Ascension

Easter 6, Year C, May 26, 2019

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5, John 14:23-29

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

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

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

This Thursday is Ascension Day.  Historically, it’s a very important Christian holiday.  Here in America we’ve mostly forgotten about it, but in other places—Germany, for example—it’s still celebrated enough that they get the day off.  Whether we remember it or not, it’s still part of our confession of faith.  “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  The Creed gives a very bare-bones version of Jesus’ life: it doesn’t list any of his miracles, or any of his teachings, or any of his parables.  He was born, he was crucified, he was raised, he ascended to heaven, he will come again.  All the stuff that got left out, but the ascension was left in.

So, what is the ascension?  Let’s take a look at the big picture here, what the end of Jesus’ time on Earth was like.  Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter, and spent the next forty days appearing to various of his followers.  The women in the garden, Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus, Thomas in the upper room, Peter and the rest of the disciples on the beach for a fish fry.  All the various stories—and there aren’t many of them, but they are all significant—of Jesus being with various people after he rose from the grave take place in a span of forty days.  Then, after forty days, Jesus returned to heaven.  The Bible stories describe this as Jesus literally rising up from the ground and flying up into the air.  That may be why we don’t talk about the ascension much; it seems a little weird and magical and superstitious to modern science-minded people who know that while heaven exists it’s not a literal, physical kingdom sitting up there in the sky somewhere.  Ten days after Jesus ascended—which makes it fifty days after he rose from the grave—the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost and sent them out into the world.  And, as Christians, we believe that Christ will one day come again to judge the living and the dead, and all the dead will be raised, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and heaven will be part of earth.

Forty days after Easter is this Thursday, so that’s the day we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, when he went back to heaven after his resurrection.  And I thought about using the readings for Ascension Day today, the passages where the Bible actually recounts Jesus’ return to the Father’s side, but then I read the Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday and realized it does a better job of explaining why the ascension is important than the readings actually about the ascension itself do.

Today’s Gospel reading is part of the Farewell Discourses.  The Gospel of John records Jesus’ long night of teaching during the Last Supper, all of the things he told his disciples in his last night with them before his death.  Some of those teachings are instructions—the great command to love one another, for example—and some are explaining what’s going to happen and why, not only at his death but after it.  Jesus tells them, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.'”

Now, that’s all kind of complicated.  But the thing is, when he talks about going away, he’s not just talking about his resurrection.  When Jesus died, he only spent three days in the grave and then he rose again and came back.  But forty days after he rose, he ascended, and fifty days after he rose, the Holy Spirit came.  And the night before he died, Jesus spent a lot of time telling his disciples that it was important that he leave them, that he would send the Holy Spirit to them.  And later in this speech, he tells them that it’s better for them if he goes, because then he can send the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life that I would have dearly loved to have Jesus’ physical presence with me.  Times when I would have given anything for concrete, firm proof of God’s love for me, or times when I would have liked a simple, clear, direct statement from Jesus’ own mouth, so I would know exactly what God was trying to tell me without having to pray or discern or interpret anything.  And I’m sure many of you would love that too.  It’s great to have spiritual assurance; in a lot of ways, it would be even better to have physical, tangible, connection with God.  The thing is, though, that when Jesus was physically present in human form, he could only be in one place at once.  The Spirit, on the other hand, is like the wind.  It can be everywhere at once.  With everyone at once, not just one at a time.  God can work on a much larger scale through the Holy Spirit than through the Son.  So, yes, it is better for us to have the Spirit than if Jesus had stuck around in the flesh.

But as I was reading this passage, I wondered if it wasn’t also about something deeper.  I thought about what it was that Jesus did when he died on the cross and rose again, I thought about the kingdom of God, and how Jesus always said it was near.  I thought about how he’s coming again, to judge the living and the dead.  I thought about how all the writers of the New Testament talk about how in Jesus, God was uniting us to Godself.  I thought about how we become part of Christ, his body in the world.  I thought about how we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection in our baptisms.  I thought about how Jesus was so insistent that he had to ascend back to heaven, that it would be better for us if he did than if he stayed here on Earth.  I visualized the course of his life and actions in my head.  He started out in heaven, then he came to earth and was born, then he died and rose from the grave, then he ascended back into heaven, and he’s coming back one day, and then heaven and earth will be united, made one.  And I realized that it looked like a needle and thread sewing two pieces of cloth together.  If you’re sewing, you take two pieces of cloth.  You push the needle down through both, and then up through both, and then down again.  Through this process, the two pieces of fabric become one whole piece.

Isn’t that what Jesus does?  He travels between heaven and earth, bringing the two together, and uniting them.  The kingdom of God is near because Jesus is near, because Jesus brings the two together.  God and humans are united because we connected with Christ in our baptisms, and the Son and the Father and the Spirit are one.  In Christ, God was reconciling us to God’s self.  In Christ, the world is redeemed and made new.  In Christ, heaven and earth are close and will one day be united.  If heaven and earth used to be separate, Jesus Christ is the thread bringing us together and making us one.

Amen.

On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-12, John 12:22-30

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, O Lord.

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

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.

God’s first covenant was with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  Then came God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where he called them to follow him and promised to be with them and their descendants forever.  Then came the covenant on Mount Sinai, where God re-stated his promise to the people of Israel, and gave them teachings and commandments to show them how they should live as God’s people.  Then last week we heard of God’s covenant with David, promising him that his descendants would always be king of Israel, a promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is of the house and lineage of David.

This week, we heard of the new covenant God proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah.  And, again, it’s good to remember the context, what Jeremiah was dealing with that prompted God giving this covenant.  Jeremiah was a prophet during a particularly terrible time.  God’s people had gone astray over and over again, sometimes worshipping idols and sometimes giving lip service to God’s word while creating a society filled with injustice and exploitation, in which the rich got richer by grinding the poor under their feet, and people hurt one another while claiming to be following God.  And God had warned the people again and again, that if they continued on in that way, he would stand aside and let them reap the consequences of their actions.  God wouldn’t abandon them, God would keep God’s promise to always be their God … but God wouldn’t protect them from the empires around them who wanted to conquer and enslave them.  By Jeremiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah was still hanging on, and the people of Judah believed that God’s covenant with David would protect them even despite their continuing bad behavior.

Jeremiah spoke the words the Lord had given him so speak, and told them that God’s love would not save them from the consequences of their actions unless they repented and turned away from their sins.  And they didn’t listen.  And so Jeremiah watched as the Babylonians conquered Judah, captured the city of Jerusalem, and took many of their people off in chains.  Jeremiah wrote two books, and the second was Lamentations, which records his grief at the destruction of his beloved country.  But even in the midst of devastation and grief, even as the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of God enslaved and removed from the land God had given them, there was hope.  Because Jeremiah knew that God always keeps God’s promises, and God would always be with them, even as slaves in a foreign land.  And Jeremiah knew that God was going to make a new covenant with God’s people.

The covenant Jeremiah records is the only one the Bible specifically calls “new.”  But what’s new about it?  On the surface, it’s a lot like covenants of old.  God will be their God, and they will be his people.  In the covenant at Sinai, God gathered the people from slavery in Egypt; in this new covenant, God will gather the people from Israel and Judah, captured by other nations.  Just like the covenant at Sinai, God will give instructions on how to live a good and godly life.  And just like the covenant at Sinai didn’t eliminate or replace the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, this new covenant will not replace or get rid of all the other covenants God made with God’s people.

The difference, what makes this covenant new, is that it will change human nature.  Up until this point, the wickedness of the human heart that so distressed God in the days of Noah has remained.  God promises that God will always be with God’s people, and God gives instructions for how God’s people are to live, but we human beings fall continuously short.  We hurt ourselves and one another, and we twist God’s word to justify our sinful thoughts and actions.  We tell ourselves that when God commanded us to love one another, he only meant we should love people who are like us, people that we already like.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to hate and fear people who are different, because surely they are not God’s people like we are.  We tell ourselves that if someone hurts us, it’s okay to hurt them back.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to be selfish, and if others are impoverished or hurt because of it, that’s their problem.  We tell ourselves that we are good people, God’s people, and so whatever we think and do must be good and Godly, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God.  We keep breaking our promises to follow God.  That was true in Jeremiah’s day, and it is still unfortunately true today.

But this covenant that God promises through Jeremiah will be a new covenant.  God’s teachings and commandments won’t be empty words on a page that we try to ignore or weasel our way out of whenever they become inconvenient.  Instead, God’s word will be written on our hearts.  We won’t have to argue about what God means, because nobody will try to twist God’s words to their own gain.  We won’t have to tell each other “know the Lord,” for we shall all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest.  Instead of giving lip service to doing the right thing, humans will actually do it.  Instead of telling ourselves we can do everything because of our own abilities and we don’t need anyone else, we will love God and love our neighbors, and build deep and lasting and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbor.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  It sounds almost too good to be true.  And yet, Jeremiah assures us that that day is coming, for God has promised it.  We get a foretaste of that day in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We get a foretaste of God’s word in us and in our hearts by the way the Holy Spirit of God moves in us and around us, giving life to our faith and constantly bringing us back to God.  We get a foretaste of that great and wondrous day every time someone chooses love over hate, generosity over selfishness, faith over despair.  We get a foretaste of that day whenever chains are broken, oppression is ended, justice is done, and mercy is given.

Now, we see that world, that kingdom of God, only dimly and in little bits and pieces.  But when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, that kingdom will come to earth and the human heart will be made new, washed clean from all the evil that is in it.  And God’s Spirit will dwell with us, and God’s will will be written on our hearts.  And we will do the right thing not because we have to, or because are afraid of the consequences, or grudgingly, but with joy and love.  I can’t wait for that day.  And every time I see the pain in this world, my longing for it grows stronger.  That day is coming, says the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Reformation 3: Saint and Sinner

Reformation 3, Saint and Sinner, October 8, 2017

2 Corinthians 5:14-21, Psalm 51:1-12, John 20:19-23

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.

Martin Marty once said that the purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Martin Luther would definitely have agreed.  And the main way God’s Word does this, in Luther’s view, is by reminding us that we are both saint and sinner.

We tend to want to divide the world up into good people and bad people.  In the common American world view, there are some people who are worthy and some people who aren’t.  Some people who deserve attention and praise and help when things go wrong, and others who don’t.  From a Christian point of view, we label these categories as “righteous” and “sinners.”  People who have lived good lives, chosen the right things, and been generally good, and those who haven’t.  Except things are a bit more complicated than that.  Nobody is purely good or purely bad; nobody is all one or all the other.  We are all saints—and we are all sinners.

Let’s define our terms here.  A “saint,” in the way the Bible uses the word, is someone who is holy in the eyes of God.  And a sinner is someone who has fallen short of what God expects of us.  And every single one of us has fallen short of what God expects of us.  We have all failed to be the good people he created us to be.  The only reason any of us are holy in the eyes of God is because of God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness.

There are some people who know just how screwed up they are.  There are some people who know just how much they fail.  There are some people who know they are sinners.  There are some people who know that they have hurt themselves and others.  There are some people who know that they are broken.  There are some people who know that no matter how hard they try, they just can’t measure up to where they should be.  All too often these people are not in church because they do not believe they are worthy.  I’ve talked to so many people who said, “well, if I came to church pastor, there’d be a lightning bolt before I got through the door.”  And they mean it as a joke, but there’s a core of truth to it: they believe that they are too broken, too much a sinner, for God to love.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is a comfort.  God loves you anyway, as broken as you are, and you are forgiven and loved and saved.  You are a saint of God.  And in that forgiveness, God is working to heal you and make you whole.  You don’t have to be afraid, you can leave your guilt and anxiety and fear and all your burdens, for Christ is working to reconcile you and all of creation.

But there are people who don’t need to hear that.  People who don’t need to hear the message of forgiveness, because they don’t believe they’ve done anything that needs to be forgiven.  They believe they’re good, nice people, and that sin is always something other people do.  They hear of God’s judgment and they don’t quake in their boots, and it’s not because they trust in God’s mercy: it’s because they don’t believe they’ve done anything to need forgiveness in the first place.  Or, if they have, they count it as so minor as not to matter.  Because they’re good, nice, Christian people, so by definition anything they do is good, nice, and Christian.  I was once in a Bible study with a woman—a devout Christian, there every Sunday—who was really upset that we started each worship service with confession, because she didn’t think she had anything to confess.  If you are one of those people, the message of the Gospel is not supposed to be a comfort.  Because you are already too comfortable.  So comfortable that you cannot see your own flaws, your own sins, the way your own actions—and inactions—harm yourself, those around you, and the world.  This is, by the way, the sin of the Pharisees.  The sin of people who think they already have everything figured out, and so miss the very presence of God in their midst even as they claim to worship him.

If you are sitting there thinking to yourself that this doesn’t apply to you, then let’s stop for a bit and take a good hard look at what “sin” means in the lives of good, hardworking, ordinary people who’ve never killed anybody, never had an affair, and so on and so forth.  Let’s start with the Ten Commandments, shall we?  The first is that we are supposed to worship God alone, and nothing and no one else.  God is supposed to be the one in whom we put our trust.  God is supposed to be the one guiding our lives—not our co-pilot, but the pilot.  How many of us actually do that?  Not many.  A lot of good, Christian people put their trust in their money, or their ability to work hard, or their political party, or their own views of what is right and wrong, and then just assume that God approves of whatever they want him to.  And I’ve seen this happen on both sides of the political aisle, liberal and conservative both.  It’s really easy to see when people we disagree with do it; it’s a lot harder to recognize when we do it ourselves.  We create God in our own image, instead of conforming our hearts, minds, and lives to God.  And that’s sin.

Then there’s the commandment about adultery.  It is, by the way, the only commandment having to do with sex.  So you’d think we would count it as the most serious sexual sin, but how many people just shrug and say, “well, cheating isn’t so bad, everyone does it.”  Not to mention, when Jesus talked about adultery he talked about our own responsibility for how we look at other people sexually.  When you look at someone with lust, the proper response is to discipline your own heart and mind, not tell them what they should or shouldn’t wear.  It’s not about outer selves, it’s about how we think about others and how we treat them.  Sex should not be a commodity or a weapon or a toy, it should be about honest and healthy relationships of mutual trust and love.  And yet we splash sex all over the place, use it to sell things, treat people like nothing more than objects for our titillation.  Or we use the things people say or wear as justification for anything that happens to them.  “What did she expect, wearing a skirt that short?”  We treat others as things instead of as brothers and sisters in Christ.  And that’s sin.

