What Would We Have Done?

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2017

Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 14:1-14

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

 

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

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

In first-century Judea, there were problems.  First and most pressing was the problem of the Romans.  The Romans, who had conquered their country and ruled it with an iron fist.  The Romans, who imposed heavy taxes on ordinary people and used the money to build huge palaces and fund the very army that was oppressing the Jewish people.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the Romans were monotheists who wanted everybody else to worship their gods.  So while technically they allowed the Jewish people to worship their own God, the true god, they also pressured people to worship Zeus and Hera and Athena and all the rest.  They mocked Jewish customs and beliefs, and under this pressure many people turned away from their heritage.  Everything that had once made Judea great was under siege, and people were abandoning the very core of what it had always meant to be Jewish.

And then came along this new sect of Jewish people, who followed a guy named Jesus who had stirred up a lot of controversy.  And after his death, they … didn’t go away.  They declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  Worse than that, they claimed that this Jesus was God’s own son!  They worshipped this Jesus as God!  While still claiming to be good Jews!  Now, as any Jew could tell you, there is only ONE god, and that God is the Holy One of Israel.  There is no other God.  To claim otherwise was blasphemy.  And here are these people who still claim to be Jewish, who still claim to worship the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, who brought them home from exile, and yet they ALSO worship someone else?  Sure, they claimed Jesus was the Messiah sent by God, that he was part of the God their people had always worshipped, but that was ridiculous.  This whole business of worshipping three people—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—it was nonsense.  No matter what these Jesus-followers claimed, they must be pagan polytheists, just like the Romans.  The good and faithful people of God knew what God wanted of them, and it wasn’t this.  They knew who God was, and it was not this Jesus dude.  They knew what God wanted them to do, and it was to resist pagans and all who tried to turn people away from the worship of the one true God.  They believed they knew what God wanted with such fervor that they could not see the new thing that God was actually doing in their midst.

And so they put Jesus’ followers on trial for blasphemy, starting with Stephen.  They couldn’t protect themselves from the Romans, but by golly they could get rid of those Jesus-freaks.  They were so certain that they knew what God wanted that it never occurred to them to wonder if God might be doing something new.  They were so certain they knew how God worked in the world that when God took an active and direct stand in front of them by giving them Jesus and raising him from the dead, they looked at God’s redemptive work in the world and saw only the work of evil, trying to destroy God’s people.  God spoke his Word to them directly, and they couldn’t hear it because they were so certain they already knew what he would say.  I read this story, the story of the first martyr, and I want to believe that in that time and place I would have been Stephen, faithful to God even to the death.  But I have to ask myself, would I have been the crowd?  Would I have been one of the ones who was so certain I knew what God wanted that I attacked the people who were actually doing God’s work?

This is something that has happened throughout history.  God sends people to spread his work and do his will, and when it doesn’t fit into the nice neat assumptions people have about God, they reject it.  They say, no, God couldn’t possibly work that way.  In ancient Israel, people who worshipped God killed or attacked or imprisoned God’s prophets for pointing out the sins of the people.  In the first few centuries of the Christian era, people who worshipped God killed the followers of Jesus like Stephen in our reading today.  In medieval England, Christians burned people at the stake for distributing Bibles in English.  In 16th Century Germany, Christians killed Reformers for trying to bring new life to the church and get rid of corruption.  Every time God has sent people to do a new thing, to breathe new life and salvation into the world, a lot of God’s people have rejected it, at least at first.

This is something we should be wary of.  We live in a time of great upheaval and change.  Things are not ever going to go back to the way they used to be fifty years ago.  Some of the changes are good, and some aren’t.  But as we decide how to respond to all this change, we should be careful to remember that God is at work.  I guarantee you God is working in the world to bring his Word and his love to all people.  And it may look like what we’re familiar with, but it may not.  What God is doing in us and around us may fit our expectations, or it may surprise us.  It is not our job to dictate what God can and can’t do, what is outside the boundaries of what God can want to do.  When people—even deeply faithful people!—try to do that, they have often been wrong.  Just as Stephen’s attackers were wrong in our first reading.  They weren’t evil people.  They were devout followers of God genuinely trying to do what they believed God would want.  But they were so caught up in their own expectations of who God was and what God wanted that they couldn’t see what God was actually doing right there in front of them.  And so they killed Stephen.

