The Kingdom of God is like mustard

Lectionary 11B, June 17, 2018

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

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

 

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

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

When Jesus told the crowds the parable of the mustard seed, they would have started laughing at the second sentence.  Guaranteed.  “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground—“ pause for incredulous laughter as the thought of someone being so deliberately idiotic as to plant mustard.  See, mustard wasn’t really a crop in the middle east in Jesus’ day.  It was—and still is—a weed.  And the variety native to the area is not the crop that we grow today to make the condiment out of.  Like all weeds, mustard is hardy, grows quickly, gets everywhere, and is really hard to get rid of once it’s established.  It is edible, both the greens and the seeds (the seeds are what the condiment is made of), but you don’t go around PLANTING it.  Because you can gather what you need from the wild plants on the hillside, and it will seed itself in your fields without any help from you at all.  The problem is keeping it out of your fields.  So, yes.  Jesus starts talking about someone deliberately planting mustard, and people are going to start laughing.

Which then begs the question.  Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed?  A big, mighty weed, sure, but still.  A weed.  That doesn’t fit our normal picture of God and God’s kingdom.  We tend to think of power and might and majesty and awesomeness and inspiration when we think of God.  Weeds are the opposite of that.  Weeds are the things that you groan when you see them.  Why not something like cedar, the tree of kings?  Cedars grow tall and majestic, the tallest trees in the holy land, and they were used to build palaces and temples and the wood is gorgeous and it smells beautiful and everyone looks up to cedar trees.  Or, if not a cedar tree, then a mountain, or something else grand and awe-inspiring.  Or maybe something useful, or profitable.  Something humans at least want.

Why a weed?  Well, maybe we shouldn’t assume that the kingdom of God will always be something we welcome.  I mean, let’s take Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke, where he says he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.  That’s good news for the poor, the captives, and the oppressed.  If, however, we or people we like are profiting from the fact that others are poor, or benefiting that some people are oppressed, or if we and people we love are the ones holding people captive, then that message is not something we want to hear.  It’s not good news to us.  And there has never been a society in the history of the world—including modern America—in which everyone is free from oppression.  There have always been people taking advantage of one another, and creating systems of laws and culture which benefit some people at the expense of others.  And that’s simply not compatible with God’s kingdom.  Some aspects of our culture will work with the Kingdom, but some simply will not.  And people generally don’t welcome things that tell us we have to change, or tell us we need to give up power and influence and wealth.  So we might be tempted to ignore the growth of God’s kingdom, or even tempted to treat God’s kingdom as if it were a weed.  We might try to kill it, to preserve the garden of our community in the old, comfortable, sinful, oppressive patterns we’re used to.

The thing about mustard is that it’s one of those super-weeds that’s almost impossible to kill.  Like kudzu, or the Himalayan Blackberries we have in the Pacific Northwest.  I have spent many a long hour doing battle with Himalayan Blackberry vines.  No matter how vicious you are with them—no matter whether you chop them off, bulldoze them to the ground, poison them with the most deadly herbicides on the market—they ALWAYS come back.  Just like the Kingdom of God.  Humans can try to subvert it, prevent it, root it out, but it will come despite our best efforts.

The coming of the kingdom does not depend on human efforts.  We can work for the kingdom, yes, but each one of us is only one small part of that work.  Consider the first parable from our reading.  The farmer in that parable plants the seed … and then he waits.  He waits for the earth and sun and rain to do their work.  Eventually he harvests.  For all the things the farmer can do to ensure a good crop, some of the most important things are simply out of his control, as all farmers know.  When we treat the kingdom of God like good seed, we can till the soil and sow the seed and harvest it, but God is the one who gives us the seed and causes it to grow.  And when we treat the Kingdom of God like a weed and try to kill it, well, the Kingdom of God is stronger and more powerful than we are.  It always comes back, whether we like it or not, because God’s kingdom cannot be killed or prevented by any human power.  And although we should work for the Kingdom of God, it will come whether we do or not.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It grows like the dickens.  It’s not an awesome mountain or a graceful, majestic cedar, but it is large and full of life.  It’s a bush that grows much, much taller than humans.  It creates a lot of life, and it shares that life with others.  There aren’t that many big bushes or trees in the Holy Land; not many things that give shade or shelter from the harsh desert sun.  But the mustard bush does.  And so does the kingdom of God.  No matter what storms or burning sun or anything else comes into our life, the Kingdom of God provides shelter.  And that shelter isn’t just for the high and mighty—it’s for everything and everyone, even the ones we don’t necessarily think about, the ones most likely to get pushed out of the rest of the world.  Just like the mustard bush provides shelter for birds’ nests, the Kingdom of God provides shelter and a home for those who have no other home or shelter.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides food four our bodies and souls.  Mustard plants are edible, both the leaves and the seeds.  They’re one of those plants where, if you’re walking by the side of the road and you are poor and you have nothing else, you can harvest from the bush.  Just like God’s Kingdom provides for those who are poor and have nothing.  The kingdom of God provides food for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who feed people and make sure that all people have the resources they need to thrive.  The kingdom of God provides food for our soul through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, which nourishes us and helps us grow in faith and love.

The kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides healing.  Pastes made out of mustard are one of the oldest healing salves there is, and mustard is especially effective for burns.  Even today, if you have a burn that’s not serious enough to go to the doctor with, you can use mustard—the regular condiment you find in your kitchen—and put some on the burn, and it will help it heal faster.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who work to prevent harm to people and heal them.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our souls through God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation and love.

The kingdom of God is like a weed that will plant itself and grow anywhere, even when we try to root it out.  It grows from the smallest things into something huge that gives life and healing and shelter and freedom to those in need.  May we learn to recognize it when we see it, and value it as we should, and help plant and tend it.  And may the day come quickly when all people receive shelter and healing and nourishment from it.

Amen.

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What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17th, 2016

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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

 

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

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

People gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Now, the thing is, this is half-way through the Gospel of John.  Jesus has already spent ten chapters teaching, preaching, and giving miraculous signs that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.  And there are, by this point, PLENTY of people who have recognized who Jesus is.  It’s not like it’s this hidden, secret thing.  Jesus has not been hiding his light under a bushel.  And he’s in the Temple, right?  The home of the Jewish faith.  If anyone in the world could recognize the Messiah, the chosen anointed king of the God of the Jews, it should be these people here.  And they’ve figured out he’s something special—that’s why they’re asking the question—but they’re still on the fence.  Still wondering.

Now, there were probably a couple of reasons for that.  A couple of reasons why they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the anointed king of David’s house sent to save them.  And the first reason was simply that Jesus was not the first claimant to come along.  There had been, by that point, several Jewish leaders who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah.  Some of them had had pretty good evidence to back them up, at least in the short term, and still ended up disappointing everyone by not actually being the Messiah.  We forget, now, but in the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus’ life there were half-a-dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah—and probably at least that many more that are lost to history.  Reason enough for people to be a little skeptical at the latest wandering holy man.

The other big reason for them to be skeptical, though, is that Jesus … didn’t look that much like a Messiah.  I mean, by this point, they’d had almost a thousand years to build up a picture of what the Messiah would look like.  And the greatest thing they knew about him was that he was to be David’s descendent.  So they expected him to be, well, like King David.  A king, a great warrior who could slay the giant.  David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the great enemy of his day; they expected the Messiah to slay the legions and defeat Rome, the great enemy of their day.  It was a reasonable assumption.  After all, the Messiah did come to slay the great enemy … except on a rather larger scale than they were expecting.  The great enemy that the Messiah came to slay was death, the enemy of all living things that ever have been or ever will be, not just the empire that was the current enemy du jour.  They had their eyes firmly on their current political problems, and wanted God to fix them.  They were faithful people, who believed that since they were faithful people, all the things they were concerned with must also be God’s concern.  They assumed that God thought the same way they did; they assumed that God agreed with them.  And so they assumed that the Messiah would kill their enemies, help them and their friends, and establish the kind of earthly kingdom they most wanted to see.  But God had his eyes firmly fixed on the far greater problems facing all of creation.  It’s not that God didn’t care that the Romans were oppressing them; it’s just that God was trying to save the universe, not limiting himself to a small group of people in one place and time.

