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.

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On Unclean Spirits

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 28, 2018

Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Psalm 111, 1 Corinthians 8:1, Mark 1:21-28

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.

So, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen a real exorcism.  Not one in the movies or other fictional story, a real, live exorcism.  Nobody here has seen one.  Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever seen someone who was possessed by a demon or unclean spirit.  And, again, nobody including me has seen someone who was possessed by a demon.  I mean, I’ve seen TV shows about demons and such, Supernatural and Sleepy Hollow and such, but I’ve never seen one in real life.  And most real-life cases I know of where someone has thought that they or someone else was possessed by a demon, the real cause turns out to be mental illness, or something like that, instead.  No exorcisms necessary, just a good therapist, the appropriate medication, and understanding and support from family and friends.  That’s why a lot of people today look at many of the exorcisms that Jesus performs and assume that what really happened was that the person was mentally ill, and Jesus healed them.  Still a miracle far beyond anything modern medicine can even dream about, but not an exorcism.

There’s two problems with that.  The first is that it’s not taking the witness of the Bible seriously—nor the witness of our ancestors in the faith, nor the witness of our Christian brothers and sisters of other cultures, who often tell of encountering demons.  And, I mean, we believe in spirits.  It’s one of the core parts of our faith that we confess every Sunday: we believe in the Holy Spirit of God, one person of the trinity.  That is absolutely not up for debate.  And if there’s a Holy Spirit, it’s not a big leap from that to wondering if there might be other spirits, too.  Un-holy ones.  Or, as the spirit in today’s lesson is called, “unclean” ones.  Ones that don’t come from God, and don’t lead us closer to God, but rather lead us away.

Consider the liturgy we use in baptism.  It’s ancient.  Christians have been using that same liturgy since the very beginning of Christianity.  Every generation puts their own spin on it, modifying it to fit their times, but the core of it is the same.  Which is why so many churches from different traditions have baptismal rites that sound very similar, even if nothing in the rest of the worship service does.  And part of that liturgy is to renounce all the evil spirits.  “Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?”  If the baptized is old enough to speak for themselves, they say it.  If they’re too young, their parents say it for them, and when they are confirmed, they will renounce other spirits as part of the Confirmation rite.  There would be no need to pointedly renounce evil spirits if they weren’t floating around.  We may not talk about unclean spirits much, but that doesn’t mean we ignore the possibility they’re out there.

There’s a Christian spiritual practice called Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” where you pick a Bible passage and meditate on it.  But before you start meditating, you pray.  And one of my professors in seminary was very adamant that you had to specify, in that prayer, that you were asking for the guidance of the Holy Spirit and for God to protect you from other spirits, because you don’t want to be opening yourself to just any old spirit that might be wandering by.  You want to open to the Holy Spirit.  Given all of these aspects of Christian worship and devotion that deal with spirits other than the Holy Spirit, I don’t want to assume that any “unclean spirit” or “demon” in the Bible is merely a mental illness described by people who don’t know what it is.  I mean, it may be, but we don’t know.

The other problem with assuming that all Biblical exorcisms are actually healings of mental illness is that this guy is very different from the other people possessed by spirits in the Bible.  See, I don’t think anybody knew he had an unclean spirit until Jesus cast it out of him.  This guy seems like a normal guy.  He’s going about his ordinary life just like everyone else in the village, and unclean spirit or not he’s in the synagogue, the place of worship.  He’s a member of the congregation.  Other people with “unclean spirits”—the ones who are visibly different, the ones who act like they have schizophrenia or other mental illness—they’re excluded, shoved out of the community, ignored, pushed aside.  This guy isn’t.  So his friends and family probably think he’s fine.  They probably think he’s normal, ordinary.  He’s got an unclean spirit so fully in control of him that it can speak through his mouth, and there he is, in the middle of the congregation, and not one person has noticed.  Except Jesus.

I wonder what else the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.  I mean, it can’t have been outright blasphemy; these people know the Scriptures, they know the traditional interpretations, if this guy tried outright heresy they would have noticed.  But there have always been people who twisted Scripture to fit their own desires.  For example, the Bible repeatedly tells us that God is love, that the deepest core of God’s character is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  From the beginning of Genesis right on through to the last page of Scripture, we are told that God’s deepest concern is for the kind of justice where even the weakest person, even the outcast, receives good treatment, and the kind of mercy that works to reconcile people with God and with one another.  But people have always taken pieces of Scripture out of that context and used them to rationalize unjust and unmerciful treatment, too harsh on the people they don’t like and too lenient of themselves.  Maybe that’s the sort of thing the unclean spirit was saying with that man’s voice.

Or maybe I’m overthinking it.  Maybe the unclean spirit didn’t say anything spiritual at all.  Maybe it just sort of was there, stirring the pot.  You know the type.  The ones who add to the drama of any situation so that it’s harder to find a good solution because everyone’s so upset they can’t think straight.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the type to whisper poison in peoples’ ears, the sort of comment that sound innocuous on the surface but always has an edge that hurts.  Someone like that can do a lot of damage, cutting people down and making them suspicious of one another.  Or maybe the unclean spirit was the self-righteous type, filling the man full of the conviction that he was always right and therefore anyone who disagreed was wrong and the enemy, so he could treat them accordingly.  If you think about it, there are a lot of ways an unclean spirit could have done serious damage not just to the person it possessed but to the whole community, if it managed to go undetected as this one evidently had.

