What is Baptism?

Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

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

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

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

 

Ritual baths to cleanse away impurity have always been an important part of Judaism.  They’re called mikvehs.  Have you touched a dead body or someone with a disfiguring disease?  Mikveh.  Have you just finished menstruating?  Mikveh.  Have you just recovered from some gross or disturbing medical condition?  Mikveh.  Are you converting to Judaism?  Mikveh.  Getting ready for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar?  Mikveh.  Did you just buy new dishes from a gentile?  They need to be purified in a mikveh.  Unlike the Christian sacrament of baptism, mikvehs in Jewish religion are something that people do many times throughout their lives, any time someone needs to be ritually purified.  John the Baptist was part of this long tradition.  He invited people out to the Jordan river for a mikveh that would cleanse them from the impurity of their sin.  But he probably wasn’t expecting this to be a permanent change in their spiritual status, any more than any other mikveh was.  It would be something that needed to be repeated over and over again throughout the person’s life.

This is why John the Baptist was so confused and horrified when Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized.  John’s baptism—John’s mikveh—was all about sin and ritual purity.  Jesus, as God’s son, was not sinful.  He was already pure.  He didn’t need to be washed and made clean.  But in the process of being baptized, Jesus was doing something new.  Jesus was taking the ritual bath of his Jewish heritage, and turning it into the Christian ritual of baptism.

On the surface, they are very alike.  Both involve water symbolically washing away impurity; and while modern Jewish mikvehs don’t usually have anything to do with sin and repentance, John’s version did, and so do Christian baptisms.  Yet Christian baptism is not just about repenting from sin.  If sin and repentance were the only part of it, we’d need to re-baptize people all the time.  Baptism is a lot of things.  Here are some of them:

Baptism is an initiation rite.  In baptism, we become part of the Christian community and fellowship.  The person being baptized (or their parents, if they are too young) make promises to be a part of the Christian community, and the congregation responds by promising to support them in their life of faith.  Through this we become part of the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in the world.  We confess the same faith as all Christians in every time and place.  We begin our service to the same Lord, and our worship of the same Savior.

Baptism is an adoption.  In baptism, we are claimed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the seal of the cross of Christ forever.  The words that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism—”This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”—are also the words God speaks over every person being baptized.  We are adopted into the family of God and become brothers and sisters with Christ and with every other Christian who has ever been or ever will be.

Baptism is a washing away of sin, but not on a temporary basis.  We are not cleansed by the water itself, but by God’s promises of forgiveness.  It is that promise, and not the water, we trust in; it is that promise to which we turn, and it is that promise that will never be rescinded, no matter how much we sin after our baptism.  It’s the first time we experience the grace of God, which showers down upon us for the rest of our lives.

Baptism is new birth.  Just like being born from our mother’s womb means passing through the waters of birth, so too does being born from above mean passing through the waters of baptism.  By the way, if you’ve ever been asked if you have been born again, the answer is yes: it happened when you were baptized.

Baptism is death.  In the waters of baptism, our old sinful self is drowned, and we rise out of the water as new people, tied to Christ’s death and resurrection.  As Christ died, so too we will one day die; as Christ rose from the grave, so too will we one day rise from the grave, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

Baptism is when the Holy Spirit first enters into us.  It is when we are anointed with the power of God.  Every time there is a baptism in the New Testament, the Spirit is there.  Sometimes the Spirit appears before the baptism, sometimes during it, sometimes after it, but in all cases, the Spirit is there.  The Spirit is planted in us like a seed, and helps us grow in faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit helps us prepare for and participate in God’s coming kingdom, to the glory of God the Father.

Baptism is both God’s gift and our response to that gift.  It is God reaching out to us to claim us as God’s own, and it is how we accept and reach back to God.  It is something that God does to us and in us, and it is something we choose and claim as our own and affirm and incorporate into our lives.

Baptism is a sacrament.  It is something commanded by God, which combines a promise of God with a visible symbol for all to see.  Baptism takes something intangible—God’s promises and our faith—and unites it with something which we can see, touch, taste.  It takes something absolutely ordinary and every-day (water!) and turns it into the most extraordinary thing imaginable.  It connects us with God.  It is the living water which sustains our souls.  It reminds us of God’s presence and God’s promises and our own promises every time we turn on the tap or cross the river or go to the beach.

God shows no partiality.  The gift of God’s grace, the gift of living water, the gift of adoption, the gift of the Holy Spirit, these gifts are open to everyone.  All we have to do is receive them.  God has done the hard work already—God has sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to call us, to teach us, to heal us, to claim us, to die for us, and to rise from the grave for us.  All we need do is respond to what God has done and is doing in us.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; nothing that can invalidate the promises God made at our baptism.  We can go astray, leave the faith, abandon God, and still when we come back our baptism is just as valid as it ever was.  All we have to do is say ‘yes’ to it again, say ‘yes’ to God again.

This is the foundation of the Christian life.  This is the foundation of the Christian calling.  This is the foundation of everything that we have and everything that we are, which is why in many ancient Christian traditions, the Baptism of Jesus is a far more important holy day than Christmas.  God calls us to do many things, to love one another, to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and care for the sick and clothe the naked and visit those in prison and free those held in bondage by the injustices of the world.  All of these things have their foundation in baptism.  We are children of God.  We are members of the body of Christ in the world.  We are brothers and sisters of all God’s children.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ.  We are claimed by God and sent out into the world to do God’s will.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

What is to prevent us?

Easter 5, Year B, April 29, 2018

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

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.

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  He had heard the word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ and of his saving death and resurrection, and there was water there.  What was to prevent him from being baptized?  It’s a good question.  Can anything get in the way of someone being joined to Christ in baptism?  Should anything get in the way?  Obviously, there are things humans can say or do that get in the way; we can discourage people, intentionally or unintentionally, from being baptized and thus joined to Christ’s death and resurrection.  We can put limits on who we will and will not baptize in our churches; we can make requirements on what they have to do or say beforehand.  Most churches have such requirements.  Maybe you have to take a class or profess your faith in the right kind of way or make promises.  Maybe you have to change careers, or change your way of life.  In churches like ours that baptize mostly infants, well, obviously we don’t require things of babies.  But we do put requirements on the families of those babies.  They have to promise to bring them to church regularly, for a start.  And we also make rules and put boundaries around who is and is not welcome in church.  We may say that all are welcome, but in practice some people are more welcome than others.

I tend to be in favor of such rules and boundaries.  When I baptize a baby, I always sit down with the parents about what that means, and what they’re promising to do for that baby as it grows, how they’re promising to raise them in the faith.  When I baptize a teen or an adult, I want to make sure they know what they’re doing, and I strongly recommend that their baptismal sponsors are close by to support them in their growth and faith.  And when I went to a seminar on evangelism, a few years back, and heard the story of how one church helped bring a couple out of a life of prostitution and pimping, set them up with another career, and then baptized the whole family, I was filled with praise for God—and I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable if they’d done it the other way around, baptism first and then helping them change their lives around.  And on a day to day basis, when someone suggests something new or different from what I’m expecting, my gut reaction is to protest.  Maybe some of you can empathize.

And then I come to this story.  The eunuch said: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  And there, by the side of the road, without classes or sponsors or enquiries into the eunuch’s lifestyle or anything else, he was baptized.  You may have noticed that verse 37 is missing.  We’re reading this passage as it was first written.  But later Christians read this story and were so uncomfortable with this idea, this implication that nothing at all should stand between someone and baptism, that they added in a verse in which Philip tells the eunuch that he has to believe in Christ with all his heart, and the eunuch says he does.  When modern scholars went back and looked at the oldest copies of the book of Acts, they saw that verse 37 was nowhere to be found, so they took it back out of our modern translations.  I understand why early Christians added that verse.  Surely, at least, you have to believe in order to be baptized?  Surely it can’t just be a matter of asking and receiving the grace of God poured out in water and the word?  And yet, in the earliest versions of this story, the Ethiopian asks, and he is baptized.  As simple as that.

This is even more surprising when you consider who the Ethiopian is.  He is an outsider, a foreigner, a eunuch.  Ethiopia, then called Aksum, was a wealthy and powerful empire based in the horn of Africa.  Israel had had ties with them for a thousand years, at that point.  The queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon was an Ethiopian, and these connections had resulted in a small Jewish community in Ethiopia that is still there today.  This Ethiopian was probably not Jewish, himself, as he was unfamiliar with Isaiah and needed help understanding it, but he obviously respected God.  He owned a copy of the book of Isaiah, and books were expensive.  And this is early in Acts; up to this point, everyone who has been baptized is Jewish, and the Christian community still believed that in order to follow Jesus you had to become Jewish.  In fact, if Philip’s congregation finds out he baptized someone who is not Jewish, they will be angry with him.  But the Holy Spirit brought Philip to that place, to that Ethiopian, and he asked to be baptized.  What is to prevent him?  Nothing!

More serious, however, is the fact that he is a eunuch.  A eunuch is a man who has been castrated.  Many cultures in the ancient world would castrate some men and boys, because it was believed to make them more trustworthy.  A man who was castrated couldn’t impregnate someone else’s wife or father children.  He had no family to compete for his loyalty, or any kind of a life outside of work.  But eunuchs weren’t respected.  They weren’t really seen as men, but they weren’t women, either.  They were weird, the butt of the joke.  They crossed gender and sexual boundaries.  They were queer.  You might employ one, but you wouldn’t sit next to him at dinner.  Or at worship.

In Israel, the laws in Deuteronomy forbade eunuchs from entering the Temple grounds.  So this person had learned of God from his Jewish neighbors, and had travelled 1500 miles to learn more.  But when he got to the temple in Jerusalem, they would have turned him away.  Because he was a eunuch, and thus not the right sort of person.  Sorry, sir, it doesn’t matter how much your heart yearns for the Lord, it doesn’t matter how much you love God, it doesn’t matter what else you do in your life: your kind are not welcome in God’s temple.  That’s what they would have told him.

So, the Ethiopian eunuch was returning home, a 1500-mile journey, empty-handed except for a copy of the holy scriptures.  Which he was reading.  Because even the rejection of the humans running God’s temple could not drive his heart away from God.  Now, there are two interesting things in the passage he was reading when Philip arrived.  The first is that it is a passage that Christians often apply to Jesus, the lamb of God who was slain as an offering for sin.  The second is that if you read on for just another few chapters, God promises the foreigners and the eunuchs that there will come a day when they will be part of the people of Israel and welcome in God’s house, because, as God says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”  All the outcasts—the foreigners, the weird ones like the eunuchs, the poor, the marginalized, the rejects—will be welcome.  Not only welcome, but sought out by God.

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  And Philip, he could have said plenty.  He could have quoted chapter and verse on why the Ethiopian had to become Jewish, first.  He could have said, “Sorry, Jesus loves you, but eunuchs just aren’t good enough to participate in worship, the day Isaiah speaks of hasn’t come yet.”  He could have said, “Well, you need to learn more about Jesus before we’ll let you be baptized.”  There were so many reasons that Christians—then and now—would have found to prevent this queer foreigner from being baptized.

But the Holy Spirit had put Philip in that place, and Philip listened to the Spirit’s call, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.  The Ethiopian eunuch asked for God’s grace to be poured out on him, and Philip had every reason to stand in his way … and he chose to help, instead.  That’s the last we hear of that Ethiopian eunuch in Scripture.  But while I don’t know for sure what happened next, I can guess.  You see, in 330AD Ethiopia was the first nation in the world to become Christian.  While the Roman Empire was still waffling back and forth about whether or not to persecute Christians, Ethiopia was a stronghold of the faith.  And it has been a Christian nation ever since.  I went to seminary with several Ethiopian-Americans.

We put boundaries around our faith.  Who can and cannot be Christian, who is and is not welcome in church, what people need to do or say in order to become baptized.  And there are often good reasons for such rules and boundaries.  I know just how soothing it can be to stay within your comfort zone, and how difficult it can be to think and act outside of it even when God is calling us to do so.  But we always have to ask ourselves: are those rules and boundaries for God’s benefit … or ours?  Are the conditions and expectations we create necessary, or is they a stumbling block?  And, most importantly, what is the Holy Spirit calling us to do?

May we, like Philip, follow the call of the Holy Spirit even when it calls us to set aside our rules and cross our boundaries.

Amen.

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.

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.

Baptism and the Love Command

Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

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.