But even if we get things wrong, even if we mistake what God is doing in the world or blind ourselves to his actions, that doesn’t mean there is no hope for us.  Even if we go as far astray as anyone possibly can, God can still reach us.  There was a man there, when they killed Stephen, named Saul.  Saul was a deeply faithful follower of God.  Saul loved God, and Saul had studied the holy Scriptures, and Saul believed with all his heart that killing Stephen was the right thing to do.  After Stephen’s death, Saul went and attacked other followers of Jesus, too, and that wasn’t enough so he went to other cities to persecute the followers of Jesus there.  Saul was consumed with hate for those he believed had betrayed God.  But Saul’s hate was not the end of the story.

One of the cities Saul travelled to in order to persecute Christians was Damascus.  But on the way there, God struck him blind and gave him a vision.  I have no doubt that God had tried to reach Saul before, that God had tried to turn him away from the path of violence and hate, but it wasn’t until God struck him down on that Damascus road that Saul realized what God truly wanted of him.  God struck Saul down and gave him a vision, and then sent a follower of Jesus to open his eyes.  And Saul realized what he had been doing, changed his mind, and became a devout disciple of Jesus Christ.  Saul was the one who followed God’s call to go out and spread the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, not just to his fellow Jews.  While preaching to the Gentiles, Saul used a Gentile version of his name—Paul.  That’s right, the guy who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, whose words we read in worship almost every Sunday, he started out not only opposed to Jesus but actively working to kill Jesus’ followers.

God works in mysterious ways.  And God does things we don’t expect and could never have predicted beforehand.  God is constantly working new ways to bring his love and salvation to the world.  We don’t always understand what he’s doing; we don’t always like it.  Sometimes, we let our own expectations blind us to what God is doing.  When times of change and turmoil come, may we be like Stephen, open to God’s will and faithful to the last.  But if we find ourselves in Saul’s shoes, may God give us the same grace he gave Saul: to turn us around, give us hearts for God’s love, and send us forth to be God’s hands in the world.

Amen.

Love in Action

Maundy Thursday 2017, April 13, 2017

 

Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26, John 13: 1-17, 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, O Lord.

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

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Maundy comes from an old Latin word, “Mandatum,” which means “command” or “order” or “rule”—it’s the same root that gave us “mandate.”  And we call today Maundy Thursday because, in the night in which he was handed over to be crucified, as he gathered with his disciples and shared wine and bread and washed their feet, Jesus gave them—us—a commandment.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  And he keeps coming back to it.  We’re only reading a short portion of Jesus’ final words to his disciples as recorded in John; he keeps talking for another three chapters.  And while he talks about a lot of things, he keeps coming back to love.  Love one another.  Love as I have loved you.  Love so that your joy may be full.  Love.  Love.  I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Except, the problem is, it’s not a new commandment.  If you flip back in your Bibles to the Old Testament, you will find commandments to love all over the place.  The book of Leviticus is a collection of laws; in it God commands us both to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to “love the foreigner living among you as yourself.”  Deuteronomy also commands us to love the foreigner.  When Jesus told the lawyer that all God’s commandments and all the words spoken through the prophets could be summed up as “Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” this was not an innovation.  This was exactly what God had been telling people, in Scripture and through preaching and prophecy and every method available, since time immemorial.  So what the heck does Jesus mean by saying it’s a “new” commandment?  “Love one another” is not new.  It is as old as the hills.

