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.

We Want to See Jesus

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 22nd, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

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.

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the LORD. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A world where everyone knew God, and loved him? The kind of “knowing” that God speaks of in this passage isn’t an academic kind of knowing. It’s not about memorizing facts or Bible verses or bits of theological interpretation and being able to trot them out on cue. It’s not about having all the answers ready to go for any question. No, this kind of “knowing” is about relationship. It’s about knowing God like you know your parents, or your spouse, or your child, or your best friend. It’s about living together and loving and working together through good times and bad. It’s the kind of knowing you only get through experience and trust and being there for one another.

But how do we have that kind of relationship with someone we can’t see? Sure, we can worship, study the Bible, pray, give generously of our time and treasure, but that doesn’t guarantee a relationship with God. There have been times in my life when I’ve done all of that and still felt spiritually empty, dry, wondering if God was listening and sometimes if he even existed. It’s possible to do everything right and still not feel that relationship. Of course, then there have been other times when God has felt so close to me I felt like I could reach out and touch him. Times when God felt like he was sitting beside me in worship, or speaking directly to me from the pages of Scripture. Every relationship goes through rough patches—but when my relationships with my family and friends go through rough patches, they’re still physically there, present, and it’s a whole lot easier to bridge that gap.

Of course, the thing is, even when I’m going through a spiritual rough patch, when I can’t see or feel God, he’s still there. I just can’t see him. And sometimes, it’s because I’m not looking in the right place. I get so wrapped up in my own ideas—in how I expect God to act, and do—that I can’t see him because he’s working in a way I didn’t expect. Other times it’s because I’m so distracted by all the stuff going on in my life that I’m just not paying attention. And still other times even looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t see God, and I just have to trust that he was there as he promised to be. When I’m going through a spiritually rewarding patch—when worship is renewing to my soul, when Scripture is enlightening, when prayers feel like they’re being heard—it’s easy to see God. It’s easy to feel that I know God, that our relationship is strong and that God’s teachings are written on my heart. But other times it’s not so easy. So I have a real feeling of kinship with the Greeks in our Gospel lesson who want to see Jesus, because sometimes I want to see him, too. I trust God when he says he’ll always be there, I just … want a little bit of reassurance.

Some Greeks in Jerusalem came to the disciple Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Don’t we all? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to see Jesus in the flesh? To be able to ask him questions and learn directly from our Lord? What a great opportunity! I wonder what those Greeks thought when they actually did get to see Jesus. If they were following along behind Philip as he went to get Andrew, and then went up and told Jesus there were some people here to see him. Because if they did, if they heard what Jesus said to Philip and Andrew, I bet they were disappointed and confused. He started talking about dying and rising and bearing fruit and glory and service and being lifted up and … okay, after Jesus died and was resurrected, it would make sense, because that was what Jesus was talking about, but these guys don’t know what’s about to happen. They don’t know. They’re looking for God, or maybe they’re just looking for a miracle worker, and what they find is a guy who looks ordinary but says some crazy weird things. He’s not the kind of guy anybody was expecting. I wonder if they went home disappointed, thinking that they’d been wrong about this Jesus guy, after all. Because here’s the thing, even seeing Jesus in the flesh didn’t magically make peoples’ doubts and fears go away. It didn’t magically mean that they knew God in that deep relationship that Jeremiah was talking about.

Here’s the thing about relationships: they take time and effort and attention. They don’t generally just spring into perfection overnight. You have to work at them. You have to be willing to take the time to get to know someone, to learn and grow with them, and to put in the effort to fix things when they’re wrong. You have to be willing to choose love and forgiveness when people mess up. And God is always willing to do that. To take time for us, to reach out to us, to forgive us and love us and go through life with us and experience it with us.

But we aren’t always willing to do that. We aren’t always willing to take the time for God, to let go of our preconceived notions about God and experience God as he is. We aren’t always willing to take the time to learn about God, to follow God, to get to know God. Sometimes we get distracted. Sometimes we get confused, or angry that God didn’t do things the way we wanted him to. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes we just … don’t understand, and can’t trust what we don’t understand. And so we break that relationship. We turn away. For a lot of different reasons—some of them that seem pretty good at the time!—we break that relationship.

But here’s the thing. God doesn’t abandon us, even when we abandon him. God won’t force us, but he’ll always be there to offer us forgiveness and a place with him. God is always working to break down the barriers that keep us from seeing him and knowing him. God is always planting the seeds of a new relationship in us and in the world around us.

