Kosher, change, and community

Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

Our first reading, from Acts, is the second part of a story.  In the first part of the story, Peter received a vision from God telling him that it was okay to break the kosher rules, the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws.  (At this point, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish.)  Peter got this vision, and then God sent some Gentiles to him, asking about Jesus.  He went to them and realized they had the Holy Spirit, and he lived in their house for a while and baptized them.  Then he went back home to all the other followers of Jesus, and instead of going “oh, yay, more followers of Jesus!” they went ” … you lived with Gentiles?  You ate non-kosher food?  What is wrong with you?”

There are two things that we Christians really don’t get about the Jewish rules of keeping kosher.  Well, there’s a lot more than two things we don’t get about kosher, but for the purposes of understanding today’s reading from Acts, there’s two things we need to appreciate.  First, when Jewish people call food “unclean” they sometimes mean it literally.  Kosher rules were way ahead of their times when it comes to food safety and washing your hands and your dishes and making sure you’re not contaminating your food with whatever dirt or germs might be nearby.  Jewish kitchens were so much cleaner than the kitchens of their neighbors.  If I travelled back in time to 35 AD and had a choice, I would much rather eat kosher food than non-kosher food just for sanitary reasons.  Non-Jewish kitchens of the time were pretty gross.

And hygiene wasn’t the only reason Jewish people were disgusted by their gentile neighbors’ eating habits.  When your culture doesn’t eat something, a lot of the times the thought of eating that thing is pretty gross.  You or I might not get why someone could ever object to bacon, but when I learn about foods in other cultures—like chicken feet, monkey brains, various edible insects or weird deep-sea creatures, and stuff like haggis—I often grimace in distaste.  It may be perfectly digestible and even good for you, and some people may love it, but it’s gross to me.  If Jewish people in Peter’s day felt the same way about things like bacon that I do about monkey brains, and then you add in the lack of cleanliness in the average gentile kitchen, I can certainly see why no Jewish person ever wanted to break kosher and eat with their neighbors.  And why they would give a pretty hard time to any of their fellow Jews who did.  It wouldn’t just be a matter of keeping a religious law; it would be a matter of visceral distaste.  You ate what?  That was prepared in a kitchen with how many health code violations?  Blech.

And then there’s the other part of the kosher rules.  Christians may regard them as extraneous and unnecessary, but the fact remains, they were commands given by God to the Jewish people and recorded in Scripture.  This isn’t just a case of “we’ve always done it that way.”  It isn’t just a case of blind traditionalism or human custom.  By keeping kosher, they were keeping commands given by God!  And however much certain modern Jewish denominations might have decided that strict adherence to kosher is unnecessary, there was no debate over the matter in ancient times.  If you were one of God’s people, you circumcised your sons and kept kosher.  Period.  End of story.  If you did not do either of those things, you were not one of God’s people.  You might love God … but you were not part of God’s people or part of God’s covenant.  You were an outsider, an apostate, unfaithful.  Eating unclean food was both viscerally disgusting and breaking God’s commands and putting yourself outside God’s covenant with God’s people.

So, given those two factors, you can see why the rest of Jesus’ followers were pretty upset when they heard that Peter was eating Gentile food prepared in a Gentile home.  This is not just a matter of personal preference.  It’s not just a matter of hospitality.  It’s a question of whether or not Peter is one of God’s people, and what it looks like to be one of God’s people, and what basic principles should God’s people uphold.  And it’s also a matter of Peter having done something that the rest of his community thought was absolutely disgusting.  We, today, hear this story and think the answer is simple.  Of course God wants us to go out into the world and convert people, and of course kosher laws are silly and unimportant!  But Peter’s community of faith, all of those who had followed Jesus in life and remained faithful even after his death and resurrection, they would also have thought the answer was simple.  Of course God doesn’t want us to mix with Gentiles, and of course kosher laws are much more important than reaching out to outsiders!  And they had the weight of all of scripture and thousands of years of tradition on their side guiding them to that conclusion.

The problem is, sometimes God does something new.  Sometimes the next step in God’s plan for the world isn’t what humans think is the next logical step.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to things we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have predicted.  Sometimes, it turns common wisdom and tradition on its head.  Sometimes, it leads you to places you really, really don’t like.  That was the case in the days of the first believers, who couldn’t have predicted that God would rescind the kosher laws so that they could bring God’s Word to the Gentiles more easily.  And it’s the case for us today, as we ask the question of what it means to be followers of Christ in a world that is changing so rapidly.  It makes this story important to study as an example of how God’s people faithfully discern what God is calling us to do in times of great change.

So the first thing to remember is that, for all the believers were shocked, and Peter was taking things further than anyone anticipated, God reaching out to Gentiles was not completely unprecedented.  There are a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures where God says that one day, all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God.  And none of those passages say that the nations will then become Jewish, following Jewish dietary laws.  God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to Gentiles, and told Jonah that they were God’s people too.  King David’s grandmother Ruth was a Gentile.  Then, when Jesus came himself, while most of his ministry was among Jewish people, he did several times travel into Gentile areas and preach there.  He healed Gentiles, he cast demons out for them, he taught them.  He never ate with a Gentile, but he did drink water with a Samaritan woman, and he ate with Jewish sinners and tax collectors.  That wasn’t quite as much of a kosher violation as eating with Gentiles, but it was closer than most good Jewish people would want to come.  Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had sent them out to share the Good News, Jesus’ followers had a series of encounters with Gentiles, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized.  So while the disciples would never have thought that God would tell them it was okay to not keep kosher, they could look back at Scripture and their experience of God and see how God kept including Gentiles and sending God’s Word to them and sometimes crossing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile.  They could see how this connected to what they had known.