I wonder what the man who was possessed thought.  I wonder if he felt like a prisoner in his own body, helpless to stop the spirit from acting.  But even more, I wonder if he even knew.  If he just listened to the voice of that unclean spirit influence him and thought, “that sounds like a pretty good idea I just had.”  And that may be the scariest thing of all.

Thank God Jesus was there to free him and cast out the unclean spirit.  But it raises the question: what about unclean spirits here, now, today?  I mean, Jesus isn’t walking around physically in the flesh any more.  He’s not just going to walk I into one of our churches and command an unclean spirit to leave.  And yet, we are not alone.  We don’t face spirits or demons—whether actual entities or mental illness—alone, for God is with us.  In our baptisms, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, and that is the deepest reality of our lives.  Even if other spirits trouble us, they cannot stand forever against the power of our Lord and Savior.  We renounce the powers of the devil and of all unclean spirits, and we are right to do so, because they can do a lot of damage.  But it is the power of the Holy Spirit that gives that renunciation a force greater than we could ever manage on our own.  I don’t know what other sorts of spirits are out there, nor how often we might encounter them.  But I know this, for certain and sure: the Holy Spirit is greater than they could ever hope to imagine, and the Holy Spirit is active in us and among us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

What We Do With God’s Blessings

Harvest Fest, October 15, 2017

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 65, 2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Matthew 22:1-14

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

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

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

 

Our first reading comes from Deuteronomy, and it takes place just before the Hebrew people crossed the Jordan River to settle into the land that God had promised their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah.  Let’s review, a little bit.  God had called Abraham and Sarah out of their home country, promising them that he would give to their descendants a good land for their very own.  Abraham and Sarah lived in that land, but as foreigners, resident aliens.  Their great-grandchildren went as refugees to Egypt, fleeing a bitter famine, and after a time the Egyptians enslaved them.  Generations later, God freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them through the wilderness back to the land that he had promised their ancestors.

And now, in the reading from Deuteronomy, there they are, standing just outside it.  And God is giving them a whole bunch of instructions for what kind of life they’re supposed to live once they have this land.  How should they act?  What should they do?  When they are no longer slaves, but free people, safe in their own land?  And one of the things they must do every year is gather the first fruits of the harvest.  The first, and the best, and take it to the Temple and give it to God.  This passage doesn’t give the amount, but in other places it’s specified that it is supposed to be a tithe: ten percent of the harvest.  You take that tithe to the priest, and you remember your heritage.  You remember how God called your ancestors and promised them a good land, how God promised he would always be with your people.  You remember how God was with your people in good times and bad, even when they were enslaved in Egypt.  God was always with them, guiding them, protecting them, and working for their good.  And God freed them from slavery and brought them to this new land.  Everything that they have and everything that they are is a gift from God.  The fact that they are free is a gift from God.  The land is a gift from God.  The rain and the sun is a gift from God.  The physical ability to work is a gift from God.  The growth of their crops is a gift from God.  And they are to remember that by taking the first and the best of it to the Temple.

What does the Temple do with it, you may ask?  10% of every farmer’s crops.  That’s a lot.  First and most obvious, they use it to pay their priests and scribes and take care of the temple itself.  But they also used a chunk of it to throw a big party, for everyone in the community.  Not just the nice, religious, prosperous people.  Everyone, rich and poor alike.  The scum of the community as well as the pillars of the community.  The people who’ve been there all their lives as well as the strangers nobody knows and everyone thinks are weird.  Everyone in the region.  All are welcome and invited.  No exceptions.  They would come, give thanks to God for the harvest, and then have a feast.  Good food, good friends, good time for all.  And the rest of the tithe—the bulk of it, actually—was used charitably.  The temple used it to feed the hungry, buy clothes for the naked, take care of the sick and the orphan, and in general to help anyone who needed help.

These are actually some of the most common themes in the Old Testament.  We owe everything to God, blessings are meant to be shared, God’s presence is like a feast or a party, and when we see someone in need we are supposed to be generous and make sure that their needs are taken care of.  That last bit is crucial.  When someone is in need, it is our responsibility to make sure that need is taken care of.  If we are truly followers of God, if we are truly taking God’s commands seriously, there should never be anyone hungry among us, because we should take care of them as individuals and as a community.

With that in mind, what are we here to do today?  Well, we’re here to give thanks to God for the harvest.  It’s a Harvest Fest!  And we’re here to have a good time, to enjoy the music and eat a lot of good food.  And we’re here to raise money for the poor.  The world is incredibly different now than it was thousands of years ago when Moses and the Hebrew people stood outside the Promised Land and heard these words for the first time, but these core values remain: we praise God for the blessings God gives us, especially the harvest.  We rejoice in God’s presence and in the community, and have fun together.  And we raise money for those in need.

