Laboring for Shalom

Lectionary 14, Year C, July 7, 2019

Isaiah 66:10-14, Psalm 66:1-9, Galatians 6:7-16, Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

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.

“After this the Lord appointed sevent others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the Harvest to send laborers out into his harvest.” Believe it or not, this is one of the ways in which our world is similar to Jesus’ day.  There is a great harvest—a lot of people who are hungry for God, for some deeper meaning to their lives—but not that many laborers to bring in the harvest, to give the Good News of Jesus Christ to the people who are most hungry for it.

One in every five Americans today calls themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  They believe there is something greater than the material world; they believe that they are better off if they pay attention to their spiritual life; they are curious about God; but they don’t go to church or read the Bible or look to Christianity for guidance or community.  Some of them grew up Christian but have left the faith; some of them were never Christian to begin with.  Many are wary or skeptical of institutional religion and churches, because they have seen too many abuses, too many hypocrites, too many people using the Bible as a club to beat people over the head with, too much use of the Bible simply as a trump card in political arguments.  Or they can’t imagine that someone like them could ever be welcome in church: they just don’t fit the standard mold of the churchgoer, and think they will only be welcome if they pretend to be someone they’re not.  Or, like a cousin of mine, they long for some deeper spiritual experience, but found the church more interested in maintaining the status quo and the traditions than in exploring discipleship and spirituality.

Whatever the reason, whatever their experiences, these people will never walk in a church’s doors on their own.  They will never seek to be baptized or to come to Bible study without being invited.  And they will probably be suspicious, at least at first, of invitations, because so many of them have been burned by Christians and Christian churches before.  And yet, despite all of this they are deeply hungry for a closer connection with God, and this is something we can help them find through our Lord Jesus Christ.  They are ripe for the harvest; but there aren’t many of us to go out and do it, and most of us are afraid of being sent out, because it’s hard to talk about important things with people who disagree with us.

So let’s talk about the seventy who were sent out, and how they were sent out, and what they were sent to do, because it’s not what we think of when we think of mission work.  In some ways, it’s a lot easier than what we think of; in others, it is so much harder.  We think of missionaries as people who know their Bibles cover to cover and who know all the right arguments to make to “prove” they are right and the people they are trying to convert are wrong.  But you can’t argue someone into faith; it just doesn’t work that way.  Faith can’t be taught, it has to be caught.  You absorb it from the people around you, from the way they interpret their experience of God.  Learning doctrines and theology, that comes later; if you have faith, it adds great richness and depth.  If you don’t have faith, the doctrines are useless.    And so often in the last few centuries, missionaries have brought as much cultural imperialism as they did religion.  When they entered a community, instead of seeing what the Christian life might look like in that culture, they tried to change the culture to be more like mainstream White middle-class culture, as if Jesus could only love you if you wore the right clothes and spoke the right way and sang the right songs.

But if you notice, when Jesus gave the seventy their marching orders, they were nothing like our stereotypes of what missionaries should be.  First, he doesn’t give them a list of doctrines or beliefs that people have to be taught and convinced to believe.  The seventy were people who had followed Jesus for months, who had heard him preach and talked with him and knew his message, but the teachings were not part of this first missionary journey.  The first thing they’re supposed to do—the beginning of their ministry—is not to preach, but to spread peace.

Now, in Jewish thought, peace is a lot deeper than what we think of today.  Peace was not merely the absence of conflict, although that was part of it; peace was part of shalom, which means peace but which also means wholeness, healing, harmony, completeness, prosperity, welfare.  This is the first thing they are to do: they are to bring shalom with them and bless those they meet with it.  This is for two reasons.  First, it is God’s desire that everyone experience that healing, that wholeness, that harmony within themselves and within their community, whether or not they believe in God.  And second, once you have experienced that shalom, even if only in part, it becomes so much easier for the Good News of Jesus Christ to take root.  Where fears, anxieties, angers, resentment, jealousy, and other things like them hold sway, the Word of God finds rocky soil in our hearts.  Shalom is the basis for every good thing.

And the seventy don’t get to take the easy way out.  They don’t get to discriminate and only go to places where there is already shalom, because God’s peace is beyond understanding and it is.  Everyone needs peace and wholeness; so the seventy are sent to be agents of shalom everywhere they go.  Not everyone will accept shalom; not everyone is willing to open themselves up to the possibility of healing and harmony.  And not everyone who experiences shalom will then be willing to hear God’s Word.  But the ones Jesus sends are to proclaim it anyway, and if that shalom is rejected, the laborers are not to retaliate or judge, but simply shake the dust from their feet and move on.

There are people today, in our own community, who are in desperate need of healing, wholeness, harmony, prosperity, and peace.  Sometimes that need is personal; sometimes, it is families who need it; sometimes, it is whole large groups.  Some of them will welcome that when it comes; others will not.  But as Jesus’ followers we are called and commanded by God to be instruments of that peace, and just as the seventy were sent out to bring that shalom to the communities along Jesus’ path, we are called to bring it to those in our own community.  We are called to do this both for the sake of God’s shalom, and because people who have experienced that shalom are far more likely to listen to the Good News of Jesus.  So here’s a question: where are the places in need of shalom among us, and what can we do to bring it?  How can we, as individuals and as a congregation, be instruments of God’s peace, healing, and wholeness?

But spreading shalom is only the first step for the seventy.  Once they have begun to spread that shalom, they have to stay with the people they are evangelizing.  They don’t get to retreat back into the familiar culture and surroundings of what they’re used to.  No, they stay with the people they are evangelizing, they keep promoting shalom through word and deed.  This is hard; it means they are not in control.  They are guests.  They don’t get to impose their cultural expectations as part of evangelism; they have to listen and adapt to the culture of their hosts.  They are to bring the Gospel, not their culture.  How can we, as we interact with others in our community, bring that same grace and openness to other ways of living?

And then, once they have brought peace and healing and wholeness, then they are to proclaim that the kingdom of God is near.  But it’s still not about doctrine or Biblical knowledge or the right argument.  It’s about pointing out where God is in their midst.  It’s about pointing out God moments, places where God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness and shalom break into the world.  It’s about seeing God in action.  And once you have that—once you have God’s shalom, and can see where God is around you, that is when faith comes.  That is when spirituality deepens from something vague into something concrete.  That is when people start to become disciples, start to become part of the community of faith and learn its stories and its beliefs.  And that is when we see, as the seventy did, the work of the Holy Spirit.  May we learn to spread shalom as they did.  May we learn to be good guests, as they did.  And may we always point out the kingdom of God in our midst.

Amen.

 

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.

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?

Sowing Stories

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 15

July 16, 2017

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

Baptism and Discipleship

Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Come and See

Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Giving Living Water

Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

 

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

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.

If there is one question guaranteed to get most good, active Christians to hang their head in shame, it’s this one: how often do you share your faith with others?  You see, we know we’re supposed to be evangelizing, spreading the Good News.  We know there are a lot of people in the world who desperately need the Good News, who long for some deeper meaning to their lives but looking in all the wrong places.  We know that the world is full of parched souls searching for living water, and that Jesus Christ is the living water that will quench that thirst and give them abundant life.  And yet, sharing our faith is scary.  It’s a very personal thing, and what if we don’t know enough to answer all their questions, and what if they laugh, or what if we offend them?  And so we just … don’t.  We have living water in a world dying of thirst, and we don’t share it.

I understand, because I’ve been there.  When I went off to seminary, some of my friends were shocked.  See, they didn’t even know I was a Christian.  I’d never even mentioned my faith, because I knew they weren’t believers and I didn’t want to make things awkward.  And in the Lutheran church, before you get accepted to seminary to become a pastor, you have to write six pages about your faith and how you feel called by God.  It’s not judged on academic standards, but just on how you talk about your faith.  That was the hardest six pages I’ve ever had to write in my life.  I wasn’t used to sharing my faith, and it made me feel so naked.  I know just how hard it can be to share our faith with others, but I also know how vital it is.  Each and every one of us is here because someone—parents, teachers, grandparents—shared their faith with us.

