount of time, money, and resources to get the most amount of results.  That’s how modern farmers have yields that farmers a century ago would have thought completely absurd.

It looks absolutely nothing like the sower in the parable.  The sower, you see, is indiscriminate.  Good soil gets sowed with seed, but so does bad soil, and so does soil that isn’t soil at all.  The path gets seeded just like the good soil does.  It may not grow anything … but that’s not for lack of effort on the sower’s part.  And I assure you, no farmer in ANY era from the beginning of farming to the present would work that way.  Would you guys seed the ROAD?  No?  Guess what, neither would farmers in Jesus’ day.  Because it would be stupid, right?  You KNOW that it’s not going to yield anything.  Even a gravel road, it’s just too hard-packed for the seed to be able to dig in, there are no furrows or anything to get the seed into the soil, and the people passing by trample any young shoots that do spring up, and (as Jesus points out), the seed on the path is just perfect, sitting there on the surface, for birds to come along and eat.  Sowing seed on the path is STUPID.  And people in ancient times didn’t have modern technology or science to figure out all the things we know, but they weren’t stupid, either.  I’m pretty sure that as Jesus told this parable, and he starts out by talking about the seed falling on the path, that his listeners immediately thought to themselves “wow, is that farmer incompetent!  What an idiot!  OF COURSE he’s not getting any results!”

So why is Jesus telling us this crazy story?  He spent a lot of time telling crazy stories, throughout his ministry.  Yes, there were times that he just gave straight-up lectures about what you should do or shouldn’t do, but most of the time he spent teaching he spent telling stories.  Parables.  And we’ve heard these stories so many times that we often don’t pay much attention to how deeply weird they can be.  Like that incompetent farmer trying to grow crops on the road.  So let’s take a few minutes to remember what a parable is and why Jesus told stories.

First, stories are really important.  Human beings think in stories.  We organize our world around stories.  If you tell someone a fictional story—not just untrue, but contradicting the actual truth—and tell them the true facts at the same time, they will believe the false story.  Even if you tell them up front the story is a lie, it will have more impact on them than the facts do.  For example: most Latinos in this country are not only US citizens, but have no illegal immigrants anywhere in their family tree.  No member of their family has ever come to this country without permission.  See, Mexico used to be a lot bigger than it is now.  In 1821, Mexico included everything from Texas to California, and a lot of Mexicans lived there.  It was their home.  But in 1846, the US invaded and conquered those lands, adding them to the United States, and those Mexicans became US citizens overnight.  They never crossed the border, the border crossed them.  But that’s not the story we tell.  The story we tell is of people sneaking in to this country to steal American jobs.  And so when I tell the truth—that most Latinos in America are US citizens whose families have been here longer than most of our families—people don’t believe me.  Because the story is more powerful than the true facts of the matter.

If stories shape how we see the world, then they’re really important.  So it’s no wonder Jesus taught using them.  Jesus didn’t care if his followers memorized the right words, or were able to quote him verbatim, or could give the correct answers on a test.  Jesus wanted his followers to think like him, to be shaped by God’s Word and God’s will.  And if you want to shape how people think and feel, you don’t lecture them or give them a list of things to memorize.  You tell them a story.  A story they’ll remember; a story they can connect to.

And parables are a special kind of story.  “Parable” literally means “to throw alongside.”  In a parable, you don’t come at the moral of the story straight-on.  In fact, there may not be a simple moral or lesson.  Parables are more complicated than that.  Parables are designed to make you think.  Parables are designed to be complicated, and surprising, and layered, so that each time you come back to it you hear some nuance that you weren’t quite aware of before.  Parables are designed so that you can’t possibly simplify them into one right answer to memorize, even when (as here) Jesus explains them.  And when there is something in a parable that seems weird, chances are, that thinking more deeply will be fruitful.