I have a challenge for you, though.  Consider the tithe.  That’s still, to this day, supposed to be the minimum that faithful people give.  Ten percent of everything that we earn, both to remind us that everything we earn or have is a gift from God, but also to fund ministry needs and help take care of those less fortunate than us.  Go home this afternoon and count up how much money you give to charity and to your church in a typical month.  Then compare it with your monthly take-home pay.  I bet that most of you will find that it is nowhere near ten percent.  For those of you who aren’t good at math, ten percent of 1,000 is 100.  So if you take home $1,000 a month from your work, ideally you would be giving $100 a month to your church and to the charities you support.  If you take home $2,000 a month, ideally it would be $200.  Now, we don’t live in an ideal world, and that’s not always possible.  But if you’re not giving a full tithe, consider increasing your giving just a little bit.  One percent, maybe, or even half a percent.  There are so many good causes that need help right now.  The McLean Family Resource Center, for one, or Camp of the Cross, which we are supporting with today’s offering.  But there’s also your home church, or the Harbor Angels in Coleharbor which raise money for local people with high medical bills.  There’s the Community Cupboard of Underwood and other local food pantries that feed hungry people here in North Dakota, and the Great Plains Food Bank that is the backbone of hunger relief in North Dakota.  There are relief efforts for Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, the US Virgin Islands, and other places hit by the horrifying hurricanes of the last few months.  There are relief efforts for the earthquakes in Mexico and the fires in California.  I have to put in a plug for Lutheran World Relief and Lutheran Disaster Response, which are both excellent charities.  We tend to be the first to arrive at a disaster, and we’re some of the last to leave.

We have been given so many blessings by God.  It’s true that this wasn’t a perfect year.  Bad thing happened this year, both locally and nationally and internationally.  People got sick, people died, there were natural disasters, and the weather round here wasn’t very good for farmers.  But still, in the midst of all that, babies were born.  People healed from injuries and illnesses both physical and mental.  People came together to help and support one another.  People loved one another.  People chose to help when it would have been easier to do nothing.  And in each of those blessings, God has been present.

It’s not always easy to see that.  We ask God why he doesn’t send rain when we want it, but we don’t thank God when the rain comes.  We ask God where he was when hurricanes and earthquakes hit, but we don’t see his presence in all the people who help rescue others and work to rebuild afterwards.  We ask God where he was when a hate-filled man spews bullets at a crowd, but we don’t see God’s presence in all the people who tried to influence that man onto a different path throughout his life.  And where was God, as that man was shooting?  God was with people like Jonathan Smith, who saved thirty people before he himself was shot, and God was with all the people who performed first aid or covered other people with their own bodies.  We ask God where he is when people get sick, and don’t thank God enough when people heal.  We live in a world that focuses on horror and fear instead of on hope and love.  We live in a world that focuses on the negative and ignores the positive.  We live in a world that cannot see blessings when they come in the midst of pain.

But every breath we take is a gift from God, who made us.  Every smile we share with a friend is a gift from God, who gave us the capacity to love and be loved in return.  Every crop we grow, every job we get, is a gift from God, who made heaven and earth and all that is in it, seen and unseen.  We have a lot of blessings that we take for granted, and we should celebrate both them and the God who gave them to us.  But more than that, we need to remember that when God gives blessings, he doesn’t give them so we can hoard them for ourselves.  God gives blessings to be shared, with all the world.  As we thank God this day and always, may we share generously the blessings God gives.

Amen.

A Labor Day sermon on power, kingdoms, and crosses

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 22, September 3, 2017

Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

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 Jesus taught his disciples to pray, one of the things he taught them to pray for was that God’s kingdom might come to earth, and that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Christians around the world pray that prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, regularly. At least once a week on Sunday, and a lot of people pray it at least once a day.  I do; maybe some of you do, as well.  But here’s the question I have, each and every time I read a Bible passage about God’s kingdom, or discipleship, or what it means to follow Jesus: do we really mean it?  Do we really want to be disciples?  Do we really want God’s kingdom to come, and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven?  Or are we like Peter, who, when he heard the cost, said “God forbid it, Lord!”  Because there is a cost.  And that cost is the cross.

It is important to remember that this life, this world, is NOT God’s kingdom yet.  God’s will is NOT done here on earth the way it is in heaven … yet.  When you’ve got a comfortable life, it can be easy to forget that.  When you’ve got a nice house, a nice job, a nice family, a nice life, when you and the people you love are generally safe, it’s really easy to look around at the world and go, “yes, heaven must be pretty much like this—there are a few improvements that could be made, here and there, and oh, won’t it be nice when I can see my dead grandparents again, but on the whole, things are great.”  It’s easy to get contented with the world as it is, instead of yearning for and working for God’s kingdom to come.