Second, Peter didn’t just decide this on his own.  He prayed, and he listened to the Holy Spirit, and he didn’t just throw out thousands of years of tradition and Biblical understanding on a whim.  He didn’t let tradition blind him to what the Spirit was calling him to do, but he didn’t throw out tradition willy-nilly.  Human beings have always found it easy to delude themselves about what God wants and what God is calling them to do; Peter was right to be cautious and hesitant at first, and test things to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.

Third, the Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in Peter.  When Peter got to the new place the Spirit was leading him, he found that the Spirit was already there.  Which, of course the Spirit is everywhere.  But if Peter had been mistaken about what God was calling him to do, Peter would not have found the Spirit being poured out so freely.  And Peter was looking for it.  Even after Peter had figured out what he thought God was calling him to do, Peter kept looking, kept praying, kept listening, to confirm he was on the right path.  And having gotten that confirmation, Paul followed that call, even though it led him somewhere he would never have chosen to go himself, and led him to change beliefs and practices he would never have chosen to change on his own.

And then, fourth, he went home and talked with his community about it.  He shared what he had seen and heard with the community, and the community debated it.  The community kept on debating it.  This is not the last time the issue of kosher and Gentile believers would come up; it would come up constantly for the next several decades as Jesus’ followers figured out exactly what the new boundaries would be and what this new thing would look like and how God’s commands to them would or would not apply to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.  It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy.  Some people disagreed; some people stopped being Jesus’ followers entirely over the issue.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple, but they talked about it together.  They prayed about it together.  They looked for what the Holy Spirit was doing together.

This wasn’t just a matter of one person having a vision and then everything is changed.  This is a matter of people coming together in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, and listening to all the many voices of faithful people, and scripture, and experience, and the Spirit, and figuring out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple.  And yet, it laid the foundation of everything that was to come.  If they hadn’t done this hard work, none of us would be here today.

Now, over the centuries there have been times when God called people in new and different ways, and times when people thought God was calling them to do things for very convincing reasons, but they turned out to be wrong.  Sometimes where we think God is calling us is where God is really calling us, and sometimes it isn’t.  And sometimes even if God is calling us in a certain direction, God may not be calling us to do it the way we think it should be done.  God may have a lot of different things in mind, and no one person can ever fully know what God is calling us to do.  But if we listen to God, if we look for the Holy Spirit in us and around us in the world, if we study Scripture, if we listen to one another and talk it out, the Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us as we make these decisions.  When change comes, we should never make changes just because it’s trendy or new, but we shouldn’t reject it just because it’s new, either.  Like Peter and those first followers of Jesus, our goal should be to find out where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is speaking, and listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and to trust that God is leading us as we move forward, even if we disagree.  May we learn to listen to God and to one another.

Amen.

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Fishing for People

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

Then Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Shortly after I arrived at my first call, one of my parishioners came up to me and said, “Pastor, you know, there are a lot of people around here who don’t go to church.  And a lot of them are new to the area,” (by which he meant they’d only arrived sometime in the last thirty years).  “So,” he said, “maybe you should go around and knock on some doors, introduce yourself, and invite them to church.”  Well, I was just full of seminary-trained wisdom, and one of the things they teach us is what evangelism strategies tend to work and which ones don’t.  There’s been a lot of research on the subject in the past several decades.  And, as it turns out, having the pastor go out and knocking on the doors of strangers is one of the least effective things you can do.  Once they’ve come to church at least once, then a pastor’s visit can be very effective; but some religious person they don’t know showing up out of the blue tends to turn people off.  Think about it: when Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or whoever show up at your door, does it make you think you should join them, or does it make you roll your eyes in annoyance?

No, the research is quite clear.  In almost 90% of cases, what brings someone through a church door for the first time is an invitation from a friend, someone they already have a positive relationship with and trust.  In other words, not a relationship based on the churchgoer looking on them only as a potential convert, but one where there is mutual care and concern for all aspects of their life, not just the spiritual.  A relationship where the Christian is open about their faith but not preachy or single-minded about it, so the non-Christian can see what a difference faith makes in the life of the believer, but doesn’t have it shoved down their throat.  That trust, that mutual care, that openness, makes all the difference in the world.  When you have that foundation, that’s when an invitation to come to church is most likely to be effective.

I explained all of that, and made a counter suggestion.  How about, instead of me going out and visiting strangers (which almost never works), we did some classes on discipleship and spiritual formation, to help members of the congregation deepen their faith?  And then some workshops on how to make friends and build community to help them get to know the “newcomers” who had lived in the area for decades but had never really been welcomed in?  And then in the course of those new relationships, issues of faith and discipleship would naturally come up, and then they could invite their new friends to church with them.  That’s something which has a very good track record!  The community in the area would be strengthened, and the church would be strengthened as well.  My parishioner listened to what I had to say, said “that’s interesting pastor, I never thought about it that way,” and wandered off.  That was the last I heard about evangelism for a long time.  I suspect it was because making friends with new people sounded scary and hard.  There’s a reason Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid when he invited them to follow him and fish for people.