But that was not what Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear.  Sure, they hated death, who doesn’t?  But it never even occurred to them that the destruction of death could be on the menu.  In any case, the empire that currently had its boot on their neck was a far more immediate problem for them.  And because they were concentrating on that problem, they assumed that God must be too.  They saw their immediate problem, but couldn’t see beyond it.  And so here’s this Jesus fellow, obviously some sort of holy man.  And he went around preaching and teaching, which the Messiah was supposed to do; he went around talking about the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was definitely supposed to do, because after all, wasn’t Israel God’s Kingdom?  And as for heavenly signs, well, between miraculous feedings and healings and whatnot, this Jesus fellow obviously had signs of God’s favor.  And he drew crowds, a very promising thing for someone who is going to have to start raising an army pretty soon if he’s going to start taking on the Roman legions.  Except … he’s not raising an army.  He’s not even trying to.  He’s just continuing to teach and preach and heal and feed.  You can see why they’re a bit confused.  “Tell us plainly!” they say.  “Are you the Messiah, or not?”  In other words, are you the political and military leader we think God is going to send us who’s going to solve our immediate political and military problems?

You can see why Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.  Because yes, he is the Messiah!  But he’s not the Messiah they’re expecting.  If he says “yes,” straight up and unambiguous, they’re going to assume he fits neatly into the little box in their heads marked “Messiah.”  They’ll probably start buying weapons and recruiting soldiers for the army they assume he’s going to need.  And they’ll go back and interpret everything he’s ever said in light of “how will this help us beat the Romans.”  Which will be completely missing the point.  I mean, they’re already missing the point, but they will miss the point even more if they get the straight answer they want.  So instead Jesus continues to talk in metaphor and tells them to look at what he’s done and judge by that.  And, by the way, by this point the middle east had been using the “shepherd” metaphor to describe kings in general for centuries.  It’s kind of like if we asked someone if he were the President, and he started soliloquizing about what it means to be Commander in Chief.  It’s pretty much answering the question—but it’s sidestepping it at the same time.  You can see why they were annoyed with him—why wouldn’t he just tell them what they wanted to hear?  And if he wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t going to free them from the Romans, why was he taking up their time?

We don’t assume that Jesus is going to save us from the Romans—in fact, the Roman Empire has been gone for a long time, which the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked about—but we’re just as likely to put Jesus and his message into a nice neat box in our heads and assume that we know what it means that he is our Savior and Lord.  We tend to assume we know what he wants; we tend to assume that our goals are his goals; we tend to try and fit him into our view of the world, rather than conforming our minds and our lives to him.  But if you’ve been sitting here shaking your heads at those crazy people in Jesus’ day who assumed that getting rid of the Roman Empire was God’s greatest worry in the world, maybe you should take a look at the things we tend to assume are God’s greatest worries in the world today.

If you ask the average American Christian what problems they think God is worried about in the world today, they would throw out a lot of different answers.  But we’re like those Jews who questioned Jesus because a lot of those problems are based more on our own immediate worries than on the true scope of God’s saving power.  Like the ancient Jews, we tend to assume that because we are faithful followers of God, God agrees with us.  We tend to try to fit God into our preconceived notions of what God should be like rather than let God shape our hearts and minds.  We focus on changing morals, or our worries about America’s future, or our worries about terrorists and other foreign enemies, our or worries about the future of church institutions—buildings, denominational structures, that sort of thing.

And God cares about those things, of course.  But, just like the military might of the Roman Empire, these things are not necessarily God’s primary concern.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came to destroy death so that we—and all people, all of creation—might live.  The people in the Temple asked him if he was the Messiah, and he told them to look at the works he had done in his Father’s name, and that would answer their question.  It forced them to look beyond their preconceptions to see what God was actually doing in them and among them.  Because while Jesus’ mission and his ultimate work, his death and resurrection, was great beyond their imagining, the seeds he was planting were often too humble for their notice.  This is what Jesus did in our Father’s name: he brought forgiveness where there was sin and separation.  He brought love where there was hate.  He brought healing where there was illness.  He brought food where there was hunger.  He brought wisdom where there was ignorance and confusion.  He brought life where there was death, and he brought it abundantly.

We can’t fight the great battle that Jesus fought in his death and resurrection.  We don’t have to; Jesus has done it for us.  But we can participate in the work that supports it in our world today.  We can work for forgiveness and understanding and love.  We can work for healing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  We can feed the hungry.  We can bring life, in a thousand different ways, great and small.  And we can trust that God, who created the world, who saves us from the great enemy which is death, will lead us in his path.

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.

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.

The Good News We Don’t Expect

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 10), Year C, June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:17-24, 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.