Maybe the new bit is the second part: not just “love one another,” but “love one another as I have loved you.”  Love one another as Jesus loves us, with Jesus’ example for a guide.  So then the question becomes, how does Jesus love us?  Well, for one thing, Jesus’ love for us has no limits.  Jesus does not merely love the people who love him, or who are good enough, whatever that means.  No.  Jesus loves everyone.  Jesus loves sinners—which, you may remember, is all of us, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Jesus loves all people, everywhere—including people like Judas who are in the very process of betraying him.  How do we know that Jesus loved Judas?  Because Judas was there, at this meal.  Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray Jesus, was going to hand him over to be crucified.  Jesus knew what was in his heart.  And Jesus, knowing all of this, washed Judas’ feet with the rest of the disciples.  Jesus, knowing Judas was actively working against him, acted like a servant to do a dirty, gross job like foot-washing, even for the one who was his enemy.  And, more than that, Jesus gave Judas his own body and blood.  When he blessed the bread, and gave it to his disciples, and told them that it was his own body broken for them?  Judas was there.  Judas received Jesus’ broken body just the same as all the rest of the disciples did.  When Jesus blessed the wine, and gave it to them and told them it was his blood, poured out for them and for all people for the forgiveness of sins?  Judas received the cup just the same as everyone else.  Jesus offers his body and blood to everyone, even Judas, even the one who is betraying him right then and there.  And he does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus’ love looks like.

To love one another as Jesus has loved us means we can’t draw lines about who is in and who is out.  It means we can’t make distinctions between who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t.  Because Jesus loves everyone, and Jesus died for everyone.  Jesus may not like what we or anyone else have done, but that does not stop Jesus from loving.  There is nothing, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing we do or fail to do, no matter how much it pains Jesus, can ever make him stop loving us.  Which means that if we are to love as Jesus loves, then we have to love everyone, no exceptions, no matter who they are or what they have done.  We don’t have to approve of their life or like everything they do—I’m sure Jesus did not like what Judas was doing—but we do have to love them.  There is no excuse.

The second question is, what does it mean for us to love people as Jesus loves us?  Jesus showed his love in a lot of ways: feeding people, healing people, building relationships with people, but the greatest and most dramatic way he showed his love was by dying for us.  Now, obviously, most of us are not called to that extreme of self-sacrifice.  So how are we supposed to love people?

Let’s consider our reading from Corinthians.  Now, we only heard just a small part of the letter, where Paul tells the story of Jesus’ last supper.  But the Corinthians were a problem.  They had the Gospel, and the believed, but they didn’t know how to live it out.  They didn’t understand what the radical love of Jesus Christ meant for them and their community, so they just kind of went along acting like everyone else in society did.  Which, among other things, meant that they didn’t worship together and celebrate communion together.  What happened was that the rich people who didn’t have to work showed up early in the day with all the food, and had a great time eating and drinking and discussing Jesus’ words.  Meanwhile, the people who actually had to work would get there in the evening, worn out, just in time to get the crumbs of the meal and maybe sing a hymn or two as all the “important” people were leaving.  I’m sure that the people who were able to be there all day would have said they loved their poorer brothers and sisters, but it wasn’t their fault those others had to work, and why should their own feast and study be curtailed just because some people couldn’t make it?  They would have said that they loved their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ, but their actions did not show it.

And so Paul spent a lot of time, in his first letter to the Corinthians, explaining what Christian love looks like in practice.  And one of the things it means is that you can’t just dismiss other peoples’ needs because they are inconvenient to you.  Christian love means that all are welcome at Jesus’ table, not just in theory but in practice.  And for people to be welcome means that everybody’s needs need to be taken into account.  Not just the people we like, not just the people whose needs are convenient, not just the people whose needs are similar to your own.  We are all part of the body of Christ.  We are all people for whom Christ died.  We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us, and that means that we can’t just give lip service to our love for one another.  We have to actually put it into action.

Love in action is what the Christian life is all about.  God saves us because he loves us, and in response he asks us to love one another.  God’s love is deeper and wider than we

Amen.

What Forgiveness Looks Like

Lent Wednesday Worship 2017

 

Ezekiel 18:25-32, Psalm 103:6-14, Ephesians 4:25-32

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.