We have this idea of ministers being the professional Christians that the congregation pays to do all the ministry and churchy stuff like evangelism.  We have this idea of the pastor being the one called by God.  Well, hopefully pastors are called by God to their specific ministry, but then again, all Christians are called by God.  In many and various ways.  God has vocations for each and every one of us, and for all of us together.  Some of those callings are about our relationships—parent, spouse, sibling, child, grandparent, aunt or uncle, friend.  Some of those callings are about our jobs—teacher, farmer, fisher, logger, mechanic, nurse, lawyer, or whatever it may be.  And we are all called to ministry in various and different ways.  And one of those ways that we are all called is that we are all called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In our Gospel lesson, Jesus calls the Disciples to fish for people, but after the resurrection Jesus expanded that call to all Christians.  Jesus gave us the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We are all called to tell the story about how Christ died and rose from the dead and will come again, and what difference that makes in our lives.  When we tell that story to ourselves and our fellow Christians, we reinforce and deepen our faith.  When we tell that story to our friends and relatives, we open up the possibility for them to see God at work in their lives, as well.  And that is how most non-Christians come to the faith.  Through hearing the faith stories of people they know and trust, and then being invited in to the community of faith and to seeing God at work in their own lives.

In fact, that’s not just a modern phenomena.  That’s the way the majority of evangelism has always worked.  It’s true, the Bible tells us stories of mass conversions, thousands of people hearing the Word and being saved all at once.  But such instances are recorded in scripture precisely because they were so rare and shocking.  Most people came to faith from hearing their friends and neighbors, people they loved and trusted, talk about their faith.  When you see and feel what God has done, the impact Jesus Christ has made in your life, and you tell your friends about it, and they see and hear what God has done in your life, sometimes they respond by looking to see if God is doing something for them, as well.  It doesn’t happen every time with everyone, but it does happen some of the time with some people.  It’s not large, it’s not dramatic, but it makes a difference.  Historians ask the question, “how could the Jesus movement have grown from just a handful of people after Jesus died, to half the population of the Roman Empire just three centuries later?”  We’re talking tens of millions of people!  And it turns out that all you need is for each small worshipping community to have a new family join every few years.  You don’t need mass conversions, you don’t need big showy revivals and expensive programs.  You just need a handful of new people every few years.  And you can get that just fine from the natural movement of Christians making friends with others in their community, and not shying away from talking about how they have experienced God’s love in their own life.  That’s it.  That’s all you need to have to go from “a tiny handful” to “a great multitude.”  The slow and steady growth from natural relationships in which people share their experiences with the love of God.

Evangelism is not about having all the perfect arguments or knowing the right chapter and verse to quote.  If it were, Jesus would not have chosen a bunch of uneducated fishermen to follow him and help him fish for people.  Evangelism is not about backing people into a corner or scaring them with Hell.  If it were, Jesus would have been forcing people to listen, instead of inviting them, and he would have talked about Hell a lot more than he did.  Evangelism is about experiencing the grace and mercy of God in your own life, and letting the story of that grace and mercy overflow in you and in your relationships with others.  Evangelism is about building relationships with people, relationships based on the love of God.

The first step is to learn to see God’s presence in your own life.  You can’t tell others about things you don’t even notice.  And it’s not hard.  It just takes practice.  All you have to do is keep your eyes open and looking.  Before you go to bed each night, before you say your prayers, ask yourself where you saw God that day.  Then, in your prayers, thank God for being there and helping you to see.  If you do that, day after day, you will probably be amazed at all the things you never noticed before.  And you will probably feel the urge to talk about it with your friends and family.  And if you let yourself do that—if you put aside your fears and talk openly and honestly about what you have experienced—you will strengthen your own faith, and you will be fishing for people.  May God give us the courage and the grace and the insight to see God’s work in our lives, and share it with those around us.

Amen.

Preparing the Way

Advent 2C, 2018, December 19, 2018

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-69, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

 

 

My Mom’s family is really outdoorsy, so when I was younger, the big yearly family event was a three-day backpacking trip into the woods on Labor Day weekend.  We’d all gather at the trailhead, strap on our packs, and go.  And by “all” I mean Granddad Huck, all the aunts and uncles, and all my cousins.  Down to babies in arms—one year, my aunt and uncle came along with their six month old baby, which added some unique challenges.  Everyone meant everyone … except Grandma Kitty, whose health was just not up to scrambling up and down narrow, twisty, up-and-down trails with several days worth of supplies on her back.  The rough terrain was too much of a barrier to her.  She stayed behind, at home by herself, while her husband and kids and grandkids went off together.  And it never occurred to me, at the time, to wonder how she felt about being left behind like that.  How she felt about not being able to do what everyone she loved was doing.  And it never occurred to me to ask if maybe we should change our traditional family event to something she could participate in.  When your brain and body are able to do pretty much anything you want to do, you don’t think very much about the people who have it harder.  Whose bodies and brains just don’t always work.  Who need help or accommodations to do things.  You just don’t tend to notice the barriers that keep some people out.