Amen.

Who are you?

Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12, 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

I’m a science fiction geek, and one of my favorite TV shows is an old show called Babylon 5. And there are two questions that Babylon 5 asks over and over again: Who are you? What do you want? Those are really important questions to take seriously. To ask yourself, every once in a while. Because if you don’t, you can end up in places you didn’t want to go, doing things you didn’t want to do, being the kind of person you don’t want to be.

Those are important questions, but they’re also hard questions. You have to stop and think, really think, not just let yourself get swept up by life. Who am I? When I strip away all the unnecessary stuff, all the baggage, all the distractions, all the assumptions, what’s left? Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I the kind of person God wants me to be? And what do I want? When I do something, is it because I want to or because it’s just easier to go along with everyone else? Am I just going through the motions of life? Am I giving lip service to my ideals, or am I living them? Are the things I’m doing getting in the way of being the kind of person I want to be? The purpose of Lent—the reason for the ashes, for the fasting, for the prayers, for the worship, for the confession—is to help us ask those questions, to take them seriously. The rituals are designed to make us stop just going through the motions of life, and take a good hard look at who we are, and what we’re doing.

Rituals can help us. Rituals are powerful things that can shape our understanding of the world. Rituals can help us connect to God and one another and give us tools to build good and loving lives full of connection with God and one another. If we take them seriously, rituals can help shape who we are and what we want. But if we don’t take them seriously, rituals can also be nothing more than empty show, hypocrisy, and pious platitudes.

That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s day. God had called the people of Israel to be his own people, a light to all nations. God had called them to be free to love one another, free to live in justice and peace and harmony. And they had responded! They had said “yes” to God. They chose to be that light. They had agreed to the covenant, to the solemn promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was part of their name: Israel means “God rules.” It’s a way of saying “we’re God’s people.”

And the thing is, they didn’t. They turned away from his ways. Oh, sure, they kept the rituals, the sacrifices and the special holy days and the temples and the fasting and the feasting, and all that, but they didn’t really mean any of it. They did what was easy instead of what was right. Instead of loving one another, they quarreled and fought. Instead of justice, they exploited one another. Instead of working together, they nitpicked and found fault. The powerful ignored the needy. Slavery, abuse, backstabbing, greed, hypocrisy, hatred, fear … those were the things that drove them. They’d go through the motions of doing the religious stuff, and then go right out and do horrible things. They still said they were God’s people, they still said they wanted good and faithful lives … but it didn’t really matter because they didn’t take it seriously. It was easier to just drift along and ignore all the ways they were falling short of who God called them to be.

There were people like that in Jesus’ day, too, which is why he warns the disciples against empty shows of piety. And there are people like that today, too. And before you start thinking of all the people you think are like that, stop and take a good look at yourself. Because human beings are very good at pointing fingers, and not so good at examining our own behavior. And finger-pointing is one of the things that God condemns in our first lesson! Nobody can fix other people; we can’t even fix ourselves! The only thing finger-pointing does is make yourself feel better by tearing down others. We are all sinners, here; forgiven by God, born anew in the waters of baptism, but we are saved only by the grace and mercy of God. Without God, we are nothing but dust, dirt. We keep falling in to old bad habits, destructive and self-destructive ways of thinking and being and acting. But God has chosen us to be his beloved children, washed clean and given new life.

The question is, what are we going to do with that new life? Who are we? God has called us his children, his people, forgiven us, and set us free to live lives of faith and love. But we sometimes use that freedom for other things, things that hurt ourselves and others, things that take us further from God, things that betray our deepest calling and lead us into bad places.  And the road that leads us into those bad places, the road that leads us to hurt ourselves and others … it’s not always obvious, when we set foot on it.  And it’s usually easier to start and harder to get off.  But not impossible.  The first step is to ask the questions: who am I?  What do I want?  Who is God calling me to be?  Even when the world is leading us in different places, taking the time to ask these questions and build our relationship with God can bear great fruit.  And that’s what Lent is all about.

Amen.

How To Pray

Prayer is something we talk a lot about as Christians. But how often do we start with the basics and teach people how to do it? The end result, as several studies have shown, is pews full of people who don’t pray very often or feel their prayers are effective, but are too embarrassed to ask for help because they think they should know this already. This was brought home to me in Confirmation class. This year, we begin each class by praying for one another … and the first thing I had to do was teach the kids how to do it.