Of course we all know that Christians should forgive, and we all know that God forgives.  This is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith.  But when you start looking at what that looks like in practice, well, then things get a little murky.  Because in practice, we don’t always agree on what that looks like.  Is there something special you have to do or say to be forgiven?  Do you have to stop doing the sin?  And what if it’s an addiction or caused by a mental illness, and you can’t stop?  Or what if people don’t believe you’ve stopped?  Or what if you are sincere in your desire to change, and backslide anyway?  Some people would say that everything can be forgiven and there are no requirements.  Take that too far, and you get kind of a loosey-goosey nothing matters anything goes world.  Nothing matters because anything can and will get forgiven and swept under the rug.  On the other hand, some people would say that there are things that can’t be forgiven, and that there are pre-requisites to being forgiven, which quickly sets us up as judge, jury, and executioner.  Forgiveness becomes something you earn, instead of a gift given from God, and the world is divided up into “good” people who deserve forgiveness and “bad” people who don’t, and then you can do anything to the “bad” people because after all, they deserve whatever they get.  Forgiveness is a great principle, but in practice it gets very messy.

Part of the problem comes with the phrase “forgive and forget,” where once something is forgiven you’re supposed pretend it never happened.  But no matter how hard you pretend, it still happened.  Hurt was done.  Pretending doesn’t make it not have happened.  For example, if someone gets drunk and then gets behind the wheel of a car and hits someone on their way home, and kills them and totals their car, forgiving them doesn’t mean it never happened.  The victim is still dead.  The car is still totaled.  The consequences still exist—not just consequences for the person who drove drunk, but for a lot of other people.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean the consequences go away.  So what does it mean?

I think the first thing to remember is that we are not God, and this is not heaven.  We forgive because we have ourselves been forgiven and we have the example in Jesus’ love, but we don’t forgive in the same way God does.  God removes our sins from us—but we can’t remove other peoples’ sins from them.  God heals us and heals the world, and when Christ comes again all the things in ourselves and in the universe that are broken now will be healed and made better than they ever have been before.  That’s what God’s kingdom is: a place where everything and everyone is healed and whole and there is no pain or suffering.  And God’s forgiveness is an important part of what heals the world.  But we don’t live there yet, and while we can make this world better than it is we can’t make it as good as it will be when Christ comes again.  Our forgiveness and our capacity for healing are, in this world, finite.  So what does it mean to forgive in this world where consequences continue even after forgiveness, and healing can only go so far?

We forgive because God has forgiven us.  We love because God loves us, and taught us what true love really means through the life, death, and resurrection of his son.  God’s goal for us—for each one of us as individuals, for us as a community, for humanity as a whole, and for the entire cosmos—is to be made whole and life full and abundant lives.  God does not want us to be broken.  God does not want us to be in pain.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  But we turn away.  We hurt ourselves and others.  We break things, and people, and communities, and the fractures spread further than we know.  The easy thing to do is to respond in kind: to return pain for pain, evil for evil, hurt for hurt.  And if we can’t get back at the one who hurt us, well, surely we can find someone else to dump our pain on, until it becomes routine.  Until anger and fear and hate and resentment and malice and selfishness guide how we see the world, and each step takes us and our community further away from God’s love and abundant life.

The only way to turn away from that path—the only way to turn back towards the abundant life God gives—is forgiveness.  Not as a way of pretending the evil didn’t happen, not as a way of sweeping things under the rug, but as a way of guiding our own actions.  We can’t control other people.  All we can do is guide how we respond.  Are we going to be cruel, or kind?  Are we going to add to the pain in the world or, so far as it depends on us, bring healing?  Are we going to tear down or build up?

I know a number of people who were abused as children.  In some cases it was simple neglect.  In others, complex emotional manipulation.  In others, physical abuse.  There are a lot of reasons for it: some of the abusers had been abused as children themselves and just didn’t know healthy ways of treating their children.  Other abusive parents just didn’t want children in the first place and probably should never have had them.  Other abusers were just plain cruel, or self-centered, or in a few cases had untreated mental illness.  And our society hates to admit that sometimes people abuse or neglect children in their care.  We assume it can’t be true unless there is incredibly blatant evidence hitting us in the face that can’t possibly be explained away any other way.  And so, most of the time, we blame the victim.  They must just be a bad kid.  And how ungrateful they are that they don’t want to spend time with their parents!