Even when our lives aren’t that great, when things go wrong one after the other, when no matter how hard we work, things just go wrong, it’s easy to get in a rut.  To tell ourselves, “yeah, there’s a lot of problems with the world, but things could be worse, and anyway I’m too busy and there’s nothing I can do about it right now.”  Particularly when we realize how much it can hurt to try to change things—when we see whistleblowers go to jail or lose friends and jobs for trying to do the right thing, when we see good people standing up for what’s right and getting attacked verbally and physically, when we see all the ways the world and our society work to break those who try to make a difference for the better, it’s easy to say, “you know, the world is what it is, and things could be worse, and trying to make a difference is awfully hard.”  And so we just kind of accept things as they are, or see the problems but don’t actually do anything about them because we know how hard it is going to be.

Even Jesus was tempted not to act for God’s kingdom.  Three times, he was temped.  The devil came to him just after his baptism, offering him the world on a plate if he would just follow Satan instead of God.  It would have been a heck of a lot easier to change things than dying on a cross.  Then, here, Peter hears what’s coming, the suffering and death, and tries to convince Jesus not to go down that road.  And Jesus says, “Get behind me, tempter!”  That’s what “satan” means, by the way, “tempter.”  If Jesus wasn’t tempted, if it didn’t look really good to just … not go down that road God set before him, he wouldn’t have had any reason to get upset here.  But he does.  Then, again, the night before his crucifixion, Jesus prays to God to ask him for some other way.  Any other way.  Even right up to the night before his death, Jesus felt that temptation to take the easy path.  To walk away.  Jesus knows how hard it’s going to be, he knows it’s going to be worth it in the end, and if there were an easier way to bring God’s kingdom here to earth he would have taken it in a heartbeat.  Even knowing there is no other way, Jesus is tempted to turn aside.  Because God’s kingdom is a wonderful, awesome, perfect, holy place … and the only way to transform the world into a place that God’s kingdom can come to involves a lot of pain, a lot of sacrifice.

The problem is power.  Who gets it, and who doesn’t.  See, a lot of human beings love power, and wealth.  We are always trying to tip the world in our own favor … even if that means cheating someone else.  And once we’ve rigged the rules in our own favor, we don’t even see that we’ve done it.  They’ve done this experiment where they have people play board games, and one player in each game will be randomly assigned to have different rules that only apply to them which make it easier to win.  Nine times out of ten, by the end of the game, those randomly selected people will be explaining why it is good and fair and right that they get those special rules, and how their win was because of their skill and hard work and not the special rules, and why anyone who says otherwise is just a bad loser.  And if you then take away that special rule favoring them, they’ll be absolutely sure that they have been cheated out of something they deserve, even when all that’s happened is that the playing field is now level.  In real life, thousands of studies show that even today, black people in America get treated far worse than white people, on average.  Yet there are a lot of white people who will point to any black person who manages to succeed anyway and say that they are proof that it’s black people who have the advantage.  It’s the same with money.  The more of it you have, the easier it is to get more … and the less likely you are to see how much of your success came from the fact that you had more to start with.

We take things that are fair and try to tilt them in our favor.  Take Labor Day.  It used to be that poor people worked sunup to sundown every day but Sunday—and a lot of them worked Sundays, too, with only enough time off to go to church.  In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the labor movement set up a day where everything would be closed so that the poorest Americans could relax and spend a day with their families.  Yet today, a lot of stores and hotels and places are open on Labor Day, so that people can go on vacation.  And who does most of the work on labor day?  The janitors, hotel maids, and retail workers, the poorest laborers in America.  The day that was set aside so that even they could take time off is now a day they almost always have to work, so that other people who are more likely to get vacations can enjoy another one.  Our world is deeply unfair.  Even here in America, where we work hard for freedom and equality, race and class and money rig the world so that some people have more resources and opportunity than other people will ever have.

And this has consequences.  Who gets stuck in an abusive relationship because they don’t have the money to escape?  Who goes to jail because they can’t afford bail, and who gets off with a slap on the wrist?  Who dies from a preventable disease because they can’t afford to go to the doctor, and who tries to make sure their taxes get lowered even if it means others die from lack of health care?  Who gets hated because of their race, class, religion, or sexuality, and who uses that hate to get elected?  These are all human things.  The desire for power, the desire for wealth, the desire for popularity, the desire to be the king of the hill.  The desire to gain the world.  These are all human things, not divine things.

God sees the world very differently.  God loves each and every one of us, of every class and tribe and race and religion and gender and sexuality.  No matter what we do, no matter how we hurt ourselves and one another, God loves us.  But God also sees through all of our self-justifications.  We may hurt or marginalize others for the sake of our own gain and convince ourselves that we are right to do so, but God sees the truth.  We may harden our hearts to the pain and suffering of others, but God does not.  And in God’s kingdom, the only one who has power and glory and might is the one person guaranteed never to misuse that power: God himself.  In God’s kingdom, there is no one who is rich at another’s expense, and there is no one who is poor.  In God’s kingdom, the rules never favor one person over another, one class over another, one race over another, one gender over another.  In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever exploited or abused.  In God’s kingdom, nobody is ever hurt.