The one part of prayer that each of them knew how to do was to ask for God’s help with a problem. Which is good! We should take our problems and concerns to God in prayer. But if that’s all that your prayers consist of, you are in danger of treating God like a vending machine. Prayer is not just about asking God for what we need. Prayer is about talking with God and building a relationship. You know that old hymn What a Friend We Have In Jesus? Prayer is how we build that relationship, that friendship. And any relationship in which one person does nothing but talk about what they want the other person to do for them isn’t a very healthy relationship, is it?

A very important part of prayer is thanking God for what God has done and is doing for us. Thanking God for being with us, for giving us the ability to get through the day, for helping us with our problems—that’s one reason I start of each worship service and class with “God moments.” If you don’t pay attention to where God is working in your life, you can’t thank him for what he does for you. Once you start looking for God in the world around you, and thanking God for what God does for you every day, it’s easier to open up to the desires God has for you.

Thanking God, asking for what we need, those are both very important. But there’s another key component to prayer that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s asking God what God wants … and then taking the time to listen. We get so caught up in what we want, that it’s very hard to listen to what God wants. It takes practice and attention. If you’ve never done it before, you can start out like this: “God, I’ve told you what I want and what the problems are in my life. What do you want? Help me to know your will for me, and to follow it.” Then take time to sit quietly and listen. That’s hard—Americans are bad at sitting quietly and listening! We fill every second of our day with noise and activity. But to hear God, it helps if you leave space for God to speak. You might find that breathing slowly and evenly helps you to stay focused. If you can’t clear your mind—if thoughts keep coming—consider praying for those things that are on your mind, and lifting them up to God.

Prayer should be a time of peace and rest. It should be a relief from the cares of the world. If it isn’t, if bringing everything to God in prayer leaves you more tired and more stressed than ever, ask yourself this: are you leaving those cares at Jesus’ feet, or are you carrying them away with you afterwards? It is really, really hard to give your worries over to Jesus. (I struggle with anxiety, and let me tell you, “laying your burdens upon Jesus” sounds easy but it can be one of the hardest parts of a Christian life.) It is tempting to pick them up and take them with you—after all, we’re taught to be in control of our lives, have a plan, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we can’t control everything, and there comes a point where you can only say “God, help me,” and leave it in God’s hands. If you can do that, trust that God will take care of you even if things are going badly, you will find a kind of peace that you just can’t get anywhere else. (It’s okay if you struggle with this. Being a Christian doesn’t mean getting everything right, it means walking with God even as we get things wrong.)

I encourage you to pray about more than just your own needs. Pray for family and friends, too, but also people across the country and across the world. And pray for your church! At both annual meetings last month, I asked people to pray for each congregation. Birka is wondering when and if they should close, and several members of Augustana have come to me and said it feels like the church is “drifting.” In both cases, our first step should be prayer. What is God calling us to do? Where is God calling us to go? What dreams and hopes is God giving us, and what fears that are getting in our way? We don’t gather as a congregation to be a social club, to reminisce about the good old days, or because it’s habit. We are God’s people, whom God has called and chosen to be his hands and feet in the world. So whatever we do, it should be focused on God’s will for us. But to know God’s will, we have to ask—and that means praying! I hope this helps you deepen your prayer life.

 

Waiting for the Baby’s Birth

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

 

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.

If you’ve been coming to church regularly the last month or so, you may have noticed a focus on the Kingdom of God. We’ve had parable after parable about the coming of the Kingdom—about staying awake, and how to prepare, and who is invited. If you were hoping that to change now that we’re in Advent—the season of preparing for Christ’s birth—you’re going to be disappointed. Because preparing for the coming of Christ doesn’t just mean getting the tree and presents ready, and lighting an advent wreath and admiring crèche scenes about the beautiful baby in Bethlehem. Preparing for the coming of Christ also means preparing for his coming in glory at the end of the age. The baby’s birth gets the ball rolling. The king coming again in glory is where it finishes.

And here’s the thing: for all that people—both Christians and people of other faiths—have spent thousands of years trying to predict when the end times come, nobody’s been right yet. We spend all this time and effort trying to figure out how to tell, when in our Gospel lesson Jesus says that even he doesn’t know when it’s going to happen—nobody knows but the Father.