 

We are only baptized once in our lives.  Baptism is many things, but one of them is an adoption.  When we are baptized, God speaks to us the same words he spoke to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River: you are my beloved child.  In baptism, we are re-born children of God.  And, like any adoption, it only happens once, and changes the reality of who we are and whose we are.  That one moment changes us.  It re-forms our relationships and our place in the world.  We are born children of a fallen humanity; in baptism, we are re-born as children of God.  In baptism, God claims us as his own, washes us clean from our sins, creates us new people in him, and unites us with the death and resurrection of Christ, so that as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so we, too, will be resurrected when Christ comes again.  Like an adoption or a marriage, baptism only has to happen once, because it completely changes us from one thing to another.  Martin Luther used to say that baptism was an everyday reality, that through our baptisms we die every day to sin and rise to new life in Christ Jesus.  Just like new parents signing the adoption papers, or newlyweds signing the marriage license, baptism is the beginning of a new life together, that lasts our whole life long.

God’s adoption means our salvation.  Just as Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, so we too will die one day … and when Christ comes again we will rise from our graves just as he did, healed and made new and perfect, all our sins washed away and every bad part of us gone.  In our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Just as Jesus rose from the grave, so we too will one day rise from the grave.  We live now in this world, but in baptism God has made us citizens of his kingdom.  Just as when a couple adopts a child from a foreign country, that child becomes a citizen of his new parents’ country, when God adopts us as his children in baptism, we are made citizens of God’s country.

But like an adoption or a marriage, sometimes we need to re-affirm our baptism.  We need to remember our baptism and think for a bit about what it means, and re-commit ourselves to living with the baptismal relationship.  Just like married couples celebrate their anniversaries, or sometimes renew their vows.  Like any relationship, the more you put into your baptismal relationships, the more you get out of them.  So it’s important to take the time to think about what that means.  We need to think about what it means to be a child of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, and how we should be responding to the love of God poured out on us in our baptisms and throughout our lives.  God will never abandon us or cut us off, just like loving parents never abandon or cut off their children; in return, we should be living as God calls us to live.

Today at Augustana we are confirming two young people, MiKayla and Kaleb.  If you look at the rite in your hymnals, you will see that the formal name for it is not “Confirmation” but “Affirmation of Baptism.”  This rite is a time to remember our baptisms and re-dedicate us to the one who claims us as his own.  Not just for the two young people standing up in front of the church in white robes, but all of us.  We are all baptized children of God.  We are all called to live and work as God’s people in the world.

Now, if you ask different Christians how we should live and work in the world, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  Some will have a long list of things we can and cannot do—but not all Christian groups would put the same thing on that list.  And some people would say we shouldn’t have hard-and-fast rules at all, but rather go where we feel the Holy Spirit calling us.  So the question is, what guiding principle should we live our lives by?  What is the core thing that Jesus wants us to do as we follow him?  What central thing should guide our interpretation of Scripture and the rules by which we live?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus said to the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What commandments does he mean?  There are a lot of commandments in the Bible, some of which were specific commands for specific times and places, some of which are more general and apply to everyone everywhere in every time.  What commandments is Jesus talking about in this reading?  Well, this is a short excerpt from the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ last instructions for his disciples the night before he was arrested and put on trial.  It’s four chapters long, and in those chapters Jesus gives the same commandment: love one another.  If you love me, Jesus says, you will love one another.  You cannot love Jesus without also loving your neighbor.  In baptism, God claims us as his own children because he loves us; we respond to that love by loving God, and loving our neighbor.  That’s the way the Christian life is supposed to go.  That’s what all of Scripture boils down to: love God, and love your neighbor.

In Confirmation class we spent almost half of this year talking about the Ten Commandments, what they mean for us and what they might look like in real life.  And one of the things we talk about is that they’re the foundation of Christian ethics, but they are not the sum total of what we are supposed to do.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  If we love God, we’ll keep him first in our lives, we won’t take God’s name in vain, and we’ll take time both to rest and to worship God.  If we love our neighbors, we will not kill them, or cheat on our relationships, or steal, or lie, or be jealous.

But we can follow all those rules and still be mean, petty people.  We can follow all the rules and still hurt people.  We can follow all the rules and still not be the people God called us in baptism to be.  We can follow all the rules and still not live up to the citizenship we have in God’s kingdom.  Because the rules don’t exist for the sake of having rules.  The rules exist to guide us to God, and to provide a framework for the healthy and loving relationships that God desires us to have with each other and with him.  The rules exist to help us make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom, our true home.  The rules exist to give us a little bit of an idea what the world would look like if we really and truly did love one another as God has loved us.  To help us see that there is a better way.  To help us be the people God created us to be, and called us to be in our baptisms.

That’s a big order.  That’s huge and intense.  I don’t know about you, but I find that a lot of the time, following the letter of God’s commandments is a lot easier than following the spirit of them.  Checking off boxes on a list of how a Christian is supposed to live is a lot easier than following Jesus’ command to love.  And if I were to rely solely on my own abilities and strength of will, there is no way that I could live up to that command.  There is no way I could be the person God created me to be.

But God does not leave us to struggle through on our own.  God does not give us a commandment and then stand up in heaven with a clipboard judging us and writing us off when we fail.  God sent us Jesus Christ, to teach us and to save us, and when Jesus returned to heaven after the Resurrection, God sent us the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the encourager, the one who inspires us to be the people God created us to be, who lights a fire in our hearts, who gives us the strength and wisdom to put God’s love into action.

May we live each day remembering that we are baptized children of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, loving God and our neighbor.

Amen.

Saint and Sinner

Ash Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

It has been my experience that most people generally fall into two categories: those who spend too much time dwelling on their own flaws and faults, and so think they’re worthless and horrible and not-good-enough, and those who mostly ignore the fact that they’re not perfect. This presents a problem for a preacher, because people generally only really hear the things that agree with what they already believe. So when you talk about sinfulness, the ones who dwell on their own sin and can’t believe God would love them tend to hear a confirmation of how bad they are, while the people who think they’re practically perfect think you’re not talking about them. And when you talk about God’s love and forgiveness for all people, the ones who think sin has nothing to do with them, personally, take it as confirmation that they don’t have to look at their own behavior and thoughts, while the ones who believe God can’t love them think you’re talking about other people.

The message of Lent—the message of Ash Wednesday in particular—has two parts. First, you are a sinner. I am a sinner. We are all sinners as individuals, as community members, in every way possible. We fall short of the glory of God. We do selfish things that hurt ourselves and others. We ignore God’s call. We break relationships, people, creation. We soak up the worst of society’s mores and habits and find a way to justify it. We spread poison with a smile, and when our choices hurt people we shrug and shift the blame. If salvation depended on our own righteousness, our own goodness, our own holiness, every single one of us would be destined for hell. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even those of you sitting there thinking “I’ve never done anything really bad! I’m a good person!” Would your spouse agree? Your kids? Your parents? Your boss? Other people in town? Or would they have a list of things you’ve done that you’ve forgotten about—things you justified to yourself or minimized—that did a lot more damage than you realized?

God made us out of dirt, and truth be told, we’re still a lot dirtier than we want to admit. We will all die. And if it was up to us, to our efforts, all that would happen is that we’d turn back into the dirt God made us out of. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The other message of Lent is that God loves you anyway. That’s what the cross is—a giant glowing sign from God saying how much he loves you, that he was willing to die to save you from the consequences of your own actions. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even when you genuinely did something horrible. Yes, even when you think you are too bad, too horrible, for God to love you. There is nothing you or anyone else can do that will make God stop loving you. He may not like what you’re doing—if you are hurting yourself or others, I guarantee that he doesn’t—but he will always love you no matter what.  And all that dirt?  God wants nothing more than to wash us clean.

This is the reality of the cross. We are sinful creatures of the dust, and we are the beloved children of God, washed clean in the waters of baptism. And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God. We are transformed by God. We are reborn and made the righteousness of God. We become the hands and feet which God uses in the world to share that love with all people. We eat and drink Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist and become the body of Christ. We are baptized into Christ’s death so that we may one day be resurrected as he is. And none of this happens because we deserve it! None of this happens because we’re good enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough, because we are not. We are dirt. It happens because God loves us that much.

Lent is a time to dwell in those two realities—our sinfulness, and God’s love. It’s a time to shape our hearts and minds, our actions and our words, to reflect those two realities. That’s what all those things people do for Lent are supposed to do. They’re supposed to help us live out our faith, live out the promises that God has made us, live out our baptismal promise. They’re designed to help us acknowledge both our sinfulness and God’s love, and return to the Lord our God.

If you have a Lenten discipline or observation that you already do that is meaningful to you, great. If not, I have a suggestion. Pick a Bible verse about one of those two realities, and recite it to yourself at least twice a day. Put it on a sticky note in the bathroom so you’ll see it when you brush your teeth, and take the time to really think about what you’re saying. Keep that verse in your heart and mind all through Lent, and see what it does for you. If you’re one of those who has trouble remembering that you are a sinner, I suggest Psalm 51:3-4. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” If you’re one of those who knows their sinfulness on a bone-deep level but has trouble remembering God’s love, I suggest Psalm 103:8, a saying that appears many times in the Bible, including our reading from Joel earlier this evening. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” You might even follow that up by singing Jesus Loves Me.  I know, it’s a kid’s song, but it’s got a really important message. And as you go through Lent, living with your verse, you may be surprised at how your experience of Lent deepens and grows.

Amen.

An epiphany in the wilderness

Baptism of our Lord, Year B, January 11, 2014

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-11

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.

There’s a movie in theaters right now called “Into The Woods.” It’s based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim that throws several well-known fairytales—Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel—together and intertwines them. It’s called “Into the Woods” because that’s where all the action takes place, where the characters meet and collide and scheme and cheat and help one another and learn and grow. In the woods—far away from their ordinary daily lives, from the patterns and social expectations that guide their normal behavior and perspectives—change is possible. Growth is possible. Learning is possible. Magic happens, and ordinary things become extraordinary, in the woods.

In the Bible, the wilderness functions kind of the same way. It’s the place where change happens. It’s a place that God is most likely to be able to take someone and turn them around, break into their life and make them new. In the wilderness—whether a physical or a spiritual kind of wilderness—you can’t hide behind anything anymore. You don’t have your normal job or what the neighbors will think or anything else to distract you. God often appears in the wilderness. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush in the wilderness, and it was during a forty-year stay in the wilderness that the Hebrew people learned to trust God and follow him again after generations of slavery in Egypt. It was in the wilderness that God renewed the faith of a despairing Elijah. And it is in the wilderness that John the Baptizer appears, the messenger preparing the way for Jesus.

And it is in the wilderness that John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Repentance literally means “turning around.” You go out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist, and that’s what’s going to happen. You will be turned around. You will be re-oriented. Your priorities will change. But the baptism of John was just water—water, and the wilderness. John knew that something was coming, something new, something extraordinary, beyond human understanding. John knew that God was coming. “I have baptized you with water,” John said. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” An ordinary repentance—even one in the wilderness—may not last long. When you go back to your normal life, it is all too easy to slip back around into the way you’ve always been. But it’s not quite so easy to slide back when God is the one to turn you around, when you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus came to the Jordan River, he was one of many. At this point, Jesus looked like a fairly normal guy—nobody looking at him would see anything special. Yes, he was the Son of God, but he hadn’t really done much to show it. His time to teach and preach and heal and feed people and die had not yet come. His baptism was the turning point. Jesus, being fully God as well as being fully human, didn’t need any sins forgiven—he’d never sinned in the first place. But this was the turning point, when people begin to see how incredible this ordinary-looking person really is. This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is when things are set in motion. This is when God manifests—not just the Son by himself but all three together, Father, Son, and Spirit.

When Jesus went down into the water in the wilderness, he said good-bye to his normal, ordinary life. When he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit came down to him and the Father said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s like a family reunion, a big group hug before Jesus begins his ministry, before he puts himself on a collision course with the powers of this world which will eventually result in his own death. I love you, the Father says. I will always be with you even as you walk towards death, the Spirit says. And if you think I’m putting too much weight on Jesus’ death here, at the beginning of the story, think about this: the word Mark uses to describe the heavens tearing apart? That word is only used one other time in Mark: when Jesus dies, and the curtain of the Temple that separates ordinary people from the Holy of Holies is torn in two. Jesus’ whole ministry is bookended by this tearing: the things that separate us from God—whether the curtain of the temple, or the heavens themselves—get ripped in two. And it’s not just a simple slice, easily mended. This is a rip, a shredding. There’s no putting it back together again. God is coming into the world—God is coming to be with us.