How about “thou shalt not kill”?  Martin Luther had a lot to say about this commandment.  It’s not just about the actual act of murder, it’s about a lot more than that.  “God wants to have everyone defended, delivered, and protected from the wickedness and violence of others, and he has placed this commandment as a wall, fortress, and a refuge around our neighbors,” Luther said.  So we shouldn’t kill, and we shouldn’t allow others to kill.  But we also shouldn’t physically attack people, and we shouldn’t allow others to do so.  And we shouldn’t say things that encourage people to attack or to seek violent solutions, and we should speak up when others do so.  To quote Martin Luther again, “this commandment is violated not only when we do evil, but also when we have the opportunity to do good to our neighbors and to prevent, protect, and save them from suffering bodily harm or injury, but fail to do so.  If you send a naked person away when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death.  If you see anyone who is suffering hunger and do not feed her, you have let her starve.”

As a society, we are doing a horrifyingly bad job of fulfilling this commandment.  And remember that in the Old Testament, God often does judge societies and communities as a whole.  Sin is about our individual actions, but it’s also about what we as a community accept as normal.  How do we, as a community and as a larger society, respond to challenges and needs?  Do we ensure that all people in our community are cared for and provided for, or do we allow others to slip through the cracks?  As a society, America is wealthier than it ever has been.  Yet over the last fifty years, as the total productivity and wealth of the nation have grown by leaps and bounds, the number of people who are not merely working class but really poor has also grown by leaps and bounds.  The percentage of people who are homeless in America has grown.  The percentage of people who are hungry in America has grown.  The percentage of people who lack medical care in America has grown.  We live in a land of plenty the likes of which the world has never seen before, and simply accept that people being sick and hungry and homeless is normal when we as a society have the resources to do something about it.  People die who did not have to, and none of us pulled the trigger, but we allowed the circumstances that caused it.  And that is sin.

Then there is the violence in our homes and schools and churches and public places.  We teach our young boys that crying is for girls, that real men aren’t afraid or nervous or shy or uncertain.  We teach our boys that the only manly emotion is anger.  And then we’re surprised when they grow up and take that anger out on their girlfriends, wives, and children.  And then we’re surprised when some of them take their anger out on crowds.  And we send our thoughts and prayers, and we rehash the same old tired arguments, and we don’t actually change anything, so that it keeps on happening.  And that is sin.

We are good, Christian people.  And we are sinners.  Hypocrites.  No matter how we justify ourselves, no matter how we close our eyes to the consequences of our actions and inactions, we are guilty.  God loves us, God saves us, God forgives us and makes us whole and holy, and yet while we live we keep messing up, we keep sinning, we keep mistaking our own prejudices and blindness for God’s will.  We are saints, and we are sinners.  Both at the same time.  When we are complacent, or blind, or hypocritical, then we need the law and judgment of God to show us the depths of our error, to afflict our consciences and drive us to God.  And when we see the depths of our sin, when we see the consequences of what we have done or allowed to happen, we need the comfort of God’s promise, the good news that God loves us and saves us and is reconciling the world.  We cannot pretend to be innocent, but we can never forget that we are forgiven.  The world is not divided into some people who are good and some people who are bad.  We are, all of us, both saint and sinner.  May we always recognize our sins, but trust in the grace and mercy of God’s forgiveness.

Amen.

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace Through Faith

Reformation 1: Salvation by Grace through Faith, September 24, 2017

Galatians 2:16-21, Psalm 103, Luke 24:44-48

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.

Have you ever noticed that for a lot of people—even for good, deeply faithful Christians—a lot of faith ends up being more about us than about God?  I mean, we start with the question “what must I do to be saved?” and focus our attention from there.  On how we are doing things to earn our salvation.  So that then, salvation depends on our actions, and not God’s actions.  It’s about what we deserve—or don’t deserve—and not about what God is doing to break the power of sin and death.  Some people focus on the good deeds they have done, and what a moral and upright person they are.  Others focus on how strong their faith is, what a good Christian they are, or in the fact that they believe the right things and say the right prayers and other people don’t.  In either case, we end up focusing on ourselves, instead of on God.  Our faith turns into faith in our own ability to be a good person, do the right thing, and believe the right thing, rather than in God’s ability to forgive and in the saving power of the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.

This is not a new problem.  This is an old, old trap that Christians have fallen into since the very first followers of Jesus gathered after his resurrection.  And it comes from very understandable places!  We don’t like being helpless.  We want to know what we can do!  And, certainly, we are supposed to respond to God’s gift of salvation by living in the light of his love.  But that’s a response to what God does, not a precondition for God to act.  The more we focus on our own actions, the less room we have to see what God has done and is doing in our lives.  The easier it is to take credit for God’s work, instead of celebrating what God has done in us and gives us the strength and will to do in the world.

On a more selfish level, focusing on our own actions and goodness gives us a lot more room to be self-righteous.  A lot more room to judge other people.  To draw lines about who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, instead of really accepting that every human being is a child of God whom God is working to save.  Do you remember the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector?  The Pharisee and the Tax collector both come to the house of God to pray on the same day.  And the Pharisee thanks God that he isn’t a sinner like the tax collector, and goes on and on about what a wonderful person he is.  And sure, he’s giving lip service to the fact that God made him who he is, but he’s still pretty arrogant about it.  You can tell that under everything, he believes it’s his own abilities and actions that just make him better than other people.  The tax collector, on the other hand, has no such illusions.  He knows he’s a sinner; he knows he is utterly dependent on the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God.  And he goes home forgiven and redeemed, while the Pharisee doesn’t.  Not because he’s a better person than the Pharisee—in fact, he’s a much worse person than the Pharisee—but because he put his faith in God, rather than on his own ability to be good.

Then there’s the social aspects of salvation.  By which I mean, the ways we Christians tend to use the threat of hell and the lure of heaven to try and motivate people to be nice and moral.  The idea is, people won’t do the right thing unless they’re either afraid of punishment or looking for a reward, and so you can use heaven and hell to motivate people.  You literally try to scare the hell out of them, and then dangle the carrot of heaven in front of their nose if they shape up.  It can, in some circumstances, be effective in shaping behavior, although not in others.  Use it too often, and some people get turned into neurotic wrecks angsting over whether they’ve done enough to be saved, while other people start rolling their eyes and tuning out.  And even where this use of heaven and hell are done well and people do listen … you’re still putting the emphasis on humans, what we’re doing, and not on what God is doing.

All of this is true today, it was true in the time of Jesus and the Apostles, and it was most certainly true in the time of Martin Luther.    See, in those days, Christianity was all about earning your salvation.  They had a motto: Do your best, and God will do the rest.  Basically, if you are as good as you possibly can be, go to church every Sunday and every holy day and pray a lot and do lots of good deeds, you will mostly be good enough to go to heaven, and then God will just sort of fill in the gap between your own effort and what’s necessary to get into heaven.

Of course there are several problems with this idea.  One of them is that we’re putting humans at the center and not God, but the other problem with that is, if we’re mostly good enough to earn our own salvation … what in the name of all that’s holy did Jesus die for?  If all we’re talking about is a small gap between what we can do and where we need to be, then why couldn’t God have found some way of filling that gap that was less dramatic, less painful, less gory and gruesome than dying on a cross?  And of course, if humans were capable of earning salvation, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place.  The whole reason for Jesus’ death is that human beings are too broken by sin and death to earn our way into God’s good books by our own merit.  Not just human beings, either.  The whole cosmos is broken by sin and death.  And God loves us and all the world despite the fact that we are so broken, and is willing to do anything—literally anything—to save us and heal us and re-create us and all the cosmos as we were meant to be.  And that anything includes coming to earth and dying on a cross.

This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians.  “Justification,” is, in this context, a fancy way of saying “made right with God.”  Or “forgiven.”  Or being acquitted, like in a trial.  And the law isn’t just the formal legal rules, but also the traditions and customs and teachings.  If we can make ourselves right with God, if we can justify ourselves, through being “good enough” and following the right teachings and rules, then Christ died for nothing.  That’s the problem with putting ourselves and our abilities at the center.  When the truth is, it was necessary for Jesus Christ to die for us.  He wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t!  We can’t earn our salvation.  We can’t justify ourselves.  We can’t do and say and believe the right things hard enough to make up for all the brokenness inside us.  We can’t make ourselves, through our own efforts, worthy of salvation.  We depend on God’s grace and mercy.

And thank God that grace and mercy are at the core of God’s very being!  The most common description of God in the Bible is that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Grace, in this context, means all the love God gives us that we don’t deserve.  The gifts that God gives that we can never pay back.  Grace is joy, delight, happiness, good fortune—all undeserved.  Grace is light in dark places, and grace is a lifeline to people who are drowning.  Grace is the boundless generosity of God, which gives without limit.  Grace is like winning the lottery when we didn’t even buy a ticket.  It’s something God does that transforms us, saves us, gives us all the love and mercy and hope and joy that can only come from God.

This is the Good News of God: that no matter how broken we are, no matter how far we fall, God loves us.  We don’t have to make ourselves right—and we can’t justify ourselves, no matter how hard we try.  God’s grace is as vast as the universe, and it is given through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.  When we say “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,” we are saying that Jesus Christ “has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”  God loves us so much that he will never let us go, stop at nothing to save and redeem us, to justify us, to mend our broken relationships with him and with each other.  That’s what Jesus died for.  That’s what all of scripture is trying to point us to.  That great truth—that God’s salvation comes through Christ Jesus, freely given for all people—is the heart of the Gospel.  That’s the good news.

And from that good news flows faith.  Faith is something that God plants in us with his word, that he waters and weeds and is always working to help grow.  Faithfulness is how we respond to God’s wonderful gift.  But there’s more.  When Paul says in Galatians that we are justified by faith, he means two things.  In Greek, he’s saying two distinct things at the same time; there’s no way to do that in English, so translators pick one or the other.  The NRSV and NIV and most modern translations choose to say we are justified by faith in Christ, that is, by our belief in Jesus.  The Common English Bible chooses the other translation, that we are saved through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, that is, through Christ’s faithfulness to us.  Paul meant both of those.  We are justified both by our faith and by Christ’s faithfulness.  We can’t be so focused on our faith in Jesus that we forget Jesus’ faithfulness to us.  His absolute dedication to our salvation.

That’s the truth on which the church stands or falls.  When we remember that God’s grace and mercy are at the center of everything, we stand firm and our faith blossoms.  When we forget—when we try to put our own efforts and abilities in the center—when we trust in our own righteousness or hard work or faithfulness—we start to lose our way, and our faith becomes dry and legalistic.  Even when all the rest of our beliefs are perfectly right, if our core is wrong, we’re going to be going in the wrong direction.  God’s grace and saving actions are the compass that guides our path.

The fancy Reformation theological slogan to describe this is “Justification by grace through faith.”  We are made right with God by God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, in which our faith is rooted.  Our faith is a response to that salvation, planted in us by God, who is always faithful to us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 24, September 17, 2017

Genesis 50:15-21, Psalm 103:[1-7]8-13, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35

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.

The first thing you have to understand about this parable is that in the ancient world—and up until the 20th Century—debt slavery was the norm in pretty much every society in the world much more complicated than hunting and gathering.  If you couldn’t pay your debts, you became a slave.  In places where slavery was outlawed, you went to some sort of a debtor’s prison, where you were effectively a slave of the prison until you paid your debt … which was generally impossible, since people in prison can’t earn much money.  This was normal.  This was proper.  This was the way things worked, on a fundamental level.  If you can’t pay your debts, you lose EVERYTHING.  Even your own freedom.  Everything that makes life worth living, you lose.  So when Jesus starts talking about someone being enslaved and sold, along with his wife, children, and all his possessions, because he couldn’t pay his debts, it may sound shocking to us but the people who were there actually listening to Jesus would have thought it boringly ordinary.  Yeah, sure.  Of course a debtor is being sold into slavery.  And water is wet, and the sky is blue.  This is the way the world works.  And it is terrible, but it’s normal.  There are a lot of terrible things in the world that we accept as normal.

In the ancient world, debt was a life-or-death issue, and certainly a life-or-freedom issue.  We don’t have debt slavery today, but money problems can still ruin your life.  A lot of us have been where that debtor has been.  Bankruptcy may be better than a debtor’s prison, and a lot better than slavery, but you still lose everything and have a hard time starting over.  Half of all bankruptcies in the US happen because of a medical problem, and in half of those cases, the person even had medical insurance.  It just wasn’t enough, and didn’t cover things like travelling for care.  And what about the people who are accused of a crime but are too poor to pay bail?  They languish in prison until their trial simply because they are poor, whether or not they are guilty.  Or what about the person who went to school and has lots of student loans, but hasn’t been able to get a job that pays well enough to pay them off, and spends their whole life slaving away to service the debt, with the weight of it dragging them down no matter how hard they work.  If you haven’t been in the position of that debtor, you probably know someone who has.  The shame.  The fear.  The helplessness in the face of life’s disasters.  Begging that someone will have mercy.  Just a little, just enough that the axe doesn’t fall today.  Even if it has to fall sometime, just please let it not be today.  We know what that’s like.

The surprise comes in the next part.  The debtor falls to his knees before his lord and begs for time to repay the debt—no shock there—and the lord listens.  It’s ludicrous.  This debt is far, far too big.  The debtor could work for thousands of years and still not be able to pay it back.  But the lord listens to his pleas.  Not only that, he cancels the whole debtThat’s the shocker.  That’s what would have made Jesus’ original hearers sit up and take notice.  More time to pay back the debt, sure—if a rich person was feeling particularly generous.  But to completely cancel it?  This is not pocket change, here.  This was serious money, even for rich people.  A talent was the largest unit of money, and ten thousand is literally the largest number in the ancient Greek language.  If you had asked someone in Jesus’ day to count larger than ten thousand they could not have done it because the numbers literally did not exist.  This is the largest possible number of the largest possible unit.  There was no way to owe more money than this.  There were kings in Jesus day who didn’t have that much money in their treasuries.  And this lord is just going to … let it go?  Wipe the slate clean?  Not collect it?  How much is that going to cost the lord?  What other things is he going to not be able to do because he lost all that money?  What are people going to think about this?  Are they going to call him soft, weak?  Are other people going to try to cheat him because they think he’ll let them get away with it?  This is baffling.  Strange.  It makes no sense.