When you think about it, it’s kind of like pregnancy. I mean, when a woman is pregnant, you know that baby is going to come out eventually. And, it will probably be roughly nine months from the time of conception. But exact dates, times? Nope. That baby comes in its own time. The best we can do is guess—and sometimes, our guesses are pretty wrong. My baby brother was due around June 12, 1998. Now, my middle brother and I were both in choirs that were going to be going on tour that summer. My choir was going to England, and Nels’ choir was going to Canada. And both of us were flying out with our choirs on June 22nd.   We might miss our baby brother’s birth, which we both wanted to be there for. There was only about ten days between his due date and the day we were scheduled to leave the country. So you can imagine how nervous we all were. Would we be there? What if the baby was later than we expected? We prayed for him to be early. As the day we hoped he’d be born came and went, we prayed each day that he would be born soon.

By June 20th, two days before Nels and I flew out of the country, we were all on tenterhooks waiting. We were looking for the signs. The baby had rotated head down, just like he was supposed to—that was great! That was a sign he would come soon! But not a definite clue as to when. Was mom getting backaches, which sometimes come just before contractions? Was anything happening? Was the baby ever going to come? And as we were waiting, we had stuff to do. So much stuff! We had to help Mom pack for the hospital—things she and dad and the baby would need, and also snacks and games and stuff to keep Nels and I occupied and out of the way. (Nels, by the way, kept drooling over the snacks—we rarely got chips and cookies and things, and so having a whole basket full them right by the front door for a couple of weeks was torture for him. All that good stuff that he could see but not enjoy, yet.) But, since we also were going on tour, we had to do all our packing for that. We needed to be packed before the baby was born, because what if he came the day we were supposed to leave? We’d be too busy then. So we packed early. While Nels and I were practicing music for the tour and making sure everything was packed, Mom and Dad were doing last-minute preparations, gathering supplies, practicing childbirth techniques, staying in touch with the doctor, and doing all the other things to keep ready. And we waited. And waited. And waited.

That’s kind of like what the life of a Christian is. We’re waiting for a baby to come, and we’ve got a lot to do to prepare for it. There’s the normal everyday stuff that still has to get done. But there’s also the stuff that needs to get ready specifically for the baby. What kinds of things do we need to do to be ready for the coming of Jesus? When a baby’s coming, you prepare the house. For the coming of Christ, shouldn’t we prepare our world? Our hearts? Ask yourselves this question: what do you think needs to be prepared in your life for the coming of Christ?

We spent a lot of time preparing for my baby brother to come. We waited, and waited. And then, just when we were starting to think that it was going to be too late, that Nels and I would have to miss it, Mom went into labor. And off we went to the hospital. It was quite a process: Dad driving and taking care of Mom, Nels and I handling the baggage and trying to help with Mom as much as we could. Then we got to the hospital, and things really got hectic. If you’ve ever had a baby or been present for a birth, you know what I mean. Doctors and nurses in and out, Mom yelling in pain, Dad taking care of her, me trying to keep Nels and I out of the way, blood and other bodily fluids … about as far from the serene and pretty picture that you see on Christmas cards as possible. But, eventually, it was over. The baby was out, cleaned, and nursing. And we were all so happy. Our baby brother Lars was born on June 20th. He was only two days old when he came with Mom and Dad to drop Nels and I off at the Portland Airport. We thought he would be too late—we thought his timing was bad—but it turned out, he was coming in his own time, not ours.

The thing was, we knew what the signs of labor were. I only knew from books and things because I didn’t remember Nels’ birth that clearly. But Mom and Dad, this was their third kid. They’d done this twice before. They knew the signs to look out for. But that didn’t mean they knew when he was coming. And that didn’t mean they couldn’t get fooled by false contractions or other symptoms. “Is this it?” Dad would ask Mom. “Well, maybe,” she would say. Until the labor was well and truly started, we didn’t know whether or not it was going to be just another false alarm.

