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.

 

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.

Sin, Forgiveness, and Naboth’s Vineyard

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 11C, June 12th, 2016

1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36—8:3

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.

Let’s talk about sin, and forgiveness.  Our Old Testament reading for today is certainly an example of sin.  It starts out with coveting.  King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard.  Now, coveting isn’t just wanting something.  Coveting is jealousy.  Coveting is a belief that you have a right to possess something that belongs to someone else.  Coveting is a resentment that anyone else has something that you don’t.  Coveting is the toddler on the playground grabbing another child’s toy.  It’s the girl who spreads rumors about another girl dating the guy she wants.  It’s the man who gets mad when a woman doesn’t pay as much attention to him as he wants.  It’s the supervisor who belittles an employee who’s better than they are.  It’s the ugliness that happens when we believe we’re entitled to other peoples’ things, time, attention, or bodies.  And all the evil that we do because of that belief.

That’s the thing about coveting.  It’s bad in and of itself, but it leads us to do other sins.  Theft, violence, bearing false witness, rape, murder, abuse of every kind.  Coveting is the root cause of much of the evil in our world today.  It’s the cause of big sins, but also of a lot of the little miseries.  And usually, we come up with all kinds of reasons why we deserve what we want, why it’s good that we should take it, or attack the one who has it.  Reasons to justify anything that gets us what we want, regardless of the harm it does.  And, like most sins, it knots us up inside, turning us around in circles of justification and resentment and self-centeredness.

For Jezebel, it was simple.  Her husband was the king, so he deserved whatever he wanted.  That was what being king meant, for her.  And if Naboth didn’t want to give it to him, well, then Naboth deserved whatever he got.  And so she had Naboth falsely accused, and then killed.  Coveting lead to false witness and murder; one sin led to another.  Ahab wasn’t quite willing to order Naboth killed himself, to get the vineyard he coveted, but he was certainly willing to take advantage of Jezebel’s actions.  He didn’t want to get his own hands dirty … but he’d take advantage of his wife’s dirty hands in a hot second.  But to God there was no difference which one of them killed: Naboth died because Ahab coveted his vineyard, and so both Jezebel and Ahab were equally guilty of it.  Jezebel did the deed, but Ahab took advantage of it and profited from it.  Jezebel did it, but Ahab stood back and let her, and used her to get what he wanted.  This was not a subtle plan.  Everyone must have known what was happening, and no one did anything to prevent it or speak out against it.  And so God proclaimed judgment on Ahab and his household, because the whole household was complicit in the sin.  The sinners had been judged and found guilty … and the payment for their sin was death and destruction.

Then in the Gospel reading, we see Jesus forgiving a sinner.  We don’t know what her sin was.  Maybe she cheated on her taxes.  Maybe she was a thief.  Maybe she slept around.  Maybe she was a habitual liar.  Maybe her sins were big, maybe they were small.  We don’t know.  All we know is that everyone in town knew about it, and judged her harshly.  But Jesus forgave her, and she loved him greatly because of it.

We believe in a God who judges sin, but we also believe in a God who forgives sin.  It’s a contradiction, and different people reconcile it different ways.  But what a lot of us do, is we separate out big sins and little ones, sins we really hate and sins we think aren’t really that bad, when you get down to it.  And we separate out the kinds of sins we ourselves commit, or those we love, from the kinds of sin other people commit.  Our own sins, and the sins of our families, well, we can find a hundred reasons why they’re not really problems at all, or only little ones.  But when it’s people we don’t like, as the Pharisee didn’t like the woman in the Gospel reading, well, then it’s a horrible crime that God should cut them down for.

But that’s not the way God sees things.  Our sins, big or small, matter.  Each and every one of our sins affects us and the world around us.  Every sin makes the world just that much worse off—whether it’s a huge and visible sin, like Ahab and Jezebel, or the small sins we ourselves are so ready to shrug off.  We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others.  We reduce the love in the world and fill it up with envy, fear, hate, greed, malice, and selfishness instead, and we purposefully blind ourselves to the consequences of our actions, to the way even little sins add up and lead to greater ones down the road.  They’re not so bad, we tell ourselves.  After all, everyone does stuff just like it—and a lot of people are worse!  It’s not just other people who deserve judgment, though; we, ourselves, do, as well.