So let’s take a closer look at our Gospel reading, to see what we can learn from it.  The first thing that strikes me is that Jesus knows her.  And it’s that knowledge, not the theology, that gets her to sit up and take notice.  It’s the fact that he knows her that gets her village to listen, too.  Now, we can never have the kind of intimate knowledge of someone that Jesus has, but we can and do get to know the people around us.  And you know what?  One of the key ingredients about whether someone responds positively to the Gospel or not is whether there’s a relationship there.  If they know and trust the person who’s telling them about Jesus, they’re a lot more likely to listen with an open heart and mind than they will to someone randomly coming up to them and asking them if they’re saved or not.  Jesus could build that relationship quickly; for us it takes longer.

Pastor Mark Nygard, currently serving in Bowman, North Dakota, was a missionary in Africa for many years.  His first assignment, he was the first missionary in the area.  It took him twenty years to gain his first convert, because it took that long to build up the kind of trust and relationship with the community that would inspire them to open up enough to him.  He didn’t start by talking—he stared by listening.  He started by listening to their concerns, hearing what they hoped for, what they feared, what they cared about.  And once they knew he cared about them—not just as souls to be saved, but as people—they were willing to listen to him talk about Jesus.  Just like, in our Gospel reading, it’s Jesus knowing and caring about the woman that gets her to open up to him.  He knows, her he accepts her, he cares about her … and that’s what shocks her.  That’s what sends her out to her friends and family and community to share the Good News.

Second, Jesus took a risk in talking with her.  You see, she was a Samaritan and Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish.  Jews and Samaritans did not get along.  They had never gotten along.  They worshipped the same God, our God, but they disagreed about everything: which books should be considered holy Scripture and which shouldn’t, where one should worship, and many other things.  They did not live in the same towns, they did not drink out of the same wells, they did not eat together, and if they absolutely had to be at the same place, they ignored each other.  Notice that both the Samaritan woman and the disciples are uncomfortable that Jesus is talking with her.  Yet we are not sent to spread the Good News only to people who are already like us, but to everyone.  It’s a lot easier to talk to people we already know than it is to go out and meet new people.  Meeting new people is a risk, especially when they come from different cultures as the Samaritan woman did.  Yet however different they are, they are still children of God, created by him, and they still have a thirst for the living water that Jesus gives.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last few years I’ve heard Underwood natives—the people who grew up here, whose families have been here for generations—note that there are all these people they don’t know in town.  People who came in to work the mine or the power plant, or who work in Bismark or Minot but wanted their kids to grow up in a small town.  Some came from across the state, some came from across the country.  And so often, instead of welcoming them in and getting to know them, we just keep talking to the people we already know.  If Jesus had done that, the Samaritan woman wouldn’t have come to faith, and neither would her community.  And neither would any of our ancestors.  We are called to spread the Gospel to all nations and all peoples … and the first step is getting to know the ones here in our midst.

Third, Jesus didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the nitpicking theological points.  He doesn’t start out by quoting chapter and verse.  He knows what she wants and needs because he knows her, and that’s what they talk about.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus does explain the fine points of Scripture, but it’s almost always to his disciples, the inner circle who already follow him.  When he talks to people like the Samaritan woman, he talks about the things in their lives that matter to them.  He talks about how the Good News fits into that.  So, for a woman who spends a lot of her day hauling water for drinking and cooking and cleaning, he talks about living water that nourishes our souls and never runs dry.  And they talk about her life, and where God is in the midst of it.

This is Good News to her, but it should also be good news to us.  You don’t have to know all the Bible by heart to share the living water.  You don’t have to have memorized all the correct theological beliefs or clever arguments to persuade people.  You just have to be able to talk about their life, and where God might be in it, and where you’ve experienced God in your own life.  It doesn’t take professional training in evangelism, although that can help; all you really need is sincerity.

Last, take heart in Jesus’ words to his disciples.  The fields are ripe for harvesting, and we are not the only workers.  Spreading the Gospel does not rest wholly on our shoulders.  It’s not about one heroic witness that wins a soul for Christ.  Rather, like farming, spreading the Gospel is the culmination of a lot of little things.  Someone has to plow the fields, and then someone has to plant the seeds.  Then someone has to fertilize them, and maybe irrigate them.  Then someone has to spray for weeds.  Then comes the harvest.  But all of these roles don’t have to be the same person.  Maybe your job isn’t to convert them.  Maybe your job is just to till the soil, or plant seeds, or water them with living water.  Each one of us is an important part, and each one of us has a role to play.  But none of us is the only part.  We share in this labor with all Christians.  We are sent by Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father, with the Holy Spirit inspiring us and guiding us.  We don’t have to do everything.  We just have to do our part, and trust that God will send others to do theirs.

Jesus met the woman at the well, and talked with her.  He knew her, and cared about her, and built a relationship with her, and she listened because of that relationship.  He built that relationship despite all the social taboos against it, despite the pressure to stick with his own people.  He shared his experiences, and he showed her how God was a part of her life, and the gift of living water that God wanted her to receive.

Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 23C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

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.

A lot of people—a lot of Christians—seem to think that the most important thing we can do is to grow our churches—get more people attending, fill the pews.  Save souls in mass groups, and, not coincidentally, put the Christian church in the position of power in the community that it used to have.  There’s just one problem with that: when we look at Jesus’ ministry in the Bible, converting people in large numbers does not seem to have been something that concerned him.  Calling disciples and training them for the Christian life, yes.  Large mass altar calls, no.  Take a look at today’s Gospel reading.  It comes from the middle of Luke.  Jesus has already been preaching and teaching for a while, and doing miracles like healing people and feeding large crowds.  So people are following him!  Huge crowds of them!  Now, this is the part where a successful evangelist should start talking about the beautiful peace of following Jesus, the heavenly rewards, all the joys and benefits that come with being a disciple.  He should be sealing the deal, right?  Getting them all fired up and committed to God.

That’s not what Jesus does.  Jesus, in fact, does the exact opposite of that.  Jesus starts talking about how hard it is.  That there’s a very real cost.  Hating your family, carrying a cross—which wasn’t a religious symbol then, but rather a very real instrument of torture and death—and giving up all that you have.  I would bet you that a lot of the people following him just up and turned around at this point.  Jesus told them to count the cost of becoming his disciple, and they did, and they decided that they just did not want to pay it.  And who can blame them?  This is not a pretty picture Jesus is painting.  Jesus doesn’t want to lure people in with rosy pictures.  He is not playing the numbers game.  Jesus wants disciples, people who are committed to their faith, not people who will be fair-weather friends.  So he is very up-front.  There is no small-print to being a disciple, no important things hidden in the Terms of Service.  Jesus plainly spells the cost out for all to hear.

Let’s take the whole family thing.  Let’s assume Jesus is using a little bit of hyperbole here and he doesn’t actually literally want you to hate your family.  (This seems like a pretty safe assumption, given how much time and effort the Scriptures spend telling us to love people, and how often God uses family metaphors to describe God’s love for us.)  But even so, Jesus is saying that family can’t be your priority.  Life itself can’t be your priority.  If it comes down to a conflict between your family and God?  Or between your life and your faith?  You can’t be Jesus’ disciple if you’re not willing to give up your whole family and even life itself to follow him.  I don’t know that we really get how big a deal this was back then.  Yes, family is important to us even now, but there are other options available.  People leave home all the time.  It’s normal.

Leaving home was not normal back then.  You lived in the same community with your entire extended family for your entire life, and you worked in the family business, and you married other people from the community, and you lived at home with your parents or your spouse’s parents your entire life, and you took your parent’s place in the community just as your children would eventually take yours.  There wasn’t really any other option.  It wasn’t like today, where even if you stay in the same town most people get their own home where they can do things their own way.  And today, if you don’t like the family business, you can get a job in a different trade or profession that suits you better.  And if you and your family don’t get along, you can move somewhere else and make a new family and build new relationships.  Those things didn’t really happen in Jesus’ day.  If you cut yourself off from your family, you would have nowhere to go and no ability to start a new life.  And, Jesus says, if you’re not willing to do that for God?  You can’t be his disciple.

