The True Meaning of Christian Unity

Easter 7, Year C, June 2, 2019

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

I was an odd kid.  I got on great with adults, but not so much with kids my own age.  I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.  So I never had very many friends, and I was different from most of the kids in my class.  This made me an easy target for bullies, and if I hadn’t had such great loving support from my family and people at church and what friends I did have, my life would have been pretty grim.  The thing is, though, that none of my teachers liked or approved of bullies.  They did not want any of the children in their care to be hurt or afraid anywhere, but especially at school.  They just … weren’t very good at making that happen.  They were very good at keeping things looking like everything was good, but not so good at actually preventing bullying.

They told us to get along, a lot.  But mostly what that meant was that the bullies learned to only strike when the teacher’s attention was elsewhere.  Or they learned to be subtle about it, so they could play the innocent when I complained and say that it was my fault because I couldn’t take a joke, or I was just too sensitive.  They knew they were trying to hurt me, and I knew they were trying to hurt me, but they had enough plausible deniability to get away with it.  When the teachers did do something, they rarely tried to stop the bullying.  They’d try to get me to forgive the ongoing harassment without requiring the bullies to stop harassing me or apologize for what they’d done.  Or they’d try to reinterpret things so that the bullying wasn’t actually bullying, like the time someone wrote an anonymous note that I smelled and the teacher tried to convince me they were saying I smelled good and it was a compliment.  I never asked the teachers why they focused on trying to change me instead of on stopping the bullies, but I bet I know why: it seemed easier.  If I wasn’t complaining, they could assume that everything was okay and we were all getting along fine.  I was the squeaky wheel, so I got the grease, even if the problem wasn’t me but the people who were hurting me.

That’s why I get suspicious when people start talking about unity, and togetherness, and getting along.  Because the easiest way to make people unified is to ignore the people who are getting stepped on or trampled on.  It’s easier to ignore the people being hurt than to challenge and resist the people doing the hurting.  And this happens even in Christian circles.  For example, in the 19th Century, there were calls for Christian unity in America to heal regional divisions between the South and the rest of America.  And what that usually looked like was White northerners embracing White southerners and ignoring the horrific way white southerners were using and abusing black people, first with slavery and then with sharecropping and Jim Crow laws and the KKK.  For White northern Christians, getting along with White southern Christians was more important than Black suffering.

We still see this all the time today, on issues of race and gender and class and sexuality and nationality and religion and disability and every category I can think of.  It is easier to silence the victims than it is to confront and stop the abusers.  Nine times out of ten, that is what we try to do.  It’s easier to put a superficial face of niceness on things and pretend we’re all getting along than it is to address the deep and abiding wounds that so many of us bear.  It is easier to paper over the cracks than to fix the foundations.  So when I hear calls for unity and togetherness, I tend to get suspicious.  Unity on whose terms?  Who’s benefiting, and who’s getting thrown under the bus?  Whose sins are getting ignored or minimized, and whose wounds are getting salt rubbed in them?

Sometimes, of course, the people calling for unity are focused on deeper issues than just trying to make things look nice.  But all too often, those deeper issues are used as an excuse for scuttling the very idea of unity.  And they still don’t care about holding people accountable for their actions.  “We have the perfect interpretation of scripture and Christian tradition,” they claim, “so in order to do anything with anyone else, they have to agree with our every belief, even the smallest ones, because we’re right and they’re wrong.”  They want to look like they’re in favor of the kind of Christian unity Jesus wants, without actually having to do the hard work of bridging the gaps between people, so they focus on every difference they can find and make mountains out of molehills.

The unity that Christ is praying for in our Gospel reading takes work.  It’s hard, and it isn’t based on superficial niceness and togetherness.  Nor is it based on absolute uniformity of doctrine and practice.  The unity Christ is praying for is rawer, and deeper.  It’s not about making things look nice, or even about feeling good about togetherness, it’s about genuine love and putting that love into action.  This reading comes from the end of the Farewell Discourse.  For the last several weeks, we’ve been reading parts of Jesus’ last words to his disciples on the night before he was arrested and executed.  We read these words in Easter because it’s actually a very good guide to what Easter living is supposed to look like.  What life in the light of the cross and resurrection is supposed to look like.  Over and over again, we are told to love.  The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God because they love one another.  They are unified in their love, in the strength of their relationship.  In the same way, God loves us, and we are united with God through that love, which is shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And as we have seen the example of God’s love, so we are supposed to live that love out, and love one another, and be unified in that love.

