United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them.  I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.

On Tuesday, I was in Corinth.  Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times.  My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  During worship, we read this portion of the letter.  As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo.  The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left.  Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.

In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community.  Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored.  There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events.  Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite?  And have they helped you grow in status?  Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods.  It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good.  It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right.  Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.

This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth.  These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them.  They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together.  And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians.  This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions.  Who was the best Christian?  Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel?  Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough?  It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too.  It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else.  Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community.  But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing.  Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.

And so Paul called for unity.  Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose.  It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity.  Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better.  The Christian life is about following Jesus.  The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together.  The Christian life is about the cross.

Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right.  Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted.  He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear.  Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it.  And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up.  The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death.  The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done.  The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves.  We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is.  There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so.  And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create.  In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor.  God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us.  We don’t save the world—we can’t.  Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.

In a truly Christian community, there is unity.  Now, some people misunderstand what that means.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye.  In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being.  We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.

What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities.  The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world.  All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ.  The cross is who we are.  The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth.  That is where Christian unity comes from.  Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ.  Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second.  Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it.  There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ.  There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized.  There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world.  In him we live, and move, and have our being.  In him is the power of God to transform us and the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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The Discomforting Guest

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

We often say that the altar—the Communion table—is not our table.  We are not the hosts at the meal of salvation.  Jesus Christ is the host; we are the guests.  And I am especially glad of that after reading today’s Gospel lesson because Jesus was not a very good guest.  In fact, if I were giving a dinner party, I don’t know that I would want to invite Jesus.  Because look what he does here: he starts out by embarrassing his fellow guests, and then he moves on to embarrassing the host, all while completely throwing out every piece of etiquette and protocol on the books.

Let me explain what dinner parties were like in the ancient world.  First, these were not private affairs, a few friends getting together for a good time, the way we think of it.  I mean, sure, they would mostly be friends at the party, but there was nothing casual about it.  There was a very strict social and political order and agenda for such events.  They were designed to facilitate connections between people of the same class and social sphere.  You would invite people of roughly the same social status as you.  They, in turn, would invite you to parties at their house.  Both business and pleasure went on at the same time.  If there was a court case coming up that affected you?  The ruling would be influenced by whose party the judge had gone to the week before.  If you ran a business and needed to hire a ship to transport your goods?  You’d get a much better deal if you worked with someone at one of these parties.  Anything that needed to be arranged would be up for discussion.

At the party, there was a strict social order observed.  The highest ranked people were in the middle, with lower-status people on the ends of the table.  Everyone could see just exactly where you ranked in the social scheme.  Did you ever watch Downton Abbey?  Those elaborate dinner parties they gave, with place cards for who sat where?  It was a little bit like that.  Where you sat at the table mattered.  It could have a huge impact on your business, your standing in the community, your whole life.  We don’t have anything quite like it, but think about parking spots.  You know someone’s important when they have their own reserved spot.  You know someone isn’t important when they take one of those spots and get told they have to move their car for the rightful owner.  Or think how, when you walk into an office building, you can tell immediately what the pecking order is by who’s got the nicest office, who’s got a cubicle, and who doesn’t even get that.

If there was going to be something interesting at the party—a new and exciting religious speaker, for example, like that Jesus fellow, you might let it be known that you would let people in to watch.  So at the center of the room, would be the table with the invited guests.  And around the outside, standing against the walls out of the way, would be any community member who was interested but wasn’t high-enough status to get a seat at the table.  (But even so, there were some people—the disabled and the ultra-poor, tax collectors, anyone labelled a “sinner”—who couldn’t even get in to watch from a spot along the wall.)  So when Jesus stands up and starts talking about etiquette, there are a lot of people watching.

Now, the invited guests—the ones at the table—have been doing exactly what their society says they’re supposed to: jockeying for the best place, so that everyone can see their social status and how worthy and popular they are.  Jesus, however, shoots that whole idea out of the window: don’t strive for the best seat.  Go and take the lowest seat, instead.  The one that’s beneath you.  Let your host move you up if he thinks you’re worthy of a better spot.  Completely ignore all the unwritten rules about how to make sure you come out ahead, and trust that someone else knows your worth.  I can practically hear them scoff: yeah, but what if the host doesn’t invite you to a better spot?  What if you’re stuck there?  And I bet at least some of them felt like Jesus was attacking them, or criticizing them.  Some were probably defensive—after all, they were doing what they were supposed to!  That was the way the system worked!  Others probably felt uncomfortable, remembering similar advice in the book of Proverbs.  Could their whole society’s way of looking at this be wrong?  Maybe wealth and power and influence aren’t as important as we’ve always thought?

Then Jesus turns to the host.  “Hey, forget all those rules of etiquette you’ve learned.  Forget trying to use your parties for social and political maneuvering; don’t invite the people who live next door and that you’re already friends with.  Don’t worry about breaking ties with your business partners by eliminating them from your guest list.  Don’t worry about being a laughingstock.  Don’t worry about favors and quid pro quos; forget everything your community has ever said about the right way to do things.  Instead of inviting your normal guests, invite the people on the very bottom of society, the ones you wouldn’t even allow in to watch the party from a distance.”