Think of it this way.  I know you’ve seen marriages where one of the spouses is … unhealthily attached to their family of origin?  Like, they always and only want to go to their own family’s holiday gatherings, and never their spouses, and if one of their parents has advice on something, they give it more weight than their spouse’s opinion?  And it’s really clear to everyone that their parents and siblings are more important to them than their spouse?  That is not a healthy marriage.  When you get married, you have to learn to prioritize.  It’s not that you literally hate your parents and siblings, but your spouse and kids have to be the top of your priority list.  In the same way, to be a disciple—a healthy disciple—following Jesus has to be your #1 priority.

As for possessions, well, it’s not that having stuff is bad; but how often do our possessions—the things we own, the things we want to own—guide our lives?  How much of our time is taken up with earning money to buy stuff, and then using it and taking care of it, and then getting more stuff?  How often do the cares of our house and our work and our cars and our stuff keep us occupied and prevent us from doing the things that need doing the most?  It’s not that our possessions are bad, just that if we put too much of our heart and mind into them, they can keep us from putting our hearts and minds—and hands—where they are actually needed.  For example: boats are great, I love being out on the water on a boat.  But if I had a boat and a neighbor needed help and I say I can’t because I’m taking my boat out on the lake … well, that’s a problem.  But the problem isn’t with the boat, the problem is with my priorities.  To be a disciple, our priorities have to be with Jesus, not with our possessions.

And as for carrying the cross, well, like I said: the cross was an instrument of torture and death.  You carried your cross on your way to be executed.  Jesus knew, as the crowd did not, that he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified.  He was going to die for the sake of the world.  The world is a place of sin and brokenness and pain and oppression, and far too often the powers of this world get their powers by adding to that brokenness and pain, and so they don’t like those who try to bring justice and mercy and healing.  What Jesus is saying here is that if you truly follow him—if you are truly his disciple—you are going to need to be willing to stand up to the powers of this world and work for healing even when they like things broken, and work for peace and love when they are making a profit on war and hate and fear and suspicion.  And the powers of this world are not going to take that lying down.  And they will lash out to protect themselves.  And if we are not willing to take the heat, we cannot be disciples of Jesus.  It’s not that all Christians get crucified—literally or figuratively—but some do.  If following Jesus leads us to our own equivalent of Calvary, well, we have to be ready to carry our cross, whatever that may be.  If working for justice, peace, and love in God’s name means running up against society and taking some hard knocks, well, that’s par for the course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran who lived in Germany in the early 20th Century.  He was a youth leader.  As the Nazis came to power, most Christians in Germany joined the party.  After all, the Nazis were very family-friendly.  They emphasized wholesome family values, and they had a slogan emphasizing that: “Children, kitchen, church.”  But Dietrich could see the evil underneath that shiny exterior.  They were supporting those wholesome family values by persecuting and killing anyone who didn’t fit their picture of what a good German should be: Jews, Romani, Communists, homosexuals, Slavs, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, non-whites, all were harshly discriminated against, and eventually rounded up and killed by the millions.  And so, while most Christians went along with this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not.  He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime, working against them to build a Christian church that held true to Jesus’ way of healing and love and justice.  And eventually the Nazis executed him.  That was his cross to bear.  Before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book, which is one of the great Christian classics of the 20th Century.  It’s called the Cost of Discipleship.  It’s about being willing to be a disciple even when it means challenging or going against the world around you.

Bonhoeffer said it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old self which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at his call.”

That is the cost Jesus is talking about.  To be his disciple, we have to be willing to pay that cost, even if it means conflict with our families, giving up things we might enjoy so that God’s work may be done, or even suffering for the sake of God’s healing work in the world.  May we become true disciples, willing to set aside all the things of this world and follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.

Amen.

Faith across cultures

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

The disciples and believers in Judea heard that Peter was converting the Gentiles, and they had a problem with him.  A BIG problem.  Not with the conversion itself.  No, they thought it only right and good that everyone of every tribe and nation should worship God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  So Peter preaching to the Gentiles, that was good, and them responding was even better.  It was exactly what the risen Jesus had commanded them to do—go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That part was great!

It was how he did it that was the problem.  You see, the Gentiles were … different.  They spoke different languages, they sang different songs, they ate different foods, they had different customs, and in every way imaginable they were … different.  And when Peter went to live among them and preach, God commanded him in a dream to just kinda go with the flow.  To accept their hospitality and speak their language and eat their food and, basically, live like a Gentile while he was among them.  And the Jewish Christians were shocked and horrified.  Worship with them, yes, good!  Share the Gospel with them, wonderful, awesome!  Eat with them?  Their food?  In their home?  Ew, gross, that’s a step too far.

And this is a tendency that Christians have struggled with ever since.  Actually, most times since, we haven’t even been as flexible and open-minded as those early Jewish disciples.  We tend to mix up our culture and the Gospel way too much.  Take 19th Century missionaries as an example: they went across the globe with the best of intentions to bring the Gospel to people who had never heard it … and they hamstrung themselves by insisting that in order to be Christian you had to swallow European culture lock, stock, and barrel.  European names, European-style-houses and family arrangements, European language in worship, European-style hymns, European-style art, European-style clothing.  Consequently, most of those 19th-Century missionaries weren’t very successful at all.  Sure, they got a few converts, and more people who would come to church if it was a requirement for getting some kind of help but not really convert in their hearts.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century and missionaries started working within local culture that missionaries started relaxing and working within the local culture, using local music styles and art and names.  Even lifestyles and family arrangements and other things like that.  Instead of assuming that obviously European/American ways of doing everything were better and more Christian, they evaluated each part of the local culture for whether or not it was compatible with a Christian faith.  And some things weren’t—but a lot was, or could be adapted.  And along the way, many of the missionaries found their own lives and culture changed, too.  They saw the Spirit moving in new and different ways.  And it was at that point—when people could keep their own culture and adapt it to the Christian life, when long-term Christians and new converts could change and grow together—that Christianity took off in Africa and parts of Asia.  Christianity is booming and growing in large parts of Africa, Asia, and India.  It’s flourishing and spreading, because the missionaries learned to listen and be part of the local culture, instead of just preaching and lecturing about all the ways they were wrong.

It makes sense.  Put yourself in their shoes—you’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea.  Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down.  But they turn their nose up at everything you do—they don’t like your food, or the way you talk, or how you dress, or anything about you.  And sometimes they have a point, but sometimes they’re wrong.  Sure, they’ve got this great message … but what they seem to want most is to turn you into a carbon copy of themselves.  Would you listen, or would you write them off as arrogant jerks and go on about your business?  You’d probably ignore them.  Most people would.

But change the scenario a bit.  You’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea.  Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down.  And they listen to what you think is holding you down.  They listen to what your fears and hopes and dreams are, and they sit at your table and eat with you and are great friends—not just somebody nice to talk to or shoot the breeze with, but there when you need help.  Not because they have an agenda, but because they respect you and care about you.  And sometimes, they point out when something you take for granted is wrong … but they’re also willing to listen when you point out something that they do is wrong.  Would you be willing to listen then?  Would you be willing to open your heart and your mind to the message of good news that they brought?  Probably you would!  And so the Gospel spreads.

That was what was at stake in our reading from Acts.  When you’re spreading the Gospel as Jesus commanded, how are you going to go about it?  Are you going to assume that your own culture, you own ways of doing things, are as important as the Gospel?  Are you going to insist that everything goes your own way from the get-go, or are you going to meet people where they are?  Are you going to insist everyone does things your way, or are you willing to adapt and learn from the people you are bringing the Gospel to?  It’s not just a question of whether or not you’ll welcome them when they show up at your church, though that’s important too—it’s a question of whether or not you’ll allow them to welcome you.  Will you eat with them, even if it’s something you would never eat otherwise?  Will you open yourself to them just as you ask them to open themselves up to the Gospel?  Will you respect them as you want them to respect you?

It sounds so simple.  Yet it’s really hard!  And it’s particularly important in our world today, because there is a big cultural gap between practicing Christians and the rest of America.  The gap is smaller in North Dakota than it is elsewhere, but it’s growing every year.  We can’t assume that the people outside our doors—the people we are called to bring the love of God to—share the same assumptions and habits that we do.  Often, they don’t … and often, it’s those things that keep them away.  Because here, as in most churches, we don’t like change.  We’d love to have all those unchurched people out there come in and join us … as long as they looked, acted, thought, dressed, and ate just like us.  As long as they just fit nicely into all the things we have going here already.  As long as any change was all on their part.  As long as everything happens in our way and on our terms.

