The True Love of God

Ash Wednesday, Year B, February 14, 2018

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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.

Our culture has a fairly shallow view of what love is, have you ever noticed that?  We elevate romantic love as the most important, as if the love of friends and siblings isn’t also deep and true, and then we reduce romantic love to that overwhelming first flush of feeling, as if the commitment of living your life together isn’t just as important a barometer of the depth of love.  And every Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love … with clichés and mass-produced cards and candy.  And then we judge relationships based on the ‘specialness’ of that one day’s plans and gifts.  It’s not that candy and flowers and dinner and such are bad, but when we’re talking about love, they only just scratch the surface of what love is.  And sometimes, we use the word “love” when we really mean uglier things, like obsession or jealousy or abuse or selfishness, using the word “love” to paper over and excuse terrible things we do to one another.

As Christians, we are supposed to learn what love is from the love of the Lord our God.  We should not let the world’s shallowness dictate our views of love.  We should not let the way the world twists things to shape how we understand love.  We should learn how to love from our creator, redeemer, and friend.  God, who in the Old Testament is often described as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet Joel tells us in our Old Testament reading.

What does that mean?  ‘Gracious’ is not a word we use often, but it means a kind of generous compassion, a good will towards someone even if they are not worthy of it.  Merciful we know, it’s about forgiveness and bringing relief from something unpleasant.  Slow to anger, well, there are some people who think of God as some frowning, hotheaded tyrant just waiting to smite anybody who slips.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  God is like a parent who has set boundaries but tries to guide and discipline his children without punishing them, using harsh measures only as the very last resort.

You can see that in Joel’s words.  In Joel’s time, God’s people had turned away from God.  They had abandoned his ways, and pursued selfishness and injustice, bigotry and greed.  Instead of the merciful and just society God had shown them how to create, they had set up a system in which the rich prospered and everyone else suffered.  People cared only for their own good, and let others suffer.  In other words, they were acting exactly the opposite of the love God had shown them and called them to live by.  And how does God react?  He pleads with them to return to him, to follow his example to live in love, so that they can avoid the consequences of their actions.

More than anything, God wants all people to live together in harmony.  God wants us all to follow his example and be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God does not want love to be a surface thing, a thing of presents and dates, but rather the core of how we treat ourselves and all of humanity.  All kinds of love—the love of family, the love of friends, romantic love, love for strangers and those who are different than us.  God wants good will and compassion and mercy to form the basis for us as individuals and as a community and as a species, because in that way each and every one of us will be free to grow and prosper and blossom as the good people God created us to be.

When God punishes, it’s always because we have forgotten that love.  We human beings have an awful tendency to hurt one another, to let selfishness or fear or anger or hate or jealousy or pride dictate our actions, and then justify our actions with all sorts of different ways.  We hurt others, and tell ourselves they deserved it.  We do bad things and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people, so we must have been right.  We look away when others abuse people, and then blame the victim.  We bully people and say it was just a joke, or they’re just too sensitive.  We shrug uncomfortably when someone’s partner manipulates and beats them, and then say it’s okay because he loves her and he didn’t really mean it.  And it’s not just atheists who do this: we do it, too.  We, the good, God-fearing people, have fallen so far short of who God calls us to be.  We make a mockery of the healthy, life-giving love that God calls us to live by, and in so doing walk further and further away from God’s presence, and increase the destruction and violence and death in the world.

But even as far from God as we stray, even despite the violence and destruction we allow and condone, God will not let us go.  God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins, to save us from the unholy, hate-filled mess of a world we have created for ourselves.  God loves us so much that he was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  God loves us so much that he will never stop calling from us to turn from our sins, receive God’s love, and live.  This Lent, may the love of God fill our hearts and minds.  May God create in us clean hearts, ready to love as God has loved us.



Reformation 3: Saint and Sinner

Reformation 3, Saint and Sinner, October 8, 2017

2 Corinthians 5:14-21, Psalm 51:1-12, John 20:19-23

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


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

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

Martin Marty once said that the purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Martin Luther would definitely have agreed.  And the main way God’s Word does this, in Luther’s view, is by reminding us that we are both saint and sinner.

We tend to want to divide the world up into good people and bad people.  In the common American world view, there are some people who are worthy and some people who aren’t.  Some people who deserve attention and praise and help when things go wrong, and others who don’t.  From a Christian point of view, we label these categories as “righteous” and “sinners.”  People who have lived good lives, chosen the right things, and been generally good, and those who haven’t.  Except things are a bit more complicated than that.  Nobody is purely good or purely bad; nobody is all one or all the other.  We are all saints—and we are all sinners.