Now that I’m older, I notice these things more.  The more I learn about my autism, the more I realize I just can’t do some of the things other people do, or I can’t do them in the same way, or I can do them but it takes a lot more out of me than it does most people.  And I have friends with physical disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health challenges.  There are so many things I take for granted that they can’t do, and sometimes things they take for granted that I can’t do.  And our world is built for people who are able-bodied, people whose brains work on a normal model.  Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require businesses and organizations to take the needs of disabled people into account, all too often people with disabilities are left out in the cold, on the outside looking in.  And most people don’t even notice.  And when we do notice, as a society, there are a lot of people who think things are fine the way they are.  That it’s unreasonable to expect people to do things differently so that all are welcome.

In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist talks about the coming of the Lord.  And he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  Now, when the prophet Isaiah spoke those words, the Jewish people were captives in Babylon.  They had been enslaved and carried off and now lived almost a thousand miles from their homeland.  They dreamed of the day when they could return to Judea, but the road home was long, and treacherous, crossing deserts and mountains and wilderness.  It was an arduous journey in the days before modern highways and cars, one that only the young and healthy could successfully complete.  Isaiah’s words told them two things: first, that God would free them from their captivity and bring them home, and second, that God would make the journey as easy as possible, one with broad, flat roads that went straight to their destination.  A road that would be easy to travel, with as few barriers as possible.  No force on Earth in those days could have made a level, straight, flat road from Babylon to Jerusalem.  But God could.

For Isaiah, that’s what redemption looked like: a road home that anyone could travel easily.  No matter how infirm you were, no matter what you struggled with, God could and would redeem you out of the hand of the enemy and bring you safely home.  And when John the Baptist thought about what God’s kingdom coming would look like, when John the Baptist thought about God reaching into the world to redeem it, that’s what it looked like: God reaching into the world to make a path that anyone could travel.  All barriers removed.  All living things welcome.

And I wonder what barriers we face?  What are the things in our lives, in our communities, and in our world that prevent us from seeing and responding to God?  Even worse, what are the barriers we put up that prevent others from seeing and responding to God’s salvation?  Sometimes the barriers are easy to see: like churches that have steps but no elevators, so that only people who can climb stairs can attend.  But sometimes we don’t even notice the barriers.  For example, there are about 1 million deaf people in the US.  Almost none of them go to church, because churches with sign language interpreters or closed captioning are vanishingly rare, and even in churches like ours where everything is printed in the bulletin, the sermon generally isn’t.  And what about disabilities that are less visible?  Things that affect the brain, or behavior, or make people just a little bit different than what we think of as “normal”?  Our society—including all too many churches—are quick to judge.  I know a woman with a disabled child who stopped going to church because too many people disapproval of how her child behaved.  “I know Jesus loves me and my son,” she said, “but our church sure didn’t.”

Then there’s all the other barriers we put up.  Barriers based on race, on class, gender, sexuality, politics.  People like creating barriers.  We like dividing the world up into “us” and “them.”  And of course people like “us” are good, and people who are not like us can’t be trusted.  I think that’s what sin looks like, a lot of the time.  All people, every single human being who ever lived, was created by God in God’s own image.  Every single human being is beloved by God.  And Christ died to save every single human being who’s ever lived.  Yes, even the bad ones.  Yes, even the ones who reject him.  Our response doesn’t change the fact that God reached out to us, first, and continues to reach out, continues to act for the redemption and salvation of all the world.  No matter how many obstacles we create, as individuals and as a society, God is always at work to make the rough places level and the crooked straight.

We live in a world with a lot of barriers.  Physical barriers, like the ones I’ve been talking about, that keep disabled people from participating; but also barriers of prejudice, or ignorance, or just plain not caring about those who are different from us.  And sometimes we notice those barriers, but a lot of time we take them for granted.  We assume that, like the mountains and deserts and wilderness that separated the ancient captives from their homeland, they are simply facts of life that can’t be changed, only accepted.  But that’s not the way God created the world to work.  God created the world so that all people might have abundant life, so that all people might love one another and build communities together, communities in which no one is forgotten or left behind or excluded.  Communities in which all people might live in the light of God.  That’s the way God created us to be, and it is sin that has broken us apart and put barriers between us.  But you know what?  The Lord is coming.  Christ Jesus, who was born in a manger two thousand years ago, is coming again.  The Messiah, God-with-us, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace.  He is coming.  And we’ve put up so many obstacles, between ourselves and between us and God.  So it’s time to get ready.   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Amen

Going to the Other Side

Lectionary 12B, June 24, 2018

Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

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 evening had come, Jesus said to the other disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”  Now, let’s remember what’s just happened.  Jesus has only been ministering for a short while.  He called the apostles and began teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  He’s had a rather nasty confrontation with the religious leaders who called him a demon because they didn’t like him.  But, on the bright side, lots of people love him.  The crowds are following him, and he’s really popular!  That is, he’s popular in Galilee, where he’s from, and where all his disciples are from.  Jesus is popular among Galileans, who are Jewish like him and his followers, who worship the same God who is Jesus’ Father, the God that Jesus is one part of.  The Galileans don’t just worship the same God, they share the same culture.  They speak the same language, eat the same food, share the same ethnic background, dress the same, etc., etc.