God sent Peter to the Gentiles in Caesaria, to preach the Gospel to them, and the Holy Spirit was at work in them, and so they became Christian.  But it wasn’t enough for Peter to preach; he had to listen, too, and he had to accept them as the Gentiles they were and eat with them.  This horrified his fellow Jewish Christians, because they thought the Gentiles should give up their own culture and become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus.  Yet the Spirit was at work in the Gentiles, and God himself gave Peter a vision to tell him to accept the Gentiles’ hospitality.  It took courage to follow that vision, because Peter knew how his fellows would react.  And it took courage for the rest of the disciples to recognize the work of the Spirit, and set in motion the actions that would begin the conversion of the Gentiles.  It took courage because change is hard, even when it helps us grow.  They had to have faith that God would lead them, that God would help them keep the core of their faith strong even as parts of how they lived it out changed.

So what about us?  How do we treat the people outside our doors?  How do we respond to the people who are different, who are not like us?  Do we open ourselves up to building relationships with them?  Do we accept their hospitality and meet them where we are?  Do we open doors that may lead to ministry and a sharing of God’s love?  Or do we close those doors, and welcome them only if they fill the roles we have pre-selected for them?  May God send us the courage and vision of Peter, so that God’s love and God’s Spirit may be poured out on all people.

Amen.

Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year A, June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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

 

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

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

This week at Wednesday evening worship, when I read this Gospel and said “The Gospel of the Lord,” the response was kind of weak. This is not the sort of reading that one would naturally say “Thanks be to God!” for. This is the sort of reading that makes people frown and look sideways at their Bibles. The Prince of Peace saying he has not come to bring peace, but a sword? The Son of the one who commanded us to honor our father and mother saying “I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Really?

Let’s back up a bit, and see if some context will help. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends out his disciples to preach his message. And he tells them he’s sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Our Gospel reading is part of the instructions Jesus gives before sending his disciples out for the first time to preach on their own. This is what Jesus wants his followers to know about what they’re getting into when they preach Jesus’ message. This is what awaits those who preach the Gospel. Division and strife.

There’s an old saying that has always particularly struck me: “The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What does this mean? Well, let’s take a look at Jesus’ ministry. What did Jesus do on Earth? Well, first off, he never met a sinner he didn’t forgive and eat with. Whenever Jesus met someone who was outcast, someone whose life was in tatters, someone who was ignored and oppressed by society, he forgave them whatever sins they had committed and he ate with them. When he met someone that everyone knew was a sinner, he didn’t join the chorus of finger-wagging and tsk-tsking. Doesn’t mean he liked what they were doing, but he apparently figured that society had already done more than enough condemning already. He forgave them, loved them, and shared fellowship with them.

I want you to stop and take a moment. Think of someone or some group of people that you believe are sinful. Some person or group of people who have done bad things. Some person or group of people that most of the good people in town look down on. Those people, whoever they are. Think about that person or group. Then imagine Jesus going to visit them in their home, telling them he loves them, and staying for dinner. It’s not a comfortable thought, is it? That right there was enough to get the pillars of the community upset.

And when Jesus saw someone in pain, someone hurting, someone ill or injured or grieving, he healed them. Right then and there. No matter what else was going on. He didn’t care if it was the “right way” or the “right time,” he didn’t care whether the person was an insider or an outsider, he didn’t care about the rules of society. If he saw someone hurting, he healed them. And in so doing, he stepped on a lot of toes.

Even worse, he was not shy about calling out the sins and failings of the pillars of the community. All the “little” things they swept under the table, all the things they had convinced themselves weren’t sins at all. The things nobody would dare point out. He called them out on their greed, their hypocrisy, their selfishness, their callousness, their blindness. He pointed out the ways they interpreted the Scriptures so that their own culture was justified and other peoples’ was dismissed. He went out in public and pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. And the pillars of the community really didn’t like that.

Jesus spent his life seeking out the people whose lives were in ruins, who had been shoved aside by the community, and loving them. And then turning around and telling the leaders that they were just as sinful as any of the ones they looked down on, and they needed to shape up. This is not, to put it mildly, a way to become popular. The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. People who are afflicted, whether through the whims of fate or their own bad choices, don’t need any more afflictions, they need comfort. And people who are comfortable and have everything going their way don’t need more affirmation; they get enough of it from everybody else. What they need is a good kick when they get too complacent. And that’s what the Gospel does: it reminds the sinners and the sufferers of God’s love and mercy, and it reminds the self-righteous ones who coast on their laurels that they, too, fall short of the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel Jesus preached, it’s the Gospel Jesus lived, and it’s the Gospel that eventually got him killed. Because, of course, nobody likes being told they need to shape up. Nobody likes being told they’re a sinner. The pillars of the community have resources to shut up people who point out the Emperor has no clothes, and in first century Palestine, those resources included crucifixion. Jesus’ death on a cross was a direct result of the message he preached. Every time he ate with and forgave sinners, the leaders of the community grumbled against him. Every time he pointed out the sins of the good people, they grumbled against him. And began to lay traps for him, first to discredit him and finally to kill him.

So why, if that’s the case, would anybody want to preach the Gospel? What makes it worth it? Freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from having to pretend things are just fine when they’re not. Freedom from the idea that might makes right. Freedom to seek justice even when it’s not popular. Freedom from pettiness and cynicism and apathy; freedom to be the best we can be. Freedom to acknowledge when society is messed up and the freedom to live lives of joy and hope even in the midst of a broken world.

But in order to be free, you have to first acknowledge all the things that are holding you down. And that’s not always easy or fun. To be resurrected in Jesus Christ, you first have to die. And nobody likes dying. Even in a community where most people are Christian, the heart of the Gospel is no more popular than it was in Jesus’ day. There are some sinners we don’t want to forgive; some outcasts we don’t want to bring back in to the community. And there are certainly truths about ourselves and our sins that we don’t want to face! Comforting the afflicted can make you pretty unpopular. Afflicting the comfortable is even worse. If we’re really serious about following Jesus, we’re not going to be winning any popularity contests. If we’re really serious about following Jesus’ commands to forgive sinners and heal the broken and call out sin where we see it even when we see it in the leaders of the community, we’re going to face resistance. There will be conflict; there will be division. Not because God wants there to be conflict or division, but because that’s how people react when you call them on their bad behavior.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be blindsided by this, and he doesn’t want us to be, either. He’s quite clear: following the Gospel means taking up the cross. It means that people will be upset with you for telling them what they don’t want to hear. If you water the Gospel down so that people who are comfortable in their sins stay comfortable, and those who are afflicted and cast out and unforgiven stay afflicted and cast out and unforgiven, you are denying Jesus. You are denying the message he was willing to die to give us. And Jesus has a warning: if we deny Jesus, he will also deny us.

But in the midst of all this, there’s good news. We don’t get sent out alone, and we don’t get sent out without help. Yes, there will be conflict, and division. And in some places and times, there will even be physical danger. After all, most of the twelve disciples were eventually killed for their belief in Jesus Christ and their spreading of his message. Today there are still places in the world where being Christian can get you killed. But God is with us whenever the Gospel is truly preached. When we preach Christ, when we live the Gospel, Jesus lives in us. God knows each sparrow’s fall; God knows all of what happens to us. God knows each hair on our head and God is with us always, even when things get dark. We may lose a bit of life in this world; we may find ourselves deep in conflict even with those we love. But we are not alone in our conflict. And the Good News, the word of freedom and hope and love, is worth it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Telling the Story

Second Sunday of Easter, (Year A) April 27, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

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.

Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” I’ve always thought Thomas—called “Doubting Thomas” because of this story—gets a bum rap. After all, he was no different than the other disciples, who didn’t believe when the women told them Jesus was raised; he just wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples.