What Jesus is doing here is contrasting the way things will be in the kingdom of God with the way they are here on earth.  Here on earth, we have hierarchies.  And if our modern hierarchies are more flexible and less explicit than those of Jesus’ day, they are no less powerful.  Some peoples’ lives matter more than others, to our society.  Some peoples’ voices get heard, and some don’t.  Ever heard someone called ‘poor white trash’?  Yeah.  That’s a nasty metaphor.  It’s not a coincidence that most ecological disasters in this country, from Hurricane Katrina to the water crisis in Flint, mostly affect poor whites and people of color—Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans.  Or how about the way we tend to assume that men of color are thugs and violent and if they get shot in the back they must have done something to deserve it?  A few months back, a California judge gave a white college guy convicted of rape a sentence of only six months, because he said he didn’t want to ruin the guy’s life for twenty minutes of bad behavior.  The judge evidently didn’t care about the victim’s ruined life.  And then later that same judge gave a Latino rapist three years for the same crime that got the white rapist just six months.  Despite our great principle that all people are created equal, we do not treat them that way.  In George Orwell’s satire “Animal Farm,” he explains it this way.  “All animals are equal.  But some animals are more equal than others.”  We judge people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability, and a host of other reasons.  We exclude people, because down deep we’d rather find reasons to justify our own prejudices than deal with those different than us.  And we buy in to society’s hierarchy because human beings love hierarchies—as long as there’s a chance we can make it to the top of them.

That is not what God’s kindom is like.  God’s kingdom is based on true and radical equality of all people.  Not just pretend equality, but real equality.  Because all people are beloved children of God regardless of race, gender, social class, sexuality, physical and mental ability, or any other thing that divides us.  Every single human being who ever lived—every one of us—was created in the image of God.  And we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And we have all been given the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and love.  In our world today, even here in America, the principle of equality is more of a hope and dream than it is a reality.  In God’s kingdom, that principle is actually true.  And so when we exclude some people from the table—when we give some people the benefit of the doubt but not others, when we look for reasons to confirm our biases and prejudices, when we let the whole system of society treat some people better than others—we are excluding God’s children, made by God in God’s image, people who will be at the table with us in God’s kingdom.  And we are excluding people whom God is working through today.  As it says in our reading from Hebrews, we should always show hospitality, because sometimes God sends us messengers—angels—that we don’t even notice.  Do we really want to take the chance of missing out on God’s message for us just because it comes in a package we’re not comfortable with?

I have no doubt that the people at that dinner party were very uncomfortable with Jesus’ words.  They believed they were good and godly people living in a good and godly society.  They probably believed that since they were good, faithful people, their ordinary way of doing things—including who they invited and who they didn’t—was good and faithful, too.  And here Jesus is, pointing out that even though they’re faithful in some areas, others just don’t match up with the kingdom of God.  But that’s true of all people, then and now.  We are saved by God’s grace, but until Christ comes again we are still sinners living in a sinful world.  We are always going to be falling short of God’s plan for us—but God loves us and saves us anyway.  No matter how faithful we are, our world has very different standards than God’s kingdom.  We are obsessed with status, and power, and wealth.  But those have no meaning in God’s kingdom.  We have a choice: we can follow the ways of the world, or we can shape our lives according to the standards of God’s kingdom, by making sure all are welcome and have a place at the table.  May we learn to follow where Jesus leads, and live as children of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

When Love is Most Needed

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 31st, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:21-30

 

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

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

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

This passage from First Corinthians is one of the favorite and most famous passages of the Bible—and rightly so! Not only is it the heart of Paul’s message in this letter—and in many other letters—it also sums up the theme of much of Jesus’ teachings and several other New Testament writers. Jesus’ last commandment to us, for example, is to love one another. And in the letters of John we are told, repeatedly, that God is love, that God’s very core is love, that love is the center of who God is and who we are called to be as God’s people. So this passage, as Paul talks about what love is and what love looks like, is extremely important theologically. But that’s not all! It’s also beautifully written so that it is easy to understand and beautiful to listen to. It sounds like poetry. It’s important, and it’s gorgeous.

We use it in a lot of different contexts, and that’s a good thing! Most commonly these days, it’s used at weddings. I’ve preached on it at weddings myself! It’s such a rich text for a wedding sermon. The problem though, is that we tend to pull this text out only on happy occasions. At weddings, for example, we can normally assume that there’s a lot of love going around, and that everyone is happy. The couple is coming together in love for their spouse, and the community is coming together in love for the couple getting married. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s joyful, and it’s really easy to love. But what happens next? Is married love always that easy? Throughout the years you are together, does your heart always overflow with love for your spouse? I’ve never been married, but in even the happiest and most loving of marriages, things aren’t always that easy. Like any relationship, there is conflict. There is disagreement. There are times when you don’t feel the love, and you don’t want to feel the love. And that’s true of marriages, but it’s also true of other kinds of relationships—parent and child, friendships, congregations, community relationships. There are times when it is easy to love, and there are times when it is not.