The people on the other side of the lake are not Galileans.  They’re not even Jewish.  They are pagans who worship many gods, none of which are the one true God.  They are a different ethnic group, eat different foods, speak a different language, wear different clothing.  And I wonder what the disciples thought about that.  This is the first time Jesus has led them out of familiar surroundings.  At home, they are close followers of a local celebrity.  They have influence, and respect.  Across the lake, no one has a clue who they are or who Jesus is.  And even without the celebrity, they’re comfortable at home in Galilee.  They know what to expect, and they know there will be food they like and things that they know how to deal with.  They may only be going to the other side of the lake, but it’s a different country and one they may never have stepped foot on.  They’re going from comfort and celebrity status to being strangers in a strange land, random foreigners.  This is not like the sort of church mission trips people go on today, where there are already Christian groups there to join up with.  They were completely, totally, and utterly on their own.  I wonder how the disciples felt about it?  The Bible doesn’t say, but I can’t imagine they were too happy about the idea.  I bet they wished they could stay home where it was comfortable and safe and build on the successes they’d already had, rather than going someplace weird where they would be starting from scratch.  At the very least, I bet they were nervous and apprehensive.

Then the storm started.  Now, the Sea of Galilee is a lake surrounded by really tall mountains.  It’s not like lakes we have here, where you can see things coming.  Things can go from sunny clear skies to major storms in a very short period of time.  And the fishing boats used in Galilee in those days were really small and flat-bottomed.  Great for fishing on a calm day, or when you’re close enough to shore you can row to safety in time.  Not so great when you’re in the middle of the lake, and it’s too choppy to row, and the wind is so strong that it can literally blow the boat over unless you take down the sail.  In those small boats, you are at the mercy of wind and wave if you get caught out in the middle of the lake during a great storm.  And this is a great storm.  It is huge.  The disciples probably weren’t all that happy to be sailing across the lake anyway, but Jesus told them to, and so they did.  And then they get caught in this huge storm that could kill them, and they wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Jesus, and what is he doing?  He’s SLEEPING!  It’s his fault they’re in danger, and he’s not even paying ATTENTION to them!

So they wake him up.  “Teacher, don’t you CARE that we’re DROWNING?”  Jesus wakes up, orders the storm to stop, and turns to them, and asks them why they’re scared.  It’s still early in their relationship with Jesus, but they’ve seen him do some pretty incredible stuff.  Why don’t they trust that he will protect them from the storm, too?  Why is their first reaction to be afraid and blame people, instead of trusting that Jesus will be with them?

Did you know that one of the earliest metaphors for the Christian community is a boat?  If you go to some of the earliest Christian churches and catacombs, you will find pictures of boats all over the place.  You see, a boat does two things: it protects you from the water and wind and storm … and it takes you places.  That’s the thing about the Christian community.  We’re not called by God to sit still where we are.   We’re not called by God to be safe and comfortable. We’re called by God to grow in faith and then go out into the world and spread the healing love of God through word and deed.  We’re called to go out, tell the story of Jesus, heal the sick, free the oppressed and the prisoner, forgive the sinner, and bring reconciliation to all in the name of Jesus Christ.  Like a boat leaves the harbor to sail across the sea, we are called to leave our comfort zone to go minister to and with people who are different from us.

And those people who are different from us may be across the country or across the world, but they may also be the people across the street.  The people who don’t come to church, who are struggling and isolated and alone.  The people who think differently than we do, and live differently than we do.  The people who desperately need good news, because precious little ever seems to go right.

And you know what?  That’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous to try to build relationships with people who are different.  It’s weird, and in order to do it you have to be willing to set aside your own assumptions, even just for a little bit.  You have to be willing to change, to ask the hard questions.  You have to be willing to look at your own traditions and ask yourself if they serve the Gospel or only your own comfort.  You have to be willing to see the world through your neighbor’s eyes, to see what healing and reconciliation and good news they need.  And sometimes, you get rejected.  Sometimes, it doesn’t work out.  Sometimes you fail, and sometimes you get hurt in the process.  But Jesus still comes to us and says, “Get in the boat.  Let’s go across to the other side.”

The sea is a dangerous place, full of storms and uncertainty.  Lots of ships are lost.  Even with the best modern technology and safety equipment, sometimes things happen.  But still ships go out.  A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.  Ships are for taking people places, and protecting them on the way.  Lots of people these days seem to think that being a Christian means your life will be perfect and happy and easy and good.  But that’s not what Jesus calls us to.  Jesus calls us to get into the boat, and go, knowing that there will be storms, and there will be problems, and there will be things we don’t know how to handle, but that Jesus will be there with us in the midst of those troubles.  If, as a Christian, your life never has storms, if you never take risks or allow yourself to be uncomfortable or do things that might change you, you’re like a ship that never leaves the harbor.  And when those storms come, the Christian answer is not to panic and look for someone to blame, as the disciples did.  The Christian answer is to trust that no matter what—whether the storm gets better or worse, whether the ship is saved or not, whether you succeed or fail—Jesus is with you through it all, working to keep you safe.

And you and I might not always see what’s so great about going to the other side.  I’m sure the disciples didn’t—going to those weird foreign people and trying to do ministry with them was hard and not very rewarding.  But if Jesus’ followers had only stayed ministering to and with their own people, you and I would not be Christian today.  If they hadn’t gone out into the world, following Jesus when he called them, Christianity would have stayed nothing more than a small sect of Judaism, if it had survived at all.  The sea of life may not be safe, but it also comes with great rewards.

Just like the disciples weren’t really sure what was waiting for them on the other side of the lake, I don’t know what’s in store for Augustana and Birka as you head into this time of transition.  I don’t know what sort of pastor you will get, and I don’t know what exactly God is calling you to do as you move forward.  But this I do know: God is calling you forward, and there will probably be storms along the way, and God will be with you no matter what.  I hope and pray that you will follow God and trust in him on your way.