Our readings today are all about belief: who believes, and when, and why. The disciples don’t believe Jesus has been raised until he enters their locked room and shows them his wounds. This is not a hallucination, or a ghost; this is a real, physical person, who truly died and truly was raised from the dead. Then there’s Thomas, who doesn’t believe until he gets the same up-close-and-personal look at the risen Jesus that his fellow disciples got, and Jesus gently chiding him for not believing their words and experiences. Jesus praises those—like us—who have not seen these things up close and personal, and yet believe anyway. And the chapter ends with the narrator telling us that the stories told in the Gospel are only part of what Jesus said and did while on Earth, but these specific stories were told so that we—everyone who reads these stories—might believe in Jesus.

After the events told in the Gospels, the disciples and the rest of Jesus’ followers went out and began sharing the stories of Jesus, the things he had done and the lessons he had taught. They shared those stories with everyone they met. Our first lesson was a short excerpt from a talk Peter gave about Jesus just a few months after the Resurrection, and our second lesson today is a short excerpt from a letter Peter wrote to those who had learned about Jesus and believed in him through those stories.

Those stories were passed on, first through word of mouth, and then eventually written down in the form of the Gospels. And to this day, those stories of Jesus’ words and deeds have been helping people to come to believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who died to save the world from sin and brokenness, and calls all people back to God. We are all here today because of those stories. And today we celebrate the faith of four young people who are here today to make a public statement that they, too, have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that they have life through his name.

Faith in Jesus Christ can’t be transmitted without those stories. But the stories are only part of how the faith is passed on from one generation to another, from one believer to another. The stories are powerful, but without people to tell them, they are just words on a page. God is not confined to the pages of the Bible; God is working through those words, but God is also working through the people who read and share them, through the people in all times and in all places who share the stories of how they have experienced the love of God. That’s one of the reasons why we start every Confirmation class with “God moments,” where we go around the circle and everyone says where they have seen God in the last week. And if I forget, the students remind me! It’s a way of helping ourselves to remember that God is with us, here and now, acting in our lives and loving us just as God was with the disciples two thousand years ago. We have never touched Jesus’ hands and feet, or put our hands in the wound in his side, but we have felt God’s love in our lives in many different ways. And after we’ve shared these moments of where God is working now, we turn to the pages of Scripture to see what God has done in the past, and what promises God has made to us.

Peter and the other disciples did something similar, when they passed on the faith that Jesus had taught them. They told people stories of how they had seen God acting in and through Jesus, and they turned to the Scriptures they had grown up with—the books of the Old Testament—to explain what God had done and the promises God had made to them through Jesus Christ. You see, that was the mission God gave them: he sent them out to tell the stories, to share the faith, to give life to all the world. The word “apostle” means “someone who is sent.” They were men and women on a mission, to share their experiences of Jesus the Christ. To pass on the faith. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, they brought many to God. We are here today because they told people about Jesus, and those people believed their words, and those people passed that faith on to others.

The faith that the Apostles taught—the faith that God sent them to spread—is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Now, here’s a question for the Confirmation students: where in the Bible is the Apostles’ Creed found? That’s a trick question: it isn’t in the Bible. We don’t know exactly where and when the Creed was first used, but it came into being very early on. By the second or third century, Christians were teaching it to those who were about to be baptized, as a handy summary of the faith that had been passed on to them by the Apostles. In those days books were extremely expensive and few could read, but everyone could memorize the Creed. And the Apostles’ Creed would help them remember the basics of the faith. It has been used ever since to teach people about who God is and what God has done. It is a framework of belief and a summary of all the stories of the Bible, shared in common by all Christians.

We may have our differences, but we all believe in God the father, the almighty, who created heaven and earth, and everything that is, seen and unseen. That Creator made us out of the dust of the earth and brought us life, and when we turned away from our heavenly father, he sent his Son, Jesus the Christ, to love us and heal us and bring us back to God.

We all believe in Jesus Christ, the Son, who was truly God and truly human, both at the same time, God in Human flesh, born of Mary, who taught and healed and was willing to die to save us from our sin and brokenness. He was tortured by Pontius Pilate, put to death on a cross, and died. He was buried. He was dead for three days, but the tomb could not hold him. The powers of death could not keep him down. He was raised from the dead on Easter, and because we are his, we too shall be raised from the dead. Jesus returned to heaven, where he is with the father, but he will come again, and bring God’s Kingdom with him.

We all believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which moved over the waters of creation, which was given to Jesus’ followers through tongues of flame at Pentecost, which is given to every one of us through the waters of baptism. Christians have splintered into so many different factions, but we believe that even when we fight and squabble among ourselves that there is still a unity among all who believe that makes us into one holy universal church in the eyes of God. We believe that God forgives us and calls us to forgive others. And we all believe that God’s kingdom will come, and the dead will be raised, and we will be with God forever.

This is the faith in which we baptize, the faith taught by the Apostles and passed on by all those who have come before us. It is the faith that we are called to share with the world, and it is the faith that these four young people are about to claim as their own. It is the faith that we live out every day.

God has done so many things in this world, in and among God’s people, for those who believe and those who don’t. There is no way that all of the stories of the things God has done could be collected in a single book; no book can hold it all. But we learn the stories of what God has done best through hearing people share the stories of what God has done for them and in them and through them. Thanks be to God.

The Day Everything Changed

Easter, (Year A), April 20, 2014

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:12-14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

 

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

 

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

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

There are some events that change everything. Some events that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. For my grandparents’ generation, the question was: what were you doing when you heard Pearl Harbor was bombed? For my parents’ generation, the question was: what were you doing when you heard that Kennedy was shot? For my generation, the question is: what were you doing on September 11th? (If you’re curious, I was in college, in Greek class, when we got the news.) If you notice, those events have a lot in common. They all involved a huge shock. They all were hard to believe at first. They all involved death. And they all involved a loss of innocence, a time of fear and pain. Something broke, and nothing was ever quite the same. The rules were different, afterwards. Life was different afterwards.

For the first followers of Jesus, the question was: where were you when Jesus rose? This was the game-changer. And life is different afterwards! But it’s a different kind of game-changer. This game changer doesn’t lead to a loss of innocence; it doesn’t lead to fear and pain. Quite the opposite. This event wipes away the fear and pain. This event restores an innocence and faith that had been lost. This event healed the world, and those who lived through it.

We take it for granted, today; after all, we know that Jesus rose! He died on Good Friday, and he rose on Easter. We celebrate it every year, regular as clockwork. We have the rituals and the traditions all laid out to help guide us through what to do and what it means. It’s not a shock, and it’s not hard to believe. We take it for granted. But put yourselves back in their shoes. If you hadn’t heard the story every year, would you have believed it possible before seeing it yourself? And when angels came and rolled the stone away, how would you have reacted? If I’d been there, not knowing the story, I probably would have fainted just like the guards did. And I definitely would have been as freaked out as the two Marys were.

Someone rose from the dead. The Son of God rose from the dead. The gates of hell have been broken. Sin and death have been defeated. These are all huge things! But for Jesus’ first followers, this is something more. This is, after all, their friend. Their friend whom they love. Their friend that they have eaten and drank with, their friend they’ve shared stories with, their friend who was with them in good times and bad. He was dead, and now he is alive. Notice that the women took hold of his feet. Mary Magdalene once washed his feet and anointed them with oil: these are feet she knows. I wonder if she touched his feet to reassure herself that this was truly Jesus, not a ghost or a hallucination or a case of mistaken identity, but the real man she had known and followed throughout Judea.

Jesus told them to tell his followers to go to Galilee, and they went. Jesus met them there, and they worshipped him, and he gave them the great commission: to pass on what they have learned, making disciples and baptizing them and living the kind of life that Jesus had taught them. And they did! They started telling people about Jesus; they started living differently. All of those first followers put their trust in God, and followed where he led them. Jesus promised to be with them always, and he was. Life wasn’t always smooth, and it wasn’t always easy. But their lives had been changed by meeting the resurrected Jesus, and they never looked back. They experienced Jesus’ death and resurrection; their old lives were dead, and their new lives were in Christ.

