How to Lament

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, October 2nd, 2016

Lamentations 1:1-6, Lamentations 3:19-26, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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.  Amen.

Today’s first reading and psalm come from the book of Lamentations.  A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.  A lament is when mere tears are not enough.  A lament is when every inch of your body and soul cry out within you.  When no consolation is possible.  There are times for songs of joy and hope, but there are also times for songs of sadness and despair.  There is a time for grief.  The book of Lamentations is a whole book filled with lament.

We don’t know how to lament, these days.  We are uncomfortable with grief and sorrow.  When someone suffers a loss, we don’t often cry with them.  How often have I seen this: someone is overcome with grief, and we pat them on the shoulder, tell them we’re praying for them, and then explain why they shouldn’t cry.  God wanted another angel in heaven.  She’s in a better place.  You’ll feel better soon.  God’s got a plan—and don’t you trust God?  Shouldn’t you be over it by now?  We tell ourselves that these platitudes are to comfort the one who grieves; yet all too often what they really do is just shut them up.  In big ways and small ways, our culture tells us that we can’t grieve too much.  We can’t be too extravagant in our tears, and we can’t take too long.  It makes people uncomfortable.  As Christians, especially, there is a pressure to hide our grief and recover quickly, to put a good face on our sorrows.  After all, don’t we have God?  Isn’t God supposed to take care of us?  Isn’t God supposed to supply us with all good things all the time?  If our suffering is too great, if our sorrow is too deep, well.  Maybe we’re not being faithful enough.  Maybe we just don’t have the right attitude.  And yet, here in the Bible is an entire book filled with grief and pain and anger and fear and sorrow and all the emotions that rage through us in the darkest times.

The book of Lamentations was written after the Babylonians destroyed the country of Judah, and its capital the city of Jerusalem, in 587BC.  And by destroyed I don’t just mean they conquered it.  They tore down the Temple to its very foundations.  They took a large portion of the population away in chains to live as hostages to the good behavior of those left behind, and to be forced to serve the very empire that had destroyed their home.  A large portion of Judah’s population, including the prophet Jeremiah, fled to Egypt, where they lived as refugees watching from afar as their enemy destroyed their homes.  To add insult to injury, the Babylonians resettled people from other parts of their empire in Judah, to make doubly sure that even Judah’s culture would be destroyed.

Imagine that.  Put yourself in their shoes.  How would you feel?  Imagine that America was conquered by a foreign power.  Imagine that an occupying army patrolled the streets of Bismarck every day, and swept through Underwood regularly.  Imagine that they destroyed the church, the city hall, the pharmacy, the grocery store.  Imagine that they took your friends and family away at gunpoint, and took them somewhere else—you didn’t know where.  Imagine that they were coming for you, and so you gathered your family and what you could carry on your back and slipped out of town at night, heading for Mexico, in the hopes that you would be safe there.  Imagine arriving with nothing, terrified and alone, in a place you didn’t speak the language, a place where no one liked you and no one wanted you.  Imagine waiting every day for news from home, hoping that the invaders would be destroyed and you could go back, but only hearing more stories of pain and suffering.  How would you feel?

That’s what the book of Lamentations is all about.  That despair.  That pain.  That sorrow.  “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! … she weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks … all her friends have dealt treacherously with her.  Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude.”  They sang these songs, Jeremiah and the rest of the refugees in Egypt, and they cried, and they wept.  There is no platitude that will fix this, no consolation that will make it all worth it, no sweet, pious words that will make things better.  And you know what?  It was okay to be honest about that.  It was okay to be honest about the depth of their pain and their grief.  It was okay to scream and yell and rage at God.  God knew what was in their hearts.  Putting a brave face on it and pretending to be okay would not fool God; all it would do is bottle all that emotion up where it could do nothing but fester.  God is big enough to take all of us, even the ugly parts, even the grief and the pain and the anger and the fear and the sorrow.

And yes, the captives and the exiles and the refugees were partly to blame for their own misfortunes.  As a nation, they had turned away from God, taking his love and protection for granted, seeking after other gods and allowing injustice free reign in their communities.  If they hadn’t done that, if they had remained as faithful to God as he was to them, even all the might of Babylon would not have prevailed against them.  By turning away from God, they had removed his protecting hand from them, and so the Babylonians had come.  I imagine that must have made things ten times worse, to look back and wonder what they might have done differently, what might have been possible if they had been more faithful.

