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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Keeping the Sabbath

Lectionary 9B, June 3, 2018

Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Psalm 81:1-10, 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23—3:6

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.

The conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees are often categorized as conflicts between the Pharisees’ hidebound blind obedience to the law, and Jesus’ setting the law aside or abolishing it.  That’s not actually the case.  In the first place, there is nothing the Pharisees enjoyed more than debating the meaning of the teachings of the Bible.  Like Jewish people today, their faith is formed by debating about what the Bible says and how best to apply it to daily life. Second, Jesus himself said he had come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  It’s not that the ancient teachings of God contained in the Old Testament were to be cast aside as no longer relevant; rather, that we see new meaning in them because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  In the third place, have you ever noticed how much time Jesus spent with Pharisees?  Walking with them in our Gospel lesson today, talking with them, eating dinner with them—they spent a lot of time together.  See, Jesus’ interpretations and the Pharisees’ interpretations were actually very similar in a lot of respects.  They were part of the same conversation.  Although they ultimately diverged, it wasn’t because of Jesus’ interpretation of the law; it was because Jesus insisted that he was the Son of Man, the Messiah, which they did not accept.  That’s what they got mad at, in our Gospel lesson today.  Not that Jesus disagreed with them on exactly what was permissible to do on the Sabbath, but that he called himself the Son of Man and lord of the sabbath, a title reserved for God.

I truly hope that everyone here believes that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath.  So we don’t need to explore that any further.  But I think we do need to talk about the sabbath, what it is, why God gave it to us, and why it matters in our modern world today.

In the Ten Commandments, God ordered us to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.  Now, a lot of the time, we tend to think about “keeping the sabbath” as meaning “going to church.”  And, sure, I hope you always go to worship once a week or on a regular basis.  Regularly worshipping with other people helps deepen one’s faith and carries us through spiritual dry spells.  It is very good for us.  But that is actually not what keeping the sabbath holy means.  You see, the sabbath is not primarily a day of worship.  It is a day of rest.  What was the first sabbath?  The seventh day of creation.  God created the universe in six days, and on the seventh God rested.  This is the model that God intends for humans, too.

In Deuteronomy, God commands God’s people: “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt.  As such, they had worked from sunup to sundown, each and every day, and sometimes longer.  There was no rest, no weekend, no vacation.  You worked every waking moment until the day you dropped down dead.  And that was what was expected of poor Egyptians, too.  Rich people, meanwhile, spent almost no time working.  They lounged around enjoying the fruits of the labor of their servants and slaves.  That was what the Israelites were used to.

That is not the way God wanted them to set up their society, and it’s not the way God wants us to set up our society.  Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.  In other words, everyone gets at least one day a week that is free from labor, free from worry, free from work.  One day where you don’t have to do anything except rest and relax.  To people who had been slaves, this was an incredible gift.  A whole day to yourself!  A day to recover from all the cares of the workday!  What a blessing.

Did you know that modern science backs up how important rest is?  When people spend too much time working, their body begins to break down.  They are more likely to get sick.  They are more likely to have mental health problems.  They are more likely to have heart attacks.  They are more likely to make bad decisions.  Their relationships with family and friends crumble.  People who don’t have time to physically and mentally rest are more anxious, more depressed, more accident-prone, more sick, and more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a crutch to get through the day.  There are huge, long-lasting negative consequences for people who don’t have enough time to rest and recover, even if they enjoy the work they’re doing.  I have a friend who absolutely loves her job, and so threw herself into it and taking on more and more responsibilities until she was always working.  But she loved it and found it rewarding!  Then she started breaking out in nasty rashes.  Turns out, those rashes were caused by stress.  No matter how much she loved that job, she could not live and breathe it every waking hour.  She had to stop, learn to take time off.  She had to learn how to take sabbath.  We were not created to do nothing but work.  God designed us and created us so that we would have a good balance between work and rest.  And it shows.