How have our lives been changed by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Have they been changed? For a lot of people, Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t really affect their every-day lives. For them, the salvation that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection means that they’ll go to heaven when they die. And that’s true! And it’s good that we know that! It’s a great comfort, particularly when a loved one dies, to know that we will see them again in the kingdom of heaven.

But Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just about what happens to us after we die. It’s about how we live in this life, too. In the words of our reading from Colossians, we have died, and our new life is with Christ in God. Our life, the life we live now, is in God. That’s why Jesus’ resurrection is immediately followed by a call to action. The two Marys meet Jesus in the garden, and they are overjoyed! They worship him! And they are sent to tell the rest of Jesus’ followers where to meet him. They don’t just hang around in the garden rehashing old times and celebrating. They get sent out into the world. And when Jesus’ followers get to the mountain in Galilee where he sent them, Jesus was there, and they worshipped him again. But, again, they didn’t have time to rest on their laurels. They weren’t given the chance to just stay there hanging out with Jesus; Jesus would be with them always, but they were supposed to go out in the world and be in the world, sharing the light of Christ. They weren’t given the chance to go back to their old lives as if nothing had happened. Yes, some of Jesus’ followers did go back to their old jobs; they all worked, they all had homes and most had families. But the way they lived their lives was different than it had been. They had a story to tell, and love to share.

Have you ever felt alone? Have you ever felt like nobody cared about you at all? Have you ever felt that if people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you? Have you ever felt that you had to hide parts of yourself to keep your friends? How much would it have meant to you, when you felt abandoned by the world, to know that God loved you no matter what? Would it have affected how you felt and thought? Would it have affected the choices you made? It’s true! God loves you no matter what. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that God loves each and every one of us—you, me, the entire world—with a love greater than anything we can imagine. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. So no matter what happens to us, no matter what hard knocks life gives us, no matter how far we go astray, God loves us and calls us. And that’s huge. We aren’t alone; we’re never alone. Fear and loneliness can make people do terrible things, but we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to be alone. We don’t have to hide ourselves. God sees the worst in us and loves us anyway. Knowing and accepting God’s love can give us the courage to open ourselves up to God’s Holy Spirit, to spread that love to all the world.

Those of you who were at Maundy Thursday services this week will remember Jesus’ last command to his disciples before his death was to love one another as he had loved them. In fact, Jesus said that love was the mark of a disciple. And here Jesus is, telling them to go and make disciples of all nations. You can’t be a disciple without loving one another as Jesus has loved us. So you can’t make a disciple without loving one another. Making disciples is not about making sure they know the right things or can say the right words. It’s not about separating good people from bad people. It’s about sharing Jesus’ love with the world, the love that he has given us. Discipleship is about letting God’s love transform us, and sharing that love with the world through our words and our actions.

And note that Jesus doesn’t just say “go and make disciples of your friends.” He doesn’t say “go and make disciples of nice people you like.” He doesn’t say “go and make disciples of people who are like you.” He says that we should go and make disciples of all nations. Everyone. As Peter says in our first lesson, God shows no partiality. God’s love is big enough for the whole world. It’s not something to be rationed out by the cupful, it overflows abundantly for everyone. We’ve been given the greatest gift imaginable—the love of God. We have more than we need, and we’ll never run out of it. We don’t have to hoard God’s love, because he gives it freely. Shouldn’t we share this wonderful thing with the world?

Jesus Christ died and rose again. He died for us, because he loves us, because he loves the whole world. This is not just a story of something that happened two thousand years ago, this is something that is happening here, now, for us. We have died with Christ, and been raised with him. Our lives are with Christ. God’s love has been poured out on us, and in us, and through us. And we have that gift to share with all the world. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

What do you hear?

Third Sunday after Advent, (Year A), December 15, 2013

Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

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.

Last week, we heard all about John the Baptist at the height of his ministry.  And what a figure he was!  He knew that the Messiah was coming, that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand.  He knew the time had come to prepare the way.  Certain of his mission, John the Baptist preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and he was not afraid to call out and challenge people who did not heed his call.  He wasn’t afraid to challenge the powerful, and point out their sins.  That, of course, was why he was put in prison and would later be executed: he offended too many powerful people, particularly the king, Herod Antipas, and his wife Herodias.

Today we hear of John the Baptist near the end of his life, after his ministry is over, not long before he would be executed by the king.  And now, he is not nearly so confident.  Before, he thundered and proclaimed the Word.  Now, humbled by his experiences, he seeks and asks of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Are you the Messiah, the one I was sent to prepare the way for?  Are you the fulfilling of our hopes and dreams?  Will I see God’s promises fulfilled before I die?

How many of us have been in John’s shoes?  I know I have.  There have been times in my life when I was so sure of myself, of my calling, of my role in life.  I thought I knew what God wanted and I felt secure in my knowledge.  In seminary, my first internship went bad and I had to resign half-way through the year.  Some of it was my fault, but other parts of it were things beyond my control.  A mid-year evaluation said I was failing in all but two categories.  And then I had six months to wait before I could continue with my training.  Six months to sit and stew over what went wrong.  Six months to pray, and cry, and wrestle with my thoughts and dreams.  Six months to wonder—was God really calling me to ministry?  It had seemed so clear.  Was that just arrogance on my part?  Self-delusion?  What happens next?  I never lost faith in God, but for a while I lost faith in myself, and in my ability to know God’s will.  Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt like you had no idea what God was doing, when it seemed like God was doing something completely the opposite of what you expected?

I have a lot of sympathy for John the Baptist, stuck in prison, his life in ruins at his feet, wondering if Jesus really was the Messiah.  John had been expecting someone a bit more powerful and forceful, I think.  Like most people of his day, John probably thought the Messiah would be a king like David, who would drive out the Roman invaders and their puppets the Herod family, and establish a just and righteous kingdom that would last forever more.  Sins would be judged, righteousness and repentance rewarded.  Remember John speaking of the fire and winnowing that the Messiah would bring?  A new order based on God’s law, rather than human law; God would take a far more active hand in the world than he had up to that point.  Such a coming reign of God would require armies, and political and military might as well as religious purity and piety.  And such a coming reign of God would certainly not allow prophets such as John to languish in prison for the “crime” of preaching God’s word.

Jesus’ ministry didn’t look like that.  Jesus’ ministry was about preaching and teaching, about healing and forgiveness.  Jesus worked miracles, yes; he had great power … but he never once used that power to raise an army or act like one would expect a king to act.  Jesus taught people about God, and about God’s love for all people and all of creation; Jesus taught about forgiveness; Jesus taught about righteousness; Jesus taught about a kingdom of God that wasn’t like any earthly kingdom had ever been or ever would be.  But Jesus’ ministry wasn’t much like John had pictured it.  And so John asked: “Are you the Messiah sent from God?”

We know that Jesus was the Messiah, of course; but Jesus didn’t give John a direct answer.  And when Jesus’ own disciples asked who he was, Jesus turned the question around on them.  “Who do you say that I am?”  Jesus could have told John, “Yes, of course I’m the Messiah!  You knew that when you baptized me, and you believed; don’t doubt now!”  I’m sure that would have been comforting to John, and to those who followed Jesus.  Simple, black-and-white, no ambiguity.  A clear confirmation of who Jesus was and what he was doing.  But that wasn’t what Jesus did.

Instead, Jesus summarizes his ministry: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  What do you see when you look at Jesus?  What do you hear him say?  All these things Jesus was saying and doing—are those the actions of the Messiah?  And if so, what kind of a Messiah is he?  The prophets had predicted the Messiah would do many things that  Jesus did—healing the sick, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and bringing good news to the poor—but there had been other healers and miracle workers before Jesus.  Not quite on the same scale as Jesus, of course, but the prophet Elijah had multiplied a small amount of grain and oil into a supply that fed a family for years, healed a man of leprosy, and even brought a boy back from the dead.  There had been teachers before Jesus, too.

Jesus was far greater than those who came before him, and he fulfilled the prophecies, but he didn’t act like people expected the Messiah to act.  He was a king whose kingdom was not of this earth, a Messiah whose message was of peace and reconciliation, a lord who cared for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow instead of the powerful people, a judge who came not to condemn but to save.  In the course of his ministry, Jesus offended many powerful people, just like John—and just like John, he ended up dying for it.  Yes, Jesus was the Messiah—but his ministry, his reign, don’t fit into the nice neat categories we humans like to put things in.  We like success stories.  We like stories about underdogs who beat their powerful opponents.  We like happy endings.  We like clear answers.