Today is the second of our six-week study of Galatians.  Last week, we heard why Paul was so mad at the Galatians: they had started putting their own actions, their own ability to follow the traditions of the faithful, above trusting in God’s Grace.  They were turning away from the true Gospel—the Good News that God has saved us—and turning to a false gospel.  This false gospel focused instead on their own ability to do the right thing.  The false gospel was all about works righteousness: if you do the right thing, you will earn God’s love.

This false gospel sounds very logical, very believable.  There’s just one problem with it: that’s not God’s message.  That’s not the Good News that Jesus was sent to bring.  That false gospel is not the Word of God that turned Paul’s life upside down and inside out, and it’s not the Word of God that is still active in our midst today.

Paul grew up in a very faithful family.  He’d spent a lot of time studying the Bible, the Scriptures.  He knew all the things God had asked of his people in the past.  Paul knew all the right things to do to be a faithful follower of God.  He knew all the right prayers, he knew how difficult passages of Scripture should be interpreted.  Paul could probably quote the Bible backwards and forwards.  In every way that humans could measure, he was as perfect a follower of God as anyone could possibly be.

The problem was, he was so sure that his interpretation of the Bible was right that it never occurred to him that God might not agree with him.  It never occurred to him, as a young man, that God might do something different, something new.  And Paul focused so much on doing all the right things and proving himself righteous, that it never occurred to him that God might not think that Paul’s actions were enough to get him in God’s good books.

And so, when Paul heard about people who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God sent to save God’s people, he was offended.  Jesus had spent time among sinners!  With people who didn’t follow the rules and do everything as good as Paul did, who couldn’t quote Scripture chapter and verse!  Now, any self-righteous person will tell you that obviously God can’t love sinners.  Sinners are people who do things God doesn’t like, so obviously God should spend more time and attention on the righteous people!  It sounds logical, right?  So, if Jesus spent time with sinners, Jesus must not really be from God.  I bet you there are Christians who would think that same thing if Jesus were to come back today.  And, as if that weren’t enough proof that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, Jesus had died.   Obviously, Paul thought, God would never let his chosen king die.  Particularly not in such a horrible, horrible manner as crucifixion.  It just wasn’t possible.  And because Paul was so sure about all that, so sure he knew what God wanted and how God’s Word was to be interpreted, he persecuted the followers of Jesus.  Because God forbid they lead anyone astray!

But as it turned out, Paul didn’t know what God wanted.  He was wrong.  God loves sinners just as much as he loves everyone else—in fact, we’re all sinners.  Everyone, even people who think they’re as righteous as Paul thought he was.  God loves us anyway!  And God could and did send a Messiah who loved sinners so much he was willing to die for them.  And God could and did work through that death, bringing life to all the world!  You see, what God wanted wasn’t self-righteous fanaticism.  God didn’t want people who knew all the right things to do and so never depended on God.  God didn’t want people who could quote the Scriptures and then use that knowledge to confirm what they already believed.  God wanted people who would listen—truly listen—and be open to the redeeming love of God.  God wanted people to trust that he could and would save them.  And God wanted people to be open to the transforming, life-changing love that God has for all the world.

God revealed all that to Paul.  God showed Paul how wrong he had been, by revealing himself to Paul through Jesus.  God loved Paul even though Paul was dead wrong.  God loved Paul even though Paul had paid more attention to his own understanding than to what God was doing around him.  Now, Paul was a pretty stubborn guy, who was so certain he knew best that he went around attacking the followers of Christ, but God was able to get through to him even so.  Paul didn’t come to know Jesus through Paul’s own merit.  Paul didn’t come to Jesus because he found him and decided to follow him.  No, when Paul heard about Jesus he wanted to stop all of Jesus’ followers!  Paul didn’t listen to Jesus’ moral teachings and decide he had it right; Paul didn’t hear about the miracles and decide that Jesus must be powerful and able to help him.  Nothing Paul did brought him to God—and, in fact, the things that he thought God wanted him to do took him further away from God!

Paul came to know Jesus because Jesus came to him and sought him out.  Paul came to know Jesus because of the grace and love of God, which came to him even though he had done nothing to deserve it, nothing to earn it.  And through that grace and love, through the way God revealed God’s self to Paul through the Son, Jesus Christ, Paul realized that he had been totally wrong.  Paul had been working directly against God!  And yet, God loved him anyway.