Can you imagine how the forgiven man felt?  With the weight of all that load just suddenly … gone?  All the worry that his world was going to come crashing down on him vanished?  It must have felt like winning the lottery, but a lottery that you didn’t even buy a ticket to.  It was that kind of good fortune.  Or like a tornado that comes and picks up the house right next to you and tosses it for miles, leaving you untouched.  Unbelievable.  What do you do with that kind of grace?

Then the guy sees someone who owes him money.  And this is a much smaller sum.  I mean, it’s still big—about four months’ wages—but not ludicrously big.  This is an amount that someone could repay, although probably not all at once.  Set up a payment plan, and it could be done.  But when debt collectors come looking for their money, a lot of the time they aren’t particularly interested in the slow, long repayment.  After all, it’s a chancy thing.  What if the person can’t do it?  What if they run away, leaving their debt behind?  And, you know, you have to make an example of people, otherwise other people will be tempted not to pay their debts, and then where would we be?  The whole system would collapse!  Chaos!  Sure, it would be better for the poor schmucks who owe money, but what about the people who lent it to them in good faith expecting to get their money back?  Don’t they deserve consideration, too?  The system has to be maintained.  And so the first man—the man who was just forgiven a greater debt than he could ever possibly repay—he has the man thrown in jail.  He was given a grace beyond measure, and he isn’t willing to pass it on and pay it forward.  He thinks it’s a one-off gift, not a radical change in the way the system works.

Well, word gets around, and the lord finds out.  And he’s angry, because he did mean it to be a change in the way the system works.  Because the system is bad.  The system grinds people up and spits them out.  The fact that we are used to it doesn’t mean it’s good, and it doesn’t mean that’s the system the lord wants.  If he liked that system, if he wanted it to exist in his lands, he would never have pardoned the first slave in the first place.  So the lord took back his gift, and handed him over until he could pay that horrendous, huge, impossibly large debt.  Which, of course, he’ll never be able to do.  But the problem isn’t the first man’s debt.  The problem is that the first man was so used to the way the system worked that even the gift of the most massive grace anyone could ever receive didn’t make him stop and question it.

The debt in this parable, of course, symbolizes sin.  There are a lot of different metaphors for sin in the Bible: debts, trespasses, and so on.  There are a lot of different types of sin, and some of it is the ordinary everyday type that we don’t even notice, and some of it is the deep and violent and obvious sin that can’t possibly be mistaken.  Sometimes, the metaphors fit very well, and sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes the hurt done is deeper than money lost and trust betrayed.  Sometimes, especially when violence is done, forgiveness is not something that can—or should—come quickly or easily.  In some cases, being pressured to forgive too quickly or easily can actually cause psychological damage to the victim.  There has to be safety, and healing, and growth, before forgiveness can happen.  And forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting; neither the lord nor the other servants forgot the debt that had been forgiven.

But whatever the type of sin, we need to remember that we ourselves have been forgiven.  We ourselves have done things we shouldn’t, and we have failed to do the things we should, and we have hurt ourselves and others in the process.  And God has forgiven us everything we have done, because God loves us.  Moreover, the whole system of judgment and punishment that we take for granted isn’t God’s final say on the matter of sin and evil.  God hates the evil that we do, the ways we hurt ourselves and others; but God takes no pleasure in the suffering of anyone, even sinners.  And God did not come into the world in the form of Jesus Christ to condemn, but to save.  To remake not just a few sinners, but the entire cosmos.  To take the whole dog-eat-dog world of winners and losers, rich and poor, bullies and victims, hate and fear, and completely remake it.  To break the power of sin and death.  Not appease it, not punish it, wipe it away forever.

Hate will have no place in that new world that God is making.  Neither will old grudges, no matter how well-earned.  Neither will the kind of self-righteous judgmentalism that sees the flaws of others, but cannot see its own.  If we are going to fit into that new world—if we are going to be who God created us to be and live the lives God has created us to live—we can’t cling to the ways of the world.  We can’t assume that our norms are God’s norms, or that we have the market cornered on God’s love and grace.  May we always remember to see things through God’s eyes, and forgive as we ourselves have been forgiven.

Amen.

Freedom in Christ

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 13

July 2, 2017

Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

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.

There’s something ironic about talking about slavery on the Fourth of July weekend, don’t you think?  The Fourth of July is a holiday devoted to freedom.  Liberty!  Getting to make our own rules and laws instead of having to do what someone else tells us to!  Woohoo, isn’t it awesome to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave!  Let’s remember all of the reasons it is AWESOME to be an American, starting with the fact that we are free!

Except that, uh, we aren’t.  Or rather, we are politically free.  But there are deeper forms of slavery than just the external political reality.  Addiction, illness, dysfunctional or abusive relationships—all of these can enslave us just deeply as any external political force.  And of all the possible things that hold us in bondage, sin is the worst and the most deeply twisting.  Sin corrupts us so that we choose to do things that will hurt ourselves and others.  Sin corrupts us so that we don’t even see the problem.  It’s not just that sin makes us do bad things; sin makes us think that they’re the right things.

For example.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  There are no qualifiers to that, no limitations.  It’s not “we should love our enemies until they do something really bad, and then it’s okay to hate them.”  It’s not, “say you love your enemies while plotting to hurt them.”  It’s not, “love some of your enemies and hate the rest.”  It’s not even “be superficially nice to your enemies while fuming internally about them.”  No, all of those would be a lot easier than what Jesus really tells us, which is to love our enemies.  Period, full stop, no limitations or exclusions apply.  No loopholes to weasel out of it.  Love your enemies.

But hating them feels so good!  And if they DESERVE to be hurt, if they’re bad people or sinners or have done terrible things, then SURELY God would agree that it’s okay to hate them!  There are people in this world who are really, truly, awful people, who have hurt and killed and done terrible things.  Who need to be stopped from hurting anyone else.  But it’s not our job to hate them, and while it’s our job to protect people in danger, it’s not our job to plot vengeance.  But it’s so easy to convince ourselves that God surely wouldn’t mind, just this once.  Or even that God would want us to hate them.  And then, once you’re used to explaining away or ignoring God’s commands to love, well, lots of other things can be explained away or ignored, too.  And pretty soon, we’ve developed a whole series of justifications to make ourselves believe that God approves of everything we do.  The temporary benefits blind us to the fact that sinfulness is drawing us further away from God.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks a lot about sin, and about slavery.  For Paul, sin isn’t just individual acts.  Sin is the whole way of thinking that draws us away from God.  Sin is not something we do, it’s something we are, something that guides and controls everything about how we see the world and ourselves, how we see God, how we see our fellow human beings.  While people can choose whether or not to commit individual bad acts, we can’t choose our state of being.  I can choose, for example, whether or not to lie in any one given situation; that’s a choice I can make.  But I can’t choose whether or not to be a sinner.  The only thing that can free me from slavery to sin and death is the saving action of Jesus Christ our Lord.  As baptized children of God, we are freed from slavery to sin!

So the questions the Romans wanted to know is, now that we’re free from the power of sinfulness and have been forgiven and redeemed by Jesus, does that mean we can do anything we want?  Does that mean that we can commit any individual sin we please, and it’s fine, because Jesus saved us?  It would be very convenient if that were true.  But that way of thinking is the first step away from God, back down into that mindset where we can hurt ourselves and others as much as we please, as long as we come up with a good enough excuse for it.

Paul puts it this way.  Yeah, sure, you’re no longer slaves of sin, and that’s awesome!  But that doesn’t mean we have no responsibilities.  The fact that we have been forgiven doesn’t mean we get to choose our own way: we are still in the power of the one who created us, the one who redeems us, the one who guides us through life.  We are still slaves.  Except that we are now slaves of God.  And while being a slave of sin leads only to death and pain (of ourselves and others), being a slave of God leads to love and abundant life, in this world and the next.

Now, wait a minute, hold on, I can hear you saying it.  We’re free!  God freed us through Jesus’ death and resurrection!  And that’s true.  We are free.  But there’s different kinds of freedom.  There’s “freedom from,” which means that we are free from the things that used to restrain us.  It’s the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom: nothing to hold us back, baby!  No consequences, no restraint, we can do ANYTHING WE WANT.  Which, uh, yeah, sure, you might be free to do anything you want, but there’s a lot of stuff you still shouldn’t do, right?  The more you focus on freedom from restraint, the more it leads you to doing dangerous and destructive stuff just because you can.  Yeah, maybe it’s allowed … but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The other kind of freedom is the “freedom to.”  The freedom to do the right thing.  The freedom to heal.  See, when you’re chained up in bad ways, when you’re hurt, the chains themselves hurt you even more.  If you’re in an abusive relationship, for example, even the good times in that relationship keep you from healing because they keep you in that spot where your abuser can hurt you the next time things get bad.  And abusers keep you from forming healthy relationships with other people, too.  Only when you are free can you heal.  Only when you’re free can you start to build healthy relationships.  Only when you are free can you start to make good choices that lead to a better life.  And that’s the kind of freedom that God gives: the freedom to heal, and the freedom to do the right thing, and the freedom to build healthy relationships with God and with other people.

So why is Paul calling that freedom in Christ, that freedom to heal and build relationships, slavery?  Partly, it’s to remind us that the freedom of a Christian is not a license to misbehave.  It’s not the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom.  The freedom of a Christian comes with responsibility, to do the right thing, to spread the love of God, to work for peace and justice and healing.  We are not freed to do whatever the hell we want.  We are freed to serve God.

But calling our service to God “slavery” is also a way of reminding us that God has to come first.  In his explanation of the first Commandment, Martin Luther points out that having no other gods before the Lord our God isn’t just a matter of not being a Buddhist.  See, our ‘god’ isn’t just the one we name in our prayers and come to worship occasionally.  Our ‘god’ is the number one priority in our life.  Everything else that we do, everything we say, flows from our number one priority.  Is our priority making money?  That’s our God.  Is our priority our kids’ sports?  That’s our God.  Is our priority being liked?  That’s our God.  Is our priority our political ideology?  That’s our God.  Once we set something as the most important thing in our life, we start to shape our life and our thoughts and our hopes and dreams and fears and everything about us.  We put ourselves in service to things, we enslave ourselves, without ever consciously realizing what we’re doing.  We make chains for ourselves.  And some of those things may be very good things!  But if we build our life around them, it will be warped and constraining and lead us to places we do not want to go.  That’s why the first commandment is to put God first.  Because if we put anything else first, it will become our god and it will warp us in its service.

Even love of country can be an idol, if we let it.  I love America.  I am proud to be an American.  I am so grateful to God that I was born here, and while other countries are nice to visit, America is and always shall be my home and beloved native land.  But when we start to say “America first,” when we lift our love of country to the highest place in our hearts, that is idolatry.  Because the highest place in our hearts should belong to God.  God is the only one that can give life and hope and healing and growth.  God uses many channels to give God’s gifts—family, friends, job, country, community—but we must always remember that they are God’s gifts, above all else.

We have been freed from slavery to sin and death by Jesus Christ our Lord.  That means we have a choice.  We get to choose what our priorities will be, what we will hold highest in our heart.  But when we put anything but God in that first place, we become slaves to that thing.  God leads to life, and healing, and right relationships.  May we always hold God first in our hearts, and follow him.

Amen.

Telling the Truth

Ash Wednesday, 2017

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

Ash Wednesday is a day for telling the truth.  Not the shiny, pretty lies that we want to hear; not the pretty surface the world wants to see, but the truth.  And the truth is, we are sinners.  God created us to be good, but we have turned away and gone astray.  There is goodness in even the worst of us, because God’s good work can’t be completely broken … but there is also sin in even the best of us.  Some of that sin we choose; some of that sin we learn from those around us; some of that sin we inherit from the general sinfulness of humanity.  In one of the creation stories in Genesis, God creates us out of the dust of the earth, molding us like a potter molds a vessel.  Then God breathes life into us.  Then we don’t trust God and turn away from him.  And sin breaks into our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and all of creation, bringing death and pain as its constant companions.  And so we will someday die, and whether we are buried or cremated, our mortal remains will eventually crumble to dust, the same dust God originally created us out of.

Now, our reactions to the great truth of our sinfulness vary.  Some of us deny it; some of us would be gold-medal contenders if “self-justification and excuses” were an Olympic sport.  We’re not really sinners, we think; we haven’t done anything that bad.  If you find yourself thinking this, I would suggest taking a good, hard look at yourself.  Would your spouse agree?  How about your kids, your parents, your friends—your enemies?  How have your actions and inactions caused pain for yourself and others?  How have your actions and inactions increased pain and hate and fear and suffering in the world?  I guarantee you, that no matter how good you think you are, you have done things that have added to the suffering in the world, and you have failed to act when you could have brought healing or hope.  We all have.  And most of us avoid this truth with self-justification and self-righteousness.  Some people can even take a bad thing and talk about it as if it were something good!  Parents who abuse their children, for example, often believe that they are helping their children—toughening them up, say, or getting rid of whatever traits they don’t approve of.  But whatever form the self-justification and denial takes, it prevents us from dealing with the reality that every single one of us is broken and sinful, and that even the best human society is riddled with sin and brokenness and darkness.

But denial and self-justification isn’t the only response to the truth of sin.  Some people take it far too much to heart.  People who have been abused are often manipulated into believing that they are worthless because of their sin and thus deserve whatever abuse is heaped upon them.  People with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses often believe that their sins are so deep and dark that they can’t ever be redeemed or loved.  Even small mistakes—even things that aren’t mistakes at all—are seen as huge gaping chasms isolating and dragging them down.  They know the truth of their sin so well that they cannot see that there is a truth greater than sin, and that is the love of God.