Back to the parable of the sower.  That weird, incompetent, stupid sower who is too dumb to know that seed scattered on the road is wasted.  No farmer in real life would ever do that.  But this is a parable, and that seed is God’s word.  And so then I have to ask the question: can God’s word be wasted?  Is there ever a time when there truly is no point to God’s word?  Is there ever a time when it is truly hopeless that it can’t have any effect?  I mean, there are times when the chances that that seed is going to yield good fruit are pretty small.  But is yielding fruit the only purpose of God’s word?  And how small a chance is too small?  And so what if most of it gets snatched away or stifled or choked out?  Even if it never bears fruit, isn’t the world a better place for it to have been there?

And what does this tell us about God?  I mean, we human beings are all about efficiency and returns on investment.  If we’re going to put time into something, we want to know we’re going to get something out of it.  We want results.  Most people don’t bother with things we know will fail.  We hate waste.  We are convinced that there is a limited amount of wealth and resources to go around, so we had better make sure we get our share.  We hoard and store up things until we can get the maximum benefit out of it.  And, you know, a lot of times that’s a good thing!  When I was a kid, I stored up my allowance and the wages I got for working in my parents’ studio until I was able to afford to send myself to Space Camp in Alabama.  That would not have been possible without thrift and saving and being choosy.  But at the same time, that’s not how the sower is operating in the parable.  That’s not how God’s Word operates.

God’s word is profligate.  God’s word is abundantly generous, to the point of absurdity.  God’s word is decadently extravagant.  No restrictions, no shortages, no measuring it out by the spoonful for maximum impact.  Instead, God sprays it out indiscriminately on good soil and bad alike.  Sure, it’s not going to grow everywhere, but where it does grow, it grows miraculously huge.  God doesn’t restrict it to only the places where God is sure of a return; God showers it everywhere.  God does not work as if resources are scarce.  God works as if resources are never-ending.  There is no need to count the cost, to be choosy, to be efficient.  There is more than enough to go around.

And what does this parable tell us about us?  Are we the sower, or are we the soil?  Or are we both?  And what kind of ground are we?  Are we the path, or the rocky soil, or the thorny soil, or the good soil?  And are we always the same kind of soil or does that change throughout our lives?  Can we be good soil one day and thorny soil a week later, when something happens to make us worried?  Can we be rocky soil in one part of our lives, but good soil later?  And what are the rocks and thorns in our lives, and can we pull them out?  Can we help others to be good soil by, say, helping them deal with the cares and worries of life?

What do you think?

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Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 12, June 25, 2017

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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, O Lord.

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

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about one of the things Christians like to talk about least.  Conflict.  Disagreement.  Division.  The hardship that comes from following Christ.    But whether or not we like to think about it, the sad reality is that it happens all too often.  When there is conflict or disagreement, Christians tend to respond theologically in one of two ways.  That is, if you ask us what God thinks about conflict and how that should affect us, all too often you’ll get one of two answers.  One is to say, well, God is love, therefore God doesn’t want us to fight, therefore we should just be nice.  The other reaction is to say, well, I know what God wants and therefore anything I do is following God’s will.  I don’t think Jesus likes either option.

The belief in the niceness as the central Christian virtue leads us to try to paper over problems or ignore them, because they feel threatening, like a sign that our community isn’t Christian enough.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow for healing or growth.  Problems fester and grow instead of being dealt with.  The loudest voices get heard, and the others are shut up because they threaten the status quo.  Which is great if you’re one of the loudest voices, but not great if you aren’t.  Some people’s needs get met, while others get trampled on in the name of unity and community.  The least powerful people are forced to sacrifice so that the most powerful will be comfortable.

The belief in self-righteousness, on the other hand, leads to really nasty fights because of course if God is on your side than whatever you do is justified, and your enemies are evil, horrible people.  So you can be just as much of a jerk as you want, and it’s justified.  You can be as nasty as you want, and you are in the right because God is on your side.  There are a couple of problems with this one.  First, sometimes we’re wrong.  It’s actually pretty easy to convince yourself that God thinks the same way you do, instead of conforming your heart and mind to God.  I’ve seen far too many people—from a wide variety of backgrounds, education levels, and political orientations—use the Bible and God’s will to back up and support what they already think, instead of truly following Jesus.  The second problem with this kind of self-righteousness is that the God who commanded us to love our enemies is probably not going to look too fondly on the sort of scorched-earth tactics this kind of belief tends to lead to.