That changed Paul’s whole life.  Before coming to know Christ, Paul could never have imagined what God would have in store for him.  Paul had had his life planned out, but God had other plans for him.  And those plans were to spread the story of God’s grace and love—the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ—to all people.  The Good News is that God loves you no matter what.  The Good News is that we are tied to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord, and the sin and brokenness of the world don’t get the final say.  We don’t have to worry about being good enough for God; we don’t have to worry about getting all the traditions right.  We don’t have to worry about being perfect.  We don’t have to be afraid of failing.  All we have to do is trust in the grace and mercy of God, the God who created us, who saves us from sin and death, the God who is always working in us and around us.  All we have to do is let God’s love work in us and through us.

That is Good News, the best news the world has ever had.  That’s the message that God gave Paul to tell the whole world, and it’s the message that God gives us to tell the whole world.  That message sent Paul out through the Roman Empire, telling people about Jesus Christ.  Instead of staying close to home, Paul found himself traveling far and near, talking with people he would never have dreamed of talking to, people who looked differently and dressed differently and spoke a different language and ate different foods.

The message of salvation—the Good News that God had revealed to Paul through Christ Jesus—was a message that resonated with everyone.  It spoke to them.  And it wasn’t Paul’s own gifts for preaching and teaching that did it, either.  The message God gave Paul was greater than he was, greater than I am or you are, greater than anyone who’s ever told it.  That message is something you can’t reason out logically, or prove in a court of law.  It doesn’t depend on anyone’s skill at preaching, and it doesn’t depend on an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.  Sometimes I hear people say, “I can’t come to Bible study!  I don’t know enough.”  Or, “I can’t share my faith with anyone, I don’t know enough.  Christianity is too big and complex for me to share with my neighbor.”

The Reverend Doctor Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, wrote a thirteen-volume work about theology.  It’s pretty intimidating to think about.  But when someone asked him what the core of the Christian faith was, it didn’t take him long to reply: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  You know that message, and I know it.  The children in our pews today know it, too.  It’s not hard.  Jesus loves me.  That is the core of the message that God revealed to Paul, which changed Paul’s life.  It’s the core of the message Paul told the Galatians and all those to whom he brought the Gospel.  And it’s the core of the message that God has given to us, the message we are called to share with the world.  That message—that Gospel—is the power of God coming to be with us.  That Gospel is the true glory of God.  But like all love, to have any worth it must be shared.  So, like Paul, we are called to share God’s love and grace with the world.  To trust that God’s love will guide us, even if it leads us to places and people we would never have imagined.  May we feel the power of God’s love revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and may we share that love with the world.

Amen.

Christ the King: the Feast to Come

Christ the King Sunday, Year B, Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-38a

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

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.

Having just been through an election year, I had a hard time getting enthusiastic about celebrating Christ the King Sunday today.  It seems every time we turn around these days, we see examples of leaders doing terrible things.  Lying, cheating, betraying their principles, doing stupid things, more concerned with getting or maintaining power than they are with using that power wisely for the benefit of their people.  Mouthing pious platitudes while backstabbing others, and then throwing mud at their competitors to make themselves look better.  Pontius Pilate would fit in perfectly.  Indeed, his question to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson—What is truth?—would fit perfectly in the mouth of a modern-day politician.

As if the examples of our leaders weren’t bad enough, there’s the term “king” itself.  Kings are people out of story books, at best, and at worst—well, any student of history can point out that most kings have been at least as bad as our modern politicians, if not worse.  So why devote a whole Sunday to proclaiming Christ’s kingship?  It sounds so old-fashioned, so irrelevant, so naïve.  Yet the metaphor of Christ as king—the metaphor of God’s “kingdom”—is woven throughout Christian understanding.

What is truth?  What is kingship?  What is God’s kingdom, and what are we saying when we pray “your kingdom come”?  So often when we think of these questions and things like them, we start with what we know—the leaders and kingdoms around us—and project those onto God.  Instead, I think we should look at God and use that as our measuring stick.