And this passage was not written for the easy times. It was written for the hard times. The congregation in Corinth that Paul was writing to was terrible. They had all kinds of factions. They fought like cats and dogs. They had incredible spiritual gifts, and they wasted them. They played power games. They played status games. They played holier-than-thou. They used the language of the Gospel to advance their own selfish agenda. They let the richer and more powerful members dominate the poorer and less-well-connected members. And they had genuine theological disagreements, and disagreements about worship, that threatened to tear their congregation apart. They were a mess. There were a lot of gifts, but there was also a lot of selfishness, a lot of manipulation, a lot of fear, a lot of anger, a lot of things that shouldn’t ever happen in the body of Christ. I don’t know why they treated one another that way. Maybe it was selfishness; maybe it was fear lashing out; maybe it was some other reason. They did not love one another, and they had a lot of reasons why not. Some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were petty and selfish—hurt feelings and the like—but some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were actually pretty good reasons. Because let’s face it, most of them weren’t very lovable. I’ve seen congregations fight—I could tell you stories about congregations I’ve known and some I’ve worked at that would curl your hair—but I’ve never seen a congregation as screwed up and un-loving as the congregation at Corinth apparently was. And for that I thank God.

And it’s to that congregation, that mess, that pile of unloving and unlovable manipulative jerks, that Paul writes this great ode to love. Jesus told us to love one another, John the Elder told us that God is love, but here Paul explains exactly what that love should look like. I suppose it’s because everyone else knew what it meant. The Corinthians didn’t. They needed to hear it more than anyone else.

Here’s a question for you: is love a noun or a verb? I mean, is love a thing—a feeling—or is it an action, something you do, a choice you make? We tend to think of love as a feeling, a noun. But in this passage Paul talks about love like it’s a verb. It’s something you do, not something you are or feel. Love is how you act. It’s how you treat people—even those who don’t necessarily deserve it. Love is choosing to be patient, even when you don’t want to be. Love is choosing to say the kind thing instead of the cutting remark. Love is choosing to be happy for someone rather than envious of their good fortune. Love is choosing to forgive instead of cherishing up every resentment and waiting for an opportunity to strike back. And sometimes you may feel like doing all those things, and it will be easy. But sometimes you won’t, and that’s when love—the action of it—is most important of all.

Because when you get right down to it, nothing else matters. Love was Jesus’ commandment to us, and love is God’s very nature. We can have everything else going for us—all the spiritual gifts (which the Corinthians had, remember!), a huge membership, a beautiful building, huge amounts of charity, and if we don’t treat one another with love, none of the rest of it matters. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but don’t have love, I’m just tooting my own horn. If I have prophetic powers and can speak God’s word and a faith deep enough to move mountains, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything, but don’t have love, that gift is worthless. And I’m sure you know people who are like that. People who have never done anything seriously wrong in their whole lives, who give big amounts of money and time to a lot of good causes, who are smart and do all the things they should, and are still miserable to be around because they’re acting out of self-righteousness or obligation instead of love. I know a man like that, and I am so incredibly glad I now live half a continent away from him, because underneath all those pious good-works, he was one of the most resentful, malevolent people I’ve ever known in my life. He had everything going for him, and he did all the things he should do, and on paper he looked like a great guy.  But he had no love in his heart and he never acted out of love, either, and so he was miserable and made everyone around him miserable, too.

In my time here at Birka Lutheran Church, one of the things I’ve been most impressed by is the community you have formed, the way you love one another and the way love isn’t just a word or a feeling, it’s the way you treat one another. I’ve seen it in the way you choose to be understanding rather than judgmental of one another. I’ve seen it in the way you come together to do things, and help one another out whenever there’s a problem. I’ve seen that love in a hundred different ways, not just from one or two people but from many. It has made worshiping with you and ministering to and with you and participating in your events a joy and a pleasure for me, and I think it’s the reason why visitors often come away feeling like Birka is a special place. It’s not just the beauty of this place, it is the love found in the community of faith here.