Let’s define our terms here.  A “saint,” in the way the Bible uses the word, is someone who is holy in the eyes of God.  And a sinner is someone who has fallen short of what God expects of us.  And every single one of us has fallen short of what God expects of us.  We have all failed to be the good people he created us to be.  The only reason any of us are holy in the eyes of God is because of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness.

There are some people who know just how screwed up they are.  There are some people who know just how much they fail.  There are some people who know they are sinners.  There are some people who know that they have hurt themselves and others.  There are some people who know that they are broken.  There are some people who know that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t measure up to where they should be.  All too often these people are not in church because they do not believe they are worthy.  I’ve talked to so many people who said, “well, if I came to church pastor, there’d be a lightning bolt before I got through the door.”  And they mean it as a joke, but there’s a core of truth to it: they believe that they are too broken, too much a sinner, for God to love.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is a comfort.  God loves you anyway, as broken as you are, and you are forgiven and loved and saved.  You are a saint of God.  And in that forgiveness, God is working to heal you and make you whole.  You don’t have to be afraid, you can leave your guilt and anxiety and fear and all your burdens, for Christ is working to reconcile you and all of creation.

But there are people who don’t need to hear that.  People who don’t need to hear the message of forgiveness, because they don’t believe they’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven.  They believe they’re good, nice people, and that sin is always something other people do.  They hear of God’s judgment and they don’t quake in their boots, and it’s not because they trust in God’s mercy: it’s because they don’t believe they’ve done anything to need forgiveness in the first place.  Or, if they have, they count it as so minor as not to matter.  Because they’re good, nice, Christian people, so by definition anything they do is good, nice, and Christian.  I was once in a Bible study with a woman—a devout Christian, there every Sunday—who was really upset that we started each worship service with confession, because she didn’t think she had anything to confess.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is not supposed to be a comfort.  Because you are already too comfortable.  So comfortable that you cannot see your own flaws, your own sins, the way your own actions—and inactions—harm yourself, those around you, and the world.  This is, by the way, the sin of the Pharisees.  The sin of people who think they already have everything figured out, and so miss the very presence of God in their midst even as they claim to worship him.

If you are sitting there thinking to yourself that this doesn’t apply to you, then let’s stop for a bit and take a good hard look at what “sin” means in the lives of good, hardworking, ordinary people who’ve never killed anybody, never had an affair, and so on and so forth.  Let’s start with the Ten Commandments, shall we?  The first is that we are supposed to worship God alone, and nothing and no one else.  God is supposed to be the one in whom we put our trust.  God is supposed to be the one guiding our lives—not our co-pilot, but the pilot.  How many of us actually do that?  Not many.  A lot of good, Christian people put their trust in their money, or their ability to work hard, or their political party, or their own views of what is right and wrong, and then just assume that God approves of whatever they want him to.  And I’ve seen this happen on both sides of the political aisle, liberal and conservative both.  It’s really easy to see when people we disagree with do it; it’s a lot harder to recognize when we do it ourselves.  We create God in our own image, instead of conforming our hearts, minds, and lives to God.  And that’s sin.

Then there’s the commandment about adultery.  It is, by the way, the only commandment having to do with sex.  So you’d think we would count it as the most serious sexual sin, but how many people just shrug and say, “well, cheating isn’t so bad, everyone does it.”  Not to mention, when Jesus talked about adultery he talked about our own responsibility for how we look at other people sexually.  When you look at someone with lust, the proper response is to discipline your own heart and mind, not tell them what they should or shouldn’t wear.  It’s not about outer selves, it’s about how we think about others and how we treat them.  Sex should not be a commodity or a weapon or a toy, it should be about honest and healthy relationships of mutual trust and love.  And yet we splash sex all over the place, use it to sell things, treat people like nothing more than objects for our titillation.  Or we use the things people say or wear as justification for anything that happens to them.  “What did she expect, wearing a skirt that short?”  We treat others as things instead of as brothers and sisters in Christ.  And that’s sin.