So if God doesn’t forgive based on whether our sins are really big or small, why does God forgive?  Another Old Testament story tells us.  Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?  David saw Bathsheba, a married woman, when she was bathing, and decided he wanted her.  Like Ahab, David’s first sin was coveting, although instead of coveting a piece of property he coveted a person.  And, like Ahab, David believed that he deserved whatever he wanted.  So he ordered her brought to him, and gave her no choice to say no.  And when she was pregnant, he had her husband killed.  Coveting lead to rape, lead to murder.  One sin led to another, spiraling outward with consequences for many others besides David himself.  Just like with Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth’s vineyard.  And, just like with Ahab and Jezebel, God sent a prophet to tell David what he had done and what the judgment for his crime was.

That’s where the similarities stop, though.  When Elijah came to Ahab to tell him about God’s judgment on him, Ahab called Elijah an enemy.  Ahab didn’t listen.  Ahab didn’t repent.  Ahab went on doing what he had been doing.  David, on the other hand, listened to God’s prophet.  David acknowledged his sin.  David didn’t make excuses, or get mad, when his own bad behavior was pointed out.  David took responsibility for it, and asked for forgiveness.  And so, although he still had to deal with the earthly consequences of his behavior, God forgave him.  David’s sin was wiped away, because he recognized and acknowledged what he had done.

God doesn’t forgive us because we deserve it, or because our sins weren’t really that bad, or because we can come up with a good enough excuse.  God doesn’t forgive us because we’re nice people.  God forgives us because he loves us, because he would rather forgive us than condemn us.  But before that can happen, we need to be willing to admit that we need forgiveness.  God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy justifying ourselves to listen.  God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy getting angry at anyone who dares to point out the bad things we have done.

It’s easy to sit here and listen to stories like the story of Naboth’s vineyard, and pat ourselves on the back for being decent people.  I’d be pretty willing to bet none of us here have arranged to have someone murdered.  Compared to Ahab and Jezebel, we look pretty good, so we can sit here and shake our heads and agree how bad and shocking they were while still feeling fairly comfortable about our own lives.  But God doesn’t compare our thoughts and actions to the worst humans can do; God compares our thoughts and actions to the best, pure, good people God created us to be.  And by that standard, we, too, have fallen very fall short of where we should be.  We covet things and people, and we do nasty things because of it.  We ignore God, and lead ourselves down bad paths.  We disrespect those we should honor.  We steal, and tell ourselves it’s no big deal.  We cheat on one another, and think it’s okay because everyone does it.  We add our voices to those calling for hate because we’re scared of the future.  We lie even to ourselves, about all the ways we add to the misery in the world around us.

God doesn’t want to condemn us.  God loves us.  God wants to shower us and our whole world with abundant gifts.  God wants us to do the right thing, not out of fear of retribution, but out of joy and love for God and one another.  God can and will forgive anything, any crime, no matter how vile … but first we have to confess and repent.  We have to admit what we have done, and let go of the hostility and bitterness and jealousy and fear in our souls.  We have to let God love us.  Thanks be to God for the love and forgiveness he gives to all who call upon him.

Amen.

An Easter People

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8th, 2016

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

If you’ve taken a moment to glance through your Bibles at the Gospel of John in the last few weeks, you may have noticed something a bit … odd in the Gospel readings.  Not in the readings themselves, but in the fact that these particular texts are assigned to be read now, in Easter.  Easter is a time of resurrection.  We celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the time when he will come again in glory and all those who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead, as well.  That’s why we read from Revelation in Easter—we’re celebrating Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to the general Resurrection, which Revelation gives us a vision of.