The abuse survivors have to live with the consequences of others’ actions: not just the actions of the abusers, but of everyone around who looked away or assumed that everything was fine.  Years of trauma that have caused anxiety, PTSD, and a variety of psychological problems.  Many of them—quite justifiably—hate and fear the ones who harmed them so deeply.    People say, “oh, you should forgive them and mend your relationship!”  But if the abuser continues the same behaviors, there is no way to mend the relationship without opening the door to further abuse.  Even when the abuser really has changed, the damage done may be great enough that no relationship in this life could ever be healthy.  So the most loving thing to do may be to say “I forgive that person.  I don’t hold any bitterness about their actions in my heart, I’m not brooding over what they did to me, but I can’t be around them.”  The most loving and forgiving thing may be a clean break that allows people new space to grow in.  It’s not necessarily “nice,” and it certainly isn’t forgetting what has been done.  But it is a way that opens space for building up new lives, new hopes, new grace.

God loves us always, unconditionally.  But God hates the way we hurt ourselves and each other.  Through our actions and inactions, we add to the pain in the world, the suffering, the malice, the grief.  There will come a day when all that is broken will be made whole, when all pain and suffering will be healed, when all tears are wiped away.  That day will come when Christ comes again.  Until that time, we are called to live in love and forgiveness.  We can’t fix all the broken things, but we can open up space for love and kindness to grow.  Even when a relationship can’t be repaired, we don’t have to carry the bitterness with us in our hearts.  Sometimes forgiveness means trying again; sometimes forgiveness means learning to move on.

Amen.

 

Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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.

When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality.  They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior.  The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.”  And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be.  Or take the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Of course you shouldn’t.  But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much.  I know some very nasty people who could say the same.  If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.

This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them.  Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it.  But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment!  We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause.  These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.

Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment.  Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others.  Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence.  But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed.  Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world?  Then it was good.  Did that anger fester inside you?  Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people?  Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good?  Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally?  Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused.  We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault.  We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important.  No.  We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned.  Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter.  Our thoughts matter.  They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.

That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson.  It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people.  God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible.  After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today.  But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them.  Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson.  Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking.  They’re not about making life harder.  They’re about choosing life.

From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives.  God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole.  But since the Fall, humans turn away from that.  We make choices that make the world a worse place.  We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others.  We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil.  And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up.  We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil.  And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else.  Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.

That’s why Moses talks about life and death.  Because we do have a choice to make.  We have choices to make every hour of every day.  We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up.  We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life.  In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths.  It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death.  It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate.  That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day.  Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.

The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky.  The law is a guideline to how to choose life.  This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament.  For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous.  This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous.  Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.

As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets.  (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.)  Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job.  If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution.  In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all.  And so Jesus forbids divorce.  I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce.  Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant.  But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.

It all comes down to one question.  Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation.  Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism.  It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be?  Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives.  We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God.  We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift.  We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.

Amen.

The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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.

Here’s a question for you: what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  I bet you all get a picture in your head when I ask that, and I bet that for a large share of you, that picture is dominated by clouds, angels, pearly gates, and lots of people in white robes and halos strumming harps.  It may surprise you, but that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” could also be translated “the reign of God.”  In other words, “anywhere that God’s will is done.”  When Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is near,” he’s not necessarily saying the world’s about to end, so you should shape up.  He’s also referring to God’s presence here, now, in this world.  I mention this because our Gospel reading from today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us what God’s reign looks like.

In last week’s Gospel Jesus started his ministry by announcing that God’s reign was near, and then calling the first disciples and telling them he was going to teach them to fish for people, and then he started healing people, and attracting great big huge crowds of sick people, demon-possessed people, the desperate, the poor, the outcasts, Syrian foreigners, and anyone just looking for a good show.  This was not fishing for people in a selective sense, this was a big, wide dragnet bringing in everybody.  Bottom-feeders included.  What I’m saying is, that a lot of the people in that crowd—possibly even most of them—would not be the sort of people society approved of.  In fact, if you use the fishing metaphor, most of the people in that crowd would be the sort that the larger culture would tell you to throw back in the water—you don’t want them, surely?  Those smelly, sick, weird, poor, outcast, foreigners?  But when all these people had gathered, Jesus goes up on a mountain and makes sure his new disciples get a front-row seat as he begins to teach.  He’s promised them that God’s reign is near, and he’s promised them he’s going to teach them to fish for people.  And now he begins to tell them what that means.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up the next three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and forms the theological core of the book.  This is Jesus describing what it looks like when God’s will is done.  This is Jesus describing what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.  This is Jesus teaching his new disciples what it means to follow him.  And he starts off with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and so on and so forth.  When I was reading the Scriptures assigned for today, and I read this Gospel and then the passage from First Corinthians where Paul says that the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” and I went back and re-read the Beatitudes and thought to myself, yup, Paul is sure right.  Because this doesn’t sound wise, it sounds stupid.  Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  Blessed are the poor?  In Luke’s telling, Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” and in Matthew’s telling Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but I have been poor in spirit and I have worked with poor people and you have to have a really strange view of “blessing” to consider either state blessed.  (Some translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed,” which is even worse.)