God’s kingdom is a wonderful place.  But if God’s kingdom is going to come here, as Jesus taught us to pray that it will, the first thing that has to happen is that we have to put power where it belongs: with God.  Not with governments, or Wall Street, or corporations, or groups of people, or even with churches.  With God.  For God’s kingdom to come, people are going to have to stand up wherever we see power being abused, wherever we see the playing field being tilted, wherever injustice or hate or fear or pain creep in, and say something about it.

This is why a lot of people didn’t like Jesus.  He was a threat to the established religious order of things, but he was also a threat to the established social order of things, a threat to the established economic and political orders, too.  Jesus welcomed everyone and ate with everyone and healed everyone and taught everyone—but he also pointed out every bit of hypocrisy and injustice he saw, especially in those with power.  That made him a threat, and they killed him for it.  And people haven’t gotten any fonder of that sort of thing now than they were in Jesus’ day.

That’s part of what following Jesus means.  It’s part of what taking up your cross means.  It means doing the things that aren’t fun or easy, the things that may get you into trouble, if that is what God calls you to do.  It means pointing out the injustices in the world, the places where power and greed have warped things.  May we pick up our crosses, and follow God’s call wherever it leads.

Amen.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 21, August 27, 2017

Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

 

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.

Paul talked about spiritual gifts a lot.  Three times in three different letters, including our second reading from Romans, he talks about the gifts of the Spirit, and how each person in the community of faith has different gifts, and all are needed.  And each place he lists off the gifts of the Spirit, it’s different.  No two lists are the same.  This is because the Spirit gives lots of different gifts to lots of different people, depending on who they are and what the needs around them are.  There is no way that anybody could ever put together a list with EVERY gift the Spirit gives, because the Spirit gives a lot of gifts.  And if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “oh, that must be wonderful to have a spiritual gift, but I don’t have any, I’m too ordinary,” or “too boring,” or “too sinful,” I have news for you.  God has given you spiritual gifts.  You may not recognize them; you may not be aware of them; you may not be using them.  But you have been given a spiritual gift just the same.

I think this is the reason Paul starts this section by talking about being transformed by God, instead of conforming to the world.  Because the world tells an awful lot of lies about gifts of every kind, but especially about spiritual gifts.  The world tries to tell us things that aren’t true about God, about ourselves, and about each other.  And if we believe these lies, we can’t possibly know what God is doing in us and in the world around us, because we can’t see anything or anyone clearly.  In order to know what is good and right, in order to know who we are and who God is, we have to let God transform us from who the world wants us to be, to who we were created to be.

The first lie the world tells us is about money.  And the lie is, that money determines how important or good something is.  Think about it: we judge things—even moral things!—by their worth.  We talk about our “values”—that’s an economic term.  Now, there’s a lot of problems with letting money determine how important or good things are, but when it comes to spiritual gifts it’s a huge problem because it tells us that gifts are only important if we can profit off of them.  Have you ever noticed that?  Gifts that you can make money off are valued; gifts that you can’t exploit for profit aren’t.  We spend a lot of time these days helping young people figure out what their gifts are, but not for spiritual purposes, for career planning.  So we know all about how to build a career off of peoples’ gifts, but not much about identifying spiritual gifts for use as Christians.  And if you have a gift and choose to use it in ways other than making money, people shake their heads.  For example, I enjoy writing.  I do it as a hobby.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me that if I’m not trying to get published—if I’m just doing it for my own enjoyment and my friends’ enjoyment—that I’m wasting my time and talents.

But a lot of the gifts God gives can’t be monetized.  They can’t be profited from.  And those are some of the most necessary gifts of all.  You’ll notice that compassion is one of the gifts that Paul names in our passage.  So is generosity.  You can’t make money off of either of those, but think how terrible the world would be if there was no compassion, no generosity.  It would be a pretty dark, grim place.  These are only two of the gift that are absolutely vital to both the Christian community and the world in general, that no one can put a price on or profit from.  If you’re only looking for things that society values, things that will help make money or build a career, chances are, you’re not going to see the gifts that God has given you.

The second lie that the world tells us is that gifts are extraordinary, and that only some people get them.  That most people are boring and normal, and if you don’t have the kind of special talent that makes someone sit up and take notice, you have nothing to offer.  The world divides people into winners and losers, the beautiful few who have what it takes and make it to extraordinary heights, and the ordinary schmucks who just don’t make the grade.  Some people succeed, and others are failures.  Some people matter, and some don’t, and you want to be one of the ones who matter, don’t you?  So work hard, and maybe you’ll be one of the winners instead of one of the losers.  And if you don’t have what it takes to be one of the winners, well, then you just don’t matter.