Jesus seldom gave clear answers.  He spoke in riddles, metaphors, parables, and symbolism.  His response to John was actually a lot clearer than many of the things he told those who came to hear him.  We tend to forget that—we’ve had two thousand years to interpret his words; it was a lot different for the first people to hear him.  And even for us, Jesus’ words aren’t exactly straightforward.

Why did Jesus do that, I wonder?  Why not make things simple, clear, and direct?  Surely, that would be an easier and better way to get people to listen to his words and follow him!  No doubt, no ambiguity.  Surely, if God is leading his people, God could give us a clearer road map to what God wants us to do!  Why are there times of doubt in our lives?  Times of uncertainty?

“Go and tell what you hear and see,” Jesus said.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  Jesus didn’t give an easy, simple answer.  Instead, Jesus told John to look around him.  To see the signs of God’s kingdom even in the middle of a broken, sinful world.  Jesus’ answer requires John—and us—to think and to watch, to keep alert and to trust.  God’s kingdom is coming.  Indeed, it is close at hand.  That kingdom where the oppressed find justice, the hungry are fed, the eyes of the blind opened, that kingdom is near.  It comes through Jesus, the son of God, the Messiah, the king of kings and lord of Lords, who will come to judge the living and the dead, and to bring hope and healing through the Resurrection.  The kingdom is not here yet, but it is coming.

The thing about Jesus’ answer, here, is that you have to pay attention.  You have to stay awake, watching for signs of the kingdom.  You can’t just confirm that you’re right and go about your business; you can’t just memorize the right answers and forget about it.  You have to watch, and listen; you have to wrestle with what you see and hear.  We are not called to hearing the story of Jesus’ birth once a year, we are called to watch for Jesus’ coming every day, everywhere we go.  And then we’re called to tell people about it.  To spread the good news that the kingdom of God is near.  May we always be watching for the signs of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

The Good News We Don’t Expect

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 10), Year C, June 9, 2013

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

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

 

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

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

Today is the second of our six-week study of Galatians.  Last week, we heard why Paul was so mad at the Galatians: they had started putting their own actions, their own ability to follow the traditions of the faithful, above trusting in God’s Grace.  They were turning away from the true Gospel—the Good News that God has saved us—and turning to a false gospel.  This false gospel focused instead on their own ability to do the right thing.  The false gospel was all about works righteousness: if you do the right thing, you will earn God’s love.

This false gospel sounds very logical, very believable.  There’s just one problem with it: that’s not God’s message.  That’s not the Good News that Jesus was sent to bring.  That false gospel is not the Word of God that turned Paul’s life upside down and inside out, and it’s not the Word of God that is still active in our midst today.

Paul grew up in a very faithful family.  He’d spent a lot of time studying the Bible, the Scriptures.  He knew all the things God had asked of his people in the past.  Paul knew all the right things to do to be a faithful follower of God.  He knew all the right prayers, he knew how difficult passages of Scripture should be interpreted.  Paul could probably quote the Bible backwards and forwards.  In every way that humans could measure, he was as perfect a follower of God as anyone could possibly be.

The problem was, he was so sure that his interpretation of the Bible was right that it never occurred to him that God might not agree with him.  It never occurred to him, as a young man, that God might do something different, something new.  And Paul focused so much on doing all the right things and proving himself righteous, that it never occurred to him that God might not think that Paul’s actions were enough to get him in God’s good books.

And so, when Paul heard about people who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God sent to save God’s people, he was offended.  Jesus had spent time among sinners!  With people who didn’t follow the rules and do everything as good as Paul did, who couldn’t quote Scripture chapter and verse!  Now, any self-righteous person will tell you that obviously God can’t love sinners.  Sinners are people who do things God doesn’t like, so obviously God should spend more time and attention on the righteous people!  It sounds logical, right?  So, if Jesus spent time with sinners, Jesus must not really be from God.  I bet you there are Christians who would think that same thing if Jesus were to come back today.  And, as if that weren’t enough proof that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, Jesus had died.   Obviously, Paul thought, God would never let his chosen king die.  Particularly not in such a horrible, horrible manner as crucifixion.  It just wasn’t possible.  And because Paul was so sure about all that, so sure he knew what God wanted and how God’s Word was to be interpreted, he persecuted the followers of Jesus.  Because God forbid they lead anyone astray!

But as it turned out, Paul didn’t know what God wanted.  He was wrong.  God loves sinners just as much as he loves everyone else—in fact, we’re all sinners.  Everyone, even people who think they’re as righteous as Paul thought he was.  God loves us anyway!  And God could and did send a Messiah who loved sinners so much he was willing to die for them.  And God could and did work through that death, bringing life to all the world!  You see, what God wanted wasn’t self-righteous fanaticism.  God didn’t want people who knew all the right things to do and so never depended on God.  God didn’t want people who could quote the Scriptures and then use that knowledge to confirm what they already believed.  God wanted people who would listen—truly listen—and be open to the redeeming love of God.  God wanted people to trust that he could and would save them.  And God wanted people to be open to the transforming, life-changing love that God has for all the world.

God revealed all that to Paul.  God showed Paul how wrong he had been, by revealing himself to Paul through Jesus.  God loved Paul even though Paul was dead wrong.  God loved Paul even though Paul had paid more attention to his own understanding than to what God was doing around him.  Now, Paul was a pretty stubborn guy, who was so certain he knew best that he went around attacking the followers of Christ, but God was able to get through to him even so.  Paul didn’t come to know Jesus through Paul’s own merit.  Paul didn’t come to Jesus because he found him and decided to follow him.  No, when Paul heard about Jesus he wanted to stop all of Jesus’ followers!  Paul didn’t listen to Jesus’ moral teachings and decide he had it right; Paul didn’t hear about the miracles and decide that Jesus must be powerful and able to help him.  Nothing Paul did brought him to God—and, in fact, the things that he thought God wanted him to do took him further away from God!

Paul came to know Jesus because Jesus came to him and sought him out.  Paul came to know Jesus because of the grace and love of God, which came to him even though he had done nothing to deserve it, nothing to earn it.  And through that grace and love, through the way God revealed God’s self to Paul through the Son, Jesus Christ, Paul realized that he had been totally wrong.  Paul had been working directly against God!  And yet, God loved him anyway.

That changed Paul’s whole life.  Before coming to know Christ, Paul could never have imagined what God would have in store for him.  Paul had had his life planned out, but God had other plans for him.  And those plans were to spread the story of God’s grace and love—the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ—to all people.  The Good News is that God loves you no matter what.  The Good News is that we are tied to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord, and the sin and brokenness of the world don’t get the final say.  We don’t have to worry about being good enough for God; we don’t have to worry about getting all the traditions right.  We don’t have to worry about being perfect.  We don’t have to be afraid of failing.  All we have to do is trust in the grace and mercy of God, the God who created us, who saves us from sin and death, the God who is always working in us and around us.  All we have to do is let God’s love work in us and through us.

That is Good News, the best news the world has ever had.  That’s the message that God gave Paul to tell the whole world, and it’s the message that God gives us to tell the whole world.  That message sent Paul out through the Roman Empire, telling people about Jesus Christ.  Instead of staying close to home, Paul found himself traveling far and near, talking with people he would never have dreamed of talking to, people who looked differently and dressed differently and spoke a different language and ate different foods.

The message of salvation—the Good News that God had revealed to Paul through Christ Jesus—was a message that resonated with everyone.  It spoke to them.  And it wasn’t Paul’s own gifts for preaching and teaching that did it, either.  The message God gave Paul was greater than he was, greater than I am or you are, greater than anyone who’s ever told it.  That message is something you can’t reason out logically, or prove in a court of law.  It doesn’t depend on anyone’s skill at preaching, and it doesn’t depend on an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.  Sometimes I hear people say, “I can’t come to Bible study!  I don’t know enough.”  Or, “I can’t share my faith with anyone, I don’t know enough.  Christianity is too big and complex for me to share with my neighbor.”