And then you hear the ways Christians try to make sense out of this passage, and things get even worse.  Sometimes they’ll tell you it’s good that you’re suffering, because it means God is going to bless you!  Or maybe, you’re suffering, so according to the beatitudes you must be blessed, so if you can’t see how God is blessing you it must mean that your faith isn’t strong enough.  Because if your faith were strong enough, God would bless you by taking away your suffering.  And there have even been times in the past where the powerful have used this passage to tell people on the bottom of society that they should just accept being abused and degraded and exploited because God blesses the meek.  As for “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” well, modern American Christians have a strange view of persecution.  There are people who honestly believe that Christians in America today are being persecuted because we can’t force society to follow our rules and agree with our beliefs.  In Jesus’ day, on the other hand, persecution meant torture and death.  And every single one of the disciples (and most of the other early leaders of the church) were killed because of their faith.  I saw two of their tombs on my trip.  Again, being tortured to death … even if it’s for a good cause, most people would not call that a good thing.

Jesus told people God’s reign was near, called the disciples he was going to fish for people, attracted a large crowd of people nobody wanted, and sat down to teach.  And he told them that God’s blessings fall on the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek who get trampled on, and the ones who get attacked for trying to do the right thing.  In other words, God’s blessings fall on the people who need it the most: the people like the ones in the crowd listening.  It’s not because God loves the poor more than the rich, or wants to see people suffer, or anything like that.  Rather, it’s because they need God the most.

God’s will is very different from our will.  If you read through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount—some of which we’ll be doing from now until Lent—you’ll see what I mean.  We humans divide people up into the people who matter, and the people who don’t, and then we just accept it when people get hurt.  God, on the other hand, takes special care with those hurt and blesses them.  We humans store up grievances and hatred against one another, and God counts that just as bad as murder, as Jesus says in verse 22.  We want to take revenge when we are hurt, and God tells us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.  We want to be rewarded for our good deeds and our charity, and God says to do it in secret without reward.  We think that we survive and thrive by our own skill and hard work, and God reminds us that everything that we have and everything that we are is a gift from him, so there’s no point in worrying or stressing over it.   We want to look down our noses at people who aren’t as good as we are, and God tells us we’re hypocrites and not to judge others or he’ll judge us.  We think power comes through being bigger and stronger and winning elections and getting people on your side, and God died alone on a cross, mocked by the crowds, with his friends and family mostly scattered and in hiding, and through that lonely death he saved the world and broke the power of sin and death.

Paul was telling the truth when he said that the cross was foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.  It is counter to everything the world tells us about how things work; it is counter to everything we human beings want to believe.  It’s the opposite of power, strength, glory, honor, riches, and everything else we want.  Just like those crowds were the opposite of the kind of crowds most people would want to attract.  Just like the people Jesus calls blessing on in the Beatitudes are the opposite of the things we want to be.  And yet, it is in these things that God reveals God’s power and will.  God wants a world filled with love and healing, and so God goes directly to the people most desperately in need of love and healing.  God chooses what is weak and foolish and uses it to reveal himself, and to expose the dark, rotting underbelly of all the things the world holds up as awesome and wonderful.