In Deuteronomy, however, God isn’t content to say “yeah, you need to take breaks” as a rule for individuals to follow on their own when it was convenient to them.  God goes on, commanding them what they are supposed to do as part of the new society they will be creating in the Promised Land.  Keeping the Sabbath is not just about individual choices; it is also about designing the way society is going to work.  Sabbath is for everyone.  Everyone in society, from the highest to the lowest, needs time to rest, and so God commands his people to see to it.  Everyone, male and female, old and young, rich person and slave, stranger and community member, everyone gets at least one full day of rest each week.  No exceptions.  That is what it means to keep the Sabbath.  It is actually the world’s earliest labor law.  If everyone gets a day of rest, that means that no employer or owner can demand more than a certain amount of work.  Keeping the Sabbath requires that everyone guard their neighbors’ sabbath.  It’s not just about an individual resting; it’s about creating the necessary conditions so that EVERYONE gets to rest.

This is a great gift, but especially it is a gift to the poor, the outcast, the ones society would rather work to death.  Rich people don’t need it, since they could choose to rest as much as they wanted.  This is a gift for the ordinary guy on the street and the poorest worker in town.  And that’s why the Pharisees guarded it so closely.  Because it’s easy to find reasons to fudge it.  For example: hungry people should get food, right?  In those days, to keep the Sabbath, you would cook food the day before and eat leftovers on the sabbath so that even the cook got a day off.  But what if you didn’t quite get the stuff done ahead of time?  Then you have to work on the Sabbath so that people can have food, right?  But if that happens often enough, guess what.  Whoever’s doing the cooking doesn’t get a sabbath.  If it’s just once in a while, that’s not a problem.  But if it becomes a regular thing, if it becomes normal, well, then, guess what.  You’re not keeping the Sabbath holy any longer.  It’s real easy for that to turn into a slippery slope.  Once in a while becomes often becomes always.  And before you know it, the sabbath is meaningless.

We Americans are absolutely TERRIBLE at keeping the Sabbath.  We used to be good at it; the old blue laws that required businesses to be closed on Sundays meant that few people worked then.  But even when you factor that into the equation, Americans are working more than we used to.  The average American worker works 47 hours a week—seven more than full time.  Some of that is white-collar workers who are working longer hours; 60% of people working a full-time job work more than 40 hours per week on average.  And a lot of people are expected to be on call and reachable 24/7.  Not just in case of emergency, but for every little thing.  Then you have poor people working part time jobs.  They can’t get a full-time job, since so many employers these days only hire part-time workers, so they have to get two (or maybe even three) part time jobs, and when you add it all up, they work every day and it adds up to well more than 40 hours a week.  They have no time to rest.  They have no sabbath.

Then there’s how we raise our kids.  We have filled their lives with so many sports and extracurricular activities and homework that they don’t have time to be kids.  They don’t have time to rest and relax and just be.  We have filled their lives with so many things that are good for them that one more will kill them.  One of my friends works with youth, and one day she had a conversation with one of the middle-schoolers in the program.  He asked what she did on Saturday.  Nothing, she said.  She’d lazed around in her jammies all day listening to music and resting after a week that had been particularly stressful.  The kid was shocked and horrified.  A whole day where you did nothing?  Where you rested?  He’d never heard of such a thing.  He wasn’t aware that resting was something a person could do.  He kept trying to suggest things that she could have done, ways of being productive or active.  He had no idea how to rest, or that it might be good for you.

We expect people to work constantly, even kids, and call them lazy when they object.  And then we wonder why people get sick all the time, why loneliness and depression and anxiety and addiction are all skyrocketing.  Now, obviously, the blue laws are a thing of the past and aren’t coming back.  But keeping the sabbath is important, and not just for Christians.  So I wonder: what should sabbath-keeping look like in the 20th Century?  What are ways we could shape our economy and our labor laws and our expectations that would give all people, rich and poor alike, the time to rest that God created us to need?  I don’t have the answers, but it’s a question worth pondering.  May God guide our hearts and minds.

Amen.