Conflict can happen for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad.  Sometimes everybody is just being a selfish jerk, or refusing to listen and think about anything other than themselves and the way their community sees the world.  Sometimes conflict happens because petty disagreements and old grudges keep getting brought out in new forms.  In these cases everybody just needs to take a step back and learn to listen to other people and be reconciled.  But sometimes conflict happens because of a deep conflict between God’s ways and the ways of the world.  In our Gospel reading Jesus says that we’re going to go through some of the same things that happened to him.  Just as Jesus got into conflicts with a wide variety of people, if we are truly his disciples, we’re going to have conflict too.  So what was Jesus doing that got people to react?  Why did some of them hate him and plot against him?  Why was this a concern here, in the tenth chapter of Matthew?  Let’s back up and see what Jesus has been doing.

Matthew chapters five through seven is the sermon on the mount, one of Jesus’ greatest times of teaching.  He starts off by saying that God especially loves the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers, all the ones who get trampled on by the world.  In other words, God loves the ones that society would rather ignore or shut out.  Then Jesus talks about relationships, friendships and familial relationships and marital relationships, and how important reconciliation and forgiveness are.  Then he talks about loving your enemies.  Then he talks about doing good and religious works in private, so no one can see you doing them.  And Jesus finishes up by reminding us that we should always be relying on God, not on our own ability to make things turn out the way we want.

This is all really difficult stuff.  He’s telling anyone who will listen that what you look like in public—what the world thinks of you—is irrelevant.  God doesn’t care about who has power and who doesn’t.  God cares about people, even the least important and most despised people.  God loves everyone, good and bad alike.  God cares about how we treat one another.  Especially when we have nothing to gain by doing the right thing.  Especially when we will suffer for doing the right thing.  Because there are always people and forces in society who like to divide people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t.  The ones who deserve good things and the ones who don’t.  The saints and the sinners.  And when you start building bridges with the people that society doesn’t like, well, society generally doesn’t take it very well.  It’s a recipe for conflict.  And when you truly trust in God’s abundant blessings to provide, you’re a lot less likely to buy in to the rat race that tells us that to get ahead we have to keep others behind.  That’s a threat to all the people who profit on the rat race.  In order to follow Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, you have to pretty much ignore everything the world teaches about power and weakness, about love and hate, about money, about religion, about what matters and what doesn’t.

Then after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends chapters eight and nine putting his words into practice.  He heals people, casts out demons, forgives sins, and eats with all the people society wants to exclude.  And the Pharisees are outraged!  The Pharisees, by the way, are the local leaders of society.  They’re the movers and shakers in each little town, they’re the deeply faithful people who go to worship every week and study the Scriptures and spend lots of time and effort trying to be as faithful as possible.  They deeply hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness and mercy … but only on their terms.  They want God’s healing and forgiveness to overflow … but only for the people they believe deserve it.  They want society to be healed and reconciled … but only the parts of society they approve of.  They want to experience God’s miracles … but only in the times and places that fit their ideas of when and where God should act.

When Jesus doesn’t fit into their nice, neat, orderly lives, they get angry.  When Jesus doesn’t fit into their expectations, when he teaches about loving everyone—and then goes out and actually does it, forgiving sinners and eating with them!—they can’t stand it.  When Jesus casts out demons, therefore, they say it’s a trick, and he does it because he’s a demon.  We don’t like to remember it, but the deepest resistance to Jesus came from the people who should have been his most ardent followers, the ones who had spent their lives honestly seeking God but who balked when he didn’t look like what they expected.  And if people balked at following Jesus when they saw what it was really like 2,000 years ago, we shouldn’t be surprised if we have conflict today when we try to follow Jesus.  And some of that conflict is going to come even from deeply faithful people who disagree about what it means to put God’s word into action.