But even in the midst of that grief, God was with them.  As they grieved the destruction of their homes, as they took responsibility for the things they had done leading up to the fall of their country, God was there.  He wasn’t there with a magic bullet to take away their pain and make things better.  He wasn’t there with greater rewards to make the destruction of their homeland and the deaths and kidnappings of so many of their loved ones unimportant.  He wasn’t there to tell them to get over it.  He was there in the midst of their pain to hold them as they cried.  He was there in a million small ways, giving them strength to get through each day and courage to start building new lives.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul thinks continually of it and is bowed down within me.  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”

I hope and pray that we never suffer what they suffered, but there are people today who suffer that and worse.  Between imperialistic nations, terrorists, gang violence, and environmental disasters, there are more refugees in the world today than there have been since the end of World War II.  But there is no Olympics of grief: no scale to weigh things out and go, well, this grief is worse than that one, so you can’t be too upset about that one.  There is death in this community.  There are broken relationships and broken homes in this community.  There is abuse and rape and homelessness and suicide in this community.  There is loss and grief and pain.  And you know what?  It’s okay to lament.  It’s okay to not be okay.  If grief overwhelms you and fear and pain and doubt and anger and sorrow drag at your footsteps and threaten to drown you, that’s okay.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian, and it doesn’t mean your faith isn’t strong enough, and it doesn’t mean that God isn’t there with you, helping you along and giving you strength.

Things may never be the same.  There may be no happy shining thing that makes what you have suffered all worth it in the end.  Sometimes things get better; sometimes, there is a dramatic recovery and change of fortune and everything becomes almost perfect.  And we rejoice when that happens and celebrate it.  But that doesn’t mean the pain wasn’t real, and it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or your faith if that never happens.

Because God is with us.  You, me, every person who suffers loss, every person who celebrates a joy.  God is here.  With us.  God is always faithful; his steadfast love never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.  Even in the darkest parts of our lives, when we can do nothing but lament and wail at our suffering, God is with us, and God will never let us fall.  You are not alone.  We are not alone, not any of us, for God is with us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Where do you put your trust?

Third Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 10C, June 5th, 2016

1 Kings 17:1-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

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.  Amen.

We have a very different idea of what a prophet is, today, than people did in Bible times.  We tend to think of a prophet as someone who predicts the future.  Which confuses us when we come to a passage like today’s Gospel, where Jesus heals someone and everyone responds that a prophet has come.  But you see, in those days predicting the future was only a small part of what a prophet did.  A prophet spoke God’s Word, in both speech and action.  A prophet told people what God wanted and put it into action.  A prophet used actions to show people what God said, not just tell them.  On those rare occasions when a prophet predicted the future, it was mostly designed as a way to confirm that the prophet did come from God—you’ll know that he really does speak for God when his words come true.

The two greatest prophets were Moses, who led God’s people out of slavery into freedom in Israel, and Elijah, who did great deeds of power to call people back to God at a time when most people had forgotten about God.  You see, in those days, one of the so-called gods people worshipped was named Ba’al, and Ba’al was the god of the storm.  The Holy Land depends on rain completely for its moisture—there are no great rivers to use for irrigation.  If it rains, they could grow food.  If it didn’t, they starved.  So you can see how attractive it would be to worship a god who claimed to be able to send rain on cue.  “Trust Ba’al,” his priests said, “and you’ll never have to worry about having enough water or food again.  Worship Ba’al, and you’ll have everything you want and need.  That thing that keeps you awake at night?  Ba’al can save you from it.  Those problems you have?  Ba’al can solve them for you.  All you have to do is put your trust in him.”  It was like a protection racket.  Sacrifice to Ba’al, and he would keep you safe.  Don’t sacrifice to him, and, well.  You don’t want to find out what happens when you do that

Of course, there are two problems with that.  First, is that Ba’al isn’t really a god; he can’t really do anything.  There is only one God, lord of heaven and earth, and he can’t be bribed or bought.  No sacrifice to Ba’al, no matter how great, is actually going to accomplish diddly squat, because he was just something a bunch of people dreamed up to make themselves feel like they could control the world around them.  And the second problem is even worse.  Because Ba’al was a bloodthirsty god.  He didn’t just want the occasional calf of goat or dove.  No.  According to his devotees, Ba’al wanted children.  If you wanted Ba’al’s favor, and it was really important, you would kill your own child and burn the body on Ba’al’s altar.

And that’s just what Ahab, the king of Israel, did.  Sure, he worshipped the Lord God Almighty, but he decided to hedge his bets and worship Ba’al, too.  Just in case.  And, after all, his wife Queen Jezebel was a princess of Sidon, which worshipped Ba’al, and Sidon was a powerful country, so their god must be powerful, too, right?  So he set up temples to Ba’al and prayed for Ba’al to send rain, and even sacrificed his own son to Ba’al.  And in response, God stopped sending rain.  To prove that worshipping Ba’al would not bring rain, God sent a three-year drought, instead, and he used the prophet Elijah to do it, and to tell everyone why Ba’al had failed.

Three years of drought.  Three years of scarcity and hunger.  Three years of futility, as they prayed and prayed to Ba’al to save them.  And in those three years, the prophet Elijah lived with a widow in Zarephath, and her food never ran out.  Now, the important thing to remember here is that Zarephath is not in Israel.  It’s not a Jewish town.  Zarephath is in Sidon, Queen Jezebel’s home country, where they ALL worshipped Ba’al and the true God was unknown.  Now, this widow was poor.  Of all the people in Zarephath, she had the fewest resources to make it through the time of famine.  As it didn’t rain, and didn’t rain, and crops withered, food would have become ever more expensive.  And as a poor widow, she had no money to buy it with.  But God sent Elijah to her, and God gave her food to sustain her and her son and their household and Elijah, too.  Abundance, in the middle of scarcity.