Easter 3, Year B, April 15, 2018

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

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 read our first lesson for today, my first thought was: “Really, Peter?  You, of all people, are criticizing what others did during the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution?  Does the word hypocrisy mean nothing to you?”  Peter criticizes the crowd of Jerusalem residents for what they did: for first praising Jesus, and then turning on him when he didn’t do what they expected, and listening to the religious and political leaders who saw Jesus as a threat.  And then, when Pilate offered to release a criminal, they chose the one who’d been imprisoned for leading a rebellion against the hated Roman conquerors, instead of Jesus, who taught about peace and healing and love.  None of this is good.  But let’s look at what Peter was doing, during that time.  First, in the days leading up to Jesus’ death, he consistently misunderstood what Jesus meant and tried to stop him talking about the upcoming crucifixion.  Then he repeatedly fell asleep when Jesus asked him to keep watch in the garden.  Then, after Jesus’ arrest, he watched the trial but not only did he fail to come to Jesus’ defense and point out the lies the witnesses were telling, he denied that he even KNEW Jesus!  There is no point in this sequence of events where Peter does the right thing.  Not one.  He didn’t call for Jesus’ death, but he did not say a word to prevent it.  And here he is, criticizing what OTHER people did?  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

And when you get right down to it, all human beings live in glass houses where sin is concerned.  Christ Jesus died because of the world’s sins, and that includes our sin, here and now.  And, unfortunately, a lot of that sin is the exact same sin of that crowd who first welcomed Jesus and then turned against him.  They wanted to be saved, but on their own terms, in ways that were familiar to them.  And then they listened to the voices of anger and fear telling them that Jesus was a way of threat to their faith and their way of life.  And they swallowed all the lies about Jesus that anybody could come up with.  When Jesus seemed like a winner, they were on his side.  When Jesus seemed like a loser, they abandoned him and even cheered for his death and destruction.  And given a choice between Jesus, whose promise of peace and salvation required them to change their hearts and minds, and Barabbas, whose promise of salvation was a bloody crusade against their enemies, they chose the violent one.

If you look around our society today, you will see exactly those same types of sin today, committed by good, Christian people.  We get this idea in our heads that we already know what life in God’s kingdom is going to look like, and it’s going to look like things we’re familiar and comfortable with.  Better than what we’ve got now, of course, but still pretty similar.  After all, we’re already God’s chosen people, right?  So we might still need God’s salvation, but we think it’ll fit neatly into our lives and society the way it is, just like those people of Jerusalem who called for Jesus to save them on Palm Sunday.  Which means we may not recognize God’s salvation, God’s call, when it’s right here among us.

And there are a lot of voices speaking and shouting in anger and fear, right now.  Fear about Americans of different races.  Fear of Americans of different political parties.  Fear of foreigners.  Fear of anyone who is different.  And while we are quick to see the flaws of people we count our enemies, we blindly follow the nastiest voices on our own side.  We follow people who seem like winners, and attack those who seem like losers, with little regard for what is right or wrong.  And we look for violent solutions, assuming that peace, security, and a just world can be created through violence and destruction.  Even when we know this is wrong, we fail to speak out against it, or even deny what we know to be true.  Every sin and flaw that led the crowds to call for Jesus’ death, and to Peter’s denial, is still within us here today.  And that desire to blame others while hiding our own sins, as Peter did in our first lesson?  That’s also still a part of us today.  In the words of one of my favorite Lenten hymns, “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.  ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.  I crucified thee.”  You and I and every person living today are just as guilty of Jesus’ death as the people who stood in the crowd shouting “Crucify!”

So the question is, if we’re still plagued by all the sins and flaws that have plagued the world since the very beginning of the world, what does Jesus’ death and resurrection matter?  What difference does it make, to you and I and our world, that Jesus died for us, and rose from the grave?  Is it just pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by?  Sure, we keep screwing up and hurting ourselves and others now, but when we die it will be okay because we’ll go to heaven?  I mean, that’s true, but it’s also a little limited.  Yes, Jesus’ resurrection means we will go to heaven, but Jesus also promised us new life in the here-and-now.  Jesus repeatedly said that God’s kingdom was all around us, if we only knew how to see it.