Amen.

Lit Up By The Spirit

Pentecost, Year B, May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

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.

One of the interesting things about the story of Pentecost is what came before it.  Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared to the disciples and the rest of his followers several times.  He reassured them, he comforted them, he ate with them … and he told them to go out into the world to share their faith.  He told them that he wouldn’t be with them personally, but he would send the Holy Spirit to them, to help them and guide them and inspire them along the way.  And then he ascended into heaven, after telling them again to go into the world and spread their faith.

What are the disciples doing, a week later, on the day of Pentecost?  Why, sitting together in a room, just like they had been on Easter.  What weren’t they doing?  Going out into the world and sharing their faith as they had been commanded.  Now, they hadn’t been idle.  They’d done some necessary things, like sorting out leadership and sharing the stories of Jesus in the group to build the faith of the people who were already Jesus’ followers.  This sort of preparation and planning and sharing is very necessary to success.  But the problem was, that’s where they were leaving things.  They had the Word of God.  They had the preparations and infrastructure.  And what were they doing with it?  Sitting on their butts where it was comfortable and safe.  Not following Jesus’ commands to go out into the world and share the good news.

And then the Holy Spirit came.  It burst into their room, lit them up, and sent them out.  In fact, if you notice, there is no transition between being in the room and being out among the crowd.  The Spirit comes in, and suddenly they’re somewhere else.  It makes me wonder if the transition was so fast, so confusing, that they simply didn’t remember it well enough to tell the story, afterwards.  Sometimes life is like that when things happen quickly, especially if the Spirit is involved.  When I entered the process of becoming a minister, it was like that.  I remember knowing God was calling me to ministry and stubbornly not wanting to do it.  I remember filling out paperwork and meeting with the Synod committee.  But even at the time, I didn’t remember actually making the decision.  I don’t remember when things changed from “I’m not doing this” to “I’m doing this.”  I didn’t see any fire or wind, and I didn’t suddenly start speaking in other languages (which might have been helpful when it came to learning Greek and Hebrew).  But the Holy Spirit came, and set my feet on a new path, one I’d been resisting even as I did things that prepared for it.

Have any of you had an experience like that?  A time in your life when God set you on a path you hadn’t expected?  Or maybe one that you hadn’t wanted, but that turned out to be the right one for you?  God’s call isn’t just a matter of ministry.  God sends the Spirit into us to guide us in many ways, both within church and outside of it.  Some of you who are being Confirmed today, or who will be graduating in a week, you might not have experienced this yet.  But I’m pretty sure that some time in your life, you will.  Your lives are just beginning, and so far there’s been a lot of preparation, a lot of study, a lot of getting ready.  Some of you have plans for your future, some of you don’t, but you will each and every one of you find there are times in your life when God has a different plan for you than you expected.  It may be something big, it may be something small, but you will find yourself someplace you never expected to be.  But you won’t be alone, no matter what else happens, because the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Acts reading, the Pentecost story itself, the Holy Spirit is very impressive.  It is fire and wind and inspiration and it literally sets the disciples on fire for the Lord and sends them out on the wind to minister to people from every nation in the world.  And there will be times in your life, we pray, when you will get fired up like that.  When your faith will be strengthened and you can’t not follow God’s call, whatever that may be in your life, and it leads you to be and do things you never dreamed, to places you might not have chosen on your own but which will nevertheless be good for you.  It may be as obvious as Pentecost, or it may be a bit subtler, but it will be amazing and probably a little scary.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Gospel reading, the Spirit isn’t as showy, or as wild, but it is just as strong.  Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, who will speak in our favor and defend us and support us, who will help us know the truth even when the world tries to confuse us or just doesn’t understand.  And there will be times in your life when the Spirit will be your Advocate.  There will be times when you will be confused.  There will be times when the world’s ideas of right and wrong are just not true.  There will be times when the right thing to do may not be obvious, and times when you will be tempted to do things you know are wrong.  There will be times when you need your faith encouraged and supported in the midst of a world that doesn’t understand.  And we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you in those times of trial, advocating for you and strengthening you and showing you the right thing to do and say, and giving you the courage to face the world with faithfulness and goodness.  And again, it may not be obvious when you’re going through it that the Holy Spirit is there; sometimes, when you are going through hard times it’s difficult to see God’s presence in you and around you.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our second reading, from Romans, the Spirit is a comforter in times of trouble.  Saint Paul describes the whole world as groaning in labor pains, with the future Kingdom of God on its way but not here yet.  Like a woman in labor, we know that something good is coming … but there is pain and hardship before it can get here.  In this life, there is pain and sorrow and grief.  There are hard times.  There are people who hurt others, or allow others to be hurt through inaction.  There are all kinds of evils.  And sometimes it seems so hopeless we don’t even know what to pray for.  But even in the midst of that we have hope, because the Spirit is in us, and we know that God’s kingdom of peace and love and joy is coming even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t imagine that anything good could possibly come out of a world as messed up as this one.  There will be times when your life will suck.  Times when you will suffer.  Times when hope seems foolish.  But we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you then.  That it will wrap its arms around you and hold you tight, and know the longings of your heart, even when you feel too bad to express them.  Even when you are at your very lowest ebb, when you are weak and beaten up by the storms of life, the Spirit will be with you, supporting you, working on your behalf.  The Spirit will know all the darkest places in your heart, all the times when you feel like just giving up, and it will be with you.