Over the last two months, however, that love has been a little scarcer than usual. And I think it’s because of fear; fear of what will happen to Birka, fear of what will happen to this community that we love and this place that we love if we close, fear of what will happen if we don’t. People have said unkind things; they’ve assumed the worst possible motivations—I’ve been guilty of that myself, a time or two—they’ve lashed out at those who think differently; they’ve circled the wagons into a kind of “us vs. them” mentality. Not all the time; there has also been understanding and kindness and patience even in the midst of disagreement. There have been times that love flowed freely, but there have also been times that love was awful thin on the ground. And I understand, because this is a huge thing we’re going to be deciding today, something that will deeply affect each and every one of us no matter what the outcome is. When you’re making such huge decisions with people you don’t agree with, when other peoples’ actions can have such a huge effect on your own life, it’s hard to love them. It’s hard to show that love, it’s hard to be patient, it’s hard to be kind. It’s one of the hardest things I can imagine. And yet, in times of trouble and crisis and division, that’s when Paul’s words are most needed. That’s when love is most needed.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease. People die. Congregations die. Countries die. Communities die. Whether Birka closes next year or fifty years from now or a thousand years into the future, it will die eventually. So will Augustana and every other congregation in the world. The one thing that will never die, the one thing that saves us, that calls us, that brings us together, is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s love will never end. Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you called us by name and made us your own. You called us here to the prairie together for over a century, and you have given us your love in all that time. Your love has flourished in us and among us. As we discuss this and make this decision today, help us to feel your love. Help us to remember that we are all here because we love Birka, and help us to speak and act in love even in the midst of our disagreements. Guide us in your truth and in your love, and abide with us, now and forever.

Amen.

Which Commandment?

Reformation Sunday, October 26, 2014

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, Matthew 22:34-40

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

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

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

One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Of all the many things that we believe, teach, and do, what’s the core? What’s the guiding principle we should live our lives by? What is the absolute most important thing God calls us to be and do? This was a question in Jesus’ day, because as any good Jew knew, there were over six hundred commands and teachings, and so a guiding principle was important to help keep you on the right track. And sometimes we Christians shake our heads at how legalistic the Jews were—couldn’t they see that faith was more important than works? And yet, we can be pretty legalistic ourselves. Just think of all the things that we argue about, things that various Christian churches hold up as the most important, guiding principles they hold. Issues about sexuality and marriage and divorce are pretty common. So are ideas about hell—as in, if you don’t believe the same way we believe, that’s where you’re going. Then there are all sorts of rules, spoken and unspoken, about gender and race and class and birth control and education and economics and political beliefs. And sometimes, Christians in this country act as if those rules are the most important thing about being a Christian.

Even if you try and say, “Forget about the nitpicking, all that matters is that you have faith,” you’re probably going to run into problems. How do you define faith, how much is “enough,” and how do you get saved and what does it mean to be saved? Do you need to be born again, do you need to have the right kind of faith with the right kinds of Bible interpretation? Should you be baptized as an infant or as an adult? These are all things that Christians in America think are important, but we don’t agree on how we interpret them, let alone which ones are the most important. We spend an awful lot of time arguing about these sorts of things. So, although we have differences in what we count as commandments in the law, this is still an issue we face today: which of the teachings is the greatest? What is the guiding principle we should be living our lives by?

In Martin Luther’s day, this, too, was an issue. The Christian church of his day had oodles and oodles of traditional teachings, laws, and regulations that they said you had to follow. In order to be a Christian, in order to be saved, you had to do certain types of good works, and confess your sin, and do penance to make up for all the things you did wrong, and if you didn’t think you were worthy of praying directly to God you could pray to a saint who would then supposedly talk to God on your behalf, and there was this whole huge list of things you had to do to be a good Christian. And Martin Luther tried so hard to follow every teaching to do everything right, to be perfect, and the harder he tried the more he realized that there was just no way he could possibly do everything right, and so he spent a lot of time looking through his Bible trying to figure out what to do. What’s the center? What’s the core? Which commandment is the greatest?

After reading his Bible cover to cover many times, and spending many hours in prayer and in discussion with other monks, Martin Luther found was that it wasn’t about the law at all. It wasn’t about legalism, or doing the right thing, or figuring out how to be perfect. Because, in point of fact, humans aren’t perfect. We’re mortal. We mess up all the time. As Saint Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we base our faith, our relationship with God, on trying to be perfect and follow all the rules perfectly … we’re going to fail. We can’t do it on our own. All of our arguing, all of the rules we think are so important, well, even when we’re right those rules won’t keep us from straying. And we’re not always right. Sometimes we interpret God’s will wrongly, and then all our rules do nothing but lead us further from God.

Martin Luther, like so many people of his day, was deeply afraid of Hell. He was afraid of not measuring up to God’s goodness, of being found unworthy and being condemned because of his sin. In the 1500s, when Martin Luther lived, people had a much deeper and more visceral fear of Hell than most Americans do today. The Church had spent centuries teaching people an elaborate system for earning their way into God’s good books, with dire threats of Hell for anyone who didn’t measure up … except there was no way to really know whether you measured up or not, so a whole lot of people lived their lives with a kind of general anxiety about whether they’d done enough. So when Martin Luther read today’s passage from Romans and realized what it meant, he was stunned. The Church was wrong. If God’s forgiveness is a gift, if God’s gift of forgiveness is given to everyone regardless of what they’ve done or haven’t done to deserve it, then the whole system the Church taught was wrong. Nobody needs to earn God’s forgiveness. It’s a gift, given out of love. People were trying to earn what God had already given them for free. This was a revolutionary idea, and it led to changes in Christianity and in Europe that Martin Luther could never have guessed at. Holding on to that central idea of forgiveness and grace helped lead people from confusion and fear into a deeper relationship with God. It led to the Reformation—a re-forming of peoples’ hearts, minds, faiths, and lives.