We are full of sin, but we are also full of the Holy Spirit, and full of God’s love.  For all that the world around us is calling for cynicism, hate, fear, and violence, God is working in us and around us to soften our hard hearts and purify us.  God keeps calling us to see that there is a different way, a better way, a way of reconciliation that leads to mercy and justice and peace.  Every time a bully stops hurting people, God is there.  Every time people stand up to a bully and protect the victim, God is there.  Every time people stop their knee-jerk reactions and choose to be kind and generous, God is there.  Every time people stop a cycle of violence and destruction, God is there.  Every time we give so that the hungry may be fed, the sick healed, homeless housed, refugees saved, God is there at work.  God is working towards a day when love and peace will be everywhere and sin will be defeated for good.

And God is calling us, you and me, to be a part of that work.  God is calling us to repent, to acknowledge the sin and brokenness in ourselves and turn to God for healing and forgiveness.  The world is full of sin but we don’t have to let it rule us anymore.  We can open our hearts and minds to Jesus, and let him change us.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it is hard, even when it will not win us friends or popularity.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it costs us.  May we always confess our sins, and strive to act in love as God calls us to do.

Amen.

Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW.  If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans.  All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway.  This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.

Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything.  She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness.  I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful.  But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.

We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day.  And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular.  “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like.  Why doesn’t God like them?  Because they’re sins.  Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world.  And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors.  Sin is the thing that breaks relationships.  Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous.  Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way.  Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.

The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter.  Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness.   To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another.  But you can’t have fellowship while sinning.  Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive.  Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”  And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us.  It means all children of God.  If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness.  If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.

One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.”  It’s a sin full of self-justification.  When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish.  You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled.  You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic.  And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally.  We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.

That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom.  God is love, as John tells us over and over again.  That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors.  Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds.  It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is.  But that’s why Christ gave his life.  That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean.  We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.

While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time.  Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors.  Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail.  But God is faithful even when we are faithless.  God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.

God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen.  We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today.  After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love.  And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed.  They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community.  Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after.  This is a pattern we see often in Christian history.  The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end.  And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community.  No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.

How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently?  I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave.  We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.

The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us.  The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic.  The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.

Amen.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-12, John 12:22-30

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

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

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

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.

God’s first covenant was with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  Then came God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where he called them to follow him and promised to be with them and their descendants forever.  Then came the covenant on Mount Sinai, where God re-stated his promise to the people of Israel, and gave them teachings and commandments to show them how they should live as God’s people.  Then last week we heard of God’s covenant with David, promising him that his descendants would always be king of Israel, a promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is of the house and lineage of David.

This week, we heard of the new covenant God proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah.  And, again, it’s good to remember the context, what Jeremiah was dealing with that prompted God giving this covenant.  Jeremiah was a prophet during a particularly terrible time.  God’s people had gone astray over and over again, sometimes worshipping idols and sometimes giving lip service to God’s word while creating a society filled with injustice and exploitation, in which the rich got richer by grinding the poor under their feet, and people hurt one another while claiming to be following God.  And God had warned the people again and again, that if they continued on in that way, he would stand aside and let them reap the consequences of their actions.  God wouldn’t abandon them, God would keep God’s promise to always be their God … but God wouldn’t protect them from the empires around them who wanted to conquer and enslave them.  By Jeremiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah was still hanging on, and the people of Judah believed that God’s covenant with David would protect them even despite their continuing bad behavior.

Jeremiah spoke the words the Lord had given him so speak, and told them that God’s love would not save them from the consequences of their actions unless they repented and turned away from their sins.  And they didn’t listen.  And so Jeremiah watched as the Babylonians conquered Judah, captured the city of Jerusalem, and took many of their people off in chains.  Jeremiah wrote two books, and the second was Lamentations, which records his grief at the destruction of his beloved country.  But even in the midst of devastation and grief, even as the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of God enslaved and removed from the land God had given them, there was hope.  Because Jeremiah knew that God always keeps God’s promises, and God would always be with them, even as slaves in a foreign land.  And Jeremiah knew that God was going to make a new covenant with God’s people.