But let’s notice what Jesus is doing and what he’s not doing.  He’s preaching the Gospel, but he’s pairing it with actions.  He talks about God blessing the poor and meek, and then he goes and heals and feeds them, giving them tangible blessings.  He talks about forgiving people, and then he goes out and forgives sinners and eats with them.  He talks about the importance of right relationships, and then he goes out and builds relationships with people that society tries to exclude.  This is not about proving his point or rubbing his opponent’s noses in all the ways they’re wrong.  This is about putting God’s love into action.  The haters are gonna hate, but we don’t have to become haters in response.  We don’t have to be afraid of them.  The same God who sees each sparrow is watching over us, too.

We have a mission.  That mission is not to attack people we don’t like, or to prove how great of a Christian we are, or to preserve the political power of Christianity, or to be nice no matter what.  That mission is neither to give unity through superficial niceness nor to self-righteously destroy those who disagree with us.  That mission is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  It’s to tell people that God loves them and forgives them, that God brings life and healing and freedom, and then show them what that love and forgiveness look like.  And sometimes showing people love and forgiveness is going to bring us into conflict.  And that’s not going to be fun.  But that is the mission Christ calls us to.  That is the mission Christ died for.  That’s the mission of the cross, the mission that brings salvation and the only life truly worth living.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.  May we find the life that truly matters in Jesus.

Amen.

Baptism and Discipleship

Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

Genesis 1:1—2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

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, O Lord.

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

Every year at the end of Confirmation, we play Confirmation Jeopardy.  One of the questions is a trick question: why do we baptize?  And the kids usually come up with some really good and true answers.  We baptize because it saves us!  We baptize because it connects us to Jesus!  We baptize because it washes us free from sin!  And all of these are correct.  But they’re not the simplest answer, the answer I’m looking for, which is that we baptize because Jesus commands us to.  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism is a sacrament, a holy rite which washes us clean of our sins and connects us to the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death.  Just as Christ died, so we too will one day die—and just as Christ rose from the grave, so we, too, will rise from the grave when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.  We are born children of a fallen, sinful human race.  In baptism, the old, sinful self is drowned and we are reborn as children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom and heirs of God’s promise.  In baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we are made part of the body of Christ in the world, which is the community of all believers.  Baptism does many things, and it is an extremely important part of the life of a Christian.  It only happens once, but it changes who we are and who we belong to on a fundamental level.  And we don’t do it because we think it’s nice, we do it because Jesus commands us to do it.

But notice that baptism isn’t alone.  It’s not the sum total of Jesus’ command.  It is sandwiched in the middle of other stuff.  Jesus does not just say “Baptize your children and anybody who wants to join your church.”  Jesus’ command has three parts.  The first is this: go and make disciples of all nations.  In other words, baptism is intimately connected with discipleship.  Baptism depends on discipleship.  So what is discipleship?  We talk about it a lot, but don’t always stop to define it.  Discipleship comes from the same root word as “discipline.”  A disciple is someone who is disciplined about their faith.  Someone who puts it into action and practices it regularly.  It’s not just an accident, and it’s not an afterthought.  Faith is an action, a verb, something a disciple does.  They work at it, through prayer and study and worship and trusting God even when they have doubts and letting the love of God guide their actions and their words.  That’s what a disciple does.

And that’s why Jesus connects baptism and discipleship.  Baptism makes us children of God and unites us with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship is living that out.  Discipleship is when we don’t just say we love Jesus, we actually put that love into action.  Baptism matters, but if we aren’t willing to follow that up and live like we mean it, how important is it?  It’s kind of like me being a fan of the Seattle Mariners.  Yes, if I’m going to watch baseball, they’re my team.  But I haven’t watched a game of theirs in years, and I don’t even know who’s on the team now, or how they’re doing.  So, while I am still a fan, I’m not much of one.  There’s no inspection or test to see if I’m worthy of being called a fan, there’s no chance that I’d be kicked out of a game for not being enthusiastic enough, but if I were really a fan, well, I’d have figured out a way to follow my team even though I’m half a continent away.  In the same way, you only need to be baptized once and even if you fall away from the faith, that baptism never loses its power … but at the same time, it’s not quite as meaningful if you don’t live a life of discipleship.