This may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t see Reformation as a one-time thing. They knew that humans would continue to go astray, that we would sometimes put our own priorities in place of God’s priorities, that we would follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. So the church should always be re-forming, always striving to renew itself, always asking “Is this what God is calling us to be and do?” And I think that we live in a world with as much need to ask that question as people in the 1500s. We live in a time of change. Whether you are for it or against it, the world is not the same as it used to be. And change comes more slowly here in North Dakota than it does other places, but it’s coming even here. Some of the change is good, and some of it is bad, and all of it affects the world we live in, that our children will live in a generation from now. How we react will shape that world. Which rules and traditions and ways of life will we keep? Which ones will we modify, and how? Which ones will fall by the wayside? Which of the commandments and teachings we live our lives by is the greatest? What’s the core guiding principle that God wants us to use as our compass point on the journey of faith? What is God trying to re-form us around?

A lawyer asked Jesus this question: “Which commandment in the tradition is the greatest?” And Jesus replied: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Love God, and love your neighbor. All of the commandments, all of the teachings and traditions, all of them grow from this root. So everything we do, everything we teach, and everything we are should be centered around these two principles. Love God, and love your neighbor. If you hold to that in your heart and in your actions, you can’t go too far wrong. No matter what the issue is—sex, divorce, gender, race, oil, poverty, foreign policy, human trafficking—if we let our love for God and for our neighbor come second to our opinions, we have broken the commandments. If we let our interpretation of God’s Words hurt our neighbors and cause us to dislike or fear them, then we have broken the commandments. But if we act in love, love of God and love of our neighbors, then we are faithful to God. That’s the great litmus test. That’s the standard by which we are judged. May we always live according to the love God has given us.

Amen.

Where’s Jesus?

Seventh Sunday of Easter & Ascension, (Year A), June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

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

 

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

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

Have you ever listened to the Creed that we say each week and thought, “Huh. Jesus ‘ascended into Heaven’? What’s that?” The other events the Creed mentions are all really big ones: Jesus’ birth, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and burial, his resurrection, and the fact that he will come again. We talk about them all the time. But Jesus’ ascension into Heaven doesn’t. Here’s the short version: to “ascend” means to “go up.” As we heard in today’s first lesson from Acts, forty days after he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to heaven. Now, one would think that was the end of the Jesus story, at least until he comes again. Born, taught, died, raised, taught a little more, went back to heaven where, as the Creed says, he is with the father. Jesus isn’t on Earth, so that should be the end of things, right? But you’ll notice that here we are, in chapter one of Acts. The beginning of the book! And Jesus is present throughout the rest of the book, appearing or being mentioned more than a hundred times. Jesus wasn’t physically present with the disciples anymore. They couldn’t touch his hands and side. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

Here are some of the ways Jesus was present. Most obviously, several times people had dreams and visions of Jesus at various points throughout the book of Acts. Paul’s dramatic conversion when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and turned him from a persecutor to a believer is described in Acts, for example. Then there are all the times people preach about Jesus, his life and death, and his ministry. There’s a lot of preaching in Acts, and all of it centered around Jesus’ words and actions. But most often, we know Jesus was present because the community saw him. They knew that even if Jesus wasn’t physically sitting next to them, Jesus was with them, guiding them and helping them along their path, through awesome highs and terrible lows, as they struggled with what it all meant, what impact Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had on their lives.

And it was a struggle. Our text sums up what happens next in just two verses: All the disciples were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, along with others including many women. If you read through the book of Acts, though, it doesn’t take long to learn that things weren’t always so nice and simple as that makes it sound. There were disagreements and fights—huge ones! Disagreements over just about everything. Money, food, worship, how to deal with outsiders, how to reach out to the community, how best to teach new believers about Jesus, which rules were important to keep exactly as-is and which ones should bend to changing circumstances, how to react in times of trouble and persecution, who should be leaders in the Christian community and what to do when some clique holds all the power in the congregation. It’s easy to read and focus on the miracles, the crowds—thousands of converts at a time, wow! Wish we could do that, fill every pew! But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it didn’t always come easily.

Jesus was there, with them, throughout it. The reason he gets mentioned so many times is because Jesus was at the very center of their life together as a community of faith, and they never forgot it. Whenever there was a conflict, no matter how huge or how trivial, they always stepped back and asked where Jesus was in the issue. Which course of action, which idea, showed Christ to the world most clearly? Jesus said that his followers were one and united, but that didn’t mean that they always agreed on everything; it didn’t mean that they were always in perfect lockstep. What it meant was that they were one in mission, in their goals. They shared the same ultimate vision of what the world and the community should look like. The community should always, always be focused on Jesus and the love he showed to the world. If a beloved tradition and way of living got in the way of showing Christ to their neighbors, it should be discarded or modified. If sharing Christ’s love meant welcoming people they didn’t like, people who weren’t like them—and not just welcoming them, but giving them a place at the table and a true voice in the discussion—then they would do it, no matter how uncomfortable it made them at first. If sharing Christ’s love meant putting their own life on the line, they did it. If sharing Christ’s love meant some people in their community turned their back on them, they didn’t let that turn them away from the path. It was not easy, and it was not smooth. But they did it.