That’s what the coming of a baby is like, but it’s also a little bit like the coming of the kingdom. Jesus lists signs and symbols of what will happen beforehand. The sun will be darkened, stars falling from heaven, powers shaken … Our reading from Isaiah mentions some more symptoms. Earthquakes, nations trembling. And Jesus says that we should be able to look at the signs and tell when the coming of God’s kingdom is near, just like you can look at a fruit tree budding out and tell that the seasons are changing. But the thing is, as anyone who lives in cold climates knows, the trees beginning to bud out is not necessarily a sure-fire sign that the season has changed—you can still get killer frosts after that point. In the same way, all those other signs Jesus and Isaiah point to—celestial events, natural disasters, political events—people have spent thousands of years looking at those signs and saying “see—this meteor shower means God is coming soon!” or, “That earthquake is a sign of the kingdom!” or, “This political catastrophe means the end of the world is coming!” But each time, the signs they were pointing to weren’t the real thing: they were like Braxton-Hicks contractions, false labor, that got people all excited and yet weren’t the big event. Christ is coming—he came to Bethlehem two thousand years ago, and he’s coming again—but we don’t know when.

The point isn’t to know for certain exactly when it’s going to happen. If you bet on an exact date, you’ll probably be just as wrong as people generally are at predicting the date of a baby’s birth. We can’t know, because even Jesus doesn’t know. The point is to be ready and waiting, to be paying attention and asking the question: is this it? Because, as sure as a baby can’t stay in the womb forever, sooner or later God’s kingdom will come. And if you’re not paying attention, if you’re not looking for it, you may miss the signs—just like pregnant women sometimes dismiss or ignore the signs of labor. My mom did that when my middle brother Nels was born. She assumed it would be a long labor, like she had with me, and so when she felt the first stirring she ignored it. Well, Nels came out a lot faster—and by the time she realized that, well, we almost didn’t make it to the hospital in time. It made his birth a lot more stressful and hard than it would have been if we’d been paying attention.

Then there’s the matter of preparation. Because once labor starts, you don’t have time to pack your bags. The time of getting ready is over and done with. If you’re not ready, well, you’re going to have to go as you are. You won’t have clothes to change into, or a toothbrush, or a camera, or anything else you might need. And that, too, will make the birth a lot more stressful than it needs to be.

We know how to get ready for an ordinary baby, but we’re not always sure how to get ready for the Holy Baby.  I mean, really, we know about Christmas trees and lights and things, but how much attention do we give to preparing our hearts and minds?  Preparing our world?  May we learn to watch and wait for the coming of Christ.

Amen.

Responding to Prayer

Fifth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

When I was a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college, someone told me this joke: God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” That last answer, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” by the way, is the answer you’ll probably get if you decide not to study for a test and just pray that the answers will magically appear, as I found out once or twice in college.

Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And in another place, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are words Christians quote a lot, when talking about prayer. If you just ask God, God will give it to you.

It’s an interesting lesson to be paired up with the martyrdom of Stephen, which was our first lesson. Stephen, you see, was one of the first Greek converts to Christianity. He was a deacon; he preached and he did social ministry work, giving food to the poor and making sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. But the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy. They had thought that when they had Jesus killed that they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. They thought that Jesus’ death would mean that things would go back to normal. And here the Christians are, telling everyone they meet that Jesus was raised from the dead and helping people in Jesus’ name, bringing more people to the faith. The authorities tried to stamp this “Jesus movement” out again by arresting Stephen and putting him on trial. But they couldn’t get him to deny Jesus; in fact, he used the trial to try and spread the Gospel even to his accusers. And so they killed him. They took him out and threw rocks at him until he was dead.

“If in my name you ask me for anything,” Jesus says, “I will do it.” Then what about Stephen? If I were in his shoes, I certainly would have prayed to be set free. And what about the other Christians, the ones who worshipped with Stephen and worked with him and studied God’s word with him? What about all of the poor people whose lives had been touched by Stephen’s gifts? What about all the widows and orphans who needed Stephen’s help? Surely they must have prayed for him! Prayed to the God he worshipped to save him! And yet Stephen was killed in a brutal execution.

Our prayer list has several people on it who have been on it for quite some time. One of them is Grace, who is related to Julie from Birka. Grace is only a little girl, I think she’s about three, but she’s spent most of her life in the hospital. She has cancer in her brain. She’s had many surgeries, and although sometimes things seem to be going well inevitably there is some new problem, some new challenge, some new heart-wrenching procedure for her to endure. Her whole family are devoted Christians, and they have been praying her entire life. We have been praying for her for a long time. Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask in his name. And yet Grace still suffers.