And that’s what’s so peculiar about the readings from John that we’ve been reading.  Because they’re taken from before Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And not just any time throughout his ministry.  No, they come from what is called the Farewell Discourse, the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after their last meal together, before he was handed over to the guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is Jesus praying and teaching the very night before his crucifixion.  Jesus knows he is about to die, and is preparing for it by preparing his disciples for it.  The disciples don’t know Jesus is about to die, because they’ve been willfully blind to what Jesus’ teachings mean … but even so, they know just how tense the situation is, how much the authorities in the city would like to silence Jesus and his followers.  It’s a time of fear, a time of pain, a time of death, a time when nobody but God could see any hope… and even that hope could not come without suffering.  So why, out of all the times during the year, do we read this discourse during Easter?  The time of great joy and hope?  The time of healing and resurrection and new life?  On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense.

But the thing is, even as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection—even as we look forward to the general resurrection of the dead that is to come—we still have to live in a world filled with death.  Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste of the feast to come … but before we sit down to the full feast that is heaven, we’ve got to get through life today, first.  We know there is healing to come, but we live in a world of sickness.  We know there is life to come, but we live in a world of death.  We know there is hope and love to come, but we live in a world of fear and hate, where sin and brokenness run rampant and abuse is all too normal.  Like the disciples, we want to know God, and to live in God’s kingdom—but like the disciples, we are still caught up in a world of fear and death.  We are a resurrection people.  We celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and we look forward to our own resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead … but we live in a world of death, and will until Christ comes again.  And I think that’s why these readings from the Farewell Discourse are read in Easter.

The question—the great question, that most of the New Testament revolves around—is how do we live as children of the resurrection in a world broken by sin and death?  How do we keep the faith, how do we maintain our hope, how do we live and speak and act, in a world that is determined to sell itself out to power and greed and hate and lust and fear and all the sin and brokenness there is?

Revelation has two answers.  Revelation is a dream, a vision, not meant to be taken as a literal history of the future but rather as a reassurance of two great truths.  First, that no matter how bleak things get, no matter what horrible things happen—in our own lives, and in the larger world—God is at work.  God is present, God is active, no matter how bad things look.  Just as the disciples couldn’t see God’s hand in Jesus’ death until afterwards, in the light of the resurrection, so too God is present and at work even when we can’t see him, even in the darkest moments there are.

And the second answer that Revelation gives is that we don’t have to worry about the end of the story.  We don’t have to worry about how things are going to turn out.  We already know.  God wins.  Sin and death are defeated.  Heaven comes to earth, and this world truly becomes God’s kingdom as it was always meant to be.  There is resurrection, and healing, and life, and joy, and love, and hope, and all pain and sorrow and evil will be gone.  No matter what happens, no matter what trials we have to live through in this life, we know how the story ends.  Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, suffering and evil and brokenness, even though it kills us—and this world will kill us, each and every one of us—we don’t have to be afraid, because we know how the story ends.  And it’s a good ending, the best ending possible.

We don’t have to worry about the end, just the middle.  Just the here-and-now.  Just getting through each day.  And that’s what Jesus was talking about in the Farewell Discourse, as he said goodbye to his disciples and tried to prepare them for what was to come.  How to get through each day, because knowing how the story ends gives hope but that may not be enough by itself when the going gets rough.  And Jesus’ answer is love.  In these three chapters, Jesus talks about a lot of things, but the common thread is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another.  That’s how we get through the middle times.

Now, when I talk about love I don’t just mean a kind of wishy-washy platitude, and when I talk about sin and brokenness and evil I don’t just mean on a cosmic scale.  I know you’ve all experienced it.  For example, I know you have all seen and experienced how feuds, rivalries, jealousies, and prejudices can build up in a small town, how they can hurt and twist people over and over again.  I know you’ve seen how people turn to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems and hurt themselves and their families and friends in the process.  I know you’ve seen how petty and nasty and mean people can be to one another, even when they smile and hide it behind a nice façade, and the damage that does to people.  And there are members of this parish who have been abused; there are members of this parish who have been raped.  If you have been lucky enough never to have suffered that way, you know people who have—even if they’ve never told you about it.  We have a nice community, a good community, but even in our own homes and hearts and minds there is sin and brokenness, there are victims and aggressors, and oftentimes people who are both.  And the love of God—the love that Jesus asks us to have for one another—is right there in the midst of it.  Not just in platitudes and sayings, but in action.