The covenant Jeremiah records is the only one the Bible specifically calls “new.”  But what’s new about it?  On the surface, it’s a lot like covenants of old.  God will be their God, and they will be his people.  In the covenant at Sinai, God gathered the people from slavery in Egypt; in this new covenant, God will gather the people from Israel and Judah, captured by other nations.  Just like the covenant at Sinai, God will give instructions on how to live a good and godly life.  And just like the covenant at Sinai didn’t eliminate or replace the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, this new covenant will not replace or get rid of all the other covenants God made with God’s people.

The difference, what makes this covenant new, is that it will change human nature.  Up until this point, the wickedness of the human heart that so distressed God in the days of Noah has remained.  God promises that God will always be with God’s people, and God gives instructions for how God’s people are to live, but we human beings fall continuously short.  We hurt ourselves and one another, and we twist God’s word to justify our sinful thoughts and actions.  We tell ourselves that when God commanded us to love one another, he only meant we should love people who are like us, people that we already like.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to hate and fear people who are different, because surely they are not God’s people like we are.  We tell ourselves that if someone hurts us, it’s okay to hurt them back.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to be selfish, and if others are impoverished or hurt because of it, that’s their problem.  We tell ourselves that we are good people, God’s people, and so whatever we think and do must be good and Godly, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God.  We keep breaking our promises to follow God.  That was true in Jeremiah’s day, and it is still unfortunately true today.

But this covenant that God promises through Jeremiah will be a new covenant.  God’s teachings and commandments won’t be empty words on a page that we try to ignore or weasel our way out of whenever they become inconvenient.  Instead, God’s word will be written on our hearts.  We won’t have to argue about what God means, because nobody will try to twist God’s words to their own gain.  We won’t have to tell each other “know the Lord,” for we shall all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest.  Instead of giving lip service to doing the right thing, humans will actually do it.  Instead of telling ourselves we can do everything because of our own abilities and we don’t need anyone else, we will love God and love our neighbors, and build deep and lasting and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbor.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  It sounds almost too good to be true.  And yet, Jeremiah assures us that that day is coming, for God has promised it.  We get a foretaste of that day in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We get a foretaste of God’s word in us and in our hearts by the way the Holy Spirit of God moves in us and around us, giving life to our faith and constantly bringing us back to God.  We get a foretaste of that great and wondrous day every time someone chooses love over hate, generosity over selfishness, faith over despair.  We get a foretaste of that day whenever chains are broken, oppression is ended, justice is done, and mercy is given.

Now, we see that world, that kingdom of God, only dimly and in little bits and pieces.  But when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, that kingdom will come to earth and the human heart will be made new, washed clean from all the evil that is in it.  And God’s Spirit will dwell with us, and God’s will will be written on our hearts.  And we will do the right thing not because we have to, or because are afraid of the consequences, or grudgingly, but with joy and love.  I can’t wait for that day.  And every time I see the pain in this world, my longing for it grows stronger.  That day is coming, says the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Covenant: Abraham and Sarah

Lent 2, Year B, February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

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.

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.  Last week we heard of God’s covenant with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how broken and sinful the world got, no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  This week, we get God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the first inkling of what God is going to do instead.

Let’s give some context.  Abram and Sarai started out as a well-to-do couple in Ur of the Chaldeans, the region that would later be known as Babylon and today we call Iraq.  They were part of a large clan or tribe, and pretty important within that tribe—Abram was the oldest son of his father, set to inherit everything and become the new patriarch of the tribe.  Like all people in that region, they were polytheists, worshipping a wide variety of gods and spirits, who were imagined to be capricious but powerful beings who didn’t care much about humans but could sometimes be bribed into helping them.  Abram and Sarai had wealth, power, status.  There was only one thing their society valued that they didn’t have: children.  In a world in which having descendants to inherit your wealth and position was supremely important, Abram and Sarai had none, and were well past the age of even the faintest hope.  But even there, Abram’s clan was large and wealthy, and as the future patriarch he probably had nephews he could adopt who would be thrilled to be his heir.