When I pray with someone who is seriously ill, I always include this petition: “Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you are a healer. We know that you heal every ill, whether in this life or in the life to come. We pray that healing will come in this life, and soon. But we trust in the healing that will come in your kingdom.” Sometimes, when I’m praying with someone who is old and frail and at the end of their life, that is a comfort. Yes, things won’t get better in this life; but this life is not the end. But when I pray for someone like Grace, who would have her whole life ahead of her—her life in this world—if only she could be healed now, it is cold comfort. We know that God has a place for little Grace all ready, a place where she can play and laugh and run. But her parents would much rather be able to see her play and laugh and run now, here, in this world.

So how do we deal with times like this? Times when we pray and pray and pray and bad things happen anyway? How do we reconcile it with Jesus’ words? I’m not talking about when people pray for stupid things, things that they think they want but will only hurt themselves or others in the long run. I’m not talking about when people pray selfishly or only out of habit. I’m talking about heartfelt prayers that stream from deep needs. What happens when we ask Jesus for something, and it doesn’t happen?

There’s two responses that people generally fall into. One is to lose faith. “Nothing happened, so God must not care. Or maybe God doesn’t exist.” The other is almost worse: it’s to blame the one who prays. “Well, Jesus says he answers prayer, so if their prayer wasn’t answered, they must not have prayed the right way. Or maybe they just didn’t have enough faith. If they’d been better Christians, God would have listened.” What a horrible, hurtful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one!

I am reminded of Stephen. He prayed. And I am certain he prayed to be set free; I am certain he prayed that he would not be killed for his faith. Stephen’s faith was as deep as it is possible to be: he would literally rather die than keep silent about it. And we know God heard his prayers; Stephen saw Jesus with him. He did not die alone. But he did die. It wasn’t because God didn’t care, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good enough Christian. So what do we make of that?

I notice a lot that when we talk about answers to prayer, we talk about specific things. We don’t tend to talk about prayer as a conversation with God; it’s a laundry list of things we want and things we want to apologize for. Yet when Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to start with the relationship: “Our father in heaven.” But even that is too distant a relationship: we say “father,” but what Jesus actually said was something closer to “Dad” or “Papa.” This is a close and loving relationship. That’s where we start from, with prayer. God is not a vending machine in the sky. God is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one we can call at three in the morning when we hit rock bottom.

Then, Jesus’ prayer goes on: Pray for God’s kingdom to come. Pray for God’s Will to be done here on Earth, just like God’s Will is done in heaven. God’s Will—Jesus has told us what God’s will is. God’s will is for wholeness, and healing. God’s will is for all the things that have been broken by sin and death, by injury and illness, by malice and carelessness, to be healed. God’s will is for the entire cosmos to be saved. God’s will is for love to win. Bad things happen, in the here-and-now: good people die. Children get sick. People say and do things that hurt one another. People go hungry and can’t find work. But this is not God’s plan for the world, and this is not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come. God’s Will will be done here on Earth as it is in heaven. We don’t know the timeline for that; we don’t know when. But it will happen, and we pray for it.

Jesus’ prayer continues. Pray for your daily bread. Not for steak dinners and caviar, not for a year’s supply, just what you need to get through the day. Don’t worry about the future; let God take care of it. Pray for the courage and strength to get through today. And while you’re at it, pray for forgiveness, for yourself and for others. Pray for the grace you need to get through the day, along with the strength. Grace given by God, and grace shared with the world around you. Pray that you won’t have to go through dark places in your life, and pray that God will lead you safely through those dark places you can’t avoid. But always remember that the dark places are temporary. The kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God, now and forever. The dark places don’t win, in the end; the evils of this world don’t last forever. God’s kingdom is real, and God’s kingdom is coming, and thanks be to God for that.

God answers all prayers. But the answers aren’t always the ones we expect, or the ones we hope for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and then we rejoice. But sometimes God acts in ways we didn’t expect, to do things we didn’t even know to pray for. Sometimes the answer is no—sometimes we pray for things we shouldn’t be praying for. Sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” But sometimes, sometimes the answer is, “Wait.” Sometimes the answer is, “My dear, precious child, what you ask can’t be done in this world as it is now. But my Father’s house is large, and there’s room for all. I’ve prepared a special place just for you. It will be waiting for you, no matter how long it takes to get here. But in the meantime, let me help. Let me support you and guide you and comfort you. You are not alone; I love you.”