The Reverend Doctor Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, wrote a thirteen-volume work about theology.  It’s pretty intimidating to think about.  But when someone asked him what the core of the Christian faith was, it didn’t take him long to reply: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  You know that message, and I know it.  The children in our pews today know it, too.  It’s not hard.  Jesus loves me.  That is the core of the message that God revealed to Paul, which changed Paul’s life.  It’s the core of the message Paul told the Galatians and all those to whom he brought the Gospel.  And it’s the core of the message that God has given to us, the message we are called to share with the world.  That message—that Gospel—is the power of God coming to be with us.  That Gospel is the true glory of God.  But like all love, to have any worth it must be shared.  So, like Paul, we are called to share God’s love and grace with the world.  To trust that God’s love will guide us, even if it leads us to places and people we would never have imagined.  May we feel the power of God’s love revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and may we share that love with the world.

Amen.

Wherever the Spirit blows

Pentecost, Year C, May 18, 2013

Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-35, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

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.

Boy, we had a lot of wind this week!  A lot of wind.  I was down in Bismarck on Tuesday, and I could see the stop signs and street lights waving in the wind.  It was a novel sight for me—back home in Oregon, I would never have seen metal poles anchored in concrete move.  But here in North Dakota, when the wind gets whipping around, it happens.  Wind here is such a dramatic metaphor for the Spirit.  You see, the Holy Spirit and wind are alike in a way.  You can’t see wind, just as you can’t see the Holy Spirit.  But you can sure see what it’s doing.

Before Jesus was crucified, he told his followers what was coming.  He would leave them, and he would send them the Holy Spirit.  Now, the disciples were very worried.  They didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them; they couldn’t imagine that anything which resulted in Jesus dying might work out.  They were afraid of being without Jesus.  They were afraid of what might happen when they no longer had Jesus there to tell them what God wanted and guide them in God’s way.  So Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus responded by saying they’d seen the Father—because after all, the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit are all one.  So, since they know Jesus, they know the Father as well, and the Holy Spirit.  And once Jesus was gone, he would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them always, so that God would still be with them even if Jesus was no longer physically present for them to see and touch.

This made the disciples nervous, and I can understand why.  When Jesus was right there with them, it was easy to feel the presence of God.  They could see him, touch him, sit down and have a meal with him and talk about who God was, what it meant to be God’s people, and what God was calling them to do.  This “advocate” Jesus told them of, this “Spirit,” that’s a lot more difficult to see and feel.  And it’s a lot easier to misunderstand.  Just like with the wind, you see the Spirit’s effects, and not the Spirit itself.  If you’re looking out a window and see a stop sign shaking, it could be the wind—or it could be an earthquake.  Or there could be construction guys using heavy equipment nearby.  You have to make a judgment call—which is it?  And for me, at least, I haven’t lived in North Dakota long enough for “wind” to be the first thing I think of.

The Spirit’s effects can be more difficult to discern than the effects of wind.  You have to be watching for it, and open to the possibility of God working among us.  Just look at the lesson from Acts.  The Holy Spirit filled the disciples, sending them out from the rooms they’d been hiding away in.  They went out into the community and began to tell people about their experiences with Jesus.  Even more than that, they spoke in many different languages, so that everyone could understand them.  And some people heard them and believed, but others heard them and thought they must be drunk.  To us who know Jesus, who hear this story with the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that they could miss God’s actions in this story.  This was a great miracle, and yet they couldn’t see it!  They looked for reasons to doubt, for other explanations.  They were faithful people—they were all in Jerusalem to celebrate a major Jewish religious festival at the Temple—and yet, when God intervened directly in their midst, they couldn’t see it.  They weren’t expecting it, and so they found other explanations that made more sense to them.

Sometimes, we do the same thing.  Be honest: how often do you actually look for God’s presence in your life?  How often do you see something happening around you and wonder if it might be the Holy Spirit?  Too often, we simply don’t see the Spirit because we’re not looking for it.  We shrug and explain things as coincidence, or as the result of a whole host of reasons.  And that may very well be true—but that doesn’t mean the Spirit can’t be working through those things!  Throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, God has done amazing things that the people at the time would never have thought of.  Without the Holy Spirit, Peter and the rest of the disciples would never have gone out there to preach to the crowds, and, later, it would never have occurred to them to spread the message of Jesus to non-Jews.  And without the Holy Spirit, the crowds who heard the disciples’ story on that first Pentecost would never have believed.  Without the Spirit, those crowds would have remained divided by race and language.  Without the Spirit, nothing is possible; but with the Spirit, all sorts of things are possible.  But if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t looking for the way the Spirit is moving, we can miss seeing it just like some of those who saw the first Pentecost did.

We look back at what the Holy Spirit did in the Bible, at stories like Pentecost, and it’s easy to think that nothing like that could happen now.  That was a long time ago, and I haven’t seen any tongues of flame, have you?  Yet we know the Holy Spirit is with us, because Jesus promised to give it to us.  We may not always recognize its work in our lives and in our world, but it is with us always.  And it can do amazing things, whether we recognize it or not.  The Spirit comforts us in our sorrows, inspires us, connects us to God, and guides us in our journey through life.  The Spirit leads us to do things we would never have believed we could do, to places we would never have believed we would be.  The Spirit brings us together as God’s people and forms us into the body of Christ.  And, when this broken, sinful world brings sorrows and griefs, the Spirit comforts us and shows us God’s love.

We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptisms, and that is an awesome gift.  In baptism, we are washed clean.  Our old sinful self is drowned and we rise to new life in Christ.  And the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  We are, in the words of the baptismal rite, “sealed by the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit dwells within each one of us.  No matter what happens, no matter what we do or where we go, the seal of the Holy Spirit goes with us.  Even when we can’t see the Spirit moving, we know it is with us.  Even when we can’t feel its effects, we know it is with us.

Rylan and Roslin will be receiving that gift of the Spirit here today.  It’s an awesome gift!  It’s not the end of their journey towards God; it is the beginning of their journey with God.  We here are all making that journey.  It’s not a journey to take alone.  Christianity is not, at heart, about being alone with God.  Christianity is about coming together in the community of faith, to support and encourage one another and to be the Body of Christ in the world.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings us together despite our differences.  It is the Holy Spirit that guides us along that journey and helps us to be faithful to God.  It is the Holy Spirit that helps us to share God’s story with all people, and it is the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world.

When people are baptized, we promise to support them in their life as Christians.  We welcome them into the family of faith.  In the case of children, we promise that we will help their parents and godparents raise them in the Christian faith.  It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we received at our own baptisms, that allows us to do this.  We have been chosen and called by God, here in this place, to share the Good News with all people through our words and our actions.  Rylan and Roslin, who will be baptized today, are entering into that relationship.  We will support and encourage them to grow in God, just as they in their turn will support and encourage others.  We will tell them the stories of God’s work in the world just as those stories were told to us, just as the disciples told the crowds at that first Pentecost, so many years ago.

Two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit sent the disciples out to tell the story of Jesus.  It sent them out into a world that didn’t like them much, a world in which many people wouldn’t hear or understand their message, wouldn’t see God’s presence in their midst.  The Spirit acted through them, and we call Pentecost the church’s birthday because the conversions that started that day were the beginnings of what came to be the church.  By hearing and responding to the good news, those people became part of the family of God, and they, too, received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The story of Pentecost is not over.  The story of Pentecost continues wherever the Holy Spirit blows.  Pentecost is happening right here in our church today, as we celebrate the work of God in our young people, from those who have grown in faith until they are ready to graduate from high school and become adults, to those who will be baptized here today.  We see the Spirit at work in them, and it reminds us that the Spirit is at work in all of us.  Wherever the Spirit is at work, it is Pentecost, and the Spirit is at work here.  It led the disciples out of their comfortable rooms and into the world to preach God’s Word.  It led crowds of people to be given the gift of faith.  I wonder what the Spirit will do in and through us?  May we all feel the Spirit’s work in our lives.  Thanks be to God for that gift.

Amen.