Being a follower in the Way of Jesus Christ meant letting Christ be in the center of everything. We tend to put our own desires first, as if we don’t trust God to know what’s best for us. I know too many Christians who only ask what God might want if they’re pretty sure he would agree with what they want—God’s will is good for justifying their own will, and not much else. Or, worse, have you ever noticed that sometimes people assume that God wants the same things they do? The reasoning goes like this: “I’m a good Christian, therefore God must want the same things I do, and want me to live the way I do, and anyone who’s different from me must not be a Christian.” It’s a comfortable system. You never have to ask the hard questions; you never have to take the risk of God leading you in a direction you wouldn’t choose to go yourself. You never have to truly give your life over to Christ, because you can tell yourself that you already have. It’s easy. Daring to truly ask the question, “What does Jesus want me to be and do? How can I show Jesus’ love to the world?” takes courage. It takes a willingness to be open to change. It takes a willingness to let go and let God take the reins.

So how did the early church do this? How is it that they were able to see and follow Jesus even though he was no longer physically present with them? Remember, our reading from Acts tells the story of Jesus leaving this world and going to be with the Father in heaven. Two things: Jesus sent them the Holy Spirit. He promised he would several times before he left. He would no longer be physically present, but God’s Spirit would still be with his people. We will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost.

Second, they were listening. When the Holy Spirit moved them, when Jesus sent dreams and visions, when God was working in their lives, they paid attention. They prayed all the time. About everything. As Acts says, “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” They were asking God what God wanted them to do. And when they got an answer, they did it, even if it wasn’t the answer they were expecting or hoping for. Prayer was not just a two-minute rote thing tacked on to the beginning and end of their day. It was a conversation which lifted up their needs and hopes and fears, and asked for guidance. They prayed about everything, even when they thought they already knew what God wanted—and they found out that sometimes, their ideas had been wrong!

This was not a smooth process. They did not always agree with one another. They sometimes hurt one another. There were factions and cliques, and different groups interpreted Jesus’ teachings in different ways. The unity that Jesus had prayed for, the unity that Jesus had given them, didn’t mean there was no disagreement. Being one in Christ Jesus meant that they would respect one another even when they disagreed. Being one in Christ meant that they would do the hard work necessary to reconcile their differences, to forgive one another for hurts and injuries, to come together and love one another even when love was the last thing they wanted to do.

And you know what? People saw that. People saw that they were living a better way. People saw the love of God poured out in and through them. People saw that they weren’t just talking the talk, they were walking the walk. People saw Jesus through their words and actions. The early Christians were great at sending people out to talk about Jesus, and bring people to the faith that way. But they were also great about showing people what Jesus was like in their actions, the way they treated one another, the way they treated others outside their group. Being a witness for Christ wasn’t just something they did once in a while: their whole life was a witness for Christ, a witness to each other and to the world. They loved God, and they loved one another, and they loved the world as Jesus had taught them to do. In good times and bad, in harmony and conflict, in times of change and times of hope and times of fear and doubt, they followed Jesus’ example and showed him to the world in their love. May we, too, be such witnesses for Christ.

In Unity and Love

The Seventh Sunday After Easter, Year C, May 12, 2013

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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.

As Christians, we pray for people a lot.  Sometimes we pray alone, sometimes together.  Sometimes we pray for ourselves, and sometimes for others.  It’s quite a feeling, to know you are being prayed for.  It can give comfort; it can bring humbleness, it can bring inspiration.  I find it particularly moving when I am present and can hear the prayer.  Have you ever held someone’s hand while they’re praying for you and had a chill go up your spine?  I have.  Have you ever listened to someone praying and felt something you can’t describe, that seems to fill the room?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we overhear Jesus praying for us.  Unlike many other times we hear Jesus speaking, he isn’t speaking to us, he’s speaking to his Father.  He’s not telling us a parable, he’s not teaching, he’s not exhorting his followers or telling them how to live their lives.  He’s praying.  Just as we pray for one another, Jesus prays for us.  We are hearing his prayer through the ears of the disciples, who were with him at the time.  Jesus was praying for them, and for all those who would come to follow him.  He was asking the Father to give us the unity and love which only comes through God.

Now, the disciples weren’t a very unified, loving bunch.  Peter was pretty volatile, and always leapt before he looked.  He could be very right, but he could also be very wrong, and he was never quiet about it.  Judas was there at this meeting, and hadn’t yet betrayed Jesus, but it wouldn’t be long before he did.  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, jockeyed for position and power and prestige.  Sound familiar?  Like any group, the disciples had conflicts and divisions within their group, and sometimes they focused on squabbling rather than following Jesus and learning from him.