There are a lot of Christians who, when faced with this reality, turn away from it.  This has been true since Christianity first became the majority religion.  They don’t want to face up to the weakness of the cross, the foolishness of it.  They don’t want to love their neighbor; they don’t want to treat everybody, even the weak and powerless, as they themselves would want to be treated; they don’t want to be merciful or peaceful or do justice and love kindness; they don’t want to walk humbly with God.  So they take their own view of the way the world should be and wave Jesus as a banner over top of it.  And it’s hard to blame them, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to take these words of blessing seriously.  To take the cross and its weakness, it’s foolishness, seriously.

But take a look around at the world.  What has chasing after power and glory and strength gotten us, anyway?  What has cherishing our anger and fear gotten us?  What has separating out people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t led to?  What has the world’s wisdom brought?  A lot of pain and suffering and violence and brokenness, that’s what.  Don’t you hunger for peace?  Don’t you yearn for healing?  Don’t you ache for God’s healing, loving embrace to wrap you up and all the world up and make things better?

God doesn’t cause pain and suffering, but God can and does bless it; God can and does use it as God used his own pain and suffering on the cross.  And, in the midst of it all, God plants the seeds of his kingdom, which is near to us even now.  Thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for blessing us, for loving us, for showing us a better way.  May we be merciful; may we be pure in heart; may we hunger and thirst for righteousness; and may that hunger be filled.

Amen.

United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Repent!

Second Sunday of Advent, December 4th, 2016

Isaiah 11:1-10, 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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.

It is interesting to note that only two of the Gospels—Matthew and Luke—describe Jesus’ birth at all.  That’s right, the event that is so important to modern Christians, that we celebrate with so much attention and fervor—was not even considered important enough to be mentioned in half the Gospels.  On the other hand, John the Baptist’s message of repentance is in all four.  It always makes me wonder.  Why?  What makes John the Baptist so important?  And why is Jesus’ birth so relatively unimportant?

I think it comes down to meaning.  Without Jesus being born as fully God and fully Human, he could never have died to save us from our sins.  But while it’s wonderful to celebrate the birth of a baby, just the fact that the baby is born doesn’t tell you much about what that baby is going to become, what they’re going to do with their life.  The mere fact that Jesus was born doesn’t tell us what his birth means.  And it certainly doesn’t tell us what his life and death mean!  But John the Baptist does.  John gives context.  John the Baptizer, that crazy guy out in the wilderness, is the guy telling people what’s coming.  The Baptist sets up Jesus’ ministry by shaking people out of their comfortable certainties and preparing them to receive Jesus and his message.

“Repent,” John told people, “for the kingdom of heaven is near!”  Now, when people hear the word “repent,” a lot of people dismiss it out of hand.  Some people because it’s an old-fashioned word, but mostly because people don’t think it really applies to them.  We look at our lives and go, “well, I’m not that big a sinner, I’m a good person, so I don’t need to repent.”  But while repentance can certainly mean being sorry for our sins, that’s not the only thing it means.  The Hebrew word that we translate as “repent,” for example, literally means “to turn around,” to reorient yourself towards God instead of all the things that draw you away from God.  And the Greek word used in the New Testament literally means “change your heart or mind.”  It’s not primarily about feeling sorry for your sins, it’s about seeing the world through God’s perspective.  It’s about being re-formed in God’s image, and according to God’s priorities.  When you do that, you will change your ways, but our individual sinning is only part of what changes.  Repentance is not just something that sinners need to do; this is something that all of us need to do, every single one of us, not just once, but always.  This world we live in is always trying to shape our priorities and our perspectives.  And those priorities and perspectives may not be particularly bad, in and of themselves, but they’re not God’s priorities and perspectives.  The problem is when we let them blind us to God’s priorities and perspectives.