So, then, how do we make disciples?  Most crucially today, how do we as a community raise this child baptized here today and all children baptized here so that the promises of their baptism will be completed in their discipleship?  Faith isn’t something you learn in a classroom, it’s something you experience.  Faith isn’t taught, it’s caught.  And to catch it, it really helps to be around people who live out their faith in discipleship.  Who pray regularly, who worship regularly, who study their Bibles, who listen and watch for God in everything that they do, and who put that faith into action.  We become disciples through contact with other disciples.  We learn faith by doing, by acting it out.  We learn faith by choosing to love and trust God and let that love and trust guide our actions … and we learn faith by seeing how other people love and trust God.

The parents are the most important in this.  Children absorb faith from their parents, whether that faith is strong or weak.  When parents are disciples, children usually become disciples, too.  If children pray with their parents, if they read Bible stories with their parents, if they talk about how their faith impacts their daily life with their parents, chances are they will continue on in the faith to the rest of their lives.  But parents are not the only role models children have.  Their grandparents, godparents, Sunday School teachers, and others in the community also guide and shape their faith and help them grow.  The most important thing about Sunday School, for example, is not the curriculum or the funny videos.  The most important way Sunday School shapes a child’s faith is how it connects them to faithful role models in the congregation.

And discipleship is not just for the few, the chosen, the ones who are like us.  We are not sent to make disciples only among our own children, but among the whole world.  And the same methods that work for raising children in the faith work for making disciples out in the world, too.  When people we know, people we have a relationship with, see us living and acting out our faith, when they see it make a difference in our lives, they are drawn to the Gospel and are more likely to become disciples themselves.  If you look at places where Christianity is spreading rapidly—in Africa and Asia—it’s because they are serious about discipleship, both among those who are already Christian and among those who are coming to the faith.  They live their faith, and allow God to make a difference in their lives, and all who see them are drawn to them.  They don’t just say they love God and their neighbor, they put that love into action.  And when their neighbors experience that love, they want to become a part of it, too.

The first part of the command is to make disciples, which means we have to be disciples.  The second part of the command is to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And the third part is to remember that Jesus is always with us, no matter what.  You see, the heart of the Christian life is about relationship, because God is about relationship.  God comes to us in three ways—as our creator and father, as the Son our savior, and as the Spirit that inspires and moves us.  When it says in 1 John 4 that God is love, that’s what it means.  The very heart of God is a relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit, and God’s work in the world is reaching out to extend that loving relationship to us.  We are never alone because once we become children of God in baptism, that bond of relationship will never break.  God loves us no matter what.  Discipleship isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about loving God and experiencing the love God has for us, and letting that love flow out through us to the world.

When we let God work in us and through us, God’s reconciling love fills us and spreads out into the world, breaking down barriers, lifting up those who are poor and brokenhearted, healing all who need it.  The living water of God, in which we are baptized, rises up in us and flows out for all the world.  When we are united with Christ in baptism, when we follow the Spirit in discipleship, the love of God is always with us, and we are called to spread that love to all the world.

That’s why we baptize.  That’s why discipleship is important.  Because the God who created us, who gave his life to save us, who comes to us and inspires us and nourishes our souls, loves us, and loves all the world.  We want to be a part of that great love, and share it with all: our children, our community, our world.

Amen.

Baptism and the Love Command

Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

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

 

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

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

 

We are only baptized once in our lives.  Baptism is many things, but one of them is an adoption.  When we are baptized, God speaks to us the same words he spoke to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River: you are my beloved child.  In baptism, we are re-born children of God.  And, like any adoption, it only happens once, and changes the reality of who we are and whose we are.  That one moment changes us.  It re-forms our relationships and our place in the world.  We are born children of a fallen humanity; in baptism, we are re-born as children of God.  In baptism, God claims us as his own, washes us clean from our sins, creates us new people in him, and unites us with the death and resurrection of Christ, so that as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so we, too, will be resurrected when Christ comes again.  Like an adoption or a marriage, baptism only has to happen once, because it completely changes us from one thing to another.  Martin Luther used to say that baptism was an everyday reality, that through our baptisms we die every day to sin and rise to new life in Christ Jesus.  Just like new parents signing the adoption papers, or newlyweds signing the marriage license, baptism is the beginning of a new life together, that lasts our whole life long.