We are broken, sinful creatures, every single one of us, and that is the truth.  We make the world a darker, more painful place by our actions, by our words, and by the things we leave undone and unsaid.  This is the truth.  Little by little our sins add up, increasing the death and pain in the world.  This is the truth.  But there is another truth, deeper and greater than this one, and that is the love of God.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, not even ourselves.  Not even our brokenness, our pain, our sins.  Nothing in all of the universe can stop God from loving us.  Even as we sin, even as God hates all the ways we destroy ourselves, other people, and all of God’s creation, God does not stop loving us.  God will always love us, even while he condemns the things we do to ourselves and others.  God’s love is stronger than God’s condemnation; God’s forgiveness is greater than God’s judgment.  God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  This is the truth that we cling to as Christians; this is the truth that caused God’s Son to be born as a human, to die for our sake, and to rise again in glory, so that we might be saved.  We tell the truth about our sins not to revel in gloom, or to prey on people with anxieties, but so that we can understand what God has done for us—and why it was necessary.

Our sins are many.  They harden our hearts, they blacken our hearts and souls and minds.  They lead us astray, sometimes convincing us that their path is the path of righteousness.  Our sins have caused us and others real pain, real suffering, real death.  We cannot sweep this under the rug, and we shouldn’t try to.  Because when we acknowledge our sin, God relents from punishing.  When we acknowledge our transgressions, God who is faithful and just forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  When we admit the darkness in our hearts and lift them up to God, God creates in us new hearts.  But that cleansing, that washing, those new hearts can’t come as long as we deny that we need them.  We can’t be reconciled to Christ if we already think we’re in good with him, but the second we admit our need, change becomes possible.  Salvation becomes possible.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.  We are sinners, and we will someday die.  Yet we are also beloved children of God, who loves us, forgives us, and reaches into our graves to give us new life in his kingdom.  This is most certainly true.

Amen.

Choosing Life

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 12th, 2017

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 119:1-8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

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

 

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

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

When I teach the Ten Commandments to Confirmation students, I emphasize that the Commandments are not the be-all, end-all of Christian life and morality.  They are, rather, the rock-bottom of acceptable behavior.  The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not commit adultery.”  And of course you shouldn’t, but if the best you can say about the most intimate relationship of your life is “well, I’ve never cheated on them,” it is probably not the kind of good, life-giving relationship God wants it to be.  Or take the Fifth Commandment.  “You shall not murder.”  Of course you shouldn’t.  But if the best you can say about how you treat people is “I’ve never murdered anybody!” well, that’s not saying much.  I know some very nasty people who could say the same.  If the best you can say about your behavior is that you’ve never murdered anyone or cheated on your spouse, you may be scraping by as “acceptable,” but you’ve probably done a lot of other bad things that have hurt yourself and others.

This is why, when Jesus starts talking about the commandments, he expands them.  Sure, you shouldn’t murder, and if you do, you will be judged for it.  But that’s not the only thing we do that is worthy of judgment!  We do a lot of things, in anger or fear or hate, that hurt ourselves and others, and we are responsible for the hurt we cause.  These things have consequences, both here on earth, and to our souls.

Jesus says that being angry makes us liable to judgment.  Of course, not all anger is bad; Jesus himself got angry, when he saw people hurting or cheating others.  Judgment doesn’t always mean punishment; some people who go before a judge receive a verdict of innocence.  But judgment does mean that what you do must be weighed.  Did that anger cause you to stand up to a bully, or work to fix an injustice in the world?  Then it was good.  Did that anger fester inside you?  Did it cause you to vent your spleen on other people?  Did your anger spill over and do more harm than good?  Did it cause you to hurt someone who didn’t deserve it, whether physically or mentally?  Then you are responsible for all the hurt you caused.  We don’t get to just wave it away or say, well, it’s not really my fault.  We don’t get to say well, I didn’t hurt them that badly, so it’s not important.  No.  We are responsible for our own actions, and the more we try and justify ourselves, the more we try and say it’s not our fault, the more harshly we are condemned.  Not because God likes condemning people, not because God is looking for a reason to judge us, but because our actions matter.  Our thoughts matter.  They have a big impact, not just on us but also on the world around us.

That’s what Moses was talking about in our first lesson.  It comes from the book of Deuteronomy, which is mostly a book that collects the ancient laws and commandments God gave to the Hebrew people.  God gave a lot of laws, in the first five books of the Bible.  After God freed them from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years before being led to the land God had promised to give them, the land we call Israel today.  But before they crossed the Jordan River to enter that land, Moses gathered the people up and read out all the laws to them.  Then he gave them the speech we read in our first lesson.  Because you see, God’s commandments aren’t about nit-picking.  They’re not about making life harder.  They’re about choosing life.

From the very beginning, God has wanted all of creation to live good, healthy, abundant lives.  God wants us all to be happy, and healthy, and whole.  But since the Fall, humans turn away from that.  We make choices that make the world a worse place.  We do and say and think things that hurt ourselves and others.  We do and say and think things that add to the fear in the world, the hate, the pain, the jealousy, the bullying, the oppression, the evil.  And some of those things seem small to us, but they add up.  We pour out poison drop by drop until the whole world is drowning in an ocean of despair and evil.  And then we argue about whose fault it is, and blame everyone else.  Sometimes we even blame God for the evil and destruction that we humans create.

That’s why Moses talks about life and death.  Because we do have a choice to make.  We have choices to make every hour of every day.  We are bound by sin and death, and until Christ comes again in glory to judge the heavens and the earth, sin will be a part of us.  But that doesn’t mean that we have to just give up.  We can’t solve all the world’s problems, and we can’t keep ourselves completely sinless by our own force of will, but we can work to choose life.  In a thousand different ways, everything we say or do or think leads us down one of two paths.  It can either create an opportunity for life, the good and whole life that God wants for all creation, or it can create an opportunity for death.  It can create an opportunity for healing and justice and peace, or it can create an opportunity for pain and fear and hate.  That’s the choice we make, every minute of every day.  Sometimes we choose life, and sometimes we choose death, and we make the world a better or worse place because of it.

The point of the law isn’t about slavish blind obedience, and it’s not about getting nitpicky.  The law is a guideline to how to choose life.  This is even true of some of the stranger laws in the Old Testament.  For example, the prohibition on eating pork: living in a time before refrigerators, and before thermometers to accurately gauge if you had cooked the meat thoroughly, eating pork products was dangerous.  This is also true of Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading.  Anger can be used to prod you into doing the right thing—but it can also lead you to hurt yourself or others, and we need to be reminded that it can be dangerous.  Sex and sexuality aren’t inherently bad, but if we look at people like they’re sex objects to titillate us, we deny their humanity and their worth as children of God, and we are more likely to abuse them or look the other way as others abuse them.

As for divorce, in Jesus’ day, a man could divorce his wife for no reason at all—and a divorced woman might be left to starve on the streets.  (Women, by the way, didn’t have the same right to leave, even in cases of abuse; only the husband got to choose.)  Since women didn’t usually work outside the home, a divorced woman couldn’t get a job.  If her family didn’t take her in, she might be forced to literally choose between starvation and prostitution.  In that case, even a bad marriage was less bad than none at all.  And so Jesus forbids divorce.  I think if he had lived today when both spouses can initiate a divorce and an unmarried woman can support herself and her children, Jesus would have given other acceptable reasons for divorce.  Marriage is designed to be a life-giving partnership for both spouses, and if one spouse is abusive, that is a violation of the marriage covenant.  But the point is, if the way you treat your marriage harms your spouse—whether through adultery, abuse, or treating your relationship like it’s something disposable to throw away when it’s not fun anymore—you are choosing death, and you’re going to face judgment for it.

It all comes down to one question.  Not a question of legal nitpicking or correct interpretation.  Not a question of legalese or judgmentalism.  It comes down to this: are you going to be the person God created and called you to be?  Human beings are broken by sin and death; Jesus Christ died to save us from our sins.  Not because we deserve it, or because we earned it, but because he loves us and wants us to live full and abundant lives.  We Lutherans don’t believe that we do good works to earn ourselves a spot in heaven; salvation comes only by and through the grace of God.  We do good works because it’s the right thing to do, because we want to share God’s gracious gift.  We do good works because Jesus Christ has shown us what life truly looks like, what a life free of sin and death can be.  I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.

Amen.

Sin, Forgiveness, and Naboth’s Vineyard

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 11C, June 12th, 2016

1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36—8:3

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.

Let’s talk about sin, and forgiveness.  Our Old Testament reading for today is certainly an example of sin.  It starts out with coveting.  King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard.  Now, coveting isn’t just wanting something.  Coveting is jealousy.  Coveting is a belief that you have a right to possess something that belongs to someone else.  Coveting is a resentment that anyone else has something that you don’t.  Coveting is the toddler on the playground grabbing another child’s toy.  It’s the girl who spreads rumors about another girl dating the guy she wants.  It’s the man who gets mad when a woman doesn’t pay as much attention to him as he wants.  It’s the supervisor who belittles an employee who’s better than they are.  It’s the ugliness that happens when we believe we’re entitled to other peoples’ things, time, attention, or bodies.  And all the evil that we do because of that belief.

That’s the thing about coveting.  It’s bad in and of itself, but it leads us to do other sins.  Theft, violence, bearing false witness, rape, murder, abuse of every kind.  Coveting is the root cause of much of the evil in our world today.  It’s the cause of big sins, but also of a lot of the little miseries.  And usually, we come up with all kinds of reasons why we deserve what we want, why it’s good that we should take it, or attack the one who has it.  Reasons to justify anything that gets us what we want, regardless of the harm it does.  And, like most sins, it knots us up inside, turning us around in circles of justification and resentment and self-centeredness.

For Jezebel, it was simple.  Her husband was the king, so he deserved whatever he wanted.  That was what being king meant, for her.  And if Naboth didn’t want to give it to him, well, then Naboth deserved whatever he got.  And so she had Naboth falsely accused, and then killed.  Coveting lead to false witness and murder; one sin led to another.  Ahab wasn’t quite willing to order Naboth killed himself, to get the vineyard he coveted, but he was certainly willing to take advantage of Jezebel’s actions.  He didn’t want to get his own hands dirty … but he’d take advantage of his wife’s dirty hands in a hot second.  But to God there was no difference which one of them killed: Naboth died because Ahab coveted his vineyard, and so both Jezebel and Ahab were equally guilty of it.  Jezebel did the deed, but Ahab took advantage of it and profited from it.  Jezebel did it, but Ahab stood back and let her, and used her to get what he wanted.  This was not a subtle plan.  Everyone must have known what was happening, and no one did anything to prevent it or speak out against it.  And so God proclaimed judgment on Ahab and his household, because the whole household was complicit in the sin.  The sinners had been judged and found guilty … and the payment for their sin was death and destruction.

Then in the Gospel reading, we see Jesus forgiving a sinner.  We don’t know what her sin was.  Maybe she cheated on her taxes.  Maybe she was a thief.  Maybe she slept around.  Maybe she was a habitual liar.  Maybe her sins were big, maybe they were small.  We don’t know.  All we know is that everyone in town knew about it, and judged her harshly.  But Jesus forgave her, and she loved him greatly because of it.

We believe in a God who judges sin, but we also believe in a God who forgives sin.  It’s a contradiction, and different people reconcile it different ways.  But what a lot of us do, is we separate out big sins and little ones, sins we really hate and sins we think aren’t really that bad, when you get down to it.  And we separate out the kinds of sins we ourselves commit, or those we love, from the kinds of sin other people commit.  Our own sins, and the sins of our families, well, we can find a hundred reasons why they’re not really problems at all, or only little ones.  But when it’s people we don’t like, as the Pharisee didn’t like the woman in the Gospel reading, well, then it’s a horrible crime that God should cut them down for.

But that’s not the way God sees things.  Our sins, big or small, matter.  Each and every one of our sins affects us and the world around us.  Every sin makes the world just that much worse off—whether it’s a huge and visible sin, like Ahab and Jezebel, or the small sins we ourselves are so ready to shrug off.  We hurt ourselves, and we hurt others.  We reduce the love in the world and fill it up with envy, fear, hate, greed, malice, and selfishness instead, and we purposefully blind ourselves to the consequences of our actions, to the way even little sins add up and lead to greater ones down the road.  They’re not so bad, we tell ourselves.  After all, everyone does stuff just like it—and a lot of people are worse!  It’s not just other people who deserve judgment, though; we, ourselves, do, as well.

So if God doesn’t forgive based on whether our sins are really big or small, why does God forgive?  Another Old Testament story tells us.  Do you remember the story of David and Bathsheba?  David saw Bathsheba, a married woman, when she was bathing, and decided he wanted her.  Like Ahab, David’s first sin was coveting, although instead of coveting a piece of property he coveted a person.  And, like Ahab, David believed that he deserved whatever he wanted.  So he ordered her brought to him, and gave her no choice to say no.  And when she was pregnant, he had her husband killed.  Coveting lead to rape, lead to murder.  One sin led to another, spiraling outward with consequences for many others besides David himself.  Just like with Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth’s vineyard.  And, just like with Ahab and Jezebel, God sent a prophet to tell David what he had done and what the judgment for his crime was.

That’s where the similarities stop, though.  When Elijah came to Ahab to tell him about God’s judgment on him, Ahab called Elijah an enemy.  Ahab didn’t listen.  Ahab didn’t repent.  Ahab went on doing what he had been doing.  David, on the other hand, listened to God’s prophet.  David acknowledged his sin.  David didn’t make excuses, or get mad, when his own bad behavior was pointed out.  David took responsibility for it, and asked for forgiveness.  And so, although he still had to deal with the earthly consequences of his behavior, God forgave him.  David’s sin was wiped away, because he recognized and acknowledged what he had done.

God doesn’t forgive us because we deserve it, or because our sins weren’t really that bad, or because we can come up with a good enough excuse.  God doesn’t forgive us because we’re nice people.  God forgives us because he loves us, because he would rather forgive us than condemn us.  But before that can happen, we need to be willing to admit that we need forgiveness.  God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy justifying ourselves to listen.  God can’t forgive us if we’re too busy getting angry at anyone who dares to point out the bad things we have done.