Christians today are, if anything, even more divided than the first disciples were.  Division and strife seem to be part of human nature, and these days we revel in it.  Our culture is ever more fragmented, and it seems like everything is devolving into an us-vs.-them mentality.  Too many people believe that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but stupid and quite possibly evil.  You can see it most clearly in political rhetoric, but it’s everywhere.  Christians are not immune to this tendency, and never have been.  There is a tendency among Christians to schism—to break apart into separate groups whenever there is a disagreement.  Sometimes those disagreements are truly important, but at other times they are small and trivial.  The Russian Orthodox Church once split over whether one should make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three; a Lutheran denomination in the 1870s split over whether slavery should be categorized as a sin or as an evil.

Churches have split over what time worship should be at, what language worship should be in, what type of music should be used in worship, how people should dress, as well as deeper theological issues.  And even theological issues that can seem huge and enormous at the time can look trivial in hindsight.  But no matter how small or large these issues are, they divide us and we turn against one another.  It’s so common for Christian groups to say that other Christian groups don’t follow the Bible, just because they disagree on how to interpret the Bible.  The Word of God, which should bring us together, becomes just another bone of contention.  We call for Christian unity, but all too often what we mean is that everyone else should become exactly like us.

And yet, Jesus didn’t pray that we would always be right.  Jesus didn’t pray that everyone would all interpret his words the exact same way.  Jesus didn’t pray that we’d always figure out what things are important and focus on the big things instead of the trivial.  Jesus didn’t pray that we would all become superheroic Christians, capable of single-handedly converting thousands.  He prayed that we would experience the kind of unity that the Father and the Son and the Spirit have, a unity based on love.  It’s a unity that we can’t quite grasp or understand, but which God models for us every day.

You see, there is only one God—but in that one God are three people.  The Father is not the Son, and neither the Father nor the Son are the Spirit.  All three are different, but all three are God together.  Each has their own role to play in the divine relationship: creator, redeemer, sanctifier.  Yet despite their different roles, their different personalities, they are always together as one.  Their unity doesn’t mean they work the same way; it doesn’t mean they are identical.  It means they love one another, and work together.  The trinity—the triune God—is a relationship of joy and love.  Sometimes it’s been described as a dance, or like a choir singing together.  It’s a dance that is only complete when all three partners are there and active together.  And a choir can’t have only one person; choirs are about different melodies and harmonies coming together to make music.  It’s not about being completely the same; it’s about enjoying being together, doing something wonderful that no one could do by themselves.  That’s the kind of relationship that Jesus prayed we might have.

A lot of things divide Christians today.  Sexuality, the role of women, immigration, the environment, politics, economics, and, at the root of it all, the question of how to interpret the Bible.  We sometimes think of our relationships with a combat mentality—us vs. them.  How often do we think of our fellow Christians as partners in a dance?  Or fellow members of the choir of all creation who have been called together to praise God?  For that matter, how often do we think of coming together as Christians to worship and pray and hear God’s Word as something we want to do, rather than something we have to do?  How often do we focus on the God who created us, who redeemed us from our sin, dwells within us every day, and calls us to be one?  How often do we focus on our love for one another, instead of our disagreements?  How often do we pray for one another to grow in love and faith?

Jesus prays that we will know the kind of unity that the Father and Son and Spirit have together.  He asks this so that we may show the world what God’s love is like, but he also wants us to experience that unity so that we may know the glory of God.  Now, “glory,” that’s a word we don’t use very often.  The word in Greek can mean power, or majesty, or grandeur, and usually those words are all how we think of the glory of God.  But “glory” can also mean light.  It can mean brightness or radiance.  And, in the Bible, it means the presence of God.  That’s what Jesus is praying for: that we will experience the love and the presence of God through our fellow Christians.  Jesus is praying that we will know the kind of love and joy in one another that the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—have in each other.  It’s not a unity that depends on everyone thinking and acting the same.  Instead, the unity of God is based on mutual love and respect.  What would Christianity—the whole body of Christ—look like if we always treated one another with mutual love and respect?  What would the body of Christ look like if we always remembered that whatever our differences, we are all children of the same God, saved by the same Lord?

Let us pray.  O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living Father, crucified for us and resurrected, who prayed on earth for us and prays even now to the eternal Father, saying, ‘Father, sanctify them in truth; cause them all to be one, as you and I are one in love.’ O Christ, we beg you to assist us with this prayer. Gather us together and keep us in your church. Shield us according to your loving-kindness. Amen.

Amen.

Good News in a Broken World

3rd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

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

 

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

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

 

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us the first act of Jesus’ public ministry recorded in Luke.  Jesus goes to his home town, Nazareth, and participates in regular Sabbath worship.  He reads a short passage from Isaiah, sits down, and says the prophecy has been fulfilled.  What an announcement!  As sermons go, that’s pretty short.  Only one sentence.  (Sorry, but mine’s going to be a little longer than that.)  Yet Jesus’s sermon is so short because the prophecy from Isaiah says it all.  It perfectly encapsulated what Jesus’ ministry on earth was about.