And this love is not just a surface-level platitude.  No.  It’s something much deeper than that.  This is a love based on knowing people, warts and all, and loving them and still holding them accountable for their actions.  Jesus loved and forgave everyone … but he never swept anybody’s sins under the table or pretended they didn’t matter.  Jesus’ love transformed people, it didn’t pretend they were already perfect.  This is a love based on service and self-sacrifice.  Jesus demonstrated that love on the night before his death by washing his disciples’ feet, and he demonstrated that love again when he sacrificed himself to save the whole world.  And that sacrifice wasn’t designed to cover up the sins of the world.  No; it was designed to expose them so that transformation and new life might be possible.  Jesus’ death and resurrection, that great sacrifice of love, was what made possible the new creation that Revelation talks about.

In that new creation, all are welcome and all are one.  There is unity, but it is based on love and healing, not on sweeping problems under the rug.  All are welcome, and all are called, but you have to admit your sins and let Christ make you clean before you can eat of the fruit of the tree of life and experience its healing.  There is no test to see if you have the correct understanding; nobody is thrown under the bus so that other people can pretend everything is fine.  Instead, there is honesty and cooperation and healing.  Most of all, there is love.  God’s love for God’s own self, and God’s love for all people and all creation, and all peoples’ love of God, and all peoples’ love of each other.

If we are truly living according to God’s love in the here and now, unity will come.  Not easily, and not quickly.  Christ’s unity will come because we are working together to heal the wounded and protect the vulnerable and feed the hungry and free the prisoner and be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.  Christ’s unity will come because we will find that the love of God is stronger than any of the forces that tear us apart.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn how to be honest with one another, repenting our own faults and holding others accountable to do the same.  Christ’s unity will come because we will learn to respect honest and good people even when they are different from us and disagree with us.  And if that unity does not come in this world despite our best efforts, we know that it will come in the next.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Fruit Worthy of Repentance

Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 62:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

 

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.

In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his followers they should recognize the signs so they could tell what was really going on.  Unfortunately, they prove immediately that even when the signs are clear (such as major disasters and acts of evil), they don’t understand the message they’re supposed to.  And I’m not sure if we’re any better than they are.  In fact, I think all too often we make the same mistake they did.

There had been two major tragedies in the area.  In one of them, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later order Jesus crucified to appease the crowd and the religious elite, had sent his soldiers in to the Temple and killed those who had gathered there to worship.  Why, we don’t know; Pilate was a cruel man, and not terribly bright, from what records we have of him; he was prone to violent overreactions.  Then there had also been another great tragedy: a tower had fallen and killed a lot of people.  Not an unusual event in a land with regular earthquakes and relatively poor building materials and techniques.  But still, a tragedy, one that would have been big news.  And the people had looked at these two tragedies, and heard Jesus telling them they should be alert for signs to tell them what sort of age they lived in, and they had concluded that those people had died because of their sins.

Which sort of misses the point, because the thing is, we’re all sinners.  Every single human being ever born, except Jesus Christ, is a sinner who cannot save themselves from their sins, or the consequences of them.  We don’t like to remember that.  We’re fine with noticing the sinfulness of people we don’t like, or don’t care about; but unless we have a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we will do a great deal to avoid noticing our own sinfulness.  As a pastor, one of the most frustrating things is how people with mental illnesses often fixate on their own sins, real or imagined, to such a degree that they cannot accept God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, while most people convince themselves that they’re not sinners—or, at least, not bad sinners, even if they give lip service to acknowledging their sins—and thus don’t think they need much forgiving.  It’s either feast or famine: we either fixate on our sinfulness to the exclusion of all else, or try to ignore it and excuse it.  We rarely have a realistic appraisal that might lead us to change our behavior.

The other thing humans love doing, besides ignoring our own sinfulness, is control things.  We crave control.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own destiny even when it is perfectly obvious that we are not.  We want the world to fit into nice, simple categories with nice, simple reasons for things happening.  Then, all we have to do is figure things out and take the appropriate steps to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us.  Put these two factors together, and you get the common human response to tragedy: figure out why those who suffered or died deserved what happened to them.  Then reassure yourself that since you don’t deserve it, it could never happen to you.  Is someone you know sick?  Well, they didn’t exercise enough or eat the right foods.  But you do, so you won’t get sick.  Did somebody slide on an icy road and crash their car?  Well, they were a bad driver, but you’re a good driver, so you won’t have an accident.  Is someone poor?  Well, they must just be lazy, but you’re not lazy, so you’ll never be poor.  Did someone get raped or assaulted?  Well, they must have led their attacker on, but you‘d never do that, so you’ll never be assaulted.  Did some big tragedy happen?  Well, it must have been a punishment from God because of their sin, but you’re not a sinner, or not as bad a sinner as they were, so it can’t happen to you.  It’s very reassuring.