It’s easy to sit here and listen to stories like the story of Naboth’s vineyard, and pat ourselves on the back for being decent people.  I’d be pretty willing to bet none of us here have arranged to have someone murdered.  Compared to Ahab and Jezebel, we look pretty good, so we can sit here and shake our heads and agree how bad and shocking they were while still feeling fairly comfortable about our own lives.  But God doesn’t compare our thoughts and actions to the worst humans can do; God compares our thoughts and actions to the best, pure, good people God created us to be.  And by that standard, we, too, have fallen very fall short of where we should be.  We covet things and people, and we do nasty things because of it.  We ignore God, and lead ourselves down bad paths.  We disrespect those we should honor.  We steal, and tell ourselves it’s no big deal.  We cheat on one another, and think it’s okay because everyone does it.  We add our voices to those calling for hate because we’re scared of the future.  We lie even to ourselves, about all the ways we add to the misery in the world around us.

God doesn’t want to condemn us.  God loves us.  God wants to shower us and our whole world with abundant gifts.  God wants us to do the right thing, not out of fear of retribution, but out of joy and love for God and one another.  God can and will forgive anything, any crime, no matter how vile … but first we have to confess and repent.  We have to admit what we have done, and let go of the hostility and bitterness and jealousy and fear in our souls.  We have to let God love us.  Thanks be to God for the love and forgiveness he gives to all who call upon him.

Amen.

The Gardener and the Fruit Tree

Third Sunday in Lent, February 28th, 2016

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

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.

When we study parables, often the first thing we look for in them is God. Which one of the characters is he? Sometimes the answer is obvious, and sometimes it isn’t; and there are times when our first impulse is wrong. In the parable of the Gospel reading, the most common response is to see the tree’s owner as the God-character in the parable. And yet, I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant. For one thing, he doesn’t call the tree the “master” or “lord” or anything like that. He’s just identified as a “man.” And, second, he doesn’t really act like God does in any of the other parables of Luke. This man is harsh, judgmental, just waiting for an excuse to chop that tree down and replace it with something better. By contrast, in every other parable in the Gospel of Luke that talks about repentance, the God-character’s deepest impulse is to find what is lost and rejoice over its return. In fact, the character in this parable with the most similarities to how God is depicted in the other parables is the gardener.

The gardener, you see, has a very different attitude. The gardener isn’t tempted by the quick and easy solution of ripping out the sick tree and replacing it with a new one. The gardener’s greatest wish is that the tree might be saved, healed, restored to what God intended it to be, made whole. And the gardener is prepared to do the hard work to bring that about. The gardener’s response isn’t about blame, or taking the easy way out. The gardener’s response is to do what’s best for the tree to save it, even at the cost of some hard, unpleasant work.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty much what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is all about. God loves us, and God’s greatest concern for our lives is that we be saved, healed, and restored to what God intended for us to be. And God is willing to do the hard, messy, painful work required: he became human, lived, and died so that we might be saved. In his teaching, his death, and resurrection, he is digging around our roots to free us from all the things that bind us down and stunt our spirits, and he is giving us all the fertilizer we need to grow big and strong. He gives us what we need most, without counting the cost to himself. God is generous beyond measure, and desires only our good.

The passage from Isaiah also follows this theme, as the prophet reminds us that God gives us the spiritual food and drink our souls need to thrive and grow. God gives abundantly; God has provided a world that is capable of sustaining the lives of every person on it. God gives, and gives, and gives, and only asks that we respond to his generosity by growing healthy and strong, and bearing fruit.

Bearing fruit. That’s a phrase that can sometimes seem threatening—if you don’t repent, if you don’t bear fruit, God’s going to chop you down like a bad tree! But as I said, I don’t think the one threatening the chopping in the parable is God. On the other hand, sometimes “bearing fruit” sounds like so much work, so hard. If you’re a Christian, you’ve got to show it by bearing the right fruit! All the time! No matter what! But even healthy fruit trees don’t bear fruit all year, but only when the time is right. And then there is a season of dormancy to recover before the next time of fruitfulness. I think this parable is getting at something else. It’s not a command to produce good works on cue. Think about fruit trees you’ve known that didn’t bear fruit. They were usually pretty sickly, right? And you could see they weren’t healthy. If you were a fruit tree, would you want to be like that? With shriveled leaves and dry, brittle branches?  And maybe some moss or fungus growing on you?  I sure wouldn’t! I would much rather be healthy and strong and growing—and a healthy fruit tree is going to produce fruit at the right time, that’s its nature. God doesn’t want us to be pressured or oppressed by the need to produce; God wants us to be healthy and thriving. That’s what repentance leads to; that’s what following God leads to; that’s what Jesus’ work in us and in our lives leads to.

So if God is the gardener, who’s the guy who wants to chop down the sick tree? I wonder if that’s us—humanity. Remember, Jesus didn’t tell this parable out of the blue. Somebody came to Jesus with a really nasty story, about Pontius Pilate—yes, that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later crucify Jesus even knowing he was innocent.  Anyway, ol’ Pilate killed a bunch of Jesus’ countrymen while they were worshiping in the Temple. And they wanted to know why. Were those people especially sinful? Was God using Pilate to punish them? And, oh, hey, what about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell? Were they being punished? Were they trees cut down because they didn’t bear fruit?

No, Jesus said. They were no better or worse than anything else. They didn’t die because they deserved it. They died because the world is a terrible place, broken by sin and death. They died because a cruel and capricious man like Pilate was given power over life and death. They died because humans didn’t build the tower of Siloam well enough. They were meaningless, empty deaths, for no purpose at all. There are a lot of those in the world, much as we would try to deny it. But humans try to keep finding meaning. We keep trying to make it all make sense. And we keep trying to find a way to make ourselves feel better. If they died because they deserved it, then I don’t have to worry, do I? Because I don’t deserve it! But no, Jesus said, they didn’t deserve it, it wasn’t their fault, their deaths weren’t a punishment from God or the universe. It just happened.

It happened because the world is broken by sin and death. It happened because God’s good plan for creation was shattered by human evil. And that evil has rebounded down the centuries, twisting and turning the world to its own ends … and twisting and stunting us, too. We are sick. Sick and tired of watching good people die for no reason, sick and tired of all the ways the world drags people down, chews them up, and spits them out. We are sick of the poisons the world pours into our ears, into our hearts and minds, the poisons of hate and fear and jealousy and greed. And we are sick of the ways we spew that poison back to one another. And that sickness has stunted our growth, made our branches brittle, shriveled our leaves, and prevented us from bearing much fruit.

Funny, how some people only see that sickness in others. Some people are all too much aware of their own sin; others, all too little. And when we see that sickness in others but not ourselves, it’s all too easy to be the man ordering the tree chopped down because it isn’t giving him what he wants and producing on cue. It’s easy to see the result—no fruit—but ignore the cause—the brokenness and sin we breathe in from the very day we are born.

Jesus has a different perspective. Jesus sees our sin and sickness more clearly than we do. He sees all the bits of poison we don’t even realize we’re breathing in, and he sees what damage it causes us, and he sees the poison we spread, and how it damages those around us. God knows the very worst of us—and God knows all the potential inside. Tupac Shakur wrote a poem called The Rose that Grew From Concrete, in which he points out that when you see a rose growing out of concrete, you don’t critique it for being a bit stunted—you praise it for being strong and good enough to grow at all. We’re the roses growing in concrete, and God the gardener is chipping away at the concrete that strangles our souls and our lives.  Some people–and some groups–have more concrete weighing them down than others do.  But it’s not their fault.

We tend to think of repentance as something we do because we’re sad. That repentance is all about guilt. We do something wrong, we realize it’s wrong, and we turn away from it. And, certainly, that is part of repentance. But it’s also about life. Which is better, a life stunted and sickly, or a life full of growth and good things? Repentance is also about following God to the water of life, to the banquet of good food freely given. Repentance is also about learning to grow freely as God breaks our chains and gives us the fertilizer we need to grow strong. It’s what makes a meaningful life possible, even amidst the brokenness and chaotic evil of the world. May we repent, and live the full and abundant and healthy lives that God has planned for us.

Amen.

Saint and Sinner

Ash Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Abraham as our Ancestor

Third Sunday after Advent, December 13th, 2015

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

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.

Last week we heard about John the Baptist’s birth, and this week we’re hearing about his message. And I have to ask: when you think “good news,” does being called a “brood of vipers” come to mind? No? Being told there’s an axe waiting to cut down any tree that bears good fruit—implying that you’re one of the trees to be cut down—that doesn’t relieve your fears? How about “the wrath to come”—does that make you think of Good News? I mean, there are some ultra-conservative hardliners who seem to positively rejoice in the misfortunes of others with a ghoulish delight in how they see God punishing them, but let’s be honest. Does this really sound like Good News?

We’re familiar with this hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. We hear it all the time. You better watch out, people say, or you’re going to go to Hell. Are you sure you’re really saved? Shape up! You have to be morally perfect, because if you do ANYTHING wrong, you’re going to hell—unless we like you well enough, in which case we’ll make excuses. You better believe EXACTLY the right thing, because if not, God won’t accept you. Are you saved? Turn or burn!

And then on the other side of the Christian community, you have the people who hear all of this and—quite rightly—see that such preaching is both harmful and misleading, because the Bible tells us over and over again that God’s deepest, truest nature is love, and that while his anger lasts for a short time, his love lasts forever. And they see that focusing on hellfire all the time makes people fear God, and drives away most people who aren’t always true believers, so they just kind of ignore Bible passages about judgment. But the thing is, while love is God’s defining characteristic, that doesn’t mean that God is a doormat: there’s judgment, too. But whether you’ve spent more time listening to the hellfire preachers or to the people who just kind of ignore Hell altogether, I would bet you anything you please that our preconceptions get in the way of how we hear John’s message.

First, it’s a lot better news than the scare-the-Hell-out-of-you types would have you believe. Yes, there is judgment. Yes, we are a brood of vipers—and can you look at the news and our politicians across the spectrum and all the evil that humans do to one another and disagree? But the thing is, let’s take a good hard look at what John tells people to do: share with those less fortunate, and treat people fairly. That’s it! That’s all you have to do. Of course, it’s easy to say that, and less easy to do it, when everyone around you is coming up with reasons why it’s okay to cheat people or ignore the poor or blame others for their misfortunes—after all—everyone is doing it. But still, we’re not talking superhuman feats of goodness, and we’re not talking the perfect faith that believes all the right things and never wavers. We’re talking about things people can actually do. No impossible standards here! That’s good news! Set your mind on God, live a just and charitable life! Let God take care of the rest! Bear fruit worthy of repentance, and trust that God’s Messiah will come and save you.

Humans like to make things complicated. And we like to think that it depends on us—what we do, what we believe. We like that because it gives us power, it puts the ball in our court, makes salvation about our actions and our choices. But it’s really not; we are incapable of earning our salvation, because we are incapable of perfection. God knows that, and that is why he sent Jesus. We can’t get rid of our own sin.

Last week, we heard the prophet Malachi talking about God burning away our impurities. This week, we hear John the Baptist talking about how the Messiah will separate the wheat from the chaff, and burn up the chaff. Now, we tend to hear this metaphor saying “good people will be saved by Jesus, and bad people will burn in hell,” but that’s not it. I remind you that wheat and chaff are both part of the same plant. Do you know anybody who’s really, totally, 100% good? Or really, totally, 100% bad? Even if you think you do, I bet things are a little bit more complicated than that. We all have wheat and chaff inside us, and when the Messiah comes—when Christ comes again, to judge the living and the dead—that chaff is going to be taken out of us and burned. We can’t do that. We can’t separate out the good and evil in any human heart. If salvation depended on making ourselves good enough to enter God’s kingdom, we would all be damned. But we don’t, because it’s not about us. It’s not about our actions. It’s about God choosing to save us, God loving us even though we are sinners, God sending Jesus Christ his Son to break the chains of sin and death, and, at the end of the ages, Jesus Christ coming again to judge the living and the dead.

It’s not our job to make ourselves perfect for God; God will purify us. It’s our job to live until he comes, to do the best we can in this sinful, fallen world, to do God’s work, to spread God’s love, to share with those who need help and live our lives with justice. The prophet Micah put it this way: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It’s not about being perfect, in action or belief. But there is action required.

When we focus too much on judgement, we tend to think it’s all about our own actions—do this, or say this, or believe this, and you’ll be saved. Yet when we forget about judgment it’s really easy to get complacent. It’s really easy to go, “Yeah, God will fix everything eventually, and he loves me, so it doesn’t matter what I do. I can do or say anything selfish or hateful, and it doesn’t matter.” Which is wrong, of course—yes, God forgives us, but that doesn’t mean we should do bad things just because we can. There are consequences to our actions, in this life and the next. Jesus will burn away the chaff in our hearts, but obviously our lives and the whole world will be much better if we keep the chaff to a minimum. God loves us, and God forgives us, but what we do still matters.

And then there’s the other reason people get complacent. John warns about that, too. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” See, in those days, Jews took a lot of pride in being children of Abraham. God chose Abraham, which meant God chose them, so they could sit comfortably in that knowledge without ever looking at their own lives and asking themselves if they were doing what God wanted them to do. After all, they already knew, right? They were children of Abraham! They had all that history! They’d heard the stories, they’d heard the words of Moses and the Prophets, they knew the promises, they had it made. No need for uncomfortable examination of their hearts, their actions, or their community, because after all, they were the Children of Abraham! God had chosen them and given them that land!

When modern American Christians get complacent, it’s not about being children of Abraham. It’s usually about things like denominations and theological heritage: “We’re Lutherans!” Or “We’re Baptists!” “We’re God’s chosen people!” Or sometimes it’s about our congregation and building: “God brought our ancestors here to the prairie, and built a great community of faith here!” Or sometimes it’s about our politics: “We’re the Republicans!” Or “We’re the Democrats!” Whichever group you’re part of, a lot of people will say “We’re the ones who know how God really wants us to vote!” There are a lot of things we put our trust in and take for granted. And it’s not that any of these things are bad—on the contrary, many of them are very good and have brought much good into the world, just like the children of Abraham did. The problem comes when we use them as an excuse to ask ourselves what God wants us to do now. The problem comes when they become more important to us than following God’s call to repent, to live with justice and mercy, to trust in the salvation to come.

May we heed John’s call to repent, to live lives of justice and mercy.  Most of all, may we learn to trust in the salvation of our Lord.

Amen.