And then her son died.  This poor widow, kept alive by the grace of a god she didn’t really believe in, with nothing in the world but her son.  And he died.  She blamed God—of course she did.  She was used to Ba’al who demanded children’s lives in payment.  Why wouldn’t she think God had taken her son?  And so Elijah prayed to God, and God gave her back her son, raised him from the dead.  Ba’al was a god of death, a god who promised abundance but only in return for the things they held most dear, and even after sucking them dry could not truly deliver on his promises.  But our God is a God of life, who brings life even in the midst of death and abundance even in the midst of famine.  Our God is a God whose promises are always true and reliable.

Nobody worships Ba’al anymore, but we do worship a lot of other things we shouldn’t.  Martin Luther defined a god as the thing in which you put your trust, the thing you look to in times of trouble, the thing you think will save you.  And there are a lot of things out there in our modern world that we look to for protection and salvation from the problems of the world.  Careers, political parties, money, health, the list goes on.  A lot of things that promise to fix our problems for us … if only we’ll put our trust in them.  A lot of things that promise they’ll keep us safe from all the things we fear … if only we’ll sacrifice for them.  We put our trust in all these other things, and then, just like the Widow of Zarephath, we blame God when things go wrong, even though God is working to provide for us and save us.

This is particularly obvious every election season.  When Barack Obama was elected for the first time in 2008, I was working at a church in Pennsylvania, and spent the day after the election visiting shut-ins and the sick.  The Democrats were sure that the country had been saved, and the Republicans were sure that the country had been doomed, and to both groups I had to say the same thing: Jesus Christ is lord of all, and he was Lord of All before the election, and he was Lord of All the day of the election, and he will still be Lord of All millennia after the United States of America has been forgotten.  No human being—especially no human politician, good or bad—can save or doom the world, any more than Ba’al could send rain or raise the widow’s son from the dead.  No matter what we think, no matter what or who we put our trust in, there is only on Lord God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three in one and one in three.

In good times and in bad, in scarcity and abundance, life comes from God.  It doesn’t come from politicians, or economic systems, or jobs, or money, or physical health.  Don’t get me wrong, these things can all have a big impact on our lives, but there is something bigger and deeper still.  And none of these things are bad on their own; but when we put our ultimate trust in them, they will inevitably fail us.  When we put our ultimate trust in them, they will demand sacrifices from us that we should not give.  Sacrifices of time, attention, of relationships.  Sacrifices of people forgotten or shoved aside.  Because politicians fail and fall short; economic systems do as well.  Empires crumble and fall.  Businesses fail, health falls short.  Money can buy houses and food and cell phones, but it can’t buy love or life.  If we turn to all of these things and put our trust in them, our world and our lives will always be built on a foundation that crumbles and falls apart around us.

There is only one true foundation, and that is God.  There is only one who gives life, and that is God, who brings rain and sun, who raises people from the dead, who sent our Lord Jesus Christ that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  So whenever anything or anyone asks you to put your trust in them, whenever they claim to be able to save or protect you from all the problems in the world, be wary. And look for what they want you to sacrifice.

May God keep us safe from harm, and may we always trust in God, even when other things try to claim our faith and trust.

Amen.

Memorial Day

Second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 9C, May 29th, 2016

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

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.  Amen.

There are not many places in the New Testament where soldiers are mentioned.  It seems appropriate to read one of those passages today, on Memorial Day, the day set aside to remember those who have served their country, and especially those who have died for their country.  There’s just one problem: this soldier, this centurion, like all soldiers mentioned in the New Testament, was the enemy.  He was a Roman, a commander in the army that had conquered Israel and occupied it, imposing heavy taxes that devastated the middle and working classes of the day.  This particular Roman, we are told, built a synagogue, a place of worship, for the local Jewish community.  I hope he did it because he sincerely respected them and God, but he may just have done it to make them dependent on him—a common Roman tactic.  And, even if the centurion did indeed believe in God, and that’s why he built the synagogue, he was part of the occupying army that was building temples to pagan gods on Jewish soil, and pressuring Jews to worship them.  Armies can defend and protect, but armies can also do terrible things.  It all depends on who’s giving their orders—who’s in charge.  Who has the authority.

The centurion, like all those who serve their nation in the military then or now, understood authority.  We don’t know the depth of his faith, whether he had learned from the Jews around him to believe only in the Lord our God, or if he had just accepted this Yahweh as an addition to the many so-called gods that he and all the Romans worshiped.  We don’t know if he was a good man or a bad one.  We don’t know how he treated his men, or his family, or his slaves.  We don’t know if the faith he had that drove him to seek out Jesus was the beginning of a lifelong commitment or just a temporary thing.  We don’t know if he was worthy of God’s healing, and we know even less about the slave he wanted Jesus to heal.