This is the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is about revelations, about God appearing, and as we move through this season, I want you to listen to the readings each week I want you to listen for the epiphanies, the revelations, in each one. In our reading today, it’s obvious—God tears the heavens open and speaks directly, and the Holy Spirit takes visible form like a dove, coming down. But although this epiphany seems to be mostly for Jesus—we’re told he heard the voice of God and saw the Spirit, we don’t know whether anyone else did—baptism is not just for Jesus, it’s for us. Because John’s baptism is only with water, but after this, every baptism done in Jesus’ name involves the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. That baptism with the Holy Spirit that John talked about that was coming? That’s the baptism we experience every time we bring a child or adult to the font and splash them with water. It’s not just our words. It’s not just our water. God is present.

In each baptism, the heavens are torn open a little wider and the Holy Spirit comes down, dancing over the water just as the Spirit danced over the waters of creation. In every baptism, God claims the one in the water, saying “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” No matter what else happens, God is there, present in the whole community, welcoming and claiming each child and adult as God’s own. God is working. God is calling us and turning us around. We can still walk away from God—but God will never walk away from us, because God loves us and has chosen us. No matter where we go—no matter where life takes us—whether we are faithful or not, whether we walk by still waters and green pastures or through wilderness and temptation—God is with us. Sometimes, especially when we’re walking through wilderness and temptation. Even when we are blind to him, when our own fears and dreams drown out his voice, God is with us, calling us and guiding us and hoping we will turn to him and follow. Hoping that we will see him all around us.

Because God doesn’t just come to us once. God doesn’t just have one epiphany. God keeps coming to us, all the time, in many ways. In good times in bad, at home and when we wander and stray far away. We don’t always notice God—we’re not very good at seeing God’s presence in our lives. When good things happen, we attribute them all to our own skill or luck or deserving, instead of to God’s gifts. When bad things happen, we ask why God allowed it even while we ignore the ways God supported us and carried us through the wilderness. But even when we don’t see God, God is there.

We don’t always see God, but whether we see him or not, God is there. And when we do see him, when we look up from our distractions and our cares and see him, that’s an epiphany. What have the epiphanies been in your life?

Amen.

The Vineyard and the Vinegrowers

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 27), Year A, October 5, 2014

Exodus 20, selected verses, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

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.

There are many metaphors in the Bible. Many images and visions and parables that are used to open our minds, to make us see things in a new way. One of the more common images is that of the vine. Now, there were a lot of vineyards spread throughout the Holy Land in those days; shipping was expensive, so most food and drink was made very close to where it was consumed. So everyone knew what a vineyard was, and many of them had worked in a vineyard at one time or another. Vineyards were expensive, but also very valuable: you needed the right kind of soil, a plot of land on a hillside facing the right direction, good cultivated vines, a wall to protect the vineyard from thieves, and a vat to press the grapes into juice that could be made into wine, and then sold, and experienced workers to tend the vines and make the wine. They were something that was special and valuable, and yet something that ordinary people could feel a connection to. Several times in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is sometimes compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in special soil and cares for. In Isaiah, God complains that Israel has produced wild grapes of bloodshed and violence, instead of the good grapes of justice that he planted. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells people that “I am the vine, and you are the branches”: the branches are the part that bears the fruit, but they can’t survive without the central vine stock to nourish them. Just like we are the people that do God’s work in the world, and rely on Christ to spiritually feed us and be our roots in a changing world.

In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of this vineyard is a pointed reminder of whom we belong to, and what God will do for us. This parable comes from the end of Matthew, in the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. If you’ll recall from last week’s Gospel, Jesus has been making waves in Jerusalem and in the Temple, and the chief priests and the elders and the Pharisees came to him to demand what gave him the right to come in and change things. And he gave them and the people gathered there this parable. A landowner creates a vineyard: plants it, creates all the necessary equipment and buildings, and then hired workers to work in it while he went off to work. Nobody in North Dakota has much experience with vineyards, but you do know about hired hands and renting land. If you hire someone to work your land, you expect them to turn over the produce, right? Now, remember that this is a metaphor: the vineyard is the people of God, and the tenants are the religious and secular leaders who are supposed to rule them and tend to them in God’s place. And the fruit that they bear is supposed to be the fruit of the spirit: love, truth, peace, joy, faithfulness, goodness, self-control. The tenants are supposed to be helping the people to grow in God, to grow in faith, and to produce fruit that will lead to God’s kingdom on Earth.

That’s not what happened. In this parable, the tenants want to keep the produce for themselves. So they kill the landowner’s representatives and try and keep the fruit for themselves. The landowner sends his son, and they say to themselves: “hey, guys, here comes the heir: if we kill him, we’ll get his inheritance.” Now. I ask you. Is that a reasonable thing to think? If you kill someone, are you going to be rewarded by getting all their stuff? If you had a hired hand who killed your oldest child, would that hired hand take the child’s place and own the land? No, he would not. He would face trial for his actions. And it’s pretty stupid to imagine otherwise, but they do.

Now, the chief priest and the elders and the Pharisees, hearing this parable, realized that they were the bad tenants in the parable. But they didn’t realize that Jesus was the son, and even after telling him what the tenants deserve, they continue on a path to be just like them: they plot to kill the one sent by their Master, his only Son. Because they don’t want to listen to him. They don’t want to admit that they aren’t the ones in charge. They want to be in control of their own destiny, and do things their own way, and they had convinced themselves that that was what God wanted them to do. Jesus was threatening that. Jesus was trying to call them back to their responsibilities; Jesus was trying to remind them that God is the one who created them, who planted them and helped them grow, and God was the one in charge and no amount of shenanigans and ignoring that would change things.

So, to recap: We are the vineyard created by God, and we are the ones who are supposed to bear good fruit, and the chief priests and the elders were the ones who were supposed to take care of the vineyard, but they weren’t doing a very good job, and Jesus was trying to point that out. Now, our community of faith—our vineyard—is organized a bit differently. We believe in the priesthood of all believers, which basically means that all are people equal in precious in God’s eyes and that we all have a responsibility to care for God’s vineyard of which they are a part. So we are the vineyard, the branches bearing fruit, but we are also the hired hands whose job it is to care for the vineyard, to weed and prune and cultivate and harvest and make the fruits of the Spirit into wine fit for the great feast of the Kingdom. We are the ones whose rebellion kills the Son, and we are the ones who are saved by the Son’s sacrifice. We are the ones who reject the stone, and we are the ones whose lives are built on that cornerstone. It’s a lot of responsibility.

Today at Augustana we’re baptizing a baby, Augustus Paul. He is a new branch that is being grafted into the Vine that is Christ Jesus, and he’s young enough that he’s not really producing fruit just yet. At this point, he’s not producing much besides spit-up and messy diapers. He’ll need a lot of tending before he grows big enough to produce the fruits of the spirit. And a lot of that tending will come from his parents, his grandparents, his godparents, the rest of his family, and friends of the family, many of whom gathered this weekend to celebrate his grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I’m sure they’ll do a great job of taking care of Gus, of helping him grow strong in faith and love.

But they are not alone. They can’t do it alone. Because we are all fellow branches in the same vine, and we are also the hired hands that God has called to care for the branches: to care for all of God’s people, big and small, so that they may bear the fruits of God’s kingdom. And when Gus is baptized, you will promise to support him in his life in Christ and help him grow in faith, just as you do at every baptism. There are a lot of things you can do to fulfill that promise: you can help with Sunday School, you can support him and his family and all the families of our young children, you can provide good examples, you can build good relationships built on honesty and love. You can watch for God’s presence in your lives and live according to God’s Word. You can bear fruit yourself, and participate in all the ways that God helps us use that fruit for God’s kingdom.

But always remember that we’re not the landowner. Our fruit is not our own; it belongs to the one who planted us, who gave us roots, who protects us and cares for us, and who gave his own Son for us. We don’t build and plan and teach for our own benefit; we do all these things so that God’s people might have life, and have it abundantly in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

Through the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 11, 2014

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

 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.

Jesus sure used a lot of metaphors and figures of speech to describe himself. In today’s Gospel lesson, he uses two: he calls himself the gate and the shepherd. We’ve all heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd many times, and seen beautiful pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, so I’m going to talk for a little bit about what it means for Jesus to be a gate.

First of all, a gate means there’s probably a wall or a fence. There’s no point in having a gate in the middle of nowhere, unless you’re at a sheepherding contest, and the goal is to see how well a sheepdog herds the sheep through a series of exercises. Walls and fences keep things out, and keep things in. The walls or fence of a sheepfold keep out wolves and thieves. And in Jesus’ day, both wolves and thieves were a danger to sheep every day. Walls kept them out—they keep out the dangerous things in the world. And the walls of the pen also keep the sheep in, keep them from wandering or straying into dangerous places. When a sheep is in the fold, it’s safe and secure.

But the problem is, sheep can’t stay penned up forever. It’s cruel to keep them locked up. They need to go outside of the pen to get food and exercise. You can bring food to the pen, but they’re not going to get the exercise they need unless they can go to the pasture. So the shepherd would let them out, and take them out to the pasture. The gate wasn’t just so the sheep could get into the pen where it was safe, it was also so that they could get out of it to go to the pasture they needed. It was not a one-way trip. If the sheep stayed in the pen, they would starve. If they stayed out in the pasture, they would be vulnerable to thieves and wolves. They needed both places, and the gate was how they travelled from one to the other every day.

Parents of small children know this dilemma well: sometimes kids need to be kept in a safe place, and sometimes you have to let them out to explore. Sometimes, you need to reign the children in and keep them corralled; sometimes, you need a baby gate to keep them from falling down the stairs. And other times you need to help them explore the world and learn how to climb up and down staircases, how to run and fall down and get back up again. A parent has to judge when to keep their child safe and protected, and when to let them free, because they need both. The same door that lets a child out to the yard to play also lets them back in.

But doors are more than just holes in the wall. Doors and gates don’t let just anybody in and out. If they did, you wouldn’t need a gate at all, just an opening in the wall. In Jesus’ day, there would be a gatekeeper to keep thieves out, a person keeping watch at the gate: that’s why thieves couldn’t just walk in the same as they shepherd. Today we would use a lock and key, but back then they had a watchman. They would make sure that only the shepherd could get in, and that the sheep could only get out when the shepherd was with them to guide them and protect them.

As Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come and go in and out and find pasture.” We come through Jesus to be saved, but it’s not a matter of just going in the door once and staying in a nice happy safe place forever. We still have to go out into the world, to learn and grow, to live our lives. We come back into the safety of God’s sheltering arms, but then we go out into the world again. And no matter whether we’re coming in our going out, we come through Jesus. And when we go out into the world, we don’t go alone. Jesus is the gate through which we come to God, but Jesus is also the shepherd who leads us out to find pasture, who leads us when we are walking beside still waters and green pastures, and protects us when we walk through all the dark places in our lives. Whether we are going out or coming in, whether we are safe in the sheepfold or out in the pasture, whether we are walking beside beautiful, still waters or slogging through the valley of darkness, surrounded by enemies, Jesus is with us, our light and our salvation, guiding and protecting us.

We are connected to Jesus through our baptisms. In our baptisms, God claims us as lambs of his own fold, sinners of his own redeeming. Through the water of the Holy Spirit, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Through the water of our baptism, we learn our Shepherd’s voice, the voice that will lead us in to safe harbor in God’s fold, and out into the world to live and learn and grow. In baptism, we receive the still waters that quench our soul’s thirst. The waters of baptism give us the strength to follow Jesus even through the darkest valleys of our lives, trusting that he will lead us back to the safety of the sheepfold even when that seems impossible. Baptism—being dunked in the water, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit—only happens once. But a baptismal life is something that we live every day, coming to God for safe harbor and rest and then following God back out into the world. Life for a baptized child of God means doing everything through Christ, whether we’re coming in or going out.

Jesus says he is the shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep know. And because they know his voice, they will follow him and not the others who come to hurt them and steal them away. But sheep can’t decide on their own who the shepherd is and who the thief. They have to learn the shepherd’s voice. They have to grow in faith that the shepherd will take care of them, and bring them back safely home. In baptism, Jesus calls us as his own. Baptism is the beginning of life with Jesus; it’s the beginning of learning to listen for his voice.