How about “thou shalt not kill”?  Martin Luther had a lot to say about this commandment.  It’s not just about the actual act of murder, it’s about a lot more than that.  “God wants to have everyone defended, delivered, and protected from the wickedness and violence of others, and he has placed this commandment as a wall, fortress, and a refuge around our neighbors,” Luther said.  So we shouldn’t kill, and we shouldn’t allow others to kill.  But we also shouldn’t physically attack people, and we shouldn’t allow others to do so.  And we shouldn’t say things that encourage people to attack or to seek violent solutions, and we should speak up when others do so.  To quote Martin Luther again, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so.  If you send a naked person away when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death.  If you see anyone who is suffering hunger and do not feed her, you have let her starve.”

As a society, we are doing a horrifyingly bad job of fulfilling this commandment.  And remember that in the Old Testament, God often does judge societies and communities as a whole.  Sin is about our individual actions, but it’s also about what we as a community accept as normal.  How do we, as a community and as a larger society, respond to challenges and needs?  Do we ensure that all people in our community are cared for and provided for, or do we allow others to slip through the cracks?  As a society, America is wealthier than it ever has been.  Yet over the last fifty years, as the total productivity and wealth of the nation have grown by leaps and bounds, the number of people who are not merely working class but really poor has also grown by leaps and bounds.  The percentage of people who are homeless in America has grown.  The percentage of people who are hungry in America has grown.  The percentage of people who lack medical care in America has grown.  We live in a land of plenty the likes of which the world has never seen before, and simply accept that people being sick and hungry and homeless is normal when we as a society have the resources to do something about it.  People die who did not have to, and none of us pulled the trigger, but we allowed the circumstances that caused it.  And that is sin.

Then there is the violence in our homes and schools and churches and public places.  We teach our young boys that crying is for girls, that real men aren’t afraid or nervous or shy or uncertain.  We teach our boys that the only manly emotion is anger.  And then we’re surprised when they grow up and take that anger out on their girlfriends, wives, and children.  And then we’re surprised when some of them take their anger out on crowds.  And we send our thoughts and prayers, and we rehash the same old tired arguments, and we don’t actually change anything, so that it keeps on happening.  And that is sin.

We are good, Christian people.  And we are sinners.  Hypocrites.  No matter how we justify ourselves, no matter how we close our eyes to the consequences of our actions and inactions, we are guilty.  God loves us, God saves us, God forgives us and makes us whole and holy, and yet while we live we keep messing up, we keep sinning, we keep mistaking our own prejudices and blindness for God’s will.  We are saints, and we are sinners.  Both at the same time.  When we are complacent, or blind, or hypocritical, then we need the law and judgment of God to show us the depths of our error, to afflict our consciences and drive us to God.  And when we see the depths of our sin, when we see the consequences of what we have done or allowed to happen, we need the comfort of God’s promise, the good news that God loves us and saves us and is reconciling the world.  We cannot pretend to be innocent, but we can never forget that we are forgiven.  The world is not divided into some people who are good and some people who are bad.  We are, all of us, both saint and sinner.  May we always recognize our sins, but trust in the grace and mercy of God’s forgiveness.


Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace Through Faith

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace through Faith, September 24, 2017

Galatians 2:16-21, Psalm 103, Luke 24:44-48

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.

Have you ever noticed that for a lot of people—even for good, deeply faithful Christians—a lot of faith ends up being more about us than about God?  I mean, we start with the question “what must I do to be saved?” and focus our attention from there.  On how we are doing things to earn our salvation.  So that then, salvation depends on our actions, and not God’s actions.  It’s about what we deserve—or don’t deserve—and not about what God is doing to break the power of sin and death.  Some people focus on the good deeds they have done, and what a moral and upright person they are.  Others focus on how strong their faith is, what a good Christian they are, or in the fact that they believe the right things and say the right prayers and other people don’t.  In either case, we end up focusing on ourselves, instead of on God.  Our faith turns into faith in our own ability to be a good person, do the right thing, and believe the right thing, rather than in God’s ability to forgive and in the saving power of the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

This is not a new problem.  This is an old, old trap that Christians have fallen into since the very first followers of Jesus gathered after his resurrection.  And it comes from very understandable places!  We don’t like being helpless.  We want to know what we can do!  And, certainly, we are supposed to respond to God’s gift of salvation by living in the light of his love.  But that’s a response to what God does, not a precondition for God to act.  The more we focus on our own actions, the less room we have to see what God has done and is doing in our lives.  The easier it is to take credit for God’s work, instead of celebrating what God has done in us and gives us the strength and will to do in the world.