The Snake Problem

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 15th, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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

 

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

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

When people ask for God to save them, I doubt they have the serpent on a pole in mind. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes. You’re out camping in the wilderness, with your whole family, and you can’t just pack it out and go home because you have no home but the one you’re travelling towards. And then, all of a sudden, there are snakes. LOTS OF SNAKES. Everywhere around. You can’t avoid them. You can’t get away from them. And they’re poisonous! If they bite you, you die. What would you pray to God for? Probably to take the snakes away. Right? You would want them gone. And, if that wasn’t possible, you would pray to God that they wouldn’t bite you. First choice, no snakes. Second choice, snakes that don’t bite.

And that’s not what God did. Instead of smiting the snakes, vanishing them, or pulling their fangs, God arranged a cure for the poison. An anti-venom. Put a bronze snake up on a pole, and look at the snake, and it will heal you after a snake bites you. I read this lesson and I asked myself, “couldn’t God have just prevented the snakes from biting them in the first place?”

That’s a question that comes up often. Whenever someone gets sick, whenever someone gets hurt, we pray for healing, and we wonder, why couldn’t God have prevented it before it happened? Wouldn’t prevention be easier and cheaper than a cure? All this evil and violence and sin and brokenness in the world—why can’t God just make it go away? Why can’t God get rid of the snakes?

The problem is, of course, that all too often the snakes are us. We human beings cause so much hurt in the world, as individuals and as societies. We hurt one another. We act selfishly. We are broken with sin and death, and we spread that brokenness around. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. We hurt others and ourselves through what we do and through what we leave undone. We don’t always see the consequences of our words and actions—in fact, humans tend to be pretty good at ignoring them—but they can be huge. In the case of the Israelites, their poisonous words came back to haunt them in the poison of the serpents. But it wasn’t only the ones who had been complaining who bore the brunt of the snake attacks. No. The whole community was affected. It’s like that with us, too: the people whose lives are most devastated are often not the ones doing the worst.

In order to prevent evil—in order to keep human beings from screwing up and hurting themselves and each other—God would have to take away our free will. God would have to take away our ability to make choices. Because we choose the wrong thing so often! We choose to spread the poison. We choose to close our eyes to the pain of others. We choose to ignore the way our words and actions affect the people around us and even the people far away. In our first lesson, God could have removed the snakes. But what do you do when the snakes are the people? When everyone is a snake, and everyone is a victim of snakes? Because we are all sinners, and we are all victims of sin.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson about doing things in the dark instead of doing them in the light. What are the things you do or say or think in the darkness—where nobody can see it—instead of the light? What things about yourself do you hide away? What things have you done or said that you sweep under the rug where nobody can see them? I do it, you do it, we all do it. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Even when we think we want the light, we keep doing things in the dark. We talk about how much we love Christ’s light, and yet we keep doing things under the cover of darkness.

Until Christ comes again—until there is a new heaven and a new earth and we are made whole in Christ, we’re going to keep sinning and being sinned against. We are going to keep choosing the darkness because it’s easier, because everyone else does, because we’re ashamed. While we live in this sinful, broken world, that’s not going to change. We repent, we turn to the light, and pretty soon we slide back into the shadows. Or we talk about the light, but we keep the shadows inside us, hidden away so the world can’t see them. There isn’t a way to take the snakes out without taking us out as well. While we live on this earth, there will always be darkness. When Christ comes again, when we stand before the throne, all our darkness will be washed away. Until then, we’re going to have to live with it.

But that doesn’t mean the snakes win. It doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It doesn’t mean the poison gets the last word. When the people of Israel were bitten by the snakes, and they looked up to that bronze serpent, they were healed. The snakes were still there. The bites and the pain were still there. But the poison was gone. They were saved from death. They weren’t saved from the snakes at that point—that would come later—but the snakes couldn’t kill them, as long as they were looking to the serpent on a pole.

It’s a matter of perspective. Where were they looking? Where was their focus? As long as they stayed focused on the snakes, on their own pain and the poison that was killing them, they died. When they looked up—when they looked for the gift God had given them—the poison was healed. It is so easy to focus on the pain, on the suffering, on the creepy and bad things. But if we do that, we may not be able to see the salvation God gives us. We don’t have a bronze serpent on a pole. We have Christ, crucified for us and resurrected. When we focus on the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, it’s so easy to lose hope, to drown in it. But when we remember God’s love, when we remember the salvation and grace given to us in Christ Jesus, when we look to Christ, we know that we are not alone, that we have hope, and that there is a love that will not let us go.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” God has not abandoned us to the poison and darkness of the world. We look to Christ, hanging on a wooden pole for all the world to see. It was our sins that killed him. We look to his death on a cross as an example and symbol of our sinfulness, just as the people of Israel looked to an example and symbol of the snakes that were killing him. And Christ saves us from the poison of our sins and our darkness, just as the serpent on a pole saved the people of Israel from the poison of the snakes, the poison of their own bitterness. In this life, we still have to live with the consequences of our actions, and all too often we have to live with the consequences of other peoples’ actions, too. The snakes are still here, and they still have the power to bite, even if they can’t kill us any longer.

But unlike the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ death on a cross is not a temporary fix, because it’s not the end of the story. Jesus died, but he rose again. And we who look to him are tied to his death and resurrection. Just as he rose, so we too will rise, when he comes again. We will see him, face to face, and we will be made whole and clean so that no darkness or poison will ever be able to get a hold of us again. We’ll choose the light, forever and always, joyfully and freely, and all the pains and hurts that our darkness causes ourselves and one another will be healed. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Wedding Robe

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28), Year A, October 5, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

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

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

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

Have you ever had that dream where you’re going to something important—work or school, usually—and you get up in front of everyone and you realize you’re naked? Yeah. That one. Or a dream when you have something important you’re supposed to do and you realize when you get there that you’ve forgotten the one crucial thing you can’t do without. I think everyone gets those dreams, at least sometimes in their life, and some people get them more often than others. If you get that dream often, this Gospel reading may have struck a chord. Because in it, Jesus tells a parable about a king hosting a huge banquet for the wedding of his son, and the very last detail of the story is that he spots a guest who isn’t dressed properly—who doesn’t have a wedding robe—and throws him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. He wasn’t prepared, he wasn’t dressed right, so out he goes.

Which is kind of weird, because the king has spent most of the parable doing everything he can to get people in the front door in the first place. There are no qualifications to getting invited in. The best people in the land get invitations, and so do the worst people. Rich and poor, good and bad, old and young, healthy and sick, men and women, everyone gets invited. The king makes a huge deal about this: the feast is for everyone. He sends his servants out to bring in everyone they find. Not just those who can afford to dress in the latest fashions, or the ones who are of the right social circle to know what to wear to a wedding, everyone. And then the one guy gets thrown out. But when you think about it, he can’t have been the only one who wasn’t dressed properly—who didn’t have time to change, or who didn’t own a wedding robe—when the king’s servants came to get him. So it just doesn’t make sense that he gets thrown out.

Parables are stories that teach, they’re metaphors, they’re images that invite us in and invite us to put ourselves in the story. To ask questions, and to think about God in a new way. Now, obviously, no story about human beings can contain all that God is and all that God does. Which is why there are so many parables. Together, they add up to a larger story about who God is and what God is doing.

Some things about the parables are obvious. For one thing, many of them are about parties. When you look at all the parables about parties and all the stories about parties and feasts in the Bible and all the visions and dreams about parties and feasts, it’s pretty clear that God loves a celebration. And so many of the parties in those parables and stories and visions are metaphors for the Kingdom of Heaven that whenever you come across a party or a feast, you should be thinking about God’s Kingdom in the back of your head. Similarly, most of the time you come across a parable of a king or landowner or master, God is being compared to the king or landowner or master. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the king or master is God, just that God is like that king in some way.

In this parable, we have a party, and a king. And we have a lot of invitations—God is calling people in, and they’re not listening, but those invitations go out to everyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Just like God’s call to salvation goes out to everybody. So far, so good. But then we get to the dude who doesn’t have a wedding robe, and gets thrown out on his ear. And that’s where the Bible commentaries start to have problems.

If the party is like heaven and the king is like God, what the heck does the wedding robe symbolize? There are no other parables about wedding robes, so we can’t look elsewhere for help. What could anyone possibly do—or fail to do—that would get them thrown out of heaven once they were already in? And the outer darkness—does that stand for hell? We today spend a lot more time thinking about hell than people did in the Bible, Christians have spent the last two thousand years imagining ever more horrible hells and trying to figure out who’s going to hell and who isn’t, and then taking those speculations and reading them into the Bible. Is this hell, or is it something else, and is it permanent? What I mean is, could the guy go home and get a wedding robe and be allowed back in, or is he doomed to stay in the outer darkness forever? And is it the guy’s lack of a robe that causes him to be thrown out, or the fact that he didn’t answer the king? And what does it mean that many are called but few are chosen? Does that mean chosen to enter God’s kingdom, or chosen to have a specific role, or what?

This is where all those old nightmares about showing up to school naked start running through peoples’ heads, except worse. Because when you wake up from one of those nightmares, you sigh in relief, get up and go to the closet and you know what to wear and you just have to put it on and go. In the light of day it’s no big deal. But we don’t know what the robe symbolizes. We don’t! So we can’t just go to the closet and pull it out and go about our business, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got it covered and we’re in like Flynn. I mean, people have claimed it means all kinds of things that we should or shouldn’t do, but everyone has a different answer. And like I said, we Christians have spent two thousand years imagining worse and worse hells and more and more reasons why people are going to them, and Americans tend to like neat and simple answers to faith questions, and there isn’t one for this question.

Here are a few things to think about. First, Jesus was talking to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees when he told this parable. They were part of the people of Israel, the first people God had called, and they thought they knew what God wanted of them. They took it for granted that they had all the answers. They were so certain they knew what God wanted that even when God stood in front of them as Jesus, they couldn’t accept that they might not know everything. In the terms of the parable, they thought they were wearing the wedding robe and already in at the feast. They were wrong.

Second, let’s remember God’s history of calling people. God is incredibly persistent. Even when people turn away and reject him, God keeps calling them. Take our first lesson: the people of Israel turning away from God to worship a statue they made. God got angry, but God didn’t abandon them. God was faithful even when they were not. The whole pattern of the Old Testament is people turning away from God, facing the consequences, and being called back and forgiven and welcomed. Any interpretation of this parable has to take that history into account.

Then there’s the matter of the robe. True, there are no other wedding robes in the parables, but remember the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son, who has rejected his father and gone away to live on his own, hits rock bottom and comes back expecting to get thrown out on his ear or, at best, given a job as a servant, his father gives him a new, wonderful outfit and throws him a party to welcome him home. In that parable, the guy was already in the place where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth—the pig-sty, where he was starving. He comes home and his father gives him everything he could ever want, far more than he dared to ask for.

And in Paul’s letters, he talks several times about being “clothed in Christ.” That is, when we are baptized, we are reborn as children of God, and we wear Christ’s love and sacrifice for us as if it were a garment. And that clothing, that “robe,” if you will, is nothing we have or make or do, but it is given to us by God. That’s why people being baptized, from babies to adults, often wear white robes. It’s why Confirmation students wear white robes, too. And it’s why, in some churches, they have a white garment called a pall that is draped over the casket at funerals. It symbolizes Christ, whose love and mercy and forgiveness wraps around us like a warm fuzzy bathrobe, an invisible garment that we wear twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And that love is more important than anything we do or don’t do. So when you hear about this dude with no wedding robe, think about the prodigal son, and about the wonderful garment that is Christ.

I can’t tell you what Jesus meant, for sure, with all the details of this parable. I can’t tell you what the robe means, or why the guy didn’t have an answer for the king, or what the outer darkness is for sure. I can’t give you neat certainties and easy answers, because that’s not how Jesus works and that isn’t what the parables are for. But I can tell you this, for certain and sure: God calls everyone. No matter who, no matter where, God calls everyone. And the love and grace given to us in Jesus Christ is more powerful than anything else in the world, including our own sinfulness. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Righteousness of God

Baptism of Our Lord, (Year A), January 12, 2014

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

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.

You know, there’s a word in the Gospel of Matthew that repeats over and over and over again.  Since most of our Gospel readings for the next year come from Matthew, it’s something to listen for.  Righteous.  The Gospel of Matthew spends a lot of time talking about righteousness.  Fair enough, that’s a common religious word; Christians use it a lot, although less than we did, say, fifty years ago.  The thing is, though, that a lot of times when Matthew talks about “righteousness,” he’s not always using it the way we would expect.

According to the dictionary, “righteous” means “acting in accord with divine or moral law:  free from guilt or sin.”  So far so good; that’s what Matthew means, too.  But it’s when you put the word into use that things get tricky.  For example, we tend to make sharp distinctions between people who are “righteous” and people who are not.  Righteous people are good, moral, go to church and read their Bible.  They are pillars of their community.  And we often see a sharp divide between the righteous and the sinners, even when we don’t actually use those words to describe them.  The righteous people are good, God-fearing people; sinners are not.  If someone we consider righteous stumbles or has a problem, we rally around them.  If someone we consider a sinner has a problem, we are quicker to condemn than to help.  The righteous are always welcome at church.  The sinners often face gossip just for showing up.

John the Baptist was well aware of this distinction.  He called for sinners to repent and be baptized: to turn away from their sin, go into the water, and get a fresh slate to become righteous.  He knew that even people who looked righteous on the outside, like the Pharisees, were really sinners, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge them.  John wanted God’s kingdom to come, and he wanted people to live their lives in accordance with God’s law.  He’d baptized many people before Jesus showed up, and when Jesus came to be baptized, John tried to prevent him.  Matthew knew that Jesus was not a sinner.  Jesus, alone out of the entire world, had no need of a baptism for his own forgiveness.