The first delegation the centurion sent to Jesus was very concerned with whether or not he was worthy to have his request granted—they had a list of good deeds he had done that should earn him at least some of God’s favor.  But the centurion’s own words show that he was concerned with his own worthiness, but rather with Jesus’ power.  He didn’t say, “hey, I’m such a great guy, I’ve done all this stuff for your God, so therefore you should help me.”  He said, “My servant needs help, and you have the power to do it.”  And Jesus was amazed!  This was true faith.  It wasn’t about trying to bargain with God, it wasn’t about any kind of quid pro quo, it was about recognizing where true power and authority lies.  The greatest authority in the world belongs to God; it’s not in our hands.  God gives gifts and blessings not because we earn them, but because they are in his power to give.  All good things come from God, and the centurion recognized this.  And that was the faith that amazed Jesus.

The centurion was a foreigner, an outsider, a pagan, a member of the army that had invaded and conquered Israel.  Yet he was still a child of God.  Jesus did not come for one tribe or nation, but for all people.  And he has authority not just over one tribe or nation, but over all people—including the centurion and his slave.  And the centurion recognized this.  He recognized that his worthiness wasn’t the issue—only God’s power and grace.  And Jesus was amazed at his faith, and the slave was healed.

Today is Memorial Day.  We are here to honor and commemorate those soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and Coast Guardsmen who died in the service of their country.  They, too, were men and women set under authority, just as the centurion was.  And we do not honor them because they were perfect or more worthy of remembrance than other people.  Some of them were good, some bad.  We honor them because of their faithfulness to their country, and we honor them because we were the ones who sent them out to fight and die on our behalf.  In the centurion’s case, the authority was Caesar’s; in the case of our service men and women today, because the United States is a democracy, the authority is the people of the United States—you and me.  We are the ones who choose the people—presidents and congresspeople—who decide when and where to send them out to fight and die.  As the centurion recognized, the ultimate authority is God’s, but we the people are the ones who wield that authority, and choose others to wield it on our behalf.  Many men and women have fought and died that we might have that freedom.

With authority comes responsibility, to God and to our servicemen and women.  We have a responsibility to God, to use his authority in ways that he would have us do.  It is important to remember that all people in the world, both here and abroad, are beloved children of God, whether they are Christians or not.  God created them; God loves them; God yearns for their salvation.  Even when they are the enemies of our country—just as the centurion was an enemy of Israel.  And our service-men and women, too, are beloved children of God, who have chosen to put themselves in harms’ way for our safety.  They make many sacrifices, some the ultimate sacrifice.  The authority we have would not be possible without their sacrifices.  We should not take it lightly, or use it without considering the consequences.  No one should be called to make such sacrifices unless there truly is no other choice.

There are times, in this sinful world, where war is necessary to protect and defend the innocent from the evils in the world.  America has fought wars that were good and necessary.  But America has also fought wars that were neither good nor necessary.  It is our responsibility as God’s people, as fellow children of God with all humanity, to use the authority given to us as Americans in godly ways: in the spreading of peace and healing whenever possible, reserving war for times when it is truly necessary.  War has a cost, and we honor those who paid that cost on our behalf.

We have a duty both to God and to our servicemen and women and to the world.  And that duty is to support and care.  We worship a god of healing.  This story we just read is not just a story about faith and authority, it is also a story about healing and restoration.  We are called to bring God’s love and healing to all the world … but we have an especial responsibility to bring love and healing to those who sacrificed on our behalf.  This can be physical healing, but spiritual and emotional healing, as well.  We act as God’s healing hands in the world when we support the families who lost loved ones in their service, taking care of them in their grief.  We act as God’s healing hands in the world when we are there for our veterans—not just on special days like Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but consistently and regularly.  Many veterans who return from war report feeling isolated and alone: lots of people want to shake their hand and thank them for their service, but don’t want to listen to the troubles they have adjusting to civilian life again, or the troubles they have dealing with their experiences.  It can be hard to listen to their stories and their struggles but if we send them out to fight and risk their lives, we owe them at least that much.  As God’s people we have a responsibility to bring healing to the world, but this responsibility is even greater when it comes to those whom we have asked to sacrifice on our behalf.

There will come a day when God’s plan of peace and justice and love for all people will come to fruition.  There will come a day when there is no more war, no more hate, no more violence, and no more sorrow.  On that day, Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will come here to earth.  All will see and know that he is the true authority.  The dead will rise, and all people will see God’s salvation.  On that day, all will be healed.  We wait in hope for that day of resurrection.  While we wait, may we always use our authority wisely, may we always remember those who gave their lives that we might be free, and may we always care for those who have served.

Amen.

We Want to See Jesus

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The kingdom of God has come near

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 25, 2014

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-14-20

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news—that is, the gospel—of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” And in our reading from First Corinthians, Paul writes: the appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.” Two thousand years later, it’s kinda hard to believe that the time has grown short, or been fulfilled. And a week after having two funerals in the congregation, with another member in his last weeks and months, Paul’s instructions not to mourn seem … off, if not cruel. If the kingdom of God has come near, where is it? If the time between this world and God’s kingdom to come is short, when is it going to get here? And just what is the good news, anyway?

