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.

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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.