God’s adoption means our salvation.  Just as Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, so we too will die one day … and when Christ comes again we will rise from our graves just as he did, healed and made new and perfect, all our sins washed away and every bad part of us gone.  In our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Just as Jesus rose from the grave, so we too will one day rise from the grave.  We live now in this world, but in baptism God has made us citizens of his kingdom.  Just as when a couple adopts a child from a foreign country, that child becomes a citizen of his new parents’ country, when God adopts us as his children in baptism, we are made citizens of God’s country.

But like an adoption or a marriage, sometimes we need to re-affirm our baptism.  We need to remember our baptism and think for a bit about what it means, and re-commit ourselves to living with the baptismal relationship.  Just like married couples celebrate their anniversaries, or sometimes renew their vows.  Like any relationship, the more you put into your baptismal relationships, the more you get out of them.  So it’s important to take the time to think about what that means.  We need to think about what it means to be a child of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, and how we should be responding to the love of God poured out on us in our baptisms and throughout our lives.  God will never abandon us or cut us off, just like loving parents never abandon or cut off their children; in return, we should be living as God calls us to live.

Today at Augustana we are confirming two young people, MiKayla and Kaleb.  If you look at the rite in your hymnals, you will see that the formal name for it is not “Confirmation” but “Affirmation of Baptism.”  This rite is a time to remember our baptisms and re-dedicate us to the one who claims us as his own.  Not just for the two young people standing up in front of the church in white robes, but all of us.  We are all baptized children of God.  We are all called to live and work as God’s people in the world.

Now, if you ask different Christians how we should live and work in the world, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  Some will have a long list of things we can and cannot do—but not all Christian groups would put the same thing on that list.  And some people would say we shouldn’t have hard-and-fast rules at all, but rather go where we feel the Holy Spirit calling us.  So the question is, what guiding principle should we live our lives by?  What is the core thing that Jesus wants us to do as we follow him?  What central thing should guide our interpretation of Scripture and the rules by which we live?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus said to the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What commandments does he mean?  There are a lot of commandments in the Bible, some of which were specific commands for specific times and places, some of which are more general and apply to everyone everywhere in every time.  What commandments is Jesus talking about in this reading?  Well, this is a short excerpt from the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ last instructions for his disciples the night before he was arrested and put on trial.  It’s four chapters long, and in those chapters Jesus gives the same commandment: love one another.  If you love me, Jesus says, you will love one another.  You cannot love Jesus without also loving your neighbor.  In baptism, God claims us as his own children because he loves us; we respond to that love by loving God, and loving our neighbor.  That’s the way the Christian life is supposed to go.  That’s what all of Scripture boils down to: love God, and love your neighbor.

In Confirmation class we spent almost half of this year talking about the Ten Commandments, what they mean for us and what they might look like in real life.  And one of the things we talk about is that they’re the foundation of Christian ethics, but they are not the sum total of what we are supposed to do.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  If we love God, we’ll keep him first in our lives, we won’t take God’s name in vain, and we’ll take time both to rest and to worship God.  If we love our neighbors, we will not kill them, or cheat on our relationships, or steal, or lie, or be jealous.

But we can follow all those rules and still be mean, petty people.  We can follow all the rules and still hurt people.  We can follow all the rules and still not be the people God called us in baptism to be.  We can follow all the rules and still not live up to the citizenship we have in God’s kingdom.  Because the rules don’t exist for the sake of having rules.  The rules exist to guide us to God, and to provide a framework for the healthy and loving relationships that God desires us to have with each other and with him.  The rules exist to help us make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom, our true home.  The rules exist to give us a little bit of an idea what the world would look like if we really and truly did love one another as God has loved us.  To help us see that there is a better way.  To help us be the people God created us to be, and called us to be in our baptisms.