You can judge the person suffering, and give them all sorts of advice, and never have to grapple with the fact that sometimes bad things just happen and we can’t control it.  Sometimes tornadoes and floods just come.  Sometimes people get sick because of things outside their control.  Sometimes accidents just happen.  These and other tragedies are manifestations of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, but they are not caused by any one person’s actions or inactions.  And even when a tragedy is caused by the sinfulness of one person in particular, all too often, the consequences are not felt by the sinner.  The Galileans that Pilate killed in the temple weren’t killed because they were particularly horrible sinners who deserved death more than any other group of people; they were killed because Pilate was a sinner, a cruel, stupid man, and he decided to have them killed.  They died because of his sins, not their own.

Knowing the time and reading the signs is not about reassuring yourself by blaming the victim for their suffering.  It’s about realizing that the whole world—including your and me!—is broken by sin and death.  It’s about recognizing that the whole world and everything in it—including you and me!—desperately needs to be healed, made new, and reconciled to God.  It’s about knowing that you and me and everyone in the world depend completely on the grace and mercy of God, and trusting that mercy, and letting it overflow in our lives.  It’s about being transformed by Christ, instead of conforming to the ways of this broken, sinful world.  It’s about knowing that we and everyone else deserves the judgment that is coming, and still trusting that God is at work to bring salvation and healing and new life.  In other words, it’s about repentance.

But repentance is another thing we don’t understand.  We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty.  As if the thing God wants most out of us is that we feel bad.  Sometimes our understanding of repentance broadens enough to include trying to atone or make up for specific sins we have done, but all too often it’s just about feeling bad about what we did.  This is why a number of non-Christians of my acquaintance really don’t like Christian talk of sin and repentance.  From what they’ve seen, either it’s shallow and doesn’t lead to real meaningful change, or it leads to depression and anxiety and still doesn’t lead to positive change.

But for Luke, repentance isn’t just about admitting your sin and feeling bad about it.  Repentance is about bearing fruit.  You may have heard sermons in the past that “repentance” literally means “turn,” and that true repentance is turning away from sinful behaviors.  And that’s true.  But the repentance God wants isn’t just any old change, any old turn.  It’s not just about rejecting sin, it’s about turning towards something good.  Towards the beginning of Luke, John the Baptist tells people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  And here, Jesus immediately connects talk of sin and punishment and repentance to the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t produce.  It’s root-bound, in poor soil, and without enough water, and so it does not bear fruit.  And the gardener says, instead of cutting it down, let’s fix the problems and heal it and see if it bears fruit then.  And if it doesn’t bear fruit even after that … then comes the judgment.  Repentance, here, is not about the tree apologizing for not bearing fruit; repentance is the gardener working to get the tree to bear fruit.  The fruits of the Spirit, the fruits God is calling us to bear, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the things that we need.  These are the things the world so desperately needs.  These are the things we are called to produce and bear into the world.

So what are the things we need to do to bear fruit?  What are the ways that our soil needs to be prepared, and the soil of our community?  Where are the places in us or our community that need fertilizer or water, or weeds removed?  May God so garden in our souls that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may we help others bear such fruit also.

Amen.

Good News in Unexpected Places

Advent 3C, 2018, December 16, 2018

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

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

This week as I was reading through the Bible passages assigned for this Sunday, I noticed a common theme running through all of them: the Good News coming in unexpected places, for unexpected people, in unexpected ways.  God’s kingdom is breaking in to the world, and it is different from the world we know, and it is good news, but not always in ways that fit with our views of the world.  There are so many little surprises and so many things that are good news from odd angles that I couldn’t choose just one.

Let’s start with the first reading, from Zephaniah.  Now, Zephaniah was a prophet, but one of the less well-known ones.  Like all the ancient prophets, Zephaniah was concerned with injustice and the way people were abusing one another and turning away from God.  And he gave people searing warnings about the destruction of all the world that would happen on the Day of the Lord, as judgment for all the evil things that people did.  But the last half chapter is different.  Yes, the world deserves destruction because of its evil, because of the way they have hurt one another.  But the destruction is not the last word.  Rejoice, the prophet says, because God forgives, because God is a strong warrior who brings victory.

Now, this is unexpected in two ways.  First, we are called to rejoice in the midst of death and destruction?  We are called to rejoice even knowing there are terrible things in the world?  Destruction isn’t good news … unless you know how bad the thing being destroyed is, and you also know that it’s going to be replaced by something better.  The destruction of your country is not good news unless your country has oppressed you and treated you terribly and the new world that will replace it will treat you with justice and mercy.  And then there’s the message of forgiveness.  Yes, being forgiven brings joy … but only if you’ve done something that needs to be forgiven.  Forgiveness only brings joy if you acknowledge what you did that was wrong.  So, yes, Zephaniah says, rejoice.  Rejoice, all you who have done things you shouldn’t; and rejoice, all you who have been abused by the world.  You will be forgiven and granted a part of the new world.  Something better is coming.  We don’t rejoice in destruction for the sake of destruction but for the sake of the better thing that God will build to replace what cannot stand before him.