You are going out into the world in new ways.  Some of you are graduating and leaving town for further schooling or work.  Some of you are staying here and continuing to grow in our midst, but you will be making promises and taking responsibility for more of your own faith development.  But no matter what stage of life you are in, or where you are going, always remember this: the Holy Spirit will be with you.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

What is to prevent us?

Easter 5, Year B, April 29, 2018

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

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.

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  He had heard the word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ and of his saving death and resurrection, and there was water there.  What was to prevent him from being baptized?  It’s a good question.  Can anything get in the way of someone being joined to Christ in baptism?  Should anything get in the way?  Obviously, there are things humans can say or do that get in the way; we can discourage people, intentionally or unintentionally, from being baptized and thus joined to Christ’s death and resurrection.  We can put limits on who we will and will not baptize in our churches; we can make requirements on what they have to do or say beforehand.  Most churches have such requirements.  Maybe you have to take a class or profess your faith in the right kind of way or make promises.  Maybe you have to change careers, or change your way of life.  In churches like ours that baptize mostly infants, well, obviously we don’t require things of babies.  But we do put requirements on the families of those babies.  They have to promise to bring them to church regularly, for a start.  And we also make rules and put boundaries around who is and is not welcome in church.  We may say that all are welcome, but in practice some people are more welcome than others.

I tend to be in favor of such rules and boundaries.  When I baptize a baby, I always sit down with the parents about what that means, and what they’re promising to do for that baby as it grows, how they’re promising to raise them in the faith.  When I baptize a teen or an adult, I want to make sure they know what they’re doing, and I strongly recommend that their baptismal sponsors are close by to support them in their growth and faith.  And when I went to a seminar on evangelism, a few years back, and heard the story of how one church helped bring a couple out of a life of prostitution and pimping, set them up with another career, and then baptized the whole family, I was filled with praise for God—and I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable if they’d done it the other way around, baptism first and then helping them change their lives around.  And on a day to day basis, when someone suggests something new or different from what I’m expecting, my gut reaction is to protest.  Maybe some of you can empathize.

And then I come to this story.  The eunuch said: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  And there, by the side of the road, without classes or sponsors or enquiries into the eunuch’s lifestyle or anything else, he was baptized.  You may have noticed that verse 37 is missing.  We’re reading this passage as it was first written.  But later Christians read this story and were so uncomfortable with this idea, this implication that nothing at all should stand between someone and baptism, that they added in a verse in which Philip tells the eunuch that he has to believe in Christ with all his heart, and the eunuch says he does.  When modern scholars went back and looked at the oldest copies of the book of Acts, they saw that verse 37 was nowhere to be found, so they took it back out of our modern translations.  I understand why early Christians added that verse.  Surely, at least, you have to believe in order to be baptized?  Surely it can’t just be a matter of asking and receiving the grace of God poured out in water and the word?  And yet, in the earliest versions of this story, the Ethiopian asks, and he is baptized.  As simple as that.

This is even more surprising when you consider who the Ethiopian is.  He is an outsider, a foreigner, a eunuch.  Ethiopia, then called Aksum, was a wealthy and powerful empire based in the horn of Africa.  Israel had had ties with them for a thousand years, at that point.  The queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon was an Ethiopian, and these connections had resulted in a small Jewish community in Ethiopia that is still there today.  This Ethiopian was probably not Jewish, himself, as he was unfamiliar with Isaiah and needed help understanding it, but he obviously respected God.  He owned a copy of the book of Isaiah, and books were expensive.  And this is early in Acts; up to this point, everyone who has been baptized is Jewish, and the Christian community still believed that in order to follow Jesus you had to become Jewish.  In fact, if Philip’s congregation finds out he baptized someone who is not Jewish, they will be angry with him.  But the Holy Spirit brought Philip to that place, to that Ethiopian, and he asked to be baptized.  What is to prevent him?  Nothing!

More serious, however, is the fact that he is a eunuch.  A eunuch is a man who has been castrated.  Many cultures in the ancient world would castrate some men and boys, because it was believed to make them more trustworthy.  A man who was castrated couldn’t impregnate someone else’s wife or father children.  He had no family to compete for his loyalty, or any kind of a life outside of work.  But eunuchs weren’t respected.  They weren’t really seen as men, but they weren’t women, either.  They were weird, the butt of the joke.  They crossed gender and sexual boundaries.  They were queer.  You might employ one, but you wouldn’t sit next to him at dinner.  Or at worship.

In Israel, the laws in Deuteronomy forbade eunuchs from entering the Temple grounds.  So this person had learned of God from his Jewish neighbors, and had travelled 1500 miles to learn more.  But when he got to the temple in Jerusalem, they would have turned him away.  Because he was a eunuch, and thus not the right sort of person.  Sorry, sir, it doesn’t matter how much your heart yearns for the Lord, it doesn’t matter how much you love God, it doesn’t matter what else you do in your life: your kind are not welcome in God’s temple.  That’s what they would have told him.