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Nash and Teagan. I’m sure their parents, Ryan and Christina can tell us how hard it is to get them to listen to their parents’ voices. Children, like sheep, don’t always want to listen to the people who are trying to take care of them. It seems like there’s always something to distract them, some reason they would rather go astray. Teaching them to listen and follow takes patience. And they have to want to hear; they have to be listening for the voices of their mothers and fathers. (And sometimes children can be pretty selective on whether or not they hear their parents.) But whether or not the children are listening, the parents don’t stop calling for them, and teaching them to listen. Sheep have to be taught to listen just like children do: they aren’t born knowing their shepherd. They get to know him as they follow him, as they learn that he is taking care of them and protecting him, as they learn that he will keep coming for them, keep calling them, even when they go astray.

We’re kind of like sheep. We need to learn to hear God’s voice calling us, and it is baptism that gives us the first lesson in hearing God calling us by name. But we’re not always very good at learning that lesson. Sometimes we’re like children who can hear God perfectly well, but don’t want to admit it because something is distracting us, or it sounds like more fun to do our own thing than to listen. But the God who called us by name, who connected us to himself through our baptisms keeps calling, keeps reaching out, keeps shepherding us and guiding us.

The Spirit blowing through

Lent 2, (Year A), March 16, 2014

 Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-15, 13-17, John 3:1-17

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.

In some ways, Nicodemus is a very 21st Century guy.  We in the 21st Century tend to take things literally—being literal, fact-based, provable with objective scientific accuracy, is a big thing for us.  Have you noticed how often people say “literally”?  Any time you want to say something is absolutely true, you say “literally.”  Even when something isn’t literally true, we try and claim that it is.  We look for rational answers.  We want everything cut and dried and easily explainable.  All laid out in black and white.

That’s kind of how Nicodemus thinks, too.  He knows Jesus comes from God because of the miracles that Jesus does.  And he wants to know more.  He wants to learn about God.  He wants to know more.  All very admirable!  Except, if you notice, he goes away with less certainty than he came with.  He wants to figure things out, and Jesus doesn’t exactly help him out.

The first thing Jesus says to him is “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Notice that Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus time to ask his question; Jesus wades right in.  Now, Nicodemus is a very logical fellow.  He takes people at their word.  It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically or spiritually or anything; he takes Jesus literally.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  I ask you.  Was Jesus speaking literally?  No, he was not.  Does Nicodemus even seem to consider that Jesus might not mean literally re-entering one’s mother’s womb and being squeezed out a second time?  No.  Nicodemus thinks in nice, neat categories: babies are babies and adults are adults and once you’re born, that’s it.  He’s come to seek God, but he wants answers that he can easily understand.  Answers that make sense.  Answers that fit Nicodemus’ own ideas of the way the world works.

Jesus tries to expand on what he meant a little bit.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  He’s still speaking metaphorically, which isn’t much help to poor old Nicodemus.  Jesus doesn’t give up on the metaphors and start giving a polished spiel that neatly explains what he’s talking about.  He doesn’t give a step-by-step answer with bullet points and examples and detailed explanation.  He continues to speak in symbols, which is something Jesus did a lot of.  Jesus almost never spoke on a literal level; he spoke in parables and stories and imagery and metaphor.  I think it’s because the reality of God is too big for our mortal, finite brains to handle.  I think that the Kingdom of God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine.  How would you explain the color purple to someone born blind?  How would you explain a symphony to someone born deaf?  Human beings like things to be neat and tidy and easily understandable.  But God isn’t neat and tidy, and God certainly isn’t small enough to fit into our mental boxes.

So there’s poor Nicodemus, listening to Jesus talk about being born again and wondering what the heck he means.  What does it mean to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’?  Well, one thing about the Word of God is that it’s all connected.  What that means is that all the stories resonate with one another.  So when we hear Jesus talking about water, we should start thinking of all the places where the Bible talks about water: the Holy Spirit moving over the waters of creation.  Noah and his family being saved through the waters of the Flood.  The Israelites being led to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, and later being given water in the desert, and finally being led through the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Psalm 51, where the psalmist prays for God to wash him and make him clean.  Isaiah, calling everyone to come to the water.  John in the Jordan, calling all to repent.  Jesus, coming to the Jordan to be baptized.  All of these images and words should be going through our minds when we hear Jesus talking about ‘being born of water and Spirit.’  And the connections don’t stop there: think of our baptisms, where God’s promises come to us through the water, and we are marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

All of those stories talk about change, about something new, something different.  The old is gone, wiped away.  Slavery becomes freedom, becomes a new life in a new community.  Sin is washed away and we become clean.  We are tied through the waters of baptism to all of those stories; we are tied to Jesus Christ through his baptism.  Something happens in us.  Something new.  Something that doesn’t fit into nice, neat categories.  When we come out of our mothers’ wombs, we are born children of a fallen humanity.  When we come out of the water, we are re-born children of God.  We are re-born as children of a God who loves us so much that he was willing to send his only son to die for our sake, to break the powers of sin and death that enslave the entire world.

In the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to us and inspires us and sends us out into the world.  And the Holy Spirit absolutely, positively, can’t be shoved into our nice neat categories.  It’s like the wind.  We all know about wind, right?  It can be powerful.  It can change directions quickly, or it can blow strongly and consistently.  Nothing can control it; nothing can stop it.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The spirit blows us about, turns us around.  Whenever I think I have everything figured out, whenever I think I have God’s plans for me pinned down and explained, the Holy Spirit blows through my life.  And I think that’s true for a lot of people.  Have you ever had the Holy Spirit blow through your life and turn things upside down?

How do you boil all this down to nice, neat, logical, literal categories?  Nicodemus couldn’t, and—at least at that point—he couldn’t take that leap of faith to let go of his literal-mindedness and live in the ambiguity of God’s Word.  He leaves, without saying another word.  He came under cover of darkness, not really knowing what he was looking for, and he leaves Jesus more confused than he was when he showed up.  But this isn’t the only time Nicodemus appears in the Gospel of John, and for those of you reading through the New Testament this Lent I encourage you to look for him when he shows up.  Because this encounter with Jesus will not be Nicodemus’ last.  At this point in the story, Nicodemus can’t open his heart and his mind to Jesus.  But that will change.  Nicodemus might not understand the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is still working in him.

So what about us?  Today, in the twenty-first century, we tend to take things more literally than they did in Jesus’ day.  Like Nicodemus, we tend to want to put things in nice neat categories, and we want easy, logical answers to our questions.  But God defies our expectations, giving us a Word that is messier and more complicated and bigger than we can understand.  We’re not left alone to muddle through it, though.  We have been born anew in the waters of baptism.  We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; it blows through us and through our world just as it did in Jesus’ day.  The Holy Spirit breathes new life into us, breaks up our mistaken certainties, opens us up to the greatness of God’s work in the world.  But are we paying attention?  Are we watching for the wind that blows where it will, or do we focus on the things we can understand and pin down?  Are we going to go away like Nicodemus, with more questions than answers, or are we going to follow God’s Word?

Amen.

Preparations of the Heart

Advent 2A, December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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

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

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

Advent, the season of waiting.  We have been waiting almost two thousand years for Christ to come again.  But we were not the first to wait.  By the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s people had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come.  There had been prophecies and stories, speculation and wondering.  Our first lesson today, from the book of Isaiah, is one of the passages where God tells them what the Messiah will be like and what God’s kingdom will be like when the Messiah comes.  It’s a beautiful picture with words that have resonated through the centuries—a vision of peace and security, justice and righteousness, of people and all of creation living in harmony together.  God’s people had been waiting for a long time for that vision to come true by the time Jesus began his ministry.

We, too, are waiting; we are waiting for Christmas and the celebration of the Messiah’s birth, but we are also waiting for the Messiah to come again in glory and establish the kingdom that Isaiah foretold.  We are waiting for that kingdom of new growth; we are waiting for the glory of Jesus to shine forth throughout the world.  We yearn for peace and justice; we tell stories of generosity and the “spirit of Christmas” filling hearts across the world.  We gather together with loved ones, and try to get along better.  We try to be nicer.

And then we hear today’s Gospel reading, about John the Baptist preaching fire and damnation.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Merry Christmas!  Not.

John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin.  He was only a few months older than Jesus, but he was already a well-established religious leader by the time Jesus started his public ministry.  He was a bit of a spectacle; he dressed like a wild man, or like the prophets of old.  Many people came to see him; they came to hear his message, but I wonder if some came just for the spectacle.  To stare at the weird crazy person.  But whether they came to gawk or to listen, John had a message for them.  John the Baptist’s whole mission was to get people ready for the Messiah to come.  Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!  Get ready for the Lord’s coming!  Don’t just ready your homes, prepare your hearts and minds and lives!  John the Baptist did not care if people liked him.  He wasn’t in it for popularity or riches or anything else.

In my experience, people don’t like to be told that they are sinners who need to repent.  In fact, it’s one of the fastest ways to get people to shut you out.  Particularly religious people—religious people are often quick to see the ways other people are sinners, but have all kinds of justifications for why their own sins aren’t really sins at all.  But at the same time … we all know that the world is a sinful, broken place.  We’ve all seen it, experienced it.  And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we are sinful, and sometimes broken, too.  There’s a relief that comes with admitting it; there’s a relief that comes with the honesty of saying “I have sinned, forgive me.”  There’s a relief that comes from turning away from the sinkholes of our guilt and shame and fear, and towards a new way, a better way of living and thinking.

That’s what repentance means, you know.  Literally, “to repent” means “to turn around.”  Turn away from the darkness; turn towards the light.  Turn away from your fear; turn towards hope.  Turn away from your anger and hate; turn towards love.  Turn away from your sin; turn towards God.  Change is possible; a better way of life is possible.  But only if you turn from the way of sin and death and brokenness, and turn toward the healing and life that only God can bring.

Yes, the kingdom of God is near, John the Baptist said.  That kingdom where the wolf lives with the lamb, and children are safe even in the midst of wild animals and poisonous snakes, that kingdom is near.  The kingdom where the poor and the meek get a fair and right chance, where God’s spirit of wisdom and understanding comes with the Messiah, that kingdom is near.

But that kingdom can’t come while things stay the way they are.  The sin and brokenness of this world has no place in God’s kingdom.  And much as we’d rather not admit it, a lot of the brokenness of the world comes from our own hearts and actions and words, things we do and things we fail to do.  Sin isn’t just something bad people do; everyone sins.  All of the hurt we cause ourselves and one another through our sin, that just isn’t compatible with God’s kingdom.  When the Messiah comes, the sins will be sorted out and excluded from the kingdom.  If you choose to stay with your sins, if you aren’t willing to turn away from them towards the Messiah who is coming … you’re going be in trouble.  Getting ready for the coming of the Messiah doesn’t just mean making things look nice for a party; you have to be willing to confess the ways you have hurt yourself and others.  You have to be willing to turn away from your sins to the only thing that will save you, the only thing that will heal your brokenness: the Messiah, God’s only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

That sounds like a big thing to ask, and it is.  We can’t heal our own brokenness, and sin has its claws deep into our souls.  We can’t save ourselves; and all too often our repentance is short lived.  We fall back into bad habits.  We sin again.  We hurt ourselves and others over and over again.  We repent, but we do not bear fruit worthy of repentance.

The good news is, it’s not up to us and our efforts.  Christ came so that we might be saved; God’s only Son, the Messiah, died so that we might live.  In baptism we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection; in baptism, we are washed clean; in baptism, our sins are forgiven and our brokenness is healed.  We sin, and sin again, and we and all of creation will remain broken and sinful until that day when Christ comes again.  But through it all, Christ reaches out to us, again and again, calling us to turn towards him.  All we have to do is respond.  All we have to do is turn to him and take his hand.  And when we stumble and fall again—as we will—Christ is there to help us up again, if we let him.  If we turn to him.  If we repent.  If we open our hearts and our minds to his coming, and welcome him in.

In this season of waiting for Christmas, we do a lot to prepare our homes.  We clean, we decorate, we plan parties and dinners.  We think a lot about Christmas coming, do we think enough about Christ’s coming?  How well do we prepare ourselves?  We talk about the “spirit of Christmas” and loving one another; we toss money in Salvation Army kettles and watch heart-warming movies.  We spend a lot of time trying to be nice.  Being nice can be a good thing, and being generous and loving is certainly something we as Christians should be doing all year round.  But are we going deep enough?