But that is a lie, because everyone matters, to God.  God does not see winners and losers, important people and schmucks.  God does not care whether anybody wins or loses, whether anybody succeeds or fails.  God loves each and every one of us.  God cares for each and every one of us.  And God gives gifts to everybody, including the people the world labels as failures or losers or just too ordinary to pay much attention to.  And so a lot of God’s gifts get overlooked because they’re too ordinary.  And yet, all of those ordinary things: building lives, and homes, and taking care of people, and seeing that the necessary work gets done, sometimes that too is a spiritual gift, just making sure that the people who need to get taken care of get taken care of.  Seeing that when work needs to be done there are people to pitch in to do it.  That, too, is a gift from God to make the world a better place.

And the third lie the world tells is that gifts should be used for the individual.  If one person has a gift, it should be used for their own betterment.  It’s all about individual growth, individual prosperity.  But if you’ll notice the gifts Paul lists, none of them can be used for just one person.  Teaching, ministering, generosity, leading, giving, being compassionate—these are all gifts that require relationships.  You can’t teach if there’s no one to learn.  You can’t lead if there’s no one to follow.  You can’t minister if there’s no one to minister to.  These are all gifts that require relationships.  And Paul talks about these gifts in at the same time as he uses the metaphor of the body to describe the Christian community.  When God gives us anything—spiritual gifts, wealth, health, anything—he doesn’t give it to us to hoard.  God gives us gifts to share, to spread around, so that all people may experience God’s blessings in many and various ways.

We all have gifts from God.  Some of them are obvious, and some are not.  Some are valued by the world, and some are not.  Teaching is a gift—and not just one given to professional educators, either.  Being generous is a gift.  Being compassionate is a gift.  Encouraging people is a gift.  Persistence is a gift—just being able to put one foot in front of the other, doing the job God puts in front of us, that’s incredibly important.  A willingness to help others is a gift.  The ability to build relationships and communities is a gift.  But as long as we’re listening to the world’s lies, and seeing with the world’s eyes, we won’t see God’s gifts for what they are.  We’ll ignore them, or devalue them, or just plain not see them.  And our world will be a darker and a colder place because of it.  God gives gifts to each one of us.  Every single one of us has gifts from God.  The trick is learning how to see them, to use them, for the good of all God’s people.  And to do that, we have to listen to God, and not the world.  May we be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can see God’s gifts for what they truly are, and put them to use as God calls us to do, for the building up of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

Baptism and Discipleship

Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

Genesis 1:1—2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

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.

Every year at the end of Confirmation, we play Confirmation Jeopardy.  One of the questions is a trick question: why do we baptize?  And the kids usually come up with some really good and true answers.  We baptize because it saves us!  We baptize because it connects us to Jesus!  We baptize because it washes us free from sin!  And all of these are correct.  But they’re not the simplest answer, the answer I’m looking for, which is that we baptize because Jesus commands us to.  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism is a sacrament, a holy rite which washes us clean of our sins and connects us to the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death.  Just as Christ died, so we too will one day die—and just as Christ rose from the grave, so we, too, will rise from the grave when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.  We are born children of a fallen, sinful human race.  In baptism, the old, sinful self is drowned and we are reborn as children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom and heirs of God’s promise.  In baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we are made part of the body of Christ in the world, which is the community of all believers.  Baptism does many things, and it is an extremely important part of the life of a Christian.  It only happens once, but it changes who we are and who we belong to on a fundamental level.  And we don’t do it because we think it’s nice, we do it because Jesus commands us to do it.

But notice that baptism isn’t alone.  It’s not the sum total of Jesus’ command.  It is sandwiched in the middle of other stuff.  Jesus does not just say “Baptize your children and anybody who wants to join your church.”  Jesus’ command has three parts.  The first is this: go and make disciples of all nations.  In other words, baptism is intimately connected with discipleship.  Baptism depends on discipleship.  So what is discipleship?  We talk about it a lot, but don’t always stop to define it.  Discipleship comes from the same root word as “discipline.”  A disciple is someone who is disciplined about their faith.  Someone who puts it into action and practices it regularly.  It’s not just an accident, and it’s not an afterthought.  Faith is an action, a verb, something a disciple does.  They work at it, through prayer and study and worship and trusting God even when they have doubts and letting the love of God guide their actions and their words.  That’s what a disciple does.

And that’s why Jesus connects baptism and discipleship.  Baptism makes us children of God and unites us with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship is living that out.  Discipleship is when we don’t just say we love Jesus, we actually put that love into action.  Baptism matters, but if we aren’t willing to follow that up and live like we mean it, how important is it?  It’s kind of like me being a fan of the Seattle Mariners.  Yes, if I’m going to watch baseball, they’re my team.  But I haven’t watched a game of theirs in years, and I don’t even know who’s on the team now, or how they’re doing.  So, while I am still a fan, I’m not much of one.  There’s no inspection or test to see if I’m worthy of being called a fan, there’s no chance that I’d be kicked out of a game for not being enthusiastic enough, but if I were really a fan, well, I’d have figured out a way to follow my team even though I’m half a continent away.  In the same way, you only need to be baptized once and even if you fall away from the faith, that baptism never loses its power … but at the same time, it’s not quite as meaningful if you don’t live a life of discipleship.