The second surprising thing about our reading from Zephaniah is that when God calls Godself a mighty warrior and king, this is not the sort of mighty warrior or king we tend to see in the world.  If we look at the world around us, people who are powerful—mighty warriors, great leaders, the rich and powerful—tend not to be very nice.  They often got where they are by attacking others, or taking advantage of them, or sometimes they abuse their power.  And even if they don’t intentionally hurt or abuse those with less power, they often ignore or don’t even see how their power and might affects those around them.  Where does the elephant in the room sit?  Anywhere it wants, and if that just happens to be on top of a mouse, the elephant may not even notice.  Or decide that it’s the mouse’s fault for being below them.  Power tends to corrupt, and we see that all the time.  If God were a mighty warrior and king like the mighty leaders of our society, that would be bad news for most of us.  But God is different from the powers of this world.

God is a mighty warrior who fights for the poor and disadvantaged.  God will fight against the oppressors and bullies, God will remove the disaster especially from those most hurt by it, God will bring together and heal and serve the disabled, the outcast, the ones who are most likely to be abused.  As I read this I thought about Captain America.  If you’ve ever seen the first Captain America movie, the doctor who is developing the super-soldier serum asks sickly Steve Rogers why he wants to join the army.  “Do you want to kill Nazis?” he asks?  “No,” Steve Rogers replies.  “I don’t like bullies.  I don’t care where they’re from.”  Steve is chosen to be Captain America because he wants to protect those who cannot protect themselves.  He doesn’t do it for power or fame or wealth or revenge or hate or fear or to make America great, but to stand up for those in greatest need and danger.  God’s power as a warrior is similar.  It’s not like that of most powerful people.  God uses God’s power to protect, to heal, to save those who cannot save themselves.  It’s a different sort of power from the world we see all around us.  God’s power and might are not about gaining more power, or about might for its own sake.  God’s power and might are about protecting and healing.  It’s good news for those who have been abused, or oppressed, for those who are alone or hurting or disabled or on the outside of society looking in.  But it’s not good news for the abusers, for the powerful who use their power for their own benefit and hurt people in the process.

Let’s move on to our second reading.  And, again, the theme is joy.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!  The surprising thing here is that Paul is in prison when he wrote these words.  And he was writing to a congregation that was beset by enemies trying to destroy it.  Prison is not a joyful place; it is designed to be as degrading and as punitive as possible.  And having enemies attack you is not something that generally brings happiness or good cheer.  These things are not recipes for happiness.  And yet, Paul says, rejoice!  Put your trust in God, and thank God for all the good things that are happening even in the midst of the bad.  No matter how bad things may get, we know that God is with us, and we know that God will continue to work in us and around us until the day when Christ comes again and all the living and the dead will be judged and all things and all people will be made new.  No matter how bad things get, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  And as long as we cling to that love, there will be times of joy.

And then there’s our Gospel reading.  John the Baptist is calling all people to repentance with a hell-fire and brimstone message condemning sin.  “You brood of vipers!” he calls those who have come to hear his message, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Like Zephaniah, John the Baptist believed there would be a day of wrath, a day of judgment, a time when all people and nations would have to account for the evil that they had done.  The surprising thing is that his listeners heard him call them snakes headed for destruction, and considered it good news.  Now, judgment might not sound like good news, but there are three kinds of good news in John the Baptist’s message.  First, for anyone who has ever experienced injustice or been sickened by the evil in the world, the good news is that injustice and evil will not last forever.  The second bit of good news, for those who have done things worthy of condemnation (which is pretty much everyone), is that while the day of the Lord is surely coming, repentance is possible.  We can choose to repent.  We can choose to turn our hearts and minds away from the ways of the world and toward God.  And the third piece of John’s good news is that those concrete acts of repentance are actually things we can do.  Be generous.  If you see someone who needs help and you can help them, do so.  Treat people fairly and with justice.  Don’t hurt, abuse, cheat, or oppress people.  These are things that you and I can do.

In the sure and certain knowledge that Christ is helping us, and that what we have received, we are also called to pass on.  As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both at Christmastime and when he comes again in glory, may we turn our hearts and lives so that we live according to the will of God, and not the will of society.

Amen

Easter 3, Year B, April 15, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.

Amen.

What Forgiveness Looks Like

Lent Wednesday Worship 2017

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.