This is one of those places where our modern, high-quality, literalistic educations get in the way of reading the Bible. We are trained as children to take things literally. 2+2=4, history is about a provable series of names and dates, time is measured precisely down to millionths of a second, poetry can be logically analyzed. If something can be proved in a science lab or a court of law, we’re good. We understand it. But when you start talking about intangible things, about the things that don’t fit into nice, neat, logical categories, that can’t be proven—or disproved—in a science lab or court of law, the deeper mystery at the heart of existence … that’s when we trip up. That’s when we get confused. That’s when we try and force that mystery into nice, neat, logically-provable categories that are easily understandable to modern people with fact-based educations. And, all too often, we try to do that with the Bible. And that’s a problem.

You see, in Jesus’ day, they looked at the world almost exactly opposite to the way we do. We see the provable facts as the most important thing. They saw the intangible mysteries of the universe as far more important. Sometimes, when they’re talking about those deep mysteries, we try to interpret their words as if they’re talking about literal, easy-to-prove things. So when they start talking about the time being fulfilled, about the time being near, we expect that in a few hours or days or weeks (sometimes even a few years), the time will arrive. And it should be obvious from an objective, fact-based point of view. So when we read passages like this, it’s not that we doubt it—obviously, if Jesus said it, it must be true—but we sort of gloss over it. Because any ‘time’ that was near two thousand years ago can’t possibly also be near to us. And the Kingdom has not obviously shown up in the last two thousand years and the present form of the world hasn’t passed away, well, we start to wonder where it is. And since we can’t see it, we stop looking for it, and continue on about our daily lives. Business as usual.

And yet, Jesus says, the Kingdom of God has come near. What does it mean for the Kingdom to be near? What does it mean for the time to be at hand? Obviously, he didn’t mean that God’s kingdom was going to visibly take over the world in the next few years, because that didn’t happen. Yet all throughout his ministry, Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of God being near, and the time being close at hand. So what does he mean?

Well, first and most obviously, the kingdom is near because Jesus is near. Jesus is, after all, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace. And his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world. And you know what? Jesus may not be physically present any more, but Jesus is still with us, in our hearts and minds, in our community and in communities across the globe. I mean, this is basic stuff, what we teach to our children. Jesus is always with us even if we can’t see him. So if the king is always with us, even when we can’t see him, does that mean the kingdom is, too? Does that mean the Kingdom of God is, right here and right now, one of those deeper mysteries that we can’t see or touch but can experience through the love of God? Does that mean that even when the kingdoms of this world overwhelm us and break us down and lead us away from our Lord, God’s kingdom is surrounding us, too, building us up and healing us and calling us back to faithfulness?

When Paul says that the present form of the world is passing away, is that what he means? When we participate in God’s kingdom, when we treat others according to God’s will instead of the world’s power, are we helping God’s kingdom to poke through into our everyday reality? When we live a God-filled life, are we helping God to replace the kingdoms of this world with his own? When we see people act according to the love of God even in the midst of hate and fear and conflict, are we seeing the present form of the world pass away, to be replaced by the world God is calling us to?

And the time has come near, Jesus said that and Paul affirmed it. Does that mean that the time has come for us to live kingdom centered lives? Does that mean that the time has come for us to stop listening to all the cares of the world that drag us down and keep us tied up in ordinary pettiness and pain, and let God open us up to the joy of the kingdom? When Paul says not to mourn or rejoice, is he talking about the kind of mourning and rejoicing the world shows us: shallow, selfish, and brief, and not at all the kind of deep abiding joy the kingdom brings? Because Paul mourned with his congregations and he rejoiced with them, we know that from his other letters. Grief is natural and right, and so is joy … but there’s a difference between the kind of hopeless, carefully stage-managed and abbreviated sorrow you see in the world today, and the kind of grief that knows however much we miss those we have lost, we will see them again, and God will be with us in the midst of our sorrow. And there’s a difference between the kind of manufactured artificial happiness you see on television with smiles pasted on, and the deep and abiding joy that God’s love can bring.

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says—the time is now! God is here, with us, now, today. God’s kingdom is here, with us, now, today! Get off your hind ends and live like it! God’s kingdom is deeper and more real than the kingdoms of this world—they will pass away and God’s kingdom will remain. That’s the good news! That’s the Gospel! All the problems of this world, all the things that drag us down, all the injustices large and small, all the pain, all the hatred, all the evil, all the banal mundane awfulness, that’s all temporary. And you don’t have to live your life as if this world is the most important thing. You don’t have to struggle alone in a sea of worldly concerns disguised as ultimate truths. You can follow Jesus instead, into a life filled with God’s love and joy, a life that sees and celebrates the kingdom of God that is poking through in so many different ways in so many different places.