So, then, how do we make disciples?  Most crucially today, how do we as a community raise this child baptized here today and all children baptized here so that the promises of their baptism will be completed in their discipleship?  Faith isn’t something you learn in a classroom, it’s something you experience.  Faith isn’t taught, it’s caught.  And to catch it, it really helps to be around people who live out their faith in discipleship.  Who pray regularly, who worship regularly, who study their Bibles, who listen and watch for God in everything that they do, and who put that faith into action.  We become disciples through contact with other disciples.  We learn faith by doing, by acting it out.  We learn faith by choosing to love and trust God and let that love and trust guide our actions … and we learn faith by seeing how other people love and trust God.

The parents are the most important in this.  Children absorb faith from their parents, whether that faith is strong or weak.  When parents are disciples, children usually become disciples, too.  If children pray with their parents, if they read Bible stories with their parents, if they talk about how their faith impacts their daily life with their parents, chances are they will continue on in the faith to the rest of their lives.  But parents are not the only role models children have.  Their grandparents, godparents, Sunday School teachers, and others in the community also guide and shape their faith and help them grow.  The most important thing about Sunday School, for example, is not the curriculum or the funny videos.  The most important way Sunday School shapes a child’s faith is how it connects them to faithful role models in the congregation.

And discipleship is not just for the few, the chosen, the ones who are like us.  We are not sent to make disciples only among our own children, but among the whole world.  And the same methods that work for raising children in the faith work for making disciples out in the world, too.  When people we know, people we have a relationship with, see us living and acting out our faith, when they see it make a difference in our lives, they are drawn to the Gospel and are more likely to become disciples themselves.  If you look at places where Christianity is spreading rapidly—in Africa and Asia—it’s because they are serious about discipleship, both among those who are already Christian and among those who are coming to the faith.  They live their faith, and allow God to make a difference in their lives, and all who see them are drawn to them.  They don’t just say they love God and their neighbor, they put that love into action.  And when their neighbors experience that love, they want to become a part of it, too.

The first part of the command is to make disciples, which means we have to be disciples.  The second part of the command is to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And the third part is to remember that Jesus is always with us, no matter what.  You see, the heart of the Christian life is about relationship, because God is about relationship.  God comes to us in three ways—as our creator and father, as the Son our savior, and as the Spirit that inspires and moves us.  When it says in 1 John 4 that God is love, that’s what it means.  The very heart of God is a relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit, and God’s work in the world is reaching out to extend that loving relationship to us.  We are never alone because once we become children of God in baptism, that bond of relationship will never break.  God loves us no matter what.  Discipleship isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about loving God and experiencing the love God has for us, and letting that love flow out through us to the world.

When we let God work in us and through us, God’s reconciling love fills us and spreads out into the world, breaking down barriers, lifting up those who are poor and brokenhearted, healing all who need it.  The living water of God, in which we are baptized, rises up in us and flows out for all the world.  When we are united with Christ in baptism, when we follow the Spirit in discipleship, the love of God is always with us, and we are called to spread that love to all the world.

That’s why we baptize.  That’s why discipleship is important.  Because the God who created us, who gave his life to save us, who comes to us and inspires us and nourishes our souls, loves us, and loves all the world.  We want to be a part of that great love, and share it with all: our children, our community, our world.

Amen.

Preparing the way

Second Sunday after Advent, December 6th, 2015

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 1:8-25

 

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.

The Second Sunday of Advent is traditionally about John the Baptist, the guy who was the voice calling out in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord!” John the Baptist was the guy who got people all fired up about God and repentance so that when Jesus started his ministry, people were ready to listen. But as I was thinking about John the Baptist this week, about preparing the way for God, I started to ask myself, “so who prepared the way for John? Who helped make him who he was, who helped get him started on his journey of faith so that he might lead others to God?”

As it happens, Luke tells us a little bit about John’s heritage. His parents were fairly ordinary Jews from a priestly family; his father was a priest named Zechariah, and his mother’s name was Elizabeth. And Zechariah and Elizabeth were old, and they had no children—which in those days, meant there was something seriously wrong. They believed that children were the way God showed his favor—if you didn’t have children, God must be punishing you. And they always assumed it was the woman’s fault, that she must have something wrong with her. Not just physically wrong, but morally wrong. So there Zechariah and Elizabeth were, old and childless.

And then it was Zechariah’s turn to serve at the Temple and enter the holy of holies, the inner sanctuary that only priests could enter and then only on certain days, while the congregation waited outside. And at that time, the angel Gabriel came to Zechariah and told him not to be afraid, that God had heard their prayers, and that he and Elizabeth were going to have a child. And Zechariah didn’t believe him.

Can you blame him? I mean, they were past the point when you normally have kids. And sure, there were times in the Bible when God gave children to an infertile couple—even an elderly infertile couple, most notably Sarah and Abraham—but it still doesn’t happen every day. If an angel appeared to you at the age of sixty and said you were going to have a child, would you leap to believe that right away? I wouldn’t! Twice in three thousand years isn’t much of a precedent. I’d be more likely to wonder if I’d fallen and hit my head and was hallucinating, or something. So I don’t blame Zechariah for being a bit skeptical. He asked for a sign, some way to know that God’s messenger was really there, and really meant he and Elizabeth would have a child. I don’t think he wanted the sign he got, though. Which was that he couldn’t talk at all until the baby was born.