On a more selfish level, focusing on our own actions and goodness gives us a lot more room to be self-righteous.  A lot more room to judge other people.  To draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, instead of really accepting that every human being is a child of God whom God is working to save.  Do you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector?  The Pharisee and the Tax collector both come to the house of God to pray on the same day.  And the Pharisee thanks God that he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector, and goes on and on about what a wonderful person he is.  And sure, he’s giving lip service to the fact that God made him who he is, but he’s still pretty arrogant about it.  You can tell that under everything, he believes it’s his own abilities and actions that just make him better than other people.  The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusions.  He knows he’s a sinner; he knows he is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God.  And he goes home forgiven and redeemed, while the Pharisee doesn’t.  Not because he’s a better person than the Pharisee—in fact, he’s a much worse person than the Pharisee—but because he put his faith in God, rather than on his own ability to be good.

Then there’s the social aspects of salvation.  By which I mean, the ways we Christians tend to use the threat of hell and the lure of heaven to try and motivate people to be nice and moral.  The idea is, people won’t do the right thing unless they’re either afraid of punishment or looking for a reward, and so you can use heaven and hell to motivate people.  You literally try to scare the hell out of them, and then dangle the carrot of heaven in front of their nose if they shape up.  It can, in some circumstances, be effective in shaping behavior, although not in others.  Use it too often, and some people get turned into neurotic wrecks angsting over whether they’ve done enough to be saved, while other people start rolling their eyes and tuning out.  And even where this use of heaven and hell are done well and people do listen … you’re still putting the emphasis on humans, what we’re doing, and not on what God is doing.

All of this is true today, it was true in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and it was most certainly true in the time of Martin Luther.    See, in those days, Christianity was all about earning your salvation.  They had a motto: Do your best, and God will do the rest.  Basically, if you are as good as you possibly can be, go to church every Sunday and every holy day and pray a lot and do lots of good deeds, you will mostly be good enough to go to heaven, and then God will just sort of fill in the gap between your own effort and what’s necessary to get into heaven.

Of course there are several problems with this idea.  One of them is that we’re putting humans at the center and not God, but the other problem with that is, if we’re mostly good enough to earn our own salvation … what in the name of all that’s holy did Jesus die for?  If all we’re talking about is a small gap between what we can do and where we need to be, then why couldn’t God have found some way of filling that gap that was less dramatic, less painful, less gory and gruesome than dying on a cross?  And of course, if humans were capable of earning salvation, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place.  The whole reason for Jesus’ death is that human beings are too broken by sin and death to earn our way into God’s good books by our own merit.  Not just human beings, either.  The whole cosmos is broken by sin and death.  And God loves us and all the world despite the fact that we are so broken, and is willing to do anything—literally anything—to save us and heal us and re-create us and all the cosmos as we were meant to be.  And that anything includes coming to earth and dying on a cross.

This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians.  “Justification,” is, in this context, a fancy way of saying “made right with God.”  Or “forgiven.”  Or being acquitted, like in a trial.  And the law isn’t just the formal legal rules, but also the traditions and customs and teachings.  If we can make ourselves right with God, if we can justify ourselves, through being “good enough” and following the right teachings and rules, then Christ died for nothing.  That’s the problem with putting ourselves and our abilities at the center.  When the truth is, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die for us.  He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t!  We can’t earn our salvation.  We can’t justify ourselves.  We can’t do and say and believe the right things hard enough to make up for all the brokenness inside us.  We can’t make ourselves, through our own efforts, worthy of salvation.  We depend on God’s grace and mercy.

And thank God that grace and mercy are at the core of God’s very being!  The most common description of God in the Bible is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Grace, in this context, means all the love God gives us that we don’t deserve.  The gifts that God gives that we can never pay back.  Grace is joy, delight, happiness, good fortune—all undeserved.  Grace is light in dark places, and grace is a lifeline to people who are drowning.  Grace is the boundless generosity of God, which gives without limit.  Grace is like winning the lottery when we didn’t even buy a ticket.  It’s something God does that transforms us, saves us, gives us all the love and mercy and hope and joy that can only come from God.

This is the Good News of God: that no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we fall, God loves us.  We don’t have to make ourselves right—and we can’t justify ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  God’s grace is as vast as the universe, and it is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”  God loves us so much that he will never let us go, stop at nothing to save and redeem us, to justify us, to mend our broken relationships with him and with each other.  That’s what Jesus died for.  That’s what all of scripture is trying to point us to.  That great truth—that God’s salvation comes through Christ Jesus, freely given for all people—is the heart of the Gospel.  That’s the good news.