When you think about it, John is right.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus is not a sinner.  Jesus is the son of God, God made flesh and blood like you and me!  Jesus doesn’t need to be washed clean from anything.  Jesus doesn’t need to get a clean slate.  Jesus is the one person in the history of the world who has been totally and completely righteous his entire life.  So why did Jesus want to be baptized?  More than that!  Jesus told John: “Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

There’s that word: righteousness.  But Jesus was already righteous, so what did he need to be baptized for?  Just for form’s sake?  No.  Jesus needed to be baptized because it was God’s will.  God was doing something, with that baptism.  And what God was doing was reaching out to the unrighteous.  The sinners.  The ones who fall short of God’s law, the ones who’re drowning in guilt and sin.  Everyone who has ever been baptized is tied to Jesus’ baptism.  And through Jesus’ baptism, we are tied to God.  Because Jesus was baptized, our baptisms are not just a temporary thing, getting a little cleaner.  Because of Jesus’ baptism, our baptisms mean we are saved.  We are set free from our bondage to sin.  Not just for a little while, but forever and ever.  In our baptisms, we are reborn children of God.  In our baptisms, we are claimed by God.  In our baptisms, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Remember the words the Father spoke when Jesus came up out of the water?  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism.  So those words that the Father spoke to his Son, those aren’t just for Jesus.  Those are for us, too, for everyone who has ever been baptized.  When you were baptized, God spoke those words to you, too: “You are my beloved child.”  And that is a bond that nothing can ever break.  God has claimed us, washed us clean, forgiven us, and adopted us as his own children.

It doesn’t stop there.  Do you remember in the reading, where the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus?  That happens to us, too.  When we are baptized, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit comes to us in and through the waters of baptism.  God lives in us, because of our baptisms.  Because through our baptisms, we are tied to Christ’s baptism.

No matter how righteous we think we are, we don’t deserve that gift.  No matter how righteous we are, we could never earn God’s love and forgiveness.  We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.  Some of our sins are more obvious than others; some people’s sins are large and public, while the sins of others are more private, or pettier, and are largely ignored.  We may think we’re righteous, but we still sin.  We still go astray from God’s law and the path God has laid out for us.  And all too often we find justifications, reasons to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing even as we turn our back on God.  We are not righteous.

We’re not righteous, but through Jesus’ baptism and our own baptism, we are given the gift of Jesus’ righteousness.  Jesus is pure and sinless.  Jesus always follows God’s will.  And through Jesus, we are given the gift of the salvation that comes through that faithfulness.

We aren’t saved from our sin and brokenness and lostness because we are righteous.  We are saved because God wants to save us.  We aren’t righteous on our own; we could never be good enough to earn that title.  But God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit anyway!

And that’s the difference between the way we use the word “righteousness” and the way God uses the word “righteousness.”  We use it to exclude, to break people up into categories, “good” people and “bad” people, “righteous” and “sinners,” “worthy” and “unworthy.”  God looks at us, sees the depths of our sinfulness, our brokenness, our lostness, and loves us anyway.  God sees all the bad things we have done, our pettiness, our thoughtlessness, our selfishness, and instead of rejecting us for it, God sends his only Son to save us.  God looks at all the ways we have turned away from him, and reaches out to adopt as his children.  God’s righteousness is that he reaches out to us even though we are not worthy.

John the Baptist protested when Jesus came to him to be baptized.  He knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for his own sake.  But that wasn’t why Jesus went to the Jordan River.  Jesus wasn’t baptized for his own sake, but for ours.  Jesus was baptized because it is God’s will that sinners should be saved, and we are saved through the waters of baptism which connects us with Jesus.

We’ll be hearing the word “righteous” a lot as we read the Gospel of Matthew together in church this year.  We’ll hear it from Pharisees who think they know what God’s will is.  We’ll hear it used to describe Jesus.  Whenever you hear it, remember that the ultimate act of righteousness is the cross.  Righteousness means Jesus’ obedience even to the point of death on a cross so that sinners might be saved.  Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his baptism; Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his death, and resurrection.  And it is through that baptism, through that death and resurrection, that we are washed clean and forgiven.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A party for the lost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24), September 15, 2013

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15: 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.

Society was very different in Jesus’ day, in many ways.  The gap between rich and poor was much larger, for example, and virtually everyone worked at hard physical labor since their machinery was very primitive.  Their ideas of what family was were very different than ours, as was their understanding of gender.  They had very little concept of science, and viewed numbers and mathematics with a kind of mysticism.  But, as it happens, despite all the differences, there was a group in Jesus day very similar to most modern Christians.

These people were the pillars of their community.  They were as close as the ancient world got to “middle class.”  They studied the Bible regularly (although their Bible was only what we would call the Old Testament, as the New Testament hadn’t been written yet).  They went to worship every Sabbath.  They tried to do everything the right way, the way God wanted it.  They tried their best to follow the Commandments and establish a good and godly society.  They tried to get everyone in their community to be faithful to God, too; they spent lots of time and energy teaching anyone who would listen about God.  And they were generous, always giving their offering at the Temple and supporting the needy in their community.  They tried to do everything right, and by most standards they succeeded.  They knew who deserved God’s favor, who had earned God’s love.  When Jesus showed up, they were among the first to listen to him, although in the end they didn’t like what he had to say.  They agreed with Jesus about most things, but in the end, the few things they disagreed on were so important to them that they turned on Jesus and helped the chief priests to arrest him.  Who were these people, you may ask, these righteous and self-righteous people doing their best to follow God’s commandments?  The Pharisees.

One of the things that most annoyed the Pharisees about Jesus was who he spent time with.  Sure, he came to be with them in worship, and he ate with them and taught them … but he also spent time with the sinners and tax collectors and all manner of unsavory people.  And sure, the Pharisees said, healing such people was great (as long as it wasn’t on the Sabbath), and teaching them was wonderful, and feeding the hungry was just what God would approve of.  But … eating with them?  Not just feeding the hungry, but spending time socializing with sinners from all walks of life?  Not just ladling out bowls of soup at a soup kitchen along with an invitation to worship, but building relationships with them?  These are the losers!  The lost!  The ones who have proved by their behavior that they don’t belong with the good people!  The ones who have proved that they aren’t worthy of being included in the community!  No respectable person should be hanging out with them, especially not someone who claims to be a teacher of the faith.  So it’s no wonder that they grumbled about Jesus’ social time with sinners.

Jesus, of course, heard the grumbling.  And so he told them three parables.  We only hear the first two today; the third, the story of the Prodigal Son, we won’t hear until Lent.  All three parables are about finding what is lost, and rejoicing.  The shepherd leaving ninety nine sheep behind to search for one that is lost, the woman who scours her house until she finds the last coin, the son who comes back expecting to be thrown out on his ear only to find himself wrapped in his father’s loving arms.

In our two parables today, the search for what is lost is extravagant, frantic, trumping all other concerns.  Have you ever thought what might happen to the ninety-nine sheep while the shepherd is away searching for the one that is lost?  Have you ever spent more time than you can afford tearing apart your home to search for something you know you have in there somewhere?  There comes a point where it makes more sense, from any rational standpoint, to simply accept the loss and move on.  But that’s not what happens in the stories.  The search continues until what is lost has been found.  We’re not told the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ choice of metaphor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d been skeptical about it, frowning at what doesn’t seem to make sense.

And then, even worse is what happens after the lost is found.  There’s a party!  Rejoicing!  Sheep go astray all the time; it’s the shepherd’s job to keep them together and find the ones who wander off before anything happens to them.  So why is the shepherd throwing a party for doing his job?  And as for the woman with the ten coins, well, she, too, throws a party.  But how much did the party cost, I wonder?  She reacts to finding and saving money by … spending it.  Surely, the sensible thing to do would be to not lose things in the first place, and if you do lose them, take a good look at how important they are and whether or not it’s worth it to put in the time and effort to find them.  And how about a cost-benefit analysis before throwing the party.  Is it worth it?  Was the stuff you lost really that important?  What’s the sensible, responsible, logical thing to do?  Particularly when you remember that these parables are all about Jesus’ disreputable habit of hanging out with sinners.  It’s one thing to put a lot of time and energy into finding something that was lost by accident; something else entirely to search for someone who chose to get lost.  It’s no wonder that when Jesus was done telling his parables, the Pharisees ridiculed him!

And while the Pharisees are standing around debating the finer points of Jesus’ stories and pointing out the logical flaws, they were missing the big picture.  Any time, in Scripture, that you hear someone talking about a party, you should start paying attention.  Particularly when they’re talking about God throwing a party.  Because, you see, one of the great metaphors for Heaven is that of a party.  You see it over and over and over again, in the Old Testament and again in Jesus’ parables and even through to Revelation.  The Pharisees, good Bible-thumping people that they were, should have recognized the party just as you or I would recognize a picture of someone in a white robe sitting on a cloud with a harp.  But they don’t seem to; in chapter 16 when Jesus finally gets done with this string of parables, they ridicule him.  They’re so focused on the commandments, that they can’t see the love and grace behind them.  After all, as Jesus pointed out, all of the commandments can be summed up as loving God and loving your neighbor.  And that love comes in response to God’s love for us, a love that is extravagant and impractical and can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

You have to wonder if the Pharisees are ever going to get with the program.  Because, if they continue on as they are, they’ll be standing outside the party by their own choice.  In the great party that is heaven, will they be standing outside the gates complaining about who got in and refusing to enter because they certainly wouldn’t want to be seen with those kinds of people?  And complaining about what low standards God has, instead of joining in the rejoicing that what was lost has been found?   Will they spend eternity complaining about the extravagance of God’s determination to find and save everyone no matter how lost they are, an extravagance that includes pouring out God’s own self on the cross for the sake of the world?

But it’s easy to condemn the Pharisees.  After all, they lived so long ago and they are often Jesus’ opponents in the Bible.  It’s harder to recognize the same flaws in ourselves.  We, too, are good God-fearing people.  We, too, judge others, sometimes harshly.  We, too, are prone to think more about our own righteousness than on God’s saving grace.  We, too, sometimes hold to the letter of the law instead of the spirit of love which is its foundation.  If Jesus came here today, would we be offended by whom he chose to hang out with?  Would we be shocked to see him seek out druggies and welfare mothers and gang-bangers and pregnant teens and spend time with them?  Not just giving them a handout and a sermon, but building a relationship, loving them, and inviting them to the great party that is God’s kingdom?  Would we ridicule the time and effort spent seeking out the lost?  Would we, too, find ourselves on the outside of the party looking in, complaining about the guest list and the extravagance?

The truth is, we are all lost, in one way or another.  No matter how well we think we know God and follow him, we fall astray.  No matter how good we think we are, we fall short of the glory of God.  We fail to love God, and we fail to love our neighbor.  And sometimes, we even get so caught up in trying to follow the letter of the law that we forget the spirit of it.  If we can’t love our neighbors, particularly the ones who aren’t particularly good or likeable, how can we understand and accept God’s love for them?  Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own judgments that we lose sight of God’s grace, and become lost.

So thank God that our God loves us—all of us—so much that he will never stop seeking us.  Thank God for the extravagant grace and mercy poured out on all people, saint and sinner, good and bad, respectable and outcast.  For we are all, every one of us, sinners, in one way or another; and we are all, every one of us, saved by God’s grace and love, and invited in to the great party.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A Matter of Life and Death

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23), September 8, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

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.

Today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy takes place after the Exodus.  The Hebrew people, who were slaves in Egypt, have been freed by God’s power and grace.  They followed God into the wilderness, but because of their own sinfulness and rebellion, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness.  God used those forty years to teach them to rely on him—God gave them everything they needed, even though they didn’t get everything they wanted.  God gave them the Commandments, instructions on how to live their lives.  And most of all, God built a relationship with them that God hoped would last forever.  When they were ready, God led them out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, what we call Israel and Palestine today.  But before they entered the land, while they were standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting to cross into the land God had promised to them, Moses stood up to give a speech.

It’s a long speech; it takes up most of Deuteronomy.  In it, Moses summarized all the commandments and rules that God had given them, all the ways they were supposed to live.  God had promised to be their God, and in return they were to live as God commanded.  To use Christian terminology, they were to be disciples: everything they said and did was to be guided by their relationship with God.  That would bring them the life God had promised them.  Living any other way would bring them misery and death.  Our reading today comes from the conclusion of the speech: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

It sounds so simple when Moses says it.  There’s a good way, a way of life, and a bad way, a way of death.  It should be a no-brainer.  And yet, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people go astray regularly, so that God must come and bring them back to him and to his ways.  They had all manner of reasons to do so, some good and some bad.  Greed and corruption were common motivations, people trying to enrich themselves at the cost of their neighbors.  In some cases, through intermarriage with people who were not loyal to God, mixed loyalties were created that drew people away from God.  In some cases, people convinced themselves that God wanted what they did, instead of listening to God’s Word.  In some cases, people decided that they were rich and prosperous enough that they didn’t need God any more.  In still other cases, people just forgot about God, going through the motions and giving lip service to following God instead of genuine devotion.  These motivations should all be very familiar to us; you see them everywhere today, too.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus also talks about discipleship, too, and about making choices.  Only, when Jesus talks, discipleship sounds more like the way of death than the way of life.  To be a disciple, you must leave behind your family and friends and all your posessions.  In fact, Jesus’ words are harsher than that.  Jesus says to hate family and friends for his sake.  Now, in Hebrew, “to hate” can mean the emotion we would think of, but it can also mean “to separate” or “turn away from,” and given that Jesus’ spent so much time telling us to love one another, I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant.  But even so, that’s pretty strong language.  For Jesus, discipleship is not easy, and it means you have to make choices.  You have to be willing to put Christ first, above all the things that this world says are important, above everything else that you love.  And worse, you have to be willing to carry a cross—to be humiliated, to be persecuted, to be punished.  It sure sounds different from Moses’ exhortation to choose life.  It sounds like discipleship is choosing death.

But that depends on what kind of life you mean, and what kind of death.  In this world, death is everywhere.  Sin and brokenness are everywhere.  All the bad things people do to one another, all the natural disasters, all the illnesses and the injuries that we are afflicted with, all are symptoms of the brokenness of the world.  No one is spared.  Some people have more than their fair share; others are blessed with good luck and many good things in this life.  But even the luckiest person in the world is going to have trials.  Even the most self-reliant person in the world is going to have times when they simply can’t do it on their own, when they come to the end of their rope.  A life of independence from God—a life where you make your own priorities and follow your own goals—may be wonderful for a while.  It may bring you everything you think you want.  But it can’t last.  In this broken world, no good thing lasts forever.  And so, when things go wrong and you find yourself flat on your back, you learn that what looked like the easy path, the path that you thought would lead you to the kind of life you wanted to live, actually led to death.  It may have looked like the path you wanted, but in the end you find yourself alone and hopeless.