But while Zechariah and the Angel were talking, the congregation was waiting outside, wondering what was taking so long. I bet they were surprised when Zechariah came out, unable to talk, unable to tell them what had happened! I bet they were even more surprised, later, to hear that old Elizabeth was pregnant.

Time passed. Elizabeth spent a lot of time thinking about what was happening to her and her husband. She spent a lot of time praying and asking God what to do. Elizabeth was six months pregnant when the angel Gabriel came to Mary, to let her know that she, too, was going to have a surprising pregnancy—the Messiah, the Son of God. And the first thing that Mary did when she heard the news was to go visit her cousin Elizabeth. And even though everybody else treated Mary badly because she was pregnant out of wedlock, Elizabeth welcomed her and supported her and believed that God was at work in Mary and Mary’s child, just as God was at work with Elizabeth and her child. I wonder, if Elizabeth hadn’t been there to support her, how much harder would it have been for Mary? If Elizabeth hadn’t been there to say, “you’re not crazy, God really has chosen you to do something special”, would Mary have been able to boldly proclaim what God had done to her and for her in the beautiful words of the Magnificat, her Song of Praise? Imagine how much harder it would have been for Mary, to do what God had called her to do, if she’d had to do it all alone. She already had a call from God that would make her life a lot harder and turn a lot of people against her—but at least she had the support of her beloved cousin.

So Mary went home, relieved, supported, affirmed, to try and patch things up with Joseph, her fiancé, who thought that she’d been stepping out on him. Elizabeth and Zechariah went on through the rest of her pregnancy, and she gave birth to a son, and she named him John, which means “God is Gracious.” Now, throughout all this time, remember, Zechariah had been unable to speak. And all their family and friends thought that of course Zechariah would want to name the long-anticipated son after himself! But John asked for something to write with, and confirmed that the baby’s name should be John. Because John was a gift from God, freely given. And when he wrote that, Zechariah’s mouth was open and he was able to speak for the first time in nine months. For nine months, he hadn’t been able to talk. For nine months, he had been forced to listen, and to think. For nine months, he had been contemplating God’s gift, and the angel’s words, and the ways in which God had been with the people of Israel throughout history, and when his mouth opened he began to praise God, in the words that we spoke together as our Psalm.

He spoke of all the things God had done for them: setting them free from slavery, delivering them from their enemies, bringing peace, saving them from death, showing them compassion and mercy and forgiving their sins, and always, always, always remembering the promises he had made to them. Zechariah remembered how faithful God had been to those old promises, and he saw that God was beginning to make new promises, too, and that his and Elizabeth’s son John, this gift of a gracious God, was going to have a part in that salvation.

Quite a change from the guy who looked at an angel and said, “no offense, but how do I know you’re telling the truth?” And I wonder. Without the angel’s visit, without those months to think it over in silence, would Zechariah have been able to sing that song? Would he have been able to be the kind of father who could raise John to be who he needed to be? And Elizabeth, she didn’t have an angel’s visit, but she didn’t need one. She spent the months before John’s birth thinking, too, rejoicing in God’s gift and seeing what God was doing in and through her cousin Mary. That certainty in God’s promises, in God’s forgiveness, in God’s presence—John was going to need that in order to become John the Baptist, a man like one of the prophets of old, out in the desert proclaiming that God’s reign was near, calling all people to repentance and forgiveness, calling them to prepare themselves for God’s coming, insisting that everyone would see God’s salvation.

John got his faith from somewhere, and I think that somewhere was his parents’ experiences in the months before his birth. Though his parents probably didn’t live long enough to see it, John took that faith and he listened for God’s call and he went out into the world and did what God wanted him to do, and in so doing he prepared the way for the Messiah to come. Jesus, only six months younger than John, started his ministry probably a couple of years after him, a few years of people who had gotten used to thinking about forgiveness and repentance, of salvation, of God present and active in the world around them. And because of John the Baptist, they were ready to listen to Jesus; and John the Baptist was ready because of his parents, and ordinary Jewish couple whose story is only recorded in one of the four Gospels.

It makes me wonder, how God is working through us, here and now? Because we, too, are getting ready for Christ’s coming. Not just at Christmas, but his coming again in glory at the end of the age. We, too, are called to proclaim the kingdom of God, to follow God’s call, to tell the stories of what God has done, to use our hands to do God’s work in the world. Elizabeth and Zechariah probably never saw the fruits of their labors; I doubt they understood what the Son of God was truly going to do, what it meant that their son was going to follow in a prophet’s footsteps. Just like we don’t often understand the consequences of what God calls us to do. And yet, through their witness, through their daily actions in raising their son, God’s will was done, and God’s presence in the world grew. May we, like Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John, do our part to prepare for the coming of our Lord.

Amen.