“Follow me,” Jesus says to the fishermen beside the sea. “I’ll make you fish for people.” This isn’t about ordinary life being swept away, this is about ordinary life being changed into something better. They were fishermen before Jesus’ call, and they were fishermen after it—but their ultimate goals changed. They left their nets by the sea to follow Jesus’ call, but they came back to those nets regularly. Think of how often in the Gospels we hear about the disciples fishing or being out in boats. And really, the area that Jesus preached and taught in wasn’t that large. It’s about the equivalent of calling local Underwood farmers to go out and farm for people and mostly spending time in the communities between Wilton and Max, with occasional trips to Minot and Bismarck. They’d still see their family and friends a lot. They’d have time to participate in the ordinary life. They could still help out some on the family farm.

And yet, in and among those ordinary days of work and family and friends, in and among those ordinary communities they grew up in and knew well, something extraordinary was happening. God was there! God was with them, in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom was breaking in, little by little, and they were learning to live according to God’s time, not the world’s time. They were learning to live according to God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world. They were learning to follow Jesus, and learning that in the darkest times imaginable—with the world against them and all hope lost—God was still with them. God was there, in their darkest days of grief and happiest days of joy, in their confusion and doubt and faith, the kingdom of God was near, working in them and through them and around them. All they had to do was learn to see it. And to see it, all they had to do was follow Jesus, and keep following, no matter what.

May we, too, learn to follow Jesus and see his kingdom.

Amen.

Don’t Panic!

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-28, 46b-55

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.

On the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the words DON’T PANIC are inscribed in large friendly letters. I have often thought that if the angels in the Bible were turned into books, they, too, would have “DON’T PANIC” written on their covers. It is, after all, the first thing most of them say when they greet someone. Gabriel was no exception to this trend. He greeted Mary, and said, “Do not be afraid!” Or, in the slightly more poetic words of the King James Version, “Fear not!” But “Don’t Panic!” is actually also not a bad translation.

Which begs the question, why do angels have to go around telling people this, right off the bat? Part of the reason, I think, is that angels are awesome beings in the old meaning of the term: awe-inspiring and terrible and the sort of thing that makes a person realize just how small they are in the grand scheme of things, and how great the angel is. But the other part of the reason, is that anybody who’s read their Bibles and paid much attention to God’s work around them should be afraid whenever God’s messenger shows up with a mission for them. At the very least, we should be nervous. Because think about it: if God wants us to do something we already want to do or are interested in doing, he wouldn’t need to send an angel or a dream or anything like that. We’d already be doing it! And if it’s something mildly inconvenient, a nudge in the right direction can usually get us pointed in the right direction. We only need angels when we God wants something we would never in a million years choose to do on our own. Something hard, and messy, something that will upset our neighbors or make us look bad, something that will take us in directions we don’t want to go.

Take Mary, for example. We know, looking back on things, just what an important part of God’s work she was. We can see the whole sweep of history. We can see what God was doing in and through her, how God had chosen her to be his mother, to bear the Christ child in her womb and bring him into the world, to raise him and care for him until he was old enough to start his ministry, and set himself on the path to be killed so that the world might live. We know, looking back, that God’s salvation is going to come through her in a very literal way. And we know that she will be honored and admired for two thousand years for her faith and her willingness to follow God’s commands.

And all that can blind us to what she was being asked to do. She was being asked to bear a child out of wedlock. And you all know what life in a small town is like. Even if she told people her baby was God’s child, who would have believed her? No, everyone would gossip about what she did. And that gossip wouldn’t just last for a little while and die down. It would last for years. Decades. Even if she later became a respectable wife and mother, you know that people would still talk about her behind her back. Any time her future children did anything wrong people would shrug and say, “well, you know what their mother did.” And that assumes that any man would have been willing to marry her, a known adultress.

That’s the other thing. Mary was engaged, which in those days was a far more solemn and meaningful thing than it is today. The word ‘betrothed’ captures it much better. There was a legal contract between her and Joseph, and to break that contract—that agreement to marry—they would have needed a divorce. Once she and Joseph became betrothed, for either of them to have sex with someone else was considered adultery. Joseph could have divorced her for it, and then she would have been on her own, trying to support and raise a child by herself in a world that was a lot harder on women than our world today is. Not only that, but if Joseph wanted, he could have charged her with a crime: adultery was punishable by stoning. That is, adulterers who were caught were taken to the center of town and people threw rocks at them until they were killed. Now, Joseph was a nice guy, and Mary had to know that he wouldn’t do it—the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he had already decided to divorce her quietly instead of having her stoned, before God told him what to do—but Joseph could have. He would have been well within his rights.

All this pain and heartache, all this trouble and danger, and for what? A special baby. But how special? Sure, we know that salvation for the world would come through that baby; we know that he would be God made flesh. But did Mary? When the angel told her, “hey, this is really important!” could she have imagined just how important it was going to be? I don’t think so. Nobody at the time understood just what Jesus meant; you can see them, all through the Gospels and the Epistles, figuring things out and missing the point half the time before finally getting it right. Think about the disciples—Jesus told them all about his mission, about why he was doing what he was doing, and he told them about his own death and resurrection, but it wasn’t until after his resurrection that they were able to look back at everything he’d told them and go, “Oh, I get it!” And Mary had even less to go on than the disciples did. A few lines from an angel, that’s all, telling her that God is going to use her to do something big and important that will cost her dearly. How could she possibly have understood it all?