That’s a big order.  That’s huge and intense.  I don’t know about you, but I find that a lot of the time, following the letter of God’s commandments is a lot easier than following the spirit of them.  Checking off boxes on a list of how a Christian is supposed to live is a lot easier than following Jesus’ command to love.  And if I were to rely solely on my own abilities and strength of will, there is no way that I could live up to that command.  There is no way I could be the person God created me to be.

But God does not leave us to struggle through on our own.  God does not give us a commandment and then stand up in heaven with a clipboard judging us and writing us off when we fail.  God sent us Jesus Christ, to teach us and to save us, and when Jesus returned to heaven after the Resurrection, God sent us the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the encourager, the one who inspires us to be the people God created us to be, who lights a fire in our hearts, who gives us the strength and wisdom to put God’s love into action.

May we live each day remembering that we are baptized children of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, loving God and our neighbor.

Amen.

An Autism-Friendly Church Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

I just wrote a piece on autistics and the church for ClergyStuff.com‘s Exceptional People blog.

I’m a pastor and autistic. In my spare time I go around giving presentations to people about autism. When people learn this, they often want tips for their own congregation: what can they do to make it welcoming to autistics? They’re looking for something simple: maybe a quiet room, or stim toys in the pews. Some physical change they can make to the building that will make the space more autistic-friendly. Or maybe even a change to the service itself—something small, that will make a big difference.

Problem is, there’s no one thing—or even two, or five, or ten—that they can change about their worship space that will have the effect they want.

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.

Come and See

Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

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.

Throughout the Gospels, there is a common thread, a repeated invitation to come and see.  Come and see Jesus, come and hear his teachings, come and experience his healing, come and be fed.  Come and see.  And the disciples—the twelve, plus Jesus’ other followers—have come, and they have seen.  They have witnessed the saving actions of Jesus, including his death on a cross, and now these two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, have been witnesses to the resurrection.  They have seen what God has done.  They have seen life come out of death, a life that is too powerful to ever return to the grave.  And now there is a new invitation: go and tell.

Go and tell people that Jesus is alive.  Go and tell people that the Lord of Life has broken the powers of sin and death.  Go and tell his disciples that they will see him again, that he is with them.  Go and tell.  Twice in ten verses, the two Marys are told to go and tell.  And our Acts reading is Peter telling the story of Jesus to new believers.  First, we come and see; then, we go and tell.

What makes this story worth telling?  What makes this story important?  What makes this story matter, to us here today?  This story matters because it is not just a story of something that happened a long time ago to people who looked and dressed funny.  This story matters because it is our story, and because it is still ongoing.  This world is broken by sin and death—we are broken by sin and death.  We live in a world where there is evil, where we hurt ourselves and others, where might makes right and innocent people suffer while the ones who hurt them prosper.  We live in a world where people cherish their feuds and enmities, and deny the humanity of anyone who’s not like them.  We live in a world where any amount of pain and suffering can be shrugged off and ignored as long as it happens to people somewhere else who aren’t our kind of people.  We live in a world where too many of those with power abuse those who have none.  We live in a world where people choose to hurt each other, in word and deed, through things we do and things we fail to do.  Things fall apart.  And especially given what we see on the news, it is so, so easy to focus on all the problems.  On all the bad things.  On all the general crumminess and misery in the world.  It is so easy to be afraid.  But that story, the story about how terrible everything is, is not God’s story.

God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, that first Easter morning, and the stone was rolled away from the tomb.  God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, and the aftershocks are still being felt to this very day.  God’s story is this: death does not win.  God’s story is this: God shows no partiality, but loves us, all of us, everyone, rich and poor, the powerful and the vulnerable, of every race and tribe and nation, here and throughout the world.  God loves us all, and God chooses to save us.  God chooses to reach in to the terrible, crummy world, and work in it, to bring light to the darkness and healing where there is brokenness, forgiveness where there is sin, reconciliation where there is estrangement, hope where there is despair, joy and love where there is fear, and life even in the grave.