John the Baptist reminds us that Christ’s coming is not just a matter of a cute baby in a manger with angel choirs singing familiar carols.  Christ’s coming means the coming of the kingdom of God.  Christ’s coming means that things will change—that we will be changed—and that we are called to turn away from our sin and turn towards Christ.  May we be ready for the coming of the kingdom.

Amen.

Putting On Christ

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year C, June 23, 2013

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Galatians.  Next week, we’re going to take a break for Augustana’s 100th anniversary before finishing up this sermon series.  To recap what’s happened so far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: The Galatians had started to value human traditions as the way to prove themselves followers of God, and Paul tries to set them straight.  He reminds them that no human tradition, no matter how good, can take the place of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  No amount of following the rules and toeing the line will save us; only Christ can save us through his life, death, and resurrection.  Paul reminds us that the true Gospel, the Good News that Jesus came to give us, can change our lives as it changed his; the Good News that Christ called Paul to preach is the same Good News that we hear today.  Even in the midst of a world that is broken by sin and death, Christ is with us.  The faithfulness of Christ transforms us, gives us hope in the midst of all our brokenness, gives us faith in God and in one another.

Paul expands on that idea in today’s reading.  First he goes back to the law.  Now, when Paul talks about the law, he’s not just talking about the rules and regulations the government sets up to manage everything from traffic lights to taxes to elementary education to international treaties.  Paul is talking about religious laws—or, perhaps teachings would be a better translation—that govern everyday life.  He’s talking about everything from the Ten Commandments on down, all the things that faithful followers of God are supposed to do.  That’s the law he’s talking about, the law that he says imprisoned us and was our disciplinarian until faith came.

Disciplinarian, imprisoned—those aren’t very nice terms.  But the Law that Paul was talking about, that was part of ordinary religious observance!  We still teach and hold up some of those laws today as good and beneficial.  I just got through teaching the 7th Grade Confirmation students about the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone on which the rest of the Law is built.  I think we can all agree that following the Ten Commandments and other such religious teachings is a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have such a moral code.  So why is Paul so hard on the Law?  Why doesn’t he seem to like it?

I think an analogy with secular law is in order here.  You see, the legal system can’t make anyone good.  All it can do is punish you for being bad.  If you step out of line, you are punished.  And fear of punishment may stop people from doing evil or immoral things, but it won’t make them a good person.  I mean, it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.  All it means is that you’re not a criminal.  There are a lot of people out there who have never broken a law in their lives who are still thoroughly nasty people and miserable excuses for human beings.  I could name some, and I bet you could too.  And while the law tries to promote good behavior, all the incentives in the world can’t change a person’s nature.  You can donate to charity in order to get the tax write-off, and it still won’t make you a generous person, if all you’re doing is the minimum needed to reduce your tax obligations.  Don’t get me wrong, having laws is a good thing.  Restraining evil is a good thing.  Working together for the common good in the form of roads and schools and other necessities is a good thing.  But it can’t save anyone, and it can’t make people better.  And, sometimes, bad laws get made, laws that hurt people; sometimes good laws get interpreted in bad ways, to hurt people.

Religious law is the same way.  It can restrain evil, and it can regulate our life together for the common good.  But following all the traditions and teachings and rules can’t heal anyone’s brokenness or save anyone’s soul.  It can’t transform us; it can’t make us children of God; it can’t make us brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when we start focusing too much on our laws, when we make our traditions the arbiter and central point of our Christian faith, it’s all too easy to forget about the one thing that really can save and transform us: Jesus Christ.  It’s easy to get so focused on what we’re doing, that we can’t see what God has done and is doing for us.  And from there it’s a short step to interpreting God’s law through our own prejudices.  That was the Galatians’ problem: it wasn’t that the laws they were following were bad in themselves, but they were starting to put more trust in those laws than in Christ.

When we were baptized, we became children of God.  When we were baptized, we became united with Christ’s death and resurrection.  When we were baptized, we were washed clean.  When we were baptized, we were transformed.  That’s the core of the Gospel; that’s the core of what it means to be a Christian.  All the laws and traditions in the history of the world are less important than that simple fact.  Laws and traditions can’t save us; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t transform us into children of God; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t heal our brokenness; Christ can.

We have put on Christ.  We still live in a world broken by sin and death.  We ourselves are broken by sin and death, and will be until Christ comes again.  That brokenness divides us, separates us from one another and from God.  And yet we are clothed in Christ’s love, forgiveness, and righteousness.  And that makes a difference.  We are called to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to see one another through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to act out of love, not out of fear of punishment. We live in a world that is and always has been fragmented by tribe and race and creed and gender and class and sexuality and age and politics and a thousand other things.  We live in a world where people pay attention to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it.  And we often fall short of our calling and fall prey to those divisions and temptations.

In Paul’s day, the most fundamental divisions were cultural divisions between Jews and Greeks, economic and class differences between slaves and free people, and gender divisions between men and women.  Those divisions were codified and reinforced by secular laws and customs, and also by the way religious laws and customs were interpreted.  And those divisions were getting in the way of spreading the Gospel, because people were paying more attention to those divisions, to the rules that kept people separate, than they were to the Good News that frees us and unites us all as children of God.  But as Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, Christ brings all people together—and our baptism in Christ is more important than anything that separates us, more important than any tradition or rule that holds us apart.

It’s easy to be blinded by all of society’s rules and prejudices.  It’s easy to use those rules as the basis for our actions, rather than our faith in Christ.  And it’s easy to let our understanding of God’s law be twisted and shaped by our prejudices and divisions, rather than by the light of Christ.  But the truth is, what we share in Christ is more important than any human division could ever be.  When you look at another human being, you see someone for whom Christ died.  Even if it’s someone you don’t like; even if it’s someone you think you have nothing in common with.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the basis of our relationships with all people.

Through our baptisms we have been saved, redeemed, made children of God and united in Christ.  That is who we are.  That is more important than any human division.  That is more important than any rule or tradition.  It is Christ who saves us, all of us, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what group we belong to.  It is Christ, not our ability to follow the laws, not our traditions, not our ability to interpret the teachings.  It is Christ who makes us children of God, who forgives us and saves us no matter how many times we fall short of God’s glory.  That is the Good News, and it is Good News for all people.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Wherever the Spirit blows

Pentecost, Year C, May 18, 2013

Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-35, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

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.

Boy, we had a lot of wind this week!  A lot of wind.  I was down in Bismarck on Tuesday, and I could see the stop signs and street lights waving in the wind.  It was a novel sight for me—back home in Oregon, I would never have seen metal poles anchored in concrete move.  But here in North Dakota, when the wind gets whipping around, it happens.  Wind here is such a dramatic metaphor for the Spirit.  You see, the Holy Spirit and wind are alike in a way.  You can’t see wind, just as you can’t see the Holy Spirit.  But you can sure see what it’s doing.

Before Jesus was crucified, he told his followers what was coming.  He would leave them, and he would send them the Holy Spirit.  Now, the disciples were very worried.  They didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them; they couldn’t imagine that anything which resulted in Jesus dying might work out.  They were afraid of being without Jesus.  They were afraid of what might happen when they no longer had Jesus there to tell them what God wanted and guide them in God’s way.  So Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus responded by saying they’d seen the Father—because after all, the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit are all one.  So, since they know Jesus, they know the Father as well, and the Holy Spirit.  And once Jesus was gone, he would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them always, so that God would still be with them even if Jesus was no longer physically present for them to see and touch.

This made the disciples nervous, and I can understand why.  When Jesus was right there with them, it was easy to feel the presence of God.  They could see him, touch him, sit down and have a meal with him and talk about who God was, what it meant to be God’s people, and what God was calling them to do.  This “advocate” Jesus told them of, this “Spirit,” that’s a lot more difficult to see and feel.  And it’s a lot easier to misunderstand.  Just like with the wind, you see the Spirit’s effects, and not the Spirit itself.  If you’re looking out a window and see a stop sign shaking, it could be the wind—or it could be an earthquake.  Or there could be construction guys using heavy equipment nearby.  You have to make a judgment call—which is it?  And for me, at least, I haven’t lived in North Dakota long enough for “wind” to be the first thing I think of.

The Spirit’s effects can be more difficult to discern than the effects of wind.  You have to be watching for it, and open to the possibility of God working among us.  Just look at the lesson from Acts.  The Holy Spirit filled the disciples, sending them out from the rooms they’d been hiding away in.  They went out into the community and began to tell people about their experiences with Jesus.  Even more than that, they spoke in many different languages, so that everyone could understand them.  And some people heard them and believed, but others heard them and thought they must be drunk.  To us who know Jesus, who hear this story with the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that they could miss God’s actions in this story.  This was a great miracle, and yet they couldn’t see it!  They looked for reasons to doubt, for other explanations.  They were faithful people—they were all in Jerusalem to celebrate a major Jewish religious festival at the Temple—and yet, when God intervened directly in their midst, they couldn’t see it.  They weren’t expecting it, and so they found other explanations that made more sense to them.

Sometimes, we do the same thing.  Be honest: how often do you actually look for God’s presence in your life?  How often do you see something happening around you and wonder if it might be the Holy Spirit?  Too often, we simply don’t see the Spirit because we’re not looking for it.  We shrug and explain things as coincidence, or as the result of a whole host of reasons.  And that may very well be true—but that doesn’t mean the Spirit can’t be working through those things!  Throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, God has done amazing things that the people at the time would never have thought of.  Without the Holy Spirit, Peter and the rest of the disciples would never have gone out there to preach to the crowds, and, later, it would never have occurred to them to spread the message of Jesus to non-Jews.  And without the Holy Spirit, the crowds who heard the disciples’ story on that first Pentecost would never have believed.  Without the Spirit, those crowds would have remained divided by race and language.  Without the Spirit, nothing is possible; but with the Spirit, all sorts of things are possible.  But if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t looking for the way the Spirit is moving, we can miss seeing it just like some of those who saw the first Pentecost did.

We look back at what the Holy Spirit did in the Bible, at stories like Pentecost, and it’s easy to think that nothing like that could happen now.  That was a long time ago, and I haven’t seen any tongues of flame, have you?  Yet we know the Holy Spirit is with us, because Jesus promised to give it to us.  We may not always recognize its work in our lives and in our world, but it is with us always.  And it can do amazing things, whether we recognize it or not.  The Spirit comforts us in our sorrows, inspires us, connects us to God, and guides us in our journey through life.  The Spirit leads us to do things we would never have believed we could do, to places we would never have believed we would be.  The Spirit brings us together as God’s people and forms us into the body of Christ.  And, when this broken, sinful world brings sorrows and griefs, the Spirit comforts us and shows us God’s love.

We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptisms, and that is an awesome gift.  In baptism, we are washed clean.  Our old sinful self is drowned and we rise to new life in Christ.  And the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  We are, in the words of the baptismal rite, “sealed by the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit dwells within each one of us.  No matter what happens, no matter what we do or where we go, the seal of the Holy Spirit goes with us.  Even when we can’t see the Spirit moving, we know it is with us.  Even when we can’t feel its effects, we know it is with us.

Rylan and Roslin will be receiving that gift of the Spirit here today.  It’s an awesome gift!  It’s not the end of their journey towards God; it is the beginning of their journey with God.  We here are all making that journey.  It’s not a journey to take alone.  Christianity is not, at heart, about being alone with God.  Christianity is about coming together in the community of faith, to support and encourage one another and to be the Body of Christ in the world.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings us together despite our differences.  It is the Holy Spirit that guides us along that journey and helps us to be faithful to God.  It is the Holy Spirit that helps us to share God’s story with all people, and it is the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world.

When people are baptized, we promise to support them in their life as Christians.  We welcome them into the family of faith.  In the case of children, we promise that we will help their parents and godparents raise them in the Christian faith.  It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we received at our own baptisms, that allows us to do this.  We have been chosen and called by God, here in this place, to share the Good News with all people through our words and our actions.  Rylan and Roslin, who will be baptized today, are entering into that relationship.  We will support and encourage them to grow in God, just as they in their turn will support and encourage others.  We will tell them the stories of God’s work in the world just as those stories were told to us, just as the disciples told the crowds at that first Pentecost, so many years ago.