So God was going to do something big through her, that’s great. But the consequences were dire. I mean, if I were her, I would have been saying, “No offense God, I’m really honored that you’ve chosen me to do this, but the timing isn’t very good. How about we put it off a year until after the wedding?” How often does God call us to do something, and we say, “Gee, God, the timing isn’t right—it can’t possibly work that way—how about we do something different instead?” Because Mary isn’t the only person who’s ever gotten a tough job from God. A job they didn’t want. Mary questioned it, but in the end she agreed to do it. She would take the consequences; she would do something the world just wouldn’t understand. Something even she doesn’t really understand. But she trusts God to know what he’s doing. She wants the salvation the angel promises. She wants God’s kingdom to come. So she takes the leap of faith even knowing that it’s going to be hard.

When the angel comes to her Mary starts off confused and afraid: first, what God’s talking about seems impossible. After all, babies don’t spontaneously happen. The angel responds by saying God will take care of the details; God’s power will do what God has said. Okay, fine. She accepts that. I think that may be the most surprising thing of all, because even devout Christians doubt God’s power. They feel God calling them to do something, but instead they listen to the little voice in the back of their head that says “well, that would take a miracle—I just don’t think it’s possible,” and so they don’t do anything. Mary had that voice, that doubt, but she didn’t let it drown out her faith.

Then the angel, who has given her this huge mission that’s going to be pretty rough on her, tells her about Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth, who was also going through an unexpected God-given pregnancy. Elizabeth, who could support Mary and give her love and help that the rest of the community wouldn’t. Mary had a special role, Mary had a hard road ahead of her, but she didn’t have to walk it alone. God gave her helpers along the way. Her cousin Elizabeth, her husband Joseph—both got instructions to help Mary, and both would heed that call from God. They would stand by her even when the rest of the world didn’t. God rarely gives us solitary missions. When God calls us to action, when God gives us a task to do, God often provides helpers, confidants, support systems. They may not be the ones we’d choose on our own, but they’re there.

And that’s when Mary says yes. She’s been given her mission, assured that it’s really important and that God will do the heavy lifting, and that she won’t be alone. She may be ostracized in the community but she’ll still have someone with her who believes her and cares for her. And that’s when Mary says yes. Her doubts and fears may still be there—she still doesn’t understand why this is necessary and what it’s going to mean for the world—but she trusts that God will take care of the details. And you know what? He did!

Like Mary, we, too, are called by God, as individuals and as groups. We are given tasks, missions, things to do—it’s part of being a disciple. Sometimes those tasks are small—giving a hug when someone needs it, for example. Sometimes they’re pretty big. Sometimes, we do them without realizing we’re doing God’s work, and sometimes God has to nudge or poke us to get us moving. Sometimes, when it’s really big and really hard, people get angels like Mary did. (And sometimes we don’t recognize those angels for what they really are.) But we are all called by God to be his hands and feet in the world. When you realize God is calling you, take a page from Mary’s book. First, don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. It may be hard, but God will not let you do it alone, and God will help. Second, it’s okay to have doubts and questions. It’s okay to wonder how in the world it’s ever going to happen. Mary did, after all. Third, look for the people God has given you to help support you. Then take a deep breath, and say yes.

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

John the Baptist was one of the rock stars of his day. People came from all over to see him, to hear him talk, to watch him do his thing and to be baptized by him. If anybody had an excuse to be arrogant, to be confident of his own abilities, it was John. Yet when the chief priests in Jerusalem sent people to ask him about himself, John was quite clear: he wasn’t the Messiah, nor any great leader in his own right. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus, to get people ready for him. That was his mission, and he never strayed from it. When others might have gotten a swelled head, John did not. He kept pointing to Jesus, even when it would have been easier not to. His job was to see God and point him out. Now, for John, this was easy; Jesus was his cousin, right there physically near him. It’s a little harder for us, two thousand years later, because Jesus isn’t physically present with us. So how do we point to Jesus?

The prophet Isaiah writes: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn.” Now, if this sounds familiar to you, it should. This, after all, is the passage Jesus quotes in the Gospel of Luke at the beginning of his ministry, saying “today this has been fulfilled in your sight.” And Mary’s song when she heard she was going to bear the messiah was very similar: the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things. And most of the depictions of the kingdom of God in the Bible contain these same elements: the oppressed are set free, those who mourn are comforted, the hungry are fed, true justice is given to those who have been abused and who have suffered. If you recall, about a month ago we had the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the sheep—the ones who were welcomed into heaven—were the ones who had fed the hungry, nursed the sick, clothed the naked, comforted the mourners, visited the prisoners, and in general acted to bring good news to the oppressed, just as Isaiah says here.