We don’t follow Jesus because he was a nice guy who said some wise things 2,000 years ago.  We follow Jesus because we have seen the life that he brings, and we want to experience it and share it with all the world.  We follow Jesus because he offers us a better story than doom and gloom and despair and fear, a story that looks at the very worst the world has to offer and acknowledges all the worst parts of it and says, this is not the way the world is supposed to be and God is at work to do something about it.  We follow Jesus because he brings healing and forgiveness and new life.  And some of that new life and healing and forgiveness will have to wait until Christ comes again in glory and heaven comes to Earth.  But some of it?  Some of it happens here, now, among us.  I have seen people be petty and cruel; I have seen people make excuses to heap more pain on those who are already devastated.  I have seen people lash out out of fear.  But I have also seen people be kind and generous, not just to those they already like but to everyone.  I have seen people build bridges instead of walls, and I have seen people stand up to bullies and I have seen people and communities change things for the better.  I have seen people bring love and joy to the places it is most desperately needed.  And in each of these times and places I have seen God at work, Jesus Christ present in the words and deeds of ordinary people.

This is our story.  This is not just the story of one dude who died and got resuscitated a long time ago.  This is the story of how Jesus Christ is still at work in us and around us.  This is the story of change, and hope.  This is the story of God working in us and around us.  Come and see.  Look around you, and see the signs of God’s presence.  Look around you, and see what God is doing.  I guarantee you that in every dark place in the world, if you look closely enough you will see God at work to bring light and healing.  Come and see.  Come and see what Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago in dying for our sins and rising to new life.  Come and see what Jesus Christ is doing in us and around us right now to break the power of sin and death and bring new life to all people.  Come and see the seeds of the kingdom God is planting in us and around us, flowers that spring up even though the world tries to choke them to death.  Come and see.

And then go and tell.  Thank the Lord, and sing his praise.  Tell everyone what God has done.  And I don’t just mean tell non-Christians.  I mean, we should tell them, too, but believers are part of “everyone.”  Notice that before Peter got to telling the story to Cornelius and his household in Acts, the women had to go tell the disciples.  Both the angel at the tomb and Jesus himself told them to share what they had seen with the other followers of Jesus.  We need to hear that story, too.  We need to hear about God’s power to destroy death.  We need to hear about the earthquake that is in the process of reshaping the world.  We need to hear about life even in the midst of death.  We need to hear the story of God’s saving actions and let it inspire us, let it help us to see God’s work in us and around us.  We need to hear the story, too, so that it can build our faith and strengthen us to be part of God’s mission in the world.  We need to hear the story so that we can grow in faith and love.  We all need to hear that story, so we all need to be telling it to one another.

We need to hear the story from the time we are very small to the time we are very old.  The world has so many stories to tell, and so many of them are bad ones.  The world tells stories about pain, about despair.  The world tells stories about selfishness, and greed, and hate, and fear.  And the only way to counter those stories is with stories about life: the life that God gives, the life that Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us.  The life that God wants for all of creation.  We need to hear that story, over and over again.  And so we need to keep telling it.

In just a few minutes we’re going to baptize young Axel.  And his parents are going to promise to bring him to church and place in his hands the holy Scriptures—in other words, to teach him the stories of faith and raise him in the community that tells those stories.  We as a congregation are going to promise to tell those stories, to support him in his growth in faith.  And in a few weeks we’re going to confirm some young members of this congregation, and they will affirm the promises made in their baptism and promise to live as part of that community of faith, to hear the story of what God has done in Christ Jesus and is still doing around us today.  Every one of us has made those same promises, either at our own baptisms, or our confirmation, or the baptism of our children, or the baptism of other children in the community.  We promise to tell the stories, to pass them on, to encourage one another, to build one another up in the faith.  We promise to set aside our fear, we promise to reach for the joy and love that Christ brings, we promise to tell the story of Jesus Christ, and we promise to open ourselves to let God’s story shape us and our lives.

Come and hear that story.  And then go and tell it, and may God be with you every step of the way, breathing new life and healing and hope and joy and love into every corner of your soul and your life.

Amen.