Like the Pharisees did.  We Christians tend to think the Pharisees must have been horrible people because Jesus was always clashing with them, but the reality is that they were good, God-fearing people who worshiped every Sabbath, gave generously to their houses of worship and to charity, taught people about the Bible, and were good solid middle-class family people.  In the entire Bible, there is no group of people as much like modern Christians as the Pharisees were.  The problem was not that the Pharisees were bad people, because they weren’t.  And the problem wasn’t that they didn’t try to be faithful—they did try.  (If they hadn’t spent so much time trying to be faithful, Jesus would have had fewer problems with him because they wouldn’t have cared so much.)  No, the problem was that they thought they didn’t need to repent.  They assumed that because they were good, God-fearing people, because they were leaders in their congregations and communities, that God must agree with them.  They assumed that because they read the Scripture, their hearts and minds were already formed around God’s Word, and so they didn’t need to change.  They assumed that because they were children of Abraham, they were naturally in the right.  “We are God’s people, therefore we already know what God wants—the same things we do.”  They thought they already had the right answers and did the right things, and so they didn’t need to repent.

And that’s why, when Jesus showed up, they gave him such a hard time.  Because for all that they agreed with him on most things, where there was a difference they never even asked themselves if he might have a point: if he disagreed with them, he was wrong.  Period.  End of story.  They never asked if there was anything in their perspective, anything in their interpretation of scripture, anything in their lifestyle, that might not line up with what God desired of them.  They assumed they did not need to repent, and so they didn’t.  And so when God Incarnate walked among them, they dismissed him out of hand, because he didn’t look like what they expected him to look like.

You can see why a call to repentance is so central to the beginning of each of the four Gospels.  Because without repentance—without re-orienting ourselves to God, and allowing God to re-form our hearts and minds so that we see from his perspective—it doesn’t matter whether we tell the story of God becoming flesh and living among us.  Without repentance, it’s just another story to be slotted in to our lives to confirm that we’re good people who already know what God wants because he wants the same thing we do because we’re good people who go to church.  The crucial measure of faithfulness isn’t worship attendance, or good deeds, or Bible study; those can all help deepen our faith, but they’re not the center of what it means to be faithful to God.  To be faithful, we have to repent.  We have to let God open our hearts and minds, take them out, shake them up, and turn them around so that they’re focused on God’s priorities and not the world’s priorities.  Only then do all our pious deeds have any meaning beyond ego-stroking.  When paired with repentance, reading the Bible and worshiping and doing good deeds become far, far more meaningful.

This is how John the Baptist prepares for the coming of Christ: by reminding us that repentance is necessary, because the world’s priorities—our priorities—are not God’s priorities.  Our eyes are not God’s eyes, and our understanding is not God’s understanding.  John was the voice in the wilderness telling us to prepare the way in the wilderness, to make a straight road for God.  That’s a quote from Isaiah 40, by the way, which talks about valleys being lifted up and mountains and hills levelled and the grass withering and the nations being worth nothing.  In other words, we’re not just talking about small changes here, little adjustments.  We’re talking about the very foundation of our lives—the ground beneath our feet and the powers of the world we respect—being completely and utterly reshaped by God.  To prepare for Christ, we have to repent.  We have to get ready for the fact that God’s coming means that the entire world is going to be re-shaped.  And the more tightly we cling to our own priorities and prejudices and ideas about how the world works, the more painful it is going to be.

Human beings don’t like change, on a fundamental level. Things have to be pretty bad before we want something new, and even then, the “new thing” that we want is often just an old thing in a shinier package.  We look with nostalgia and rosy-tinted glasses at the past, and think that if we could just make things like they used to be, then everything would be great.  This is especially seductive for Christians, because we can look back on a time when our religion dominated the country and the laws were weighted in our favor, and everyone went to church even if they didn’t really believe because it was just what everyone did on Sunday morning.  The problem is, when God does something “new” it isn’t just an old thing in a shiny package, it is genuinely new, different.  Jesus didn’t come to kick the Romans out, and he didn’t come to turn back the clock to the 1950s, and he isn’t coming back to keep the world as it is except for the parts we find inconvenient.  Jesus comes to break down the gates and set people free and raise up the valleys and mow down the mountains and rearrange the world according to God’s vision, not ours.  If we’re going to be faithful to Jesus, we can’t just read the Bible to hear what we want to hear.  We can’t just assume we’re always right, or that God always agrees with us, because like the Pharisees, we may occasionally find that we are wrong.  To be faithful, we have to repent.  We have to turn towards God; we have to open our hearts and minds and let God change us into the people he created us to be.  And that’s not easy; in fact, it can be very scary.  But

Amen.