It’s a common thread, all through the Bible: the will of God is that all people should be free from the chains that bind them, whether chains of sinfulness or chains of oppression. The will of God is that no one should have to face grief or sorrow alone. The will of God is that all people should have enough to eat and shelter to live in and clothes to wear. The will of God is that all the brokenness in our lives and in the world—whether injury or illness or accident or evil—should be made whole. The will of God is that no one should suffer. And, in God’s kingdom, nobody will suffer. So when God comes into our world—when God moves among us, whether in the person of Jesus Christ or in the Holy Spirit—that’s what God is working towards. Passages like this one from Isaiah are common in the Bible because that’s what happens when God shows up.

As I look around the world this December, I see so many places where people are broken-hearted, where people are held captive by injustice and fear and hate, where people hunger and thirst and lack basic necessities, where cruelty reigns and love is nowhere to be seen. In Mexico, for example, many thousands of families mourn for loved ones who have been kidnapped by drug cartels with the collusion of local authorities. In Central America, too, gangs have killed thousands of people. But even in the midst of the violence, ordinary people work to protect their families and bring justice for those who have been killed. I think the Holy Spirit is working with them, in them, and through them. In China, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong face police armed with tear gas. In North Korea, the leaders posture and spend huge amounts of money on weapons while their people go hungry. And yet, despite the worst their governments can do, people still continue to work for peace and freedom. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In the Middle East, extremists and terrorists oppress their own people and build power bases to attack the rest of the world. Any who speak out against them live in danger of their own lives. Girls who want to go to school, women who want to drive or vote or go to the market, boys who don’t want to fight, ordinary people of all ages and genders who want to live in peace, all are in danger. In the midst of it all, people like Malala refuse to be cowed. Palestinians are turned out of their homes and sent to refugee camps, Israelis fear terrorist attacks. Yet there are people on all sides working for peace and reconciliation. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

People in the Central African Republic try to rebuild their homes and their lives after the civil war, while many of the leaders who ordered and committed war crimes continue to brutalize their enemies. People in Liberia and Sierra Leone continue to suffer from the devastating disease Ebola, without enough resources for the basic protections that can stop the disease from spreading. In Nigeria, most of the three hundred girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram earlier this year remain in terrorist homes, forced to marry their kidnappers. But even in the midst of all this, hospitals are built, schools are opened, and people care for one another even at the risk of their own lives. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In cities across the US, African-American families mourn men killed by police for little or no reason. Protestors take to the streets at injustices, and policemen who try to do their jobs well resent being blamed for the failings of others, and often make things worse out of their own fear and bitterness. Black children in schools face harsher punishments than white children, causing resentment and deep emotional wounds. And yet, even in the midst of fear and anger, people of all races are working together to try and bring justice and healing. I think the Holy Spirit is here.

Here in North Dakota, drug use is on the rise, ruining lives and tearing apart families. Children and teens, particularly girls, are forced into sex slavery and trafficked across the state, not just in the oil fields but even in places like Bismark and Jamestown. Rising costs of food and housing have pushed hard-working families into poverty, yet social assistance programs have been cut back. Domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and rape can be found in all corners of our own communities, and all too often we protect the abusers and blame the victims. And yet, there is a growing group of people working to stop the abusers and help the victims. I think the Holy Spirit is here. I look at all these places and I see so much evil … but I also see God at work.

Sometimes I wish God would come and put all these things right. Where is God when human beings hurt one another? We know that when God’s kingdom comes, there will be justice and mercy for all—so why can’t the kingdom come now, soon? The Spirit moves among us, helping us to see the wrongs in our society, and even in ourselves, and it inspires us to work for God’s peace and justice and healing, but surely it would be better if the problems never happened in the first place? Healing is wonderful, but wouldn’t it be better if nobody needed it in the first place? I thank God for the gifts of the Spirit, but I yearn for the day God’s Kingdom will come. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Lord Jesus. Break into our world, break into our lives, and make us new. Whenever there is healing, whenever there is light in the darkness, whenever there is comfort for those who mourn, we have a foretaste of the feast to come. The Spirit that inspires such things is a gift from God, to help us until the day the kingdom comes. But there are times that taste seems awfully small, not enough to go around. I want the banquet. I know it will come, one day, but I want it now.

The question is, what do we do while we wait? We know that God’s kingdom is coming. The job of a Christian is to live the kind of life that anticipates the Kingdom. The job of a Christian is to point to the things God is doing in us and among us. The job of a Christian is to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s work in us and in our midst. Healing, hope, justice, growth, love—these are all the things God wants us to have, the things Jesus Christ was born and died to give us, the things the Spirit inspires in us while we wait for Christ to come again.

None of these are easy things. It’s hard to bring justice in the midst of fear and oppression. It’s hard to stand up to the evils of this world. It’s hard to love when there is hate. It’s hard to heal and grow when there is danger. It means getting outside our comfort zone. It means taking risks. It means being willing to stand up to the powers of this world. That’s why we need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do it. But when we open ourselves up to the Spirit—when we let God open our eyes to the problems around us, when we let God guide us in truth and love—amazing things become possible. Not because we ourselves are great, but because God can use us to accomplish great things.

Amen.