And from that good news flows faith.  Faith is something that God plants in us with his word, that he waters and weeds and is always working to help grow.  Faithfulness is how we respond to God’s wonderful gift.  But there’s more.  When Paul says in Galatians that we are justified by faith, he means two things.  In Greek, he’s saying two distinct things at the same time; there’s no way to do that in English, so translators pick one or the other.  The NRSV and NIV and most modern translations choose to say we are justified by faith in Christ, that is, by our belief in Jesus.  The Common English Bible chooses the other translation, that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, through Christ’s faithfulness to us.  Paul meant both of those.  We are justified both by our faith and by Christ’s faithfulness.  We can’t be so focused on our faith in Jesus that we forget Jesus’ faithfulness to us.  His absolute dedication to our salvation.

That’s the truth on which the church stands or falls.  When we remember that God’s grace and mercy are at the center of everything, we stand firm and our faith blossoms.  When we forget—when we try to put our own efforts and abilities in the center—when we trust in our own righteousness or hard work or faithfulness—we start to lose our way, and our faith becomes dry and legalistic.  Even when all the rest of our beliefs are perfectly right, if our core is wrong, we’re going to be going in the wrong direction.  God’s grace and saving actions are the compass that guides our path.

The fancy Reformation theological slogan to describe this is “Justification by grace through faith.”  We are made right with God by God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, in which our faith is rooted.  Our faith is a response to that salvation, planted in us by God, who is always faithful to us.  Thanks be to God.


Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 24, September 17, 2017

Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

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.

The first thing you have to understand about this parable is that in the ancient world—and up until the 20th Century—debt slavery was the norm in pretty much every society in the world much more complicated than hunting and gathering.  If you couldn’t pay your debts, you became a slave.  In places where slavery was outlawed, you went to some sort of a debtor’s prison, where you were effectively a slave of the prison until you paid your debt … which was generally impossible, since people in prison can’t earn much money.  This was normal.  This was proper.  This was the way things worked, on a fundamental level.  If you can’t pay your debts, you lose EVERYTHING.  Even your own freedom.  Everything that makes life worth living, you lose.  So when Jesus starts talking about someone being enslaved and sold, along with his wife, children, and all his possessions, because he couldn’t pay his debts, it may sound shocking to us but the people who were there actually listening to Jesus would have thought it boringly ordinary.  Yeah, sure.  Of course a debtor is being sold into slavery.  And water is wet, and the sky is blue.  This is the way the world works.  And it is terrible, but it’s normal.  There are a lot of terrible things in the world that we accept as normal.

In the ancient world, debt was a life-or-death issue, and certainly a life-or-freedom issue.  We don’t have debt slavery today, but money problems can still ruin your life.  A lot of us have been where that debtor has been.  Bankruptcy may be better than a debtor’s prison, and a lot better than slavery, but you still lose everything and have a hard time starting over.  Half of all bankruptcies in the US happen because of a medical problem, and in half of those cases, the person even had medical insurance.  It just wasn’t enough, and didn’t cover things like travelling for care.  And what about the people who are accused of a crime but are too poor to pay bail?  They languish in prison until their trial simply because they are poor, whether or not they are guilty.  Or what about the person who went to school and has lots of student loans, but hasn’t been able to get a job that pays well enough to pay them off, and spends their whole life slaving away to service the debt, with the weight of it dragging them down no matter how hard they work.  If you haven’t been in the position of that debtor, you probably know someone who has.  The shame.  The fear.  The helplessness in the face of life’s disasters.  Begging that someone will have mercy.  Just a little, just enough that the axe doesn’t fall today.  Even if it has to fall sometime, just please let it not be today.  We know what that’s like.

The surprise comes in the next part.  The debtor falls to his knees before his lord and begs for time to repay the debt—no shock there—and the lord listens.  It’s ludicrous.  This debt is far, far too big.  The debtor could work for thousands of years and still not be able to pay it back.  But the lord listens to his pleas.  Not only that, he cancels the whole debtThat’s the shocker.  That’s what would have made Jesus’ original hearers sit up and take notice.  More time to pay back the debt, sure—if a rich person was feeling particularly generous.  But to completely cancel it?  This is not pocket change, here.  This was serious money, even for rich people.  A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand is literally the largest number in the ancient Greek language.  If you had asked someone in Jesus’ day to count larger than ten thousand they could not have done it because the numbers literally did not exist.  This is the largest possible number of the largest possible unit.  There was no way to owe more money than this.  There were kings in Jesus day who didn’t have that much money in their treasuries.  And this lord is just going to … let it go?  Wipe the slate clean?  Not collect it?  How much is that going to cost the lord?  What other things is he going to not be able to do because he lost all that money?  What are people going to think about this?  Are they going to call him soft, weak?  Are other people going to try to cheat him because they think he’ll let them get away with it?  This is baffling.  Strange.  It makes no sense.