Two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit sent the disciples out to tell the story of Jesus.  It sent them out into a world that didn’t like them much, a world in which many people wouldn’t hear or understand their message, wouldn’t see God’s presence in their midst.  The Spirit acted through them, and we call Pentecost the church’s birthday because the conversions that started that day were the beginnings of what came to be the church.  By hearing and responding to the good news, those people became part of the family of God, and they, too, received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The story of Pentecost is not over.  The story of Pentecost continues wherever the Holy Spirit blows.  Pentecost is happening right here in our church today, as we celebrate the work of God in our young people, from those who have grown in faith until they are ready to graduate from high school and become adults, to those who will be baptized here today.  We see the Spirit at work in them, and it reminds us that the Spirit is at work in all of us.  Wherever the Spirit is at work, it is Pentecost, and the Spirit is at work here.  It led the disciples out of their comfortable rooms and into the world to preach God’s Word.  It led crowds of people to be given the gift of faith.  I wonder what the Spirit will do in and through us?  May we all feel the Spirit’s work in our lives.  Thanks be to God for that gift.

Amen.

The Gifts of Baptism

Baptism of Our Lord, Year C, Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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

Those of you who have read a lot of the Bible or paid a lot of attention in church and Sunday School may have noticed how many of the major Bible stories have to do with water.  The first chapter of Genesis speaks of God moving over the waters during the creation.  Noah was saved in the midst of the flood which destroyed civilization.  Moses was hidden in safety in a basket on the river and later led the people of Israel to freedom through the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s army drowned.  In the wilderness, water was one of the basic necessities God provided the wandering Israelites.  All of that water, in just the first two books of the Bible!  And it doesn’t stop there.  God uses water in many ways throughout the Bible.

One of the reasons for that, of course, is that water is one of the most basic needs of all human beings.  Thirst will kill you quicker than hunger; and it’s really hard to keep anything clean without water.  On the other hand, water is also very dangerous: even a moment’s inattention by any open water, and you can drown.  We love to swim in it and go boating over the top of it on hot summer days, but we can’t ever take it for granted.  And in the desert, where the people of Israel lived, the search for water is a daily necessity.  People walk miles every day to the nearest well or river to get the water they and their animals need to survive.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that water is everywhere in the Bible.

The most important use of water in the Bible and in our churches today is, of course, baptism.  In the Gospel we read today the story of Jesus’ baptism, and from Acts we heard the story of the baptism of some Samaritan Christians.  After his resurrection Jesus commanded his followers to go out into the world, baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we are gathered here today to baptize young Weston.  So what is baptism, and why is it so important?

Baptism is a sacrament, one of two.  The other sacrament is, of course, Communion.  A sacrament is a rite commanded by God in which God’s promises are given form in a physical element.  Intangible words and tangible things are united as one.  In Baptism, the sign is water.  Although we can’t see or touch God, we can see and feel the water God uses to seal his promises.  And the promise is God’s love and grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, God comes to us to claim us as his own.  Did you hear the words God the Father spoke at Jesus’ baptism?  “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  That sounds a lot like what God said in the reading from Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  And again: “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  God speaks these words to us at our own baptisms.  As the water is poured over us, God claims us.  At each baptism, God says to each person being baptized “You are my beloved child.”  That love is unconditional: there is nothing we can do that will ever make God stop loving us and calling us.  In baptism, we become God’s children, and nothing can ever change that.

In Baptism, we die to sin and are born holy and righteous before God.  We are broken, sinful people who live in a broken, sinful world.  But through Baptism, we put on Christ’s righteousness.  Instead of seeing our sins, God chooses to see Christ’s sinlessness.  Although we are still sinners, we have been redeemed by God through our baptism.  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism, and to his death and resurrection.  We are marked with the cross of Christ.  As Christ died, so we too will die.  But as Christ rose from the grave, so we too will rise when Christ comes again.

In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  As the Spirit descended out of heaven like a dove to Jesus, and came to the people of Samaria after their baptism and the prayers of the apostles, so too the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  During Weston’s baptism, you will see me anoint him with oil and say that he has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will be with him all the days of his life, through good times and bad, even when he can’t see or feel the Spirit’s presence within him.  God will always be with you, even when your own doubts and fears and the cares of the world blind you to God’s presence.  Baptism doesn’t mean that your life will be all smooth sailing, but it does mean that you never have to face trouble alone.

In Baptism, we become part of the Christian community, which is the body of Christ in the world.  As we become children of God, that means that all of God’s other children are our brothers and sisters.  At the end of the baptism today, you will all join me in welcoming Weston into the family of God.  We don’t often take that as seriously as we should, but it’s true.  We are all brothers and sisters, through our baptisms, and we should be better at loving and helping one another than we are.  Being a child of God means participating in the community, and sharing in the life of faith with all of God’s children.  Being a child of God means following God’s call and listening to the Holy Spirit.  So during the baptism, you will all be asked to make promises.  Weston’s parents and godparents will promise to raise Weston in the faith, bringing him to worship and helping him learn the scriptures.  But the congregation as a whole will promise to support Weston in his Christian life.  We make this promise at each and every baptism, that we will help and support our new brother or sister in Christ, and it is the basis of the Christian community.

All of these things happen in baptism.  God claims us as his beloved children, we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God and members of the Christian community.  That’s a lot!  Each and every one of these things can have a profound impact on our lives, if we let it.  And yet, all too often we forget.  We forget that we are children of God, we forget that God loves us, we don’t pay attention to the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and we ignore the promises we make to one another to support each other in faith.  We forget that our need for God is as fundamental as our need for water to drink.  We forget that without Christ, our souls shrivel up in thirst for the living water that comes from God alone.

So what can we do?  How can we respond to the great gifts God has given us in our baptism?  The first step is obvious enough: remember your baptism.  Remember always those words God spoke over you: “You are my beloved child.”  Remember that all your sins are forgiven.  Remember that the Holy Spirit always dwells within you, and listen for its guidance.  It sounds easy.  But these are all intangible things.  We can’t see these promises God has made to us; we can’t touch them or taste them or smell them.  And sometimes it is hard to believe that they are real, in the midst of this solid world.  That’s why God has given us another gift in baptism: the water.

We can’t touch God’s promises, but we can touch the water.  We can bathe in it, swim in it, drink it, hear it splash, feel it soak into our dry skin, feel it run down our throat.  So each time you use water, remember your baptism.  Each glass of water you drink, remember that God loves you.  Each time you take a bath or a shower, make the sign of the cross and remember that you have been washed clean and your sins are forgiven.  Each time you jump in a pool, remember that you have been made a member of the body of Christ, part of the community of faith.  And thank God for the promises made in your baptism.

Amen.

Called to the Waters

Advent 2, Year C,nSunday, December 2nd, 2012

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Preached by 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 to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

In my first year of seminary, I participated in a Bible study run by laypeople at a local church.  In one session, the subject of the worship service came up, and why we do what we do every Sunday.  One woman started complaining about the confession at the beginning of every worship service.  “Why do we do it so often?” she asked.  “I don’t have any sins to confess!  I’m not a sinner!”

I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say.  How to answer that?  She thought she was perfect, that she didn’t sin?  She thought she never did anything wrong?  I wondered if her husband and children would have agreed with her.  I wondered if her boss would have agreed with her.  I wondered if her co-workers and neighbors would have agreed with her.  I wondered if the people in her life less fortunate than her would have agreed with her.  Reading today’s Gospel lesson, I wonder if John the Baptizer would have agreed with her.

John was the son of a priestly family.  His father, Zechariah, served at the Temple in Jerusalem.  He was from the biggest city in Judea, the center of Jewish life.  He undoubtedly was connected in some way to all the important people in the land—the priestly caste, after all, had a good bit of power.  Being a priest was a good job, a comfortable job, and since it was hereditary John had it made.  He could have had a very nice life, a much more comfortable life than the vast majority of the people in Judea.  And yet, John tossed it all away to go live in the wilderness on what he could scrounge.  John followed the word of God, away from everything that people expected of him.

God called John to tell the world that they were sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, and to offer that forgiveness to all through the waters of baptism.  God called John to prepare the way for Jesus.  God called John, and John went.

Given his family’s position, John would have been in a good position to see the excesses and the injustices of everyone from the Romans to the Temple leadership to the ordinary people on the street.  If he wandered outside the Temple complex through Jerusalem, he could have seen just about every walk of life.  And if he stayed in the temple, he could have seen the infighting, the petty bickering, the power plays common to powerful people.  I bet he heard a lot of justifications, too.  “It’s not that bad, everyone does it.  It’s a necessary evil, it’s for a good cause.”  Or how about this one?  “It’s not my fault, it’s just the way the system works.”  Or “It’s not my fault, they made me do it.”  Sound familiar?  Nobody likes to admit it when we do things wrong, when we make mistakes.  It’s easier to tell ourselves that we haven’t done anything wrong than it is to own up to our failings.  And it’s easier still to point fingers at other people.  You’ll notice that John doesn’t make distinctions.  John doesn’t say: you people who don’t go to Temple are sinners who need to repent.  John doesn’t say: you Roman invaders are sinners who need to repent.  John doesn’t say: you religious leaders are sinners who need to repent.  He doesn’t go after the non-Jews, or the Jews from different factions, or the people everyone knew were sinners.  No, filled with the word of God, John called everyone to repentance and forgiveness.  He wasn’t just concerned with the big public sins that everyone shakes their head at and points fingers at.  John was concerned with all the things, big and small, that turn us away from God and away from other people.  And John was concerned with all people, calling them to the water.

We, today, are still being called to the water.  John the Baptist’s words echoes through the centuries.  All who are brought to God, whether as infants or as adults, come to the water and are baptized.  In that water, the old, sinful self is drowned and we rise up forgiven and renewed children of God.  There is repentance, a turning away from sin.  But it is God who calls us, and God whose Spirit is given to us in baptism, God who washes away the stains left by our own actions, thoughts, and hesitations, God who forgives us.  It is God who calls us to turn away from our sins, God who calls us to live lives worthy of the kingdom he will bring.  John quotes Isaiah: prepare the royal highway, for God is coming, and everyone will see the salvation he brings.  In that salvation we will be washed clean of our sins, all the broken, petty, selfish, nasty little bits will be wiped away.  One of the images of baptism is drowning: we are drowned in the water, our sinful self is killed, and we are reborn as children of God.  Martin Luther liked to say that the reality of a baptized Christian is that we die every day to sin and rise to new life in Christ.

Drowning is violent, scary, dangerous, something we’re not in control of.  People like to think of the Christian life as being all about our choice: we choose to come to Jesus (or not), we choose to repent, we choose to believe.  And, certainly, we can choose to turn away from God.  But it is God who calls us and claims us, who gives us life and light, God who is coming to bring salvation to all people.  We are not the ones in control; God is.  And that’s good news because our sin and brokenness are far greater than anything we could ever fix on our own.  Every day, in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and by what we fail to do, we show our impurities, our imperfections, our brokenness, and our sin, no matter how hard we try to hide it or deny it.  It is only through God’s grace and mercy that we are renewed, made pure, and our sins are forgiven.

The prophet Malachi understood this, when he used the image of a refinery to describe God’s actions.  In an old-style refinery, crude, unrefined ores are heated in a vat until they melt, and the impurities rise to the surface.  The refiner stands beside the vat of molten metal, skimming all the bad stuff off the top.  The refiner keeps skimming until the metal is pure—and knows the metal is pure when he can see his face in it.  We are the crude ore being melted and skimmed of impurity, and God is the one doing the scraping.  We can’t do it ourselves—we don’t even realize what the impurities are, half the time!

We live in a culture that prizes self-reliance and self-righteousness.  We idolize those who can take care of themselves, and we hate admitting we need someone—anyone—else.  We like to have things all planned out, to know where we’re going and why.  And yet, there are some things we can’t do.  We can’t cleanse ourselves of our sins, we can’t heal the broken places in our souls, we can’t make the bad things we say and do disappear.  All we can do, on our own, is paper over the cracks and pretend they aren’t there.

It takes courage to admit we aren’t perfect.  It takes courage to admit that we need help, that we can’t do everything by ourselves.  And it takes courage to follow God’s call, whether that call leads us out into the wilderness or just leads us to do new things here at home.  The Christian life is not an easy one, because it strips us of our illusions and shows us just how much darkness there is around us and inside us, how much brokenness there is.  It shows us all the things we should have done but didn’t, all the things we did do that we shouldn’t have.