In the Gospel lesson, we have two examples of leadership before us: Pilate, and Jesus.  Pilate is a typical ruler of his day.  Jesus … is not.  Pilate is concerned for his reputation.  Pilate is concerned with maintaining his power, not an easy thing in a place as turbulent as Judea was.  Pilate wanted to be in control, and he wanted everything to fit into his own ideas of how things ought to be.  Pilate evidently liked using dramatics to appease the crowds and portray himself as a good leader.  We know from history that Pilate and the priests and elders of Judea often clashed, and that not long after Jesus’ death Pilate would be removed from his post.  History also tells us that Pilate could be both cruel and capricious.  There he is, his hold on power crumbling, and his enemies bring him someone they want him to execute.  He dithers about what to do, going back and forth to try to figure out what the heck is going on.  In the end, he concludes that Jesus is probably innocent of the charges against him, but that it would be politically inconvenient to drop the charges and let him go.  So, instead, Pilate executes a man he knows is innocent in order to keep himself in good standing with the crowds.

It seems like the triumph of this broken, earthly kingdom over God’s kingdom.  It seems like Jesus’ kingship—whatever that may be—is at an end.  It seems like the raw power and corruption of this world wins out over justice and righteousness.  And yet, in that very act, God’s kingdom begins to break in.

It’s no accident that in the hours before Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus and Pilate trade barbs about kingship and the nature of power.  It’s no accident John tells us this story of what passed between the two as Pilate was deciding whether or not to have Jesus killed.  Because Pilate may be the one on the judge’s bench, here, but he’s the one on trial.  Him, and every other ruler of this world.  And in this wrongful death, Jesus shows us what it truly means to be a king.

Jesus, you see, is not in this for power, or riches, or to have crowds screaming his name.  If he were, as Jesus points out, he wouldn’t have let himself be captured without a fight.  He would have taken the crowds that have followed him throughout his years of teaching and tried to turn them into an army to defend himself, to overthrow the Roman ruler and his corrupt government and install Jesus in his place.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Jesus handed himself over, knowing that he was going to his death.  Why did he do that?  Because Jesus knew that it was only through his selfless act of love that he could break the power of sin and death.  Jesus loved the world—that power-mad, sinful, broken, messed-up world—so much that he was willing to die for it.  Jesus loves each and every person who has ever lived and ever will live—as sinful and broken as we all are—so much that he was willing to die in pain, and agony, alone on the cross.  For Jesus, kingship doesn’t mean arrogance or self-aggrandizement or selfishness.  For Jesus, kingship means putting the needs of his people—all his people—before his own well-being.

So if that’s what kingship means, where is Jesus’ kingdom?  In Greek, the word “kingdom” can also be translated “rule” or “reign.”  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where Jesus reigns, where God’s will is done.  Jesus’ kingdom is a place where no one goes hungry.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is sick, or hurt, or grieving, and every tear has been wiped away.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where all people are filled with joy.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is abused or bullied, where swords have been beaten into plowshares.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where love wins.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where truth and integrity are the norm, where justice and mercy go hand in hand.  Jesus’ kingdom is like a party, a banquet, where all are invited and there is enough for everyone.  Jesus’ kingdom is what God intended the world to be from the very beginning, and Jesus’ kingdom is what the world will be at the end, when Jesus Christ comes again.

Jesus’ kingdom, obviously, is not the world we live in.  And Jesus’ kingdom is obviously a better place than anywhere we could build ourselves.  For the fullness of God’s kingdom, we will have to wait until Christ comes again.

And yet.  And yet, we are not just citizens of this world, we are also citizens of Jesus’ kingdom.  We live caught between the two, acknowledging the reality of the world around us and yet yearning for the coming of the kingdom.  We live knowing the spiritual hunger of this world and yet anticipating the feast to come.  We can’t create Jesus’ kingdom and we can’t hurry it’s coming, but we can live in the reality we know is coming.  In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we get a glimpse of what it will be like.  But we also see other glimpses of it.  Remember, Jesus constantly said that God’s kingdom was close at hand, if we only had eyes to see it and ears to hear it.  Every time someone chooses love over hate, we have a foretaste of the feast to come.  Every time someone chooses to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, we have a foretaste of the feast to come.

As followers of Christ, we are called and invited to join in the work of the kingdom.  We are called to spread love and mercy and forgiveness, to act with integrity and justice.  We live in this broken, sinful world, and we are sinners ourselves, yet we have tasted a little bit of the feast to come.  We have seen glimpses of Christ’s kingdom.  May we learn to live in the light of the coming kingdom.

Amen.