That love is the love that leads us to be there for people when they need help—when they’re sick, or in pain, or hurt.  That love is the love that leads us to work for a just peace and reconciliation, even when choosing a side and striking back would be easier.  Striking back and lashing out are the easiest things in the world when pain and fear come.  Building walls and closing out problems is simple, too—just go with the flow, follow the world’s advice, contribute to the pain in the world—but that’s not what God calls us to do.  We are called to love.  To open our hearts and our hands and our lives.  To witness to the abundant life and love that God brings.  We are called to heal the world, not add to the hurt.  We are called to be kind when it is easier to be mean, to be forgiving when it is easier to be resentful.  We are called to love in tangible ways, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and brokenhearted, and in all things be Christ to our neighbors.  And when we, together, put God’s love into action, that is when we are most truly a resurrection people.  When love is not just a word but a way of life, that is when we see a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.  Love is how we live as an Easter people in a world still full of sin and death.  May God teach us truly how to love one another in thought, word, and deed.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

Amen.

The Two Sons and the Father

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6th, 2016

Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 5:1-3, 11b-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.

This parable is one of the richest and most meaningful stories in the Bible, but when we read it we tend to focus on the younger son.  Our traditional name for it is “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which is part of the reason.  But there are many other names for this parable, too.  Sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Prodigal God, the Parable of the Welcoming Father, or the Parable of the Lost Sons, or the Lament of the Responsible Child.  There are so many parts of this parable that we could focus on, and the part we tend to focus on is the younger son, the one whose selfish actions set the whole story into motion.  Yet when Jesus told the story, he started by focusing on the father—“there was a man who had two sons”—and he spent a full third of the story detailing the older son’s reactions.  And let’s not forget that he told this parable—and several others, right in a row—in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, who were disdainful that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We tend to think of the Pharisees as the villains, because Jesus had so many clashes with them.  But the reason that he did was because he spent a lot of time with them and they continually sought him out, invited him to speak, and brought them home to eat dinner with them.  In fact, Jesus had many allies among the Pharisees, and they were for the most part natural allies.  When we look at the historical record, the Pharisees beliefs and practices were in fact very similar to Jesus’ own teachings—making the differences even more noticeable.  Israel of Jesus’ day was a nation under occupation, a culture under siege from outside forces that were trying to make Israel just another province of the Roman Empire, complete with pagan worship, secular values, and a disdain for the traditions and beliefs of their forefathers and foremothers.  While Israel’s elite pandered to their foreign overlords, the Pharisees were the ones defending the faith from foreigners and straying countrymen alike.

The Pharisees were mostly middle-class, solid family-values people, who spent lots of time and effort working for God.  They taught people God’s word, and how to interpret it.  They stood up to foreign occupiers and their own leaders alike.  They insisted that God’s Word and God’s commands were still relevant and deeply necessary for life.  And, in so doing, they ran the risk of being discriminated against.  They supported Jesus because he taught and preached about God, and even when they disagreed with him, they admired his ability to reach and inspire so many people.

The problem was, the Pharisees were jealous.  Not of Jesus’ successes—no, that was all to God’s glory, and they counted him as one of their own.  They were jealous of God’s love.  After all, they had been slaving away for years—generations!—for God, in a world that was hostile to them and to the very idea that there was a God who actually cared about people enough to intervene in the world.  They had stood up to hostile leaders and social forces tearing them apart.  They had forgone opportunities for personal advancement and riches in order to remain true to God.  They had, just like the elder brother, been working like a slave for God, and they were very aware of it.

And now this Jesus—this man of God—starts talking to tax collectors?  Those stooges of the Empire, those unfaithful people who turned away from God and cheated their own people for their own personal gain?  Not only that, he welcomes them?  These traitorous parasites who are a manifestation of all that is wrong in the nation?  And Jesus eats with them?  He calls them friends?  He accepts one of them—Matthew—as one of his own disciples?  And all those other sinners, too, the people who have set themselves outside of God’s people by their own actions?  Those thieves and murderers, those adulterers and addicts, those thugs and prostitutes, those con artists and scammers and parasites?  And Jesus tells them that God loves them?