And yet, there is hope, even in our darkness, because Christ is coming.  We can’t fix ourselves, but God calls us to the waters of baptism.  God calls all of us, from all walks of life, no matter what we have done or failed to do, and washes us in the water.  Our sins are drowned, we are purified, the crooked places inside us are made straight.  We are made ready for our Lord, who comes to bring salvation to all

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

Baptism of Our …

Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B), Sunday, January 8, 2012

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

As you may know, I went home for the week after Christmas.  On December 30th, my mother and I went shopping in the mall near my home, and they already had the Valentines candy and Easter outfits on display.  The tinsel and lights and presents of the December holiday season were already packed away in their boxes to await next year’s sales.  And yet, we here in this church are still in a season of gifts.

No, it’s not still Christmas, even here—the twelfth and last day of Christmas was January 5th—but now we are in the season of Epiphany.  The festival of Epiphany is January 6th and celebrates Jesus Christ as the light of the world.  It also celebrates the coming of the Magi following the light of a star to lead them to Christ.  And what do the magi bring?  Presents!  So it’s no surprise that the readings of the season of Epiphany usually focus on either light, or gifts.  And today is a day of celebrating gifts—in this case, the gifts God has given us.

Specifically, we are remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through water and God’s Word, in baptism.  If ever there was a gift that kept on giving, there it is.  We start off the readings with the breath of God—the Spirit—sweeping over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation.  You see, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  God created it out of nothingness.  Everything in this world, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, from the smallest microbe to you and me, was and is created by God.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from the creative work of God.  Our existence and every good thing in our lives is a gift from God.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit was there, moving through it and working with the Father.  One thing I notice is that whenever I come across references to the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s always moving, or doing something.  The Spirit never stands still.  The Spirit is never stagnant.  And it was moving in Creation, as the world was called into being.  The Spirit was moving in the primordial chaos of the formless void, and the Spirit was part of the Father’s creative work.

The Holy Spirit is still moving in the world.  But the Holy Spirit is also moving in us, specifically and uniquely.  That gift was given to us in our baptisms, as we are united with Christ in his baptism, and the Father claims us as his beloved children.  What greater gift can there be than for God to claim us as God’s own?

John the Baptist knew that.  “I baptize with water,” he said, “but there is one coming after me who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  You see, John’s baptism was a form of ritual bathing common in Jewish religious life.  When you committed a sin, one of the ways to purify yourself and make yourself right with God was to symbolically wash the sin away.  It was a public statement that you understood that you had done wrong, and a promise to do better next time, to turn away from the thing that made you unclean and separated you from God and from other people.  But it wasn’t permanent.  Everyone sins, and so then you would have to go back and be cleansed again.  It was a never-ending cycle.

Jesus’ baptism is not like that.  Jesus’ baptism is not about our commitment to do the right thing, and it’s not something we can fail at and redo.  When Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down on him.  And God said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus baptism is God’s public declaration of love and relationship.  And that’s the baptism that we are baptized with.

When we are baptized, we are claimed by God.  The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins moving in us.  And God our creator speaks those same words he spoke to Jesus in the Jordan River: “you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  There is nothing we can do to break that relationship; God will love us no matter what.  The Holy Spirit will move in us no matter what.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how much we mess up, God is with us, claiming us as God’s own and leading us back to wholeness and goodness.  Think about that, for a second.  God is with us no matter what.  God loves us no matter what.  And through us, God is doing amazing things.  What greater gift could we possibly receive?

As everyone knows, some gifts are better than others.  And I’m not talking about how expensive they are.  When I was a child, there were some gifts that I loved and played with for years, and others that I thanked the giver politely for and promptly put on a shelf and forgot about.  Probably the single best gift I ever got was my oboe, a very high quality instrument.  My grandparents gave it to me in High School, and if you were here for the second service on Christmas Eve you heard probably heard me play it in the prelude.  Fifteen years after they gave it to me, it is still a cherished possession that I regularly use.  Most of the other gifts I received then have long since been outgrown or worn out.  But the Holy Spirit is a gift that doesn’t just gather dust on a shelf, and it can never be outgrown or worn out.

Remember earlier I mentioned that whenever the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, it’s doing something.  The Spirit moves, it dances, it inspires people to participate in God’s saving work in the world.  The problem is, so often we don’t listen.  We get so caught up in our busy lives and our daily worries that we ignore the movement of the Spirit in us and around us.  We get so used to our ordinary world that we miss the extraordinary presence of God in our midst.  The Spirit invites us to join in God’s work in the world, to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of the time we don’t even realize it.  When we do hear the Spirit’s call, all too often we find reasons to ignore it: I’m too busy, it’ll never work, I’ve never done it before, what will the neighbors think, let someone else do it.  We treat the Holy Spirit as if it were an ill-fitting sweater given us by some well-meaning relative, that we can exchange for something we like better.

And yet, the Spirit will not be silenced, and the Spirit will not be still.  God has done marvelous things, from the creation of the world to the present day, and God is still doing marvelous things.  God has given us our very lives, everything that we have and are, and God has given us the gift of God’s own presence.  I wonder, what would the world be like if we let the Spirit stir us?  What would Somerset be like, if we let the Spirit call us into wholehearted and joyful participation in God’s work?  What would this congregation be like if we opened ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in us and around us?

As we come forward for communion, you will notice that there is a box, wrapped up as a gift, sitting at the font.  In that box we are asked to place our commitments of time, talent, and treasure.  In this way we give back just a small portion of the many blessings God has given us.  This is not just about money.  This is not just about keeping the lights on and paying salaries.  Through our gifts of our time, our abilities, and our treasures, we participate in God’s work.  We come together to minister to one another, to our community, and to our world.  We share the Word of God and all the gifts God has given us with all creation.  I hope that you have been praying about how God is calling you to participate in this congregation’s ministry, and I pray that you have reflected that call in your commitments.

But these commitments are not the end of our participation in God’s work.  Answering the call of the Holy Spirit is not just something we do once a year and then put it back on the shelf and forget about.  Following the Spirit’s call is the lifelong vocation of a Christian.  As the Spirit is always moving, always calling, we should always be listening and responding.  As you go through the year to come (and all the years to come), don’t let yourself forget that God is with you.  Keep praying for the Spirit’s guidance, keep responding to God’s word.  May God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit’s call.

Amen.

Farewell Sermon–Planting Seeds

Pentecost 6 (Year A), Sunday, July 24, 2011

1 Kings 3:5-2
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

When you think of Jesus teaching, what’s the first thing to come to mind?  The parables.  Usually, they’re a bit longer than the parables of today’s lesson, which are only a verse or two apiece.  The word “parable” comes from a Greek word, “parabolh.,” which literally means “to throw alongside.”  And a parable is a story that makes a point indirectly, by going alongside it and using metaphors and analogies to paint a picture.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus throws a lot of ideas about the Kingdom of Heaven out to his listeners.  I think it shows at least one reason why Jesus used parables so often to teach people.

How do you talk about the kingdom of heaven—God’s kingdom, where righteousness, mercy, peace, and love flourish and sin is no more—to people who have only ever lived in this broken, sinful world?  How do you describe the joy of salvation?  I don’t know that any human can possibly understand—I mean really understand—what the kingdom of heaven is like until we experience it.  God is so much greater than we are; God is greater than we can ever know.  It stands to reason that God’s kingdom would be, as well.  In the Bible, the kingdom of God is almost never described directly.  Instead, we are told of the kingdom in parables, visions, dreams—things that inspire us to imagine greater, to expand our ideas what God’s reign means.  In today’s lesson Jesus throws several parables to us, and in these parables we get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like.  I’m going to focus on just one of today’s parables.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  A mustard seed starts really, really small, and inconsequential, and unless you know what it is you’d never believe that such a huge bush—almost a tree—could come from it.  Likewise, the Kingdom of Heaven grows out of things that seem small and unimportant.  Now, remember the Gospel lessons for the last two weeks, the Parable of the Sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares?  Those come right before today’s Gospel reading, and the crowds that Jesus was preaching to here had just heard those two parables.  I don’t mean to imply that there’s a literal one-to-one correspondence between the various parables; after all, they are metaphors.  But these parables are related.  They work together, like different chords in a song or different colors in a painting.  So when you hear Jesus talk about seeds here, you should remember that in those two parables the seed that is sown is God’s Word, and in this lesson the seed grows in us to produce God’s Kingdom.

God sows the seed of God’s word in us, and it grows in us to produce God’s kingdom.  Isn’t that amazing?  The kingdom of heaven won’t be fully realized until Christ comes again, but at the same time, the seeds of that kingdom are in our midst, oftentimes so small we don’t even realize what they are.  Maybe that seed is a smile or an encouraging word when we’re feeling down.  Maybe that seed is what motivates you to get up and spend an afternoon helping someone that needs it.  Maybe that seed is something that makes you question your prejudices.  Maybe that seed is praying with your family.  Maybe that seed is reconciling with someone you’ve had a fight with.  Maybe that seed is a thought you’d never considered, before, that gives you a different perspective.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the cares of the world, in our own hopes and fears and desires, and let that blind us to the seeds of God’s kingdom in our midst.  We all have a lot of ideas about what life should be like, and how we want our life to go.  And conventional wisdom has a lot to say about what our goals should be and how we should live our lives.  But God’s wisdom is very unconventional. God’s wisdom places justice and mercy above social climbing.  It places generosity and hospitality above accumulating riches.  It places love above all.

God works in our world, in our communities and in our hearts, planting seeds.  Seeds of generosity, and mercy, and justice, and love.  Sometimes they bear fruit in our actions.  But even when they don’t, God keeps sowing seeds, knowing that some will grow until they become great trees.  Remember the parable of the sower, where the seed is spread around on all types of soil, the good and bad alike?  God gives the gift of the Word generously to all.  Whether or not we respond, God is there for us, giving us the precious gift of the seeds of his kingdom.

That’s why God was so pleased with Solomon in our first lesson today.  Solomon could have asked for anything.  Take a few minutes, and consider what you would ask for if God came to you and offered you anything you want.  Would you ask for a better job?  A nicer home?  Would you ask to be more popular?  There are a lot of things that tempt us.  I’m sure Solomon was just as tempted as you or I would be.  But Solomon realized that all the things the world values most are ultimately unimportant next to God’s word.  Solomon could have asked for anything, and what he asked for was the wisdom to do the task God had called him to do.  Solomon asked for the seed of God’s kingdom to be planted in him, so that God’s will could be done and God’s kingdom could grow.

It’s not always easy to keep our focus on God’s kingdom rather than our own desires.  Even Solomon, for all his God-given wisdom, faltered and went astray.  He let his desire for women and his hunger to become an international power lead him away from God’s will and into idolatry.  His desire for riches and huge building projects led to heavy taxes and forced labor, and to the splitting of his kingdom in half after his death.  It’s easy to look at Solomon’s life from a safe distance and disapprove, but not so easy to realize when we’re going astray ourselves.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve let our desires and our fears rule; I know that’s true for me.   And yet, no matter how far we go astray, God is still with us, ready to forgive and bring us back.  Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—not even our own sinfulness—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  No matter how far we go astray, God never stops planting seeds.

God is planting seeds today.  One of the seeds God is planting is the baptism of Josey Louise.  In baptism God claims us as his own, and connects us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Josey Louise may be small, but like the mustard seed she will grow in God’s grace beyond anything we can imagine for her now.  God is coming to her today in the midst of this congregation, through water and the Word, to plant the seed of God’s kingdom within her.  God is planting today, and God will keep planting, and nurturing, and watering, and fertilizing, until the harvest comes.  We don’t know when the harvest will be, but we know that we are safe in God’s hands.

God tends the seeds he plants in many ways.  Sometimes, we are the tools God uses to nurture and guide the seeds that God has planted in our community.  That’s one of the reasons the whole community participates in baptism: it’s not just between Josey and God, or even between Josey and her parents and God.  We are all called, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to nurture and support Josey, her parents, and her godparents, in their life of faith.  We are called as Christians to be brothers and sisters to one another, in love and grace.  We are called to help one another grow in Christ, to help one another be good soil, to help one another seek the pearl of God’s wisdom and not the empty promises of the world’s riches.

Saint Luke is a very nurturing family in Christ.  I know, because you have helped me grow this year that I have spent as your Vicar.  I have been so blessed by your love, your support, and your example.  I have learned and grown so much in my time here, and I could not have done it without you.  Thank you so much for all that you have done for me.  I hope and pray that you will continue to be a nurturing environment for the seeds God plants in this congregation, in this community, and in the whole world.