Can you imagine how the forgiven man felt?  With the weight of all that load just suddenly … gone?  All the worry that his world was going to come crashing down on him vanished?  It must have felt like winning the lottery, but a lottery that you didn’t even buy a ticket to.  It was that kind of good fortune.  Or like a tornado that comes and picks up the house right next to you and tosses it for miles, leaving you untouched.  Unbelievable.  What do you do with that kind of grace?

Then the guy sees someone who owes him money.  And this is a much smaller sum.  I mean, it’s still big—about four months’ wages—but not ludicrously big.  This is an amount that someone could repay, although probably not all at once.  Set up a payment plan, and it could be done.  But when debt collectors come looking for their money, a lot of the time they aren’t particularly interested in the slow, long repayment.  After all, it’s a chancy thing.  What if the person can’t do it?  What if they run away, leaving their debt behind?  And, you know, you have to make an example of people, otherwise other people will be tempted not to pay their debts, and then where would we be?  The whole system would collapse!  Chaos!  Sure, it would be better for the poor schmucks who owe money, but what about the people who lent it to them in good faith expecting to get their money back?  Don’t they deserve consideration, too?  The system has to be maintained.  And so the first man—the man who was just forgiven a greater debt than he could ever possibly repay—he has the man thrown in jail.  He was given a grace beyond measure, and he isn’t willing to pass it on and pay it forward.  He thinks it’s a one-off gift, not a radical change in the way the system works.

Well, word gets around, and the lord finds out.  And he’s angry, because he did mean it to be a change in the way the system works.  Because the system is bad.  The system grinds people up and spits them out.  The fact that we are used to it doesn’t mean it’s good, and it doesn’t mean that’s the system the lord wants.  If he liked that system, if he wanted it to exist in his lands, he would never have pardoned the first slave in the first place.  So the lord took back his gift, and handed him over until he could pay that horrendous, huge, impossibly large debt.  Which, of course, he’ll never be able to do.  But the problem isn’t the first man’s debt.  The problem is that the first man was so used to the way the system worked that even the gift of the most massive grace anyone could ever receive didn’t make him stop and question it.

The debt in this parable, of course, symbolizes sin.  There are a lot of different metaphors for sin in the Bible: debts, trespasses, and so on.  There are a lot of different types of sin, and some of it is the ordinary everyday type that we don’t even notice, and some of it is the deep and violent and obvious sin that can’t possibly be mistaken.  Sometimes, the metaphors fit very well, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes the hurt done is deeper than money lost and trust betrayed.  Sometimes, especially when violence is done, forgiveness is not something that can—or should—come quickly or easily.  In some cases, being pressured to forgive too quickly or easily can actually cause psychological damage to the victim.  There has to be safety, and healing, and growth, before forgiveness can happen.  And forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting; neither the lord nor the other servants forgot the debt that had been forgiven.

But whatever the type of sin, we need to remember that we ourselves have been forgiven.  We ourselves have done things we shouldn’t, and we have failed to do the things we should, and we have hurt ourselves and others in the process.  And God has forgiven us everything we have done, because God loves us.  Moreover, the whole system of judgment and punishment that we take for granted isn’t God’s final say on the matter of sin and evil.  God hates the evil that we do, the ways we hurt ourselves and others; but God takes no pleasure in the suffering of anyone, even sinners.  And God did not come into the world in the form of Jesus Christ to condemn, but to save.  To remake not just a few sinners, but the entire cosmos.  To take the whole dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers, rich and poor, bullies and victims, hate and fear, and completely remake it.  To break the power of sin and death.  Not appease it, not punish it, wipe it away forever.

Hate will have no place in that new world that God is making.  Neither will old grudges, no matter how well-earned.  Neither will the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that sees the flaws of others, but cannot see its own.  If we are going to fit into that new world—if we are going to be who God created us to be and live the lives God has created us to live—we can’t cling to the ways of the world.  We can’t assume that our norms are God’s norms, or that we have the market cornered on God’s love and grace.  May we always remember to see things through God’s eyes, and forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven.


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.



Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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