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit came down like a dove to him.  The Holy Spirit was with him, as he began his ministry, and there in Nazareth he proclaimed what his ministry was about, what God’s kingdom is about.  Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and God’s abundant grace for all.  That’s what Jesus is all about.  That’s what God is all about.  That’s what life is like in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.

Good news for the poor: not a handout that feeds them for a day, but dignity and respect and a world in which they can earn enough to support their family.  Release to those who are held captive, whether that captivity is of body or mind.  There are all kinds of captivity.  Prisoners in jail are captives, yes, but so are those trapped by the cares of life that are grinding them down.  People in abusive relationships are captives, too.  And the longer you’re trapped, no matter what’s holding you down, the harder it is to even imagine what it would be like to be released.  What a relief to hear that you are free!  And blindness comes in all forms, from the physical to the spiritual to the intellectual.  Trapped in a dark world, what a joy to finally see the light.  Oppression comes in many forms, some blatant, some subtle.  To all people weighed down in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus comes bringing news of freedom.  Jesus comes proclaiming God’s love and grace.

Jesus comes to tell people that they have not been forgotten, and they have not been abandoned.  God wants us to be happy, and healthy, and free.  God wants us to live abundant lives filled with love and faith.  We live in a broken, sinful world, with all kinds of things that trap us and weigh us down.  We live in a world full of bad news and injustice.  It’s easy to take it for granted, to take it for normal, to assume that that is what the world is supposed to be like.  But that is not the life God wants for us.  Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim Good News to all, but especially the ones who are most in need of it: the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, the trapped, all those who suffer.

And that’s not all.  Jesus didn’t just tell people the good news.  Jesus came to make the Good News a reality, to start the process of creating the kingdom of God, the place where sin is forgiven, brokenness is made whole, and where there is abundant life and freedom for all.  That kingdom isn’t here yet—it won’t be until Christ comes again—but it will come.  That is the deepest, truest reality of the universe.  In this world we live in, we see and experience so much pain and loss and brokenness.  But we know that it will not last forever, that the Good News is true, that all the world will be redeemed and healed and made free.  We have heard the words of Jesus, we have the Spirit in us, and we wait.

Last week I talked about the gifts of the Spirit.  These are all the talents that God gives to all of us.  Everything from the ability to teach or preach to the ability to heal or lead or follow—all are gifts of the Spirit.  All are given by God.  But why does God give them?  What are they for?   When the Spirit comes to us, what is it moving us to do?  The interesting thing about the Spirit is that if you look at the times the Spirit appears, it points to Christ.  The Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration, when God the Father claimed Jesus as his Son and told the Disciples to listen to him.  The Spirit appears at Pentecost, sending the Disciples out into the world to tell the crowds about Jesus.  The Spirit still points to Christ today, showing us the way to Christ.

In the Spirit, we were all baptized into the body of Christ.  We are Christ’s body in the world.  And what was Jesus Christ sent to do?  As he told the people of Nazareth, he was sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and to tell God’s grace to all people.  Jesus was sent to proclaim the coming kingdom, and to bring it to all, so that they could see and hear and feel God’s presence with them.  Jesus came to help people live in the reality of the world to come.

We, too, are called to live in the reality of the world to come.  We are called to be the body of Christ in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet and ears and eyes and mouth in the world.  We aren’t just here to think about Jesus for an hour a week.  We aren’t just called to remember him fondly.  We are called to live our lives in response to the Good News that Jesus came to bring.  Now, we can’t create God’s kingdom or make it come more quickly—only God can do that.  But we can live lives that point to that coming reality.  We can follow the Spirit which leads us to Christ, and with the Spirit’s help we can live lives that point to Christ and the Good News he brought.  We can live in the light of Christ.

None of us can do it alone.  We are all members of the body of Christ, but not one of us is Christ alone.  We all have different skills, different passions.  We have all been called to different ministries by the Holy Spirit.  But those ministries all work together to proclaim the Good News in word and deed.

As Paul says, no part of the body is complete in itself.  Hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, and all the other parts.  Each one is needed, each one has its own task and its own gift.  We may like some parts better, and we may think some parts are prettier and more valuable, but all are needed.  All have been given gifts by the Spirit, and all are needed.

There are many divisions in our world.  Money, race, gender, politics, sexuality, religion.  You’ll find those divisions within the church as well as outside of it.  It’s very easy to let our differences and disagreements take center stage.  After all, they touch on fundamental issues.  But there is one thing more fundamental still: our lord and savior Jesus Christ, whose body we are.  Despite all the divisions and brokenness, we are called and gifted by the Spirit, beloved children of the Father, saved by the Son.  Despite all our divisions and the brokenness, we have heard the Good News of Jesus, the news of freedom and light and renewal and healing.  Despite all our divisions and brokenness, we are called to be the body of Christ in the world, to live in the light of God’s grace and show God’s love to the world.  May the Spirit which points to Christ guide our thoughts and our actions.

Amen.