Thanks be to God, the sower of the seed, the maker of the pearl, the giver of true wisdom, the guide and companion along life’s journey.

Amen.

Being Called

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A), Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

“You will receive the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Today is Confirmation Day here at Saint Luke’s.  In just a few minutes we’re going to call forward the youth being confirmed, and pray that the Holy Spirit strengthen them as it did those early Christians in our first lesson.  Confirmation is sometimes called “Affirmation of Baptism.”  It’s a longer term, but it’s pretty descriptive of what Confirmation actually is.  You see, “affirmation” means “to say yes.”  The Confirmation students are here today to say Yes to their baptisms, to say Yes to God’s call.  When the confirmands come up before the congregation, they repeat the promises their parents and godparents made at their baptism.  Confirmation is when a young person says that yes, I am a Christian, and this is what I believe.  From this point on, these young people choose to be Christians.  They’re not just here because their parents say so.  When they come forward, we will be repeating parts of the liturgy of baptism, except this time they will be making the responses, not their parents.  It’s an important milestone, and I hope and pray that they will have the courage and faithfulness to follow through with it all the days of their life, even in a culture that is increasingly secular-oriented.

Yet, in a larger sense, what we are celebrating today is not our ability to follow Jesus, but our Lord’s ability to call us to him.  You see, whenever we reach out to God what we always find is that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  God created us, and even when we were dead in sin, God loved us and promised us that he would always be with us.  God came to us as Jesus Christ, our Messiah, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life.  God loves us still, even when we go astray.  God loves us when we convince ourselves we already know what God wants, even without bothering to listen to him.  God is with us still, calling us and all people to him, helping us hear his word and respond to it.

That’s what happened in today’s first lesson, when Peter was preaching to the crowds after Easter, telling them about Jesus and what his death and resurrection meant.  The crowd heard the message, and the Holy Spirit was working—they felt it in their hearts.  Peter was there because the Holy Spirit led him to be there, and he could preach such a stirring sermon because the Holy Spirit filled him.  After all, Peter spent pretty much the entirety of Jesus’ time on Earth getting things wrong and messing up.  But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter found the voice and the wisdom he needed to preach God’s word.  The crowd received his preaching and were moved by it because God was working within them, too, because the Holy Spirit was calling them.  God was working there.  God had already reached out to them and called them through the promise of Jesus, and they responded to that call and were baptized.  Their sins were forgiven, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They learned what it meant that Jesus, crucified and risen, was Lord and Messiah.  They learned to hear God’s call and respond to it through lives of faith.

Whenever we reach out to God we always find that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  That’s what happened in today’s Gospel reading, too.  On Easter Sunday morning, two disciples were travelling to a village called Emmaus.  We don’t know why.  In fact, we don’t even know where Emmaus is—there are several different villages near Jerusalem that might be it.  What we do know is what happened on the way.  Jesus came to those two disciples, and they didn’t recognize him.  They were too caught up in what they thought they knew about what had happened to see what had actually happened.

Has that ever happened to you?  Have you ever been too sure of something to see the truth, even when it’s staring you in the face?  As Cleopas and his friend found out, it can be easy to get trapped by what you think you know.  We are told that they were already disciples—they had walked with Jesus, they had heard him preach, they had heard him tell them about what was coming, and then when it actually happened, they still didn’t understand.  Jesus Christ is Lord of All, the Messiah, God’s Son sent to forgive our sins, reconcile us to God, and teach us how to follow God’s Word.  They saw it, but they didn’t understand it.  On their own, even as first-hand witnesses they couldn’t figure out what it meant for them or anyone that Jesus had died and rose again.  But God had called them, and God had promised them, and God was helping them learn how to see him even through their confusion and doubt.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus walked with them, kept them company, taught them, and ate with them.  When at last they were ready, when they had heard him and he’d explained to them everything that had happened so that they finally knew the truth, that’s when they realized it was Jesus.  That’s when they realized that he had been with him all along, that their hearts had been burning within them.  They were trying to understand what God had done and was doing, and when they finally saw God, they realized that God had been with them the whole time and they just hadn’t realized it.  They had been reaching out to God, and found that God was the one helping them do it because God was already with them.

Do you know what else is really cool about the story of the walk to Emmaus?  It’s a story about Communion!  Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to eat.  And it’s through that meal that those disciples see Jesus.  In the same way we gather around a table today for communion, and find that Jesus is present through bread and wine, which he makes into his body and blood.  In this story, the pattern of Christian worship is established that we still follow today: the disciples come together, they hear God’s word, they share a meal in which Jesus is present, and they go out to spread the Good News.  Our worship service works in the same way.  God gathers us in, teaches us his word, shares a meal with us, and then sends us out into the world to live as faithful Christians and to share the Good News of God’s love in word and deed.  And when we come seeking God, we find that God has already sought us out, helping us to hear his word and live as his people.

It’s that process of learning to see God reaching out to us that brings us here, today, for confirmation.  God reaches out to us in the same way through our baptisms.  That’s why we baptize babies as well as adults: in baptism, God is reaching out to claim us as his own, so it’s not dependent on our ability to choose.  We have already been chosen, each one of us.  We have already been called.  The question is, will we respond to that call?  Will we live lives conformed to Christ, in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism?  Will we live among God’s faithful people, listen to God’s Word, share his supper?  Will we proclaim the Gospel through word and deed, and follow Jesus’ example of service, justice, peace, and love?  Will we respond to all the many ways God reaches out to us and calls us to follow?

The young people who come forward for Confirmation today are here to say yes, they will.  They’re here to promise God and this congregation that they will listen to God’s call, that they will follow in the way of Jesus.  In return, we need to help them—and each other, and everyone we meet—along that path.  God is calling us, all of us, to follow him, and God gives us his Holy Spirit to give us strength, and wisdom, and understanding, and most of all, to give us joy in God’s presence, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Let us pray that all people will hear that call and respond.

Amen.

Jesus, source of living water

Lent Wednesday 1A, Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

 

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

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

On Sunday, we heard in our Gospel lesson about the Samaritan woman at the well, to whom Jesus offered living water.  Now, in tonight’s reading from Jeremiah we hear again about living water: about how the people of Israel have forsaken their God, the fountain of living water.  No one can live without water.  Thirst will kill you far more quickly than starvation, and dirty water can be almost as dangerous as no water at all.  In our world today, more than 1.2 billion people lack access to safe water.  Each year a lack of clean water kills between 2 and 5 million people.  5,000 children die each day from diseases passed through dirty water.  Lack of water undermines everything else in a community: food production, health care, education, political and economic stability.  Even here in Pennsylvania, a land blessed with an abundance of water, and the wealth to keep it clean and deliver it right to peoples’ homes, industries such as gas mining can contaminate clean water supplies if they are not careful.

Water is a big deal, and people who feel its lack know that far better than anyone else.  It’s pretty obvious why God’s nourishment of our souls is called “living water.”  Without that nourishment our souls quickly become parched.  I have been through times when I felt spiritually dry, when I didn’t have much time to spend on God and my relationships with my church family, and worshipping and prayer and Bible reading didn’t seem to help me feel connected to the love of God.  Let me tell you, it was hard—every trouble seemed so much bigger, overwhelming.  When finally I could taste that living water again, I knew just how great a gift it was.  And just as physical water can be contaminated with disease or poisons, so can spiritual water.  Some people try to fill that thirst with material possessions, or with food or drink, or with political ideology, or prejudice, or with entertainment, or with other things.  Yet none of those can fill our need for God’s love and saving grace, and our experience of being part of the body of Christ.  So why do we turn away from the living water to those cracked cisterns that hold no water?

In one of his Nooma videos, Rob Bell talks about a bumper sticker he saw, “God Bless America.”  As Bell points out, God has blessed America.  Like the people of Israel, we live in a plentiful land and eat its fruits and good things, all of them given to us by God.  Yet like the people of Israel, we turn away.  We think we’re entitled to always have our own way, no matter what “our own way” is or what its consequences might be.  We go after things that we want, but that aren’t good for us.  Or we go after things that are good for us within reason, but we gorge ourselves on them to the exclusion of the things we need most.  We call good things bad and bad things good.  We forget all the things that God has done for us.  We forget or can’t imagine what life is like without those blessings.  We take them for granted.  We convince ourselves that we have earned all that we have on our own merit, that we can do what we want, that some of the things that draw us away from God don’t matter and that others can actually replace our relationships with God and one another.  We forsake the fountain of living water to dig cracked cisterns that can hold no water, and try to convince ourselves that it satisfies our thirst.  And so we live in a land flowing with milk and honey and all good things, surrounded by streams of living water, and our souls are parched.

We have turned away from God.  We are broken cisterns that can hold no water without God’s saving grace.  But if we return to God, if we confess our sin and brokenness, God will fill us with his own living water.  That water flows from the cross of Christ, who suffered and died that we might be made whole and saved from our sins.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how often we misuse the blessings that God has given us, no matter how much we hurt ourselves and others with our broken sinfulness, we are still God’s beloved children.  When we return to the cross, and realize just how much we need God’s loving care, we are forgiven, washed clean, and given the living water that is the only thing that can truly satisfy our thirst.

Amen.

Bearing Christ’s Name

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ezekiel 36:22-32

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

 

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

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

In today’s reading, God tells Ezekiel to tell the people of Israel that they have “profaned God’s holy name among the nations.”  “Profane” is a very old-fashioned word; it means the opposite of holy.  Similar words include pollute, defile, desecrate.  Basically, it means that they have dragged God’s name through the mud.  They may not have literally cursed God’s name, but they who were supposed to be God’s people acted in ways that made a mockery of God’s will.  They didn’t behave like the people of God should behave.  And in so doing, they profaned the name of the God they represented.

We represent God even more directly than the people of Israel did.  Our very name—Christian—means people of Christ.  So how well do we do in honoring that holy name?  Unfortunately, all too often, the answer is “not well at all.”  How many times have I heard this, or something similar, when I ask people why they don’t like Christians: They’re such hypocrites.  Being prone to humor, my response is “Yes, but there’s always room for one more.”  There is a certain truth to both statements: Christians often preach to others that they should keep standards we can’t keep ourselves, and some Christians do things in the name of our God and our faith that aren’t very Christian.  We talk the talk, but we don’t always walk the walk.  We assume God wants the same things we do, and too often we read the Bible only to find passages that agree with us.  When combined with a proud and self-righteous attitude, it’s a deadly combination.  That kind of hypocrisy profanes the name of God.  But even without pride and self-righteousness and a holier-than-thou attitude, there will always be a disconnect between the grace and love that God commands us to live out, and the reality of our sinful lives.

And yet, even when we fail badly, we are still our Father’s beloved children, and he still claims us as his own, just as God still claimed the house of Israel.  In our baptism, God washes us in clean water and gives us a new heart and his Holy Spirit.  We are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection, and forgiven our sins.  We stand at the foot of the cross, knowing that we are sinners who have been saved through no effort or merit of our own, but only through God’s love and grace.  We stand beneath the cross knowing that Jesus pays the price for all of our sin, and that he loves us and calls us to him still, promising abundant life and freedom.  We stand beneath the cross knowing that we have nothing to boast about, no special goodness or holiness, except through Christ’s love and forgiveness.

If we try to say that Christians are better or sin less than other people, we’re fooling ourselves.  Until Christ comes again, we will always be caught between our own sinfulness and the reality of Christ’s saving grace.  But the good news is, no matter how many times we go astray, our Lord and Savior calls us back to him, forgives us, washes away our sins in the waters of our baptism, gives us a new heart and frees us from the chains that bind us.  Jesus promises to always be with us, no matter what we do or how far astray we go.  And when our way seems too hard, or too dark, when we know just how badly we’ve messed up, when we know we can’t fix the brokenness in us and in the world around us, when the cares of life threaten to overwhelm us, Jesus is there with us to give us rest and comfort, and to lead us out of the wilderness of our sin.  Jesus calls to us to lay down our burdens upon his shoulders, drink of his life-giving water, and walk in his light.

We don’t bear the name of Christ because we are better than other people, or because we have earned it.  We are still sinners who fall short of God’s glory.  We bear our Lord’s name because he has claimed us as his own.  We are Christians because we heed Christ’s call to come to the cross.  We are Christians because we trust God to keep the promises he made to us, to lead us and forgive us and give us new life in him.

Amen.