No.  That is not acceptable.  Not to the Pharisees.  The Pharisees are the ones God loves.  The Pharisees are the ones who have done the hard work and deserve the reward.  These sinners don’t.  These sinners are the ones who have thrown away and wasted the abundant gifts of God.  These sinners have ruined lives—their own and other peoples’.  These sinners have broken society, and they have hurt people.  They don’t deserve God’s love.  They deserve judgment.  They deserve to be punished for what they have done.

So Jesus tells a story about a man who had two sons.  Two sons who are very different, yet who both separate themselves from their father in different ways.  The younger one is a sinner.  He leaves the family behind and wastes everything he is given, until he is humbled by a famine, at which point he goes home to beg for mercy.  Except he doesn’t need to beg.  The father, overjoyed by the return of a beloved child he’s been worrying about for years, throws a party to celebrate and gifts the younger son with more than he could have dared hope for.  The older son, also, separated himself from their father.  He was a dutiful son, who did everything asked of him.  And so when his brother returns, all he can see is how unfair it is—he’s the one who deserves the party, not his jerk of a brother!  And so he refuses to come in.  He holds his own sense of justice and righteousness more valuable than his brother’s life.  And so he is angry at his father’s love.  Can you blame him?  He’s done all the hard work.  He’s done the right thing, while his brother did everything wrong.  He’s the one who deserves the reward.  The father’s treatment of the younger son is unfair on every level imaginable.

Just like God’s treatment of sinners—forgiveness and welcome—is unfair on every level imaginable.  Sure, it’s great and heartwarming if you’re the sinner, the younger brother, but it’s not great if you’re the righteous one, the Pharisee, the good Christian, the older brother.  The whole point of grace is that it’s forgiveness for people who don’t and never can deserve it.  It’s not fair.  It’s unconditional love for the undeserving.

The problem is, the more we focus on fairness—the more we focus on who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t—the more we separate ourselves from God.  The more we act like the older brother, the more we join him outside the party.  And remember, in the Bible a feast or party is the most common metaphor for heaven.  The older brother is right that it isn’t fair, but by focusing on what is or isn’t fair, he is separating himself from his father, from his entire family, and from the feast.  He’s worked hard, he’s earned a celebration, and he’s keeping himself outside the gates because of his own resentment.  The older brother took one look at the heavenly banquet and turned up his nose at it, because he didn’t like the guest list.

The father acts out of love.  The father is more concerned with welcoming one he thought he’d lost forever than punishing him for leaving in the first place.  The father loves both his sons, but he’s never needed to worry about the elder.  This party is the action of one who has spent many sleepless nights staring at the ceiling and hoping and praying that his child is alive, out there, somewhere in the world.  The party isn’t because the younger son deserves it; it’s because the father is so happy.  He’s been happy about his older son the whole time.  All this joy at the younger son’s return is spilling over at once—the joy at the older son’s goodness has been present all along, manifested in a thousand ways the older son either didn’t notice or took for granted or didn’t value.  He spent all that time working for his father, and yet he doesn’t seem to value his father’s love and the gifts he’s been given.  And so the older son is jealous.  He resents that his father has any love for the undeserving brother.  He refuses to come to the party.  He refuses to come to his father.  He wants his jerk of a brother gone again, or at least suitably punished.  He wants everything to be all about him, even when he doesn’t need anything and his brother does.

There are two sons in this parable.  One is a sinner, while the other is a good son.  Yet the two are more alike than either wants to admit.  Both disregard their fathers’ gifts, in different ways.  Both are deeply loved by the father.  Both separate themselves from their father.  And the father comes out to seek both.  There are many ways to separate ourselves from God.  Some, like the younger son’s path, are obvious to see.  Some are more insidious, like the older brother’s jealousy.  Yet no matter why we separate ourselves from God, God loves us, and seeks us out.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Abraham as our Ancestor

Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

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.

Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?

We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!

And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.

First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.

Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.

Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.

It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.

When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.

And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!

When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.

May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy.  Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.

Amen.