So, the Ethiopian eunuch was returning home, a 1500-mile journey, empty-handed except for a copy of the holy scriptures.  Which he was reading.  Because even the rejection of the humans running God’s temple could not drive his heart away from God.  Now, there are two interesting things in the passage he was reading when Philip arrived.  The first is that it is a passage that Christians often apply to Jesus, the lamb of God who was slain as an offering for sin.  The second is that if you read on for just another few chapters, God promises the foreigners and the eunuchs that there will come a day when they will be part of the people of Israel and welcome in God’s house, because, as God says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”  All the outcasts—the foreigners, the weird ones like the eunuchs, the poor, the marginalized, the rejects—will be welcome.  Not only welcome, but sought out by God.

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  And Philip, he could have said plenty.  He could have quoted chapter and verse on why the Ethiopian had to become Jewish, first.  He could have said, “Sorry, Jesus loves you, but eunuchs just aren’t good enough to participate in worship, the day Isaiah speaks of hasn’t come yet.”  He could have said, “Well, you need to learn more about Jesus before we’ll let you be baptized.”  There were so many reasons that Christians—then and now—would have found to prevent this queer foreigner from being baptized.

But the Holy Spirit had put Philip in that place, and Philip listened to the Spirit’s call, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.  The Ethiopian eunuch asked for God’s grace to be poured out on him, and Philip had every reason to stand in his way … and he chose to help, instead.  That’s the last we hear of that Ethiopian eunuch in Scripture.  But while I don’t know for sure what happened next, I can guess.  You see, in 330AD Ethiopia was the first nation in the world to become Christian.  While the Roman Empire was still waffling back and forth about whether or not to persecute Christians, Ethiopia was a stronghold of the faith.  And it has been a Christian nation ever since.  I went to seminary with several Ethiopian-Americans.

We put boundaries around our faith.  Who can and cannot be Christian, who is and is not welcome in church, what people need to do or say in order to become baptized.  And there are often good reasons for such rules and boundaries.  I know just how soothing it can be to stay within your comfort zone, and how difficult it can be to think and act outside of it even when God is calling us to do so.  But we always have to ask ourselves: are those rules and boundaries for God’s benefit … or ours?  Are the conditions and expectations we create necessary, or is they a stumbling block?  And, most importantly, what is the Holy Spirit calling us to do?

May we, like Philip, follow the call of the Holy Spirit even when it calls us to set aside our rules and cross our boundaries.

Amen.

Witnessing

As part of my sermon preparation every week, I listen to a couple of podcasts on the scripture lessons assigned to the upcoming Sunday.  One of them, Pulpit Fiction, really caught my attention this week.

Their musings on what it means to “testify” in the Gospel reading from John 1 (around the 28 minute mark) really struck a chord from me. As a Lutheran, I, too, come from a religious tradition where people just don’t testify. We talk about God in the abstract, or in the general, or in the Biblical sense, but rarely in the personal sense.  The answer to the question “Can I get a witness?” if ever asked in any congregation I’ve belonged to would most often be a resounding “NO.”

When I was applying for entrance into candidacy (in other words, asking my synod to allow me to start the process of training to become a minister), one of things I had to do was write a six-page essay about my personal faith journey. Nothing fancy, just six pages about my experience of God in my life, and how I responded to it. I should say, at this point, that I am a writer; it’s always been a hobby of mine. I do it for fun. I’ve written novels, poems, short stories, you name it, I’ve done it–and had done it by that point in my life. And my undergrad degree is in history, with a minor in English; I’d written many longer essays.

Those six pages were, by far, the hardest thing I’d ever written. I was reduced to tears many times. I grumbled about it to my family, until my parents pointed out that as a pastor, my JOB would be to teach people about Jesus and lead them to stronger relationships with him, and that if I couldn’t talk about my own journey along that path, I was going to run into serious trouble. Eventually, I got it done, and thanked God as I sent it off that it was over.

But why was it so hard? What was the issue, the block, the underlying problem? The simplest layer was simply inexperience; as I said, I come from a tradition that (while it does many other things very well) simply doesn’t do a good job of witnessing. I’d seldom seen my elders or peers in the faith witness to their own experience of God, and when I had it was people from other traditions, whose perspectives and experiences were so different that I could not fit my own understanding into it.  I had no model to use as a baseline or guide.

But I think a lot of it has to do with fear of vulnerability. My experiences of God’s presence are times when my soul has been touched, times when things have happened to me that I can’t ever really put into words. They are personal, in the most deeply intimate way possible. I was writing for an audience of Christians, of course, who were predisposed to believe me, which helped. (I certainly could not have written that essay for an audience of skeptics!) But I knew they were going to be judging me on it, just the same. And judging me, not just my interpretation of a Bible passage or something like that. It’s hard, at an time, to talk about something so personal as your own experiences of God.  But for the first time I really seriously did it be for an essay to people I mostly didn’t know, who would then decide my future partly on their impressions of that essay–that was excruciating.

Witnessing or testifying to our experiences of God is difficult and intimate, but at the same time it’s part of our calling from God as Christians.  It’s not something that just belongs to formally-trained ministers, but to all who believe and are baptized.  And yet I know I haven’t done a very good job of it since becoming a pastor myself, either in my own witnessing or in teaching others to witness.  The two are very connected; how can I ask my people to do something I am not comfortable with?  But how can any of us get more comfortable with doing it–with sharing the stories of our faith, with sharing what God has done for us–not just in Bible stories, but in our own lives and experiences–without just buckling down and doing it?