Jesus’ path will lead to death too, of course; today’s Gospel story comes from Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to be crucified.  When Jesus starts talking about bearing crosses, it’s because in a very short time he’s going to be carrying one, himself, out to Golgotha beyond the Jerusalem city limits, where he’s going to be crucified and die a painful, lingering death.  The path of discipleship leads us to take up our crosses and follow Christ, into the valley of the shadow of death, for we are tied through our baptisms to Christ’s death and resurrection.

Because you see, there’s a difference between the death that Jesus offers and the death the world offers.  The death the world offers is the end, and it comes dressed up in all kinds of things to hide what it is.  The death the world offers comes dressed up in all the things we want—popularity, riches, power, love, anything to hide what it really is.  The death the world offers is empty; nothing can come out of it.  But Jesus’ death comes naked and bare, and it is the beginning of the story, not the end.

Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the resurrection.  Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ death brings with it the only kind of life worth living, the only kind of life that lasts: a life with God, who will be with us, sustaining us and guiding us no matter what, and who will never abandon us even in the darkest times this world can throw at us.  God’s life teaches us how to live the kind of life we’ll have in God’s kingdom, where there is no sin and no brokenness.  God’s life is the truest and best life, the life that leads us to be our truest and best selves, full of love for God and for one another.

But to get to that kind of life, there’s a catch.  You have to go through death.  You have to go through Jesus’ death on the cross, and our own death with him.  You have to be willing to give up all the things that pull you away from God.  For some people, that’s money; for others, it’s the career you want to have or the place you want to live.  For still others, it’s family and friends that pull them away from God.  And that’s the choice we face, as Christians.  God has chosen us; God has died for our sake.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord we are saved; all we have to do is take the salvation that God offers us.  Are we willing to do what we have to do to follow Jesus from death into life?  Are we willing to be true disciples?  Are we willing to put our priority on the kind of life God wants us to have instead of the kind of life the world tells us we should want?

God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses.  May we choose life—God’s life—and live.

Amen.

What difference does the cross make?

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 11), Year C, June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-21, Psalm 32, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

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.

In the last two weeks, we’ve looked at the opening chapter of Galatians.  Paul was upset with the Galatians because they were starting to use human traditions to run their church and determine who was faithful to God, instead of depending on God’s grace and love.  They were looking for salvation in their own works, rather than in God’s grace.  Paul then talked about how God’s Word had come to him, and how it had changed him and sent him out to tell people about God’s love.  Now we come to one of the core parts of Paul’s theology: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ was at the heart of the Christian experience.  The death and resurrection of Christ was what made it possible—what made it necessary—for people of all backgrounds to come together in a community of faith.  The death and resurrection of Christ is the central event when binds all God’s children together.  We have all been crucified with Christ.  The old ways of doing things—the old ways of looking at the world—have all been superseded by the work of Christ in the world.  We have been changed right down to the very core of our being by Christ’s faithfulness in dying on the cross.

Have you ever seen the movie Pay It Forward?  It’s a very good movie, about a little boy named Trevor, his mother, and his teacher.  The teacher gives all his students an assignment for extra credit: to think up ways to make the world a better place.  Trevor’s idea is to do trying to make the world a better place by doing good deeds, and then challenging each person he helps to do something good for someone else.  Now, it would be really easy for such a movie to be saccharine, overly sweet, showing everything becoming miraculously better.  Pay It Forward doesn’t do that; instead, it confronts the brokenness of the world head-on, showing the ugly realities of addiction, abuse, poverty, bullying, all the many ways in which the world is a broken, sinful place.  It shows all the many ways people hurt one another and fall back into old, bad habits even when they try to do their very best to be better people.  And it does it without becoming overly cynical, either.  The world is still as broken at the end of the movie as it was in the beginning—and yet, Trevor’s actions and his words, his trust and his hope have had a deep and profound impact on the people around him.  The world may be the same, but they are not the same.  They have been transformed, and are better people for having known Trevor.  They’ve seen the world differently; they’ve learned to see themselves and everyone around them differently.  They have learned to open themselves up to possibilities, to step beyond the fears that cripple them.

I think that story gives us a glimpse of what Paul’s getting at here.  The world is a broken, sinful place.  All human beings are broken, sinful people.  Addiction, abuse, poverty, bullying, and injustice affect more of us than we’d like to admit.  And even if you are lucky enough not to directly suffer from any of these, there are so many other ways the brokenness, the sinfulness, of the world can affect us.  There are so many ways our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, can affect others.  No matter how much we try to be good, no matter how much we try to overcome our own faults, no matter how much we try to change the world for the better, we are only a drop in the bucket.  There is pain in the world.  There is pain in us.  And our own ability to do the right thing simply isn’t enough to stop the pain.  And yet.

And yet, we are in Christ and Christ is in us.  Jesus Christ, God who took on human flesh and walked among us.  God who knows our pain, our brokenness, because he shared it.  Jesus spent his time on Earth healing the sick, comforting the brokenhearted.  Jesus never turned away anyone: not the worst sinners, not the self-righteous ones who thought they had no need of forgiveness.  Jesus Christ knows our suffering because he shared it.  And despite our brokenness, despite our sinfulness, despite everything we do to hurt ourselves and one another, Jesus loves us anyways.  Jesus Christ loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake, to save us and this broken world we live in.  Jesus Christ loves us so much that he was willing to die to heal our brokenness.  And that love, that death, transforms us.

Christ calls us to him on the cross.  He calls us as we are, with all our brokenness, all our faults, all the bad things we have done and all the good things we have failed to do.  We die with him, on the cross; we are crucified with him.  And when we rise with him, we are made new.  We are made whole.  We are redeemed, forgiven, saved, not through any merit of our own but through Christ’s faithfulness and love.

One of the key phrases of Galatians is “faith in Christ.”  Now, that translation is actually somewhat misleading; the Greek phrase that Paul uses doesn’t really have any good way to be translated into English that will capture the whole meaning.  You see, the same words, “πίστεως Χριστοῦ” can be translated in two different ways.  They can mean “faith in Christ,” as in, we have faith in Christ, but they can also mean “the faithfulness of Christ,” as in, we are justified by the faithfulness of Christ—Christ’s faithfulness to us and to the will of the Father.  We are justified—we are made right with God—through Christ’s faithfulness, and through our faith in Christ.  The life we now live comes through faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

The world is still a broken place.  It will not be healed until Christ comes again.  There will continue to be sin in the world; addiction, fear, hate, jealousy, poverty, bullying, all the evils in the world will continue to affect us until Christ comes again.  Being Christian doesn’t mean we are magically free from all the pain in the world; it doesn’t mean we’ll be rich and successful and have everything go our way.  It doesn’t even mean that we will never sin again.  We still have to deal with the reality of the world.

What Christ’s death and resurrection means is that we do not have to face that world alone.  What Christ’s death and resurrection means is that Christ is with us—in us and around us—every step of the way.  We still struggle; we still fall short of what God has called us to be; we still sin.  And yet we have been transformed by Christ.  We have learned to see the world differently; we have learned to see ourselves differently.  We are not just sinners; we are not just people suffering in a world of pain.  We are people loved and chosen by God, who have seen the profound difference that love makes.  We are people who have learned to open ourselves up to the possibilities that God offers, to step beyond our fears and our doubts knowing that we don’t do so alone.

Our actions and words can’t magically fix all that is wrong with the world.  Our actions and words can’t even fix ourselves.  And yet, we have seen the difference that love makes.  We have seen the difference that Christ makes, in ourselves and in our lives.  We know that pain and brokenness don’t get the last word; we know that in the end, God’s love will make all things new.  And we know that while we wait for Christ to come again, we do not wait alone, for Christ lives in us and we live in Christ.  We don’t do good works to try and fix the world or to earn our way into God’s good books.  We help one another, we love one another, because Christ loves us and wants us to spread that love.  We let Christ shine through our words and our actions because we know Christ.  We have faith in Christ’s faithfulness and love for us.  We pay that love forward so that all will know the transforming power of Christ’s love.

Amen.

The Rules We Make

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9), Year C, June 2, 2013

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96:1-9, 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.

For the next six weeks, we’ll be hearing a lot from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  It’s one of the more important books of the Bible, for it proclaims the heart of the Good News.  There are few other places in the Bible where the Gospel is laid out so clearly.  While many books tell the Good News, Galatians explores what this means for us, and for our journey of faith, in clear and compelling words.  We won’t be reading the whole letter in church, but I highly recommend you read the book for yourselves, and consider what Paul’s words mean for you as we explore the highlights together in worship.  Today we start with the beginning of the letter.

In ancient times, people customarily began letters with a section of thanksgiving.  People from Egypt to Palestine to Greece regularly started out their letters by thanking whatever God they believed in for the person they were writing to.  Paul was no exception.  No matter how messed up the congregation he was writing to was, he found something positive to say about them, some way to lift up what God was doing in their midst.  All of his letters start out by thanking God for the congregation … except his letter to the Galatians.

You can imagine what it was like for the Galatians.  They gather to hear a letter from the man of God who brought them to Christ.  They expect that, even if things are happening that he doesn’t like, he will start off by giving thanks for everything they’re doing right.  Instead, Paul starts by scolding them: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ!”

What had they done to deserve such censure, such attack?  I highly doubt that they thought they were doing anything wrong!  Some new teachers had come, fellow Christians, with a lot of new rules to add to what Paul had given them.  The new teachers were Jewish Christians, who had grown up following the Jewish laws such as circumcision and dietary laws, and wanted the Galatians to do the same.  After all, both Jesus whom they worshipped and Paul who had brought them to the faith were themselves Jews, who were circumcised and kept the Jewish Laws.  Circumcision was a physical symbol that you belonged to God.  If a man was circumcised, he was a faithful follower of God.  If he wasn’t circumcised, he was an outsider, not a true follower of God.  Circumcision was the mark of a Jew—it had been for centuries the thing that set followers of the One True God apart from all the other so-called gods out there.  So shouldn’t these new followers of God do the same?  It all sounds so nice and logical.  A good way to prove that even though they started off as outsiders, non-Jews, they are now on the inside track to faithfulness.

Paul heard about what they were doing, and he hit the roof.  This was worse than anything any other group had done, even worse than the Corinthians and their divisions and immorality.  Why?  Because in putting their trust in circumcision and belonging to the “in” group, the Christians in Galatia were starting to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in Christ.  They were trusting to tradition rather than to the will of God.  They had been freed by the Gospel, but they went right out and began their new life in Christ by hedging themselves in with new laws.

The Galatians weren’t alone in this tendency, of course.  Humans throughout history have preferred to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in God.  It seems that every time God’s Word comes to us, we celebrate it … and then go right on depending on our own actions rather than on God’s saving grace.  God gives us a precious gift in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That gift is given for the salvation of the world, and it is greater than anything we on our own could possibly do.  Yet still we look for ways to do it ourselves, rules and laws and traditions to follow that will save us, instead of trusting in God’s love.  For the Galatians, and for many of the first Christians who came to Christianity from the Jewish faith, those rules and traditions were centered in circumcision and dietary laws. But it seems like every generation builds up its own lists of things people must do to be saved.

In the 16th Century in Germany, at the height of the Reformation, one of the things that Martin Luther hated most about the Roman Catholic Church was the way it had created so many obligations for the faithful.  In order to get to heaven, you had to pray the right way at the right times, confess your sins and do the proper penance, fast from certain foods at certain times the church specified, and follow many other rules and guidelines set down by the church.  Now, I think we all agree that praying is a good thing!  All Christians should pray.  And confessing your sins and being forgiven is also a good thing, and fasting can be a very effective spiritual discipline.  None of the things the Roman Catholic Church required were bad by themselves: what was bad was that they said you could only be saved if you did all those things the way the Catholic Church told you to.  Instead of relying on the grace and mercy of God, they taught people to rely on their own ability to do the right things.  So, the Reformers—the first Lutherans and Calvinists and Anabaptists—quite rightly told the world that salvation didn’t depend on all the rules and rituals the Roman Catholics required.

But, a generation or two later, some Reformers had started their own lists of things people had to do to earn their salvation.  Different things than the Roman Catholics, of course, but they still drew people away from relying on God’s grace.  So the reformers had to fight the same battle over again, teaching people to rely on God’s grace instead of their own actions.  How’s that for irony?  It seems like we humans would rather do anything rather than rely on God’s promises and love.  We know that there are things that can help us be faithful to God, things that can help us grow in our love for God and our fellow human beings.  Prayer, reading the Bible, acts of fellowship and charity, all can help us grow spiritually.  All can help us follow God more closely.  But our salvation doesn’t depend on them.  What are some of the things we Christians today hold up as essential for salvation?  What things do we tell ourselves we have to do to be saved?

We human beings were created by God to be good, but we became broken by sin and death.  So no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we fall short of the goodness that God created us to be.  We do the wrong things.  We convince ourselves that we know best, and that we’re doing just fine on our own.  We tell ourselves that our sins don’t matter.  We blind ourselves to the suffering of our neighbors, and sometimes we even add to it.  And then we look at a world that has been broken by sin and death just as we have, and think we can fix it all.  We come up with rules and traditions to help us come closer to God, and then we pay more attention to those rules and traditions than to God’s call.  But no matter how helpful our rules and traditions may be, they can never take the place of God’s love.  We cannot be saved by our own actions and words, because our actions and our words are just as flawed as we are ourselves.  No matter how self-sufficient we would like to be, we depend on God’s love and grace for every good thing in our lives.

Our salvation depends on the love of Christ Jesus, who came to this earth and was born as a baby, truly human and truly God, both human and divine in one person.  For God so loved the world that he came to us as one of us, taking on human frailty and weakness.  Jesus taught people about God; he showed them the love of God in word and deed.  He healed the sick and the broken.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors, with the outcasts, the ones society cast out, and he forgave them their sins and loved them.  And when the authorities felt threatened by his radical generosity, he died so that all the world might be saved from their sins.  For God so loved the world that he would let nothing come between us—not sin, not brokenness, and not death.  Jesus Christ was willing to die for us.  And now, because of God’s saving actions, there is nothing in this world—not life, not death, not rules or rulers, not angels or demons, nothing we do or fail to do—can separate us from the love of God.  Salvation is not something we do; the Good News is not just another set of rules.  Salvation is something that God does.  The Good News is that God loves us no matter what, that no matter how much we fail or go astray, God will still keep coming to us with the gift of his precious love.

Amen.  Thanks be to God.