But that was not what God had in mind for Abram and Sarai.  God called them to leave their family, their country, their culture, and all the other gods they believed in, to follow him into Canaan.  And so they followed God into an uncertain future, a future that was radically different from anything that anyone might have expected.  A future where they couldn’t depend on the way things had always been, where they couldn’t just coast along with old certainties and familiar ways of thinking and acting.  They were strangers in a strange land, constantly facing new challenges.  They brought with them a whole household of servants and livestock, but following God’s call brought them to a world much different than the one they had left behind.  Instead of certainty and sameness and the protection of being leaders of their people, they were led into uncertainty and change and, sometimes, danger.

I sometimes wonder why God made them leave.  Why they couldn’t have built a relationship with God in their homeland, where they were.  Among other things, their old homeland was a far more fertile and prosperous place, with a correspondingly higher population density.  If God was looking for getting numbers, surely that would have been the place to start, not Canaan.  And yet, in their old homeland, would they have listened to God as well, or would God have stayed just one voice among many in their culture, just one god of a whole host to be worshipped and feared?  Without that shock of a new place, would they have taken the time and effort to rethink their lives, or just gone on much as they always had?

God called them, and they came.  God was building a new kind of relationship with Abram and Sarai, a deeper relationship.  This wasn’t just a trading of favors, or an offering of sacrifices in the hope that the deity would do what you wanted.  This was a friendship, based on love and commitment and communication.  God talked with Abram and Sarai, and it wasn’t just a matter of God telling them what to do.  Abram even argued with God, and sometimes caused God to change God’s mind.  This was a relationship that changed Abram and Sarai, that changed how they saw the world and how they acted and what they did.  And God made a covenant with Abram and Sarai, that God would always be with them, and with their descendants.  God would give them children, and God would have this special relationship with their descendants to the end of time.  God would keep speaking to them, keep guiding them, keep walking with them, showing them how to live and how to be the good people God had created them to be.  And as part of that relationship, God gave Abram and Sarai new names, names that would forever after remind them of what God had done and would continue to do for them, names that would remind them that God had changed them.  Abraham, father of many nations, and Sarah, princess or queen.

Now, even with this new relationship, even with God calling them to be new people, Abraham and Sarah were not perfect.  Their descendants, too, the ones God gave them, were also imperfect.  The wickedness of the human heart that had so enraged God in the days of Noah was still present in them.  And if you read through the stories of Genesis, you will find many examples of them falling short of the good life God called them to.  Deceit, treachery, jealousy, greed, fear, all lead them astray many times.  Human nature was not changed by this covenant.

What changed was God’s nature.  What changed was God’s commitment to be there with them even when they fell short, even when they willingly chose to do evil, even when God stood aside to let them experience the consequences of their bad behavior, God was there with them.  No matter what happened, from then on to the end of time, God would always be with them.  This was the first time that God had made such a promise, the first time that God had made such a commitment to any creature.  The God of the universe, creator of everything seen and unseen, greater than any human being could ever comprehend, was going to be there for them and with them, in a relationship that would bring them closer to God.  Even if they fell short, even if they strayed, they would follow God and God would be there for them and with them, forever and ever, world without end.

In the cross of Christ we are grafted into that covenant.  Through Jesus Christ, we are made spiritual descendants of Abraham and Sarah, called to follow God just as they were called to follow God.  And that call may keep us in our daily lives, and it may lead us out into the world, but wherever that call leads us it is a call to conform our lives and our hearts to God, trusting that God will always be with us.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to take up our cross and follow him.  And sometimes we trivialize that command by thinking that any trying thing that happens to a Christian is a cross to bear.  Sometimes, people even use it to justify trapping people in abuse, by claiming that the abuse is the cross God has given them to bear.  But that’s not what Jesus meant.  We focus so hard on the ‘taking up the cross’ part that we forget about the second part of Jesus’ command, to follow him.  When we follow God, we find, as Abraham and Sarah did, that the way is not always smooth.  That there are challenges and heartaches and problems that we would not have had if we stayed safely on the easy path.  Those are the crosses we have to bear.

Just as God called Abraham and Sarah out of their easy, predictable lives, called them to follow him into a new life and a new land, God now calls us, through Jesus Christ, to follow him.  And like Abraham and Sarah, the path won’t be easy, and it won’t be predictable, and we’ll go astray.  But like Abraham and Sarah, God promises to be with us, now and always, our Savior and friend.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.