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.

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Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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

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

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

This is the sermon I am going to preach at your funeral, but since you won’t be here to hear it, I’ll give you a little foretaste of it now.  Paul writes: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Death is the enemy of all living things.  Death is the last, great enemy of God.  And death will be destroyed.  In his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set in motion the complete, total, and utter destruction of death.  Death is a dead man walking.  Death doesn’t get the last word.  Death is going down.

In the fallen world we live in now, death comes everywhere life does.  And death is constantly fighting to destroy life.  There’s a reason we call it a “battle with cancer”—when you have cancer, you are directly fighting the old enemy, death, which is trying to drag you down into its clutches.  But death comes in many other forms, too.  From hunger to heart attacks, depression to drunk driving, brutality to blood clots, abuse to addiction, death comes in many different forms, some of them obvious and overt and some of them subtle and insidious.  And sometimes death wins!  Each one of us will die in the end, and be laid in the grave.  But when Christ comes again the graves will be opened, and we will rise as our Lord did, and death itself will be destroyed.

Christians talk a lot about sin, but if you ask people—even many Christians!—what sin is, or what makes something a sin, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  And many of those answers will be incomplete, and some of them will even be wrong.  For example, a lot of the time people will say something along the lines of “sin is stuff that God doesn’t like.”  But the obvious question, then, is why God doesn’t like it.  And the reason that God doesn’t like some behaviors, the thing that makes them sinful, is that they hurt people.  They add to the destruction and death in the world.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that the wages of sin is death.  Sin leads to death.  And people assume sin leads to death because God doesn’t like those thoughts and behaviors and so he punishes them.  No!  It’s the other way around!  God doesn’t like them because they lead to death!  God loves all his children, all living creatures, and God wants us all to be happy and healthy.  But there are some things we do, as individuals and as groups, that hurt people.  Those behaviors add to the destruction in the world.  And it may be our actions leading to our own death, but all too often it’s our actions leading to other peoples’ death.  Our sin hurting ourselves and others.

A specific action or thought may not cause a death right then and there.  But sinful thoughts and actions add to the unpleasantness of the world.  Lies, jealousy, theft even on the pettiest level, abuse, neglect—they all add to the general harshness and evil in the world.  They make violence and neglect seem more normal.  They make the world a worse place.  They make it harder to live in.  They make people more likely to lash out at others, they make people more likely to kill, or just shrug and stand aside while others kill.  And so we get shocking crimes committed at a few people’s initiative, lots of people’s blessings, and everyone’s passive acquiescence.  All these sins, large and small, they add up.  They create conditions that make death more likely—the death of hope, the death of love, the death of the soul, the death of the body.  And death is the enemy, our enemy and God’s enemy.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been constantly adding to the death in the world.  And sometimes we do it obviously, by directly killing people.  Sometimes we do it indirectly, by causing or allowing the conditions that lead to death.  Sometimes we do it by creating a world and society where exploitation and violence and strife and oppression and greed and all the worst parts of ourselves are seen as normal, and sometimes even explained away as good.  We have been digging our own graves ever deeper.

But through the grace of God, those graves will not swallow us up forever.  Death is not the end of the story.  You see, God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to destroy death.  God sent Jesus into the world to shake things up and overturn the whole system that leads to death.  By dying for us and then rising from the grave, Jesus gave a knockout punch to death that will destroy it forever so that it can’t ever enter the ring again.

Now, we still die.  Because the destruction of death will not be complete until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  You know how sometimes someone gets hit on the head but they think they’re fine until a few hours later, when they collapse and it turns out that blow to the head caused a fatal aneurism, but it just didn’t rupture right away?  That’s death, right now.  Death is walking around this world thinking it’s the king of the hill, but its time is numbered.  Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus has dealt death the fatal blow.  Death is a goner, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And yeah, death can rage.  Yeah, death can do a lot of damage in the here-and-now.  Yeah, death can make life here on earth really nasty for a while.  But when Christ comes again, death is gonna be toast.

Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.  Christ’s resurrection is not a one-off event, it’s the first sprout in the field, poking up above the earth.  The rest, all those who have died, will rise when Christ comes again.  All those who now sleep in the earth, and all those who will die and be laid to rest between now and the second coming?  They will rise again from the grave just as Christ did that first Easter.  We will rise again.  The tomb will open for us just as it did for Jesus.  And on that day all people, living and dead, will be judged, and God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, and we will all be changed.  All of the chaff in our souls will be sifted out and burned, leaving only the good wheat.  Evil will be gone.  Death, the last great enemy, will be destroyed.  A new heaven and a new earth will be created, where all the things that led to death—all the sins that caused pain and suffering—will be gone.  There will be no more mourning or weeping, only joy and laughter and delight.  There will be no hurting or destruction.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox.  There will be only life, no more death, because Christ will have destroyed death forever.

That’s what Easter means.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.  We don’t celebrate the resurrection just because Christ rose from the grave.  I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but by itself that would still leave us mired in a world of death.  We celebrate Easter because of what it means for us.  We celebrate Easter because it has fundamentally reshaped the world, and so death does not get the last word.  We celebrate because we know that Christ is only the first fruits of the dead, that we ourselves will be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, along with all our loved ones and every human who has ever died.  And then, at that point, death will be no more, and pain will be no more, and all the things that make our lives miserable in the here and now will be destroyed.  Utterly, completely, and totally destroyed by God, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  No more death, only life.  A life better than you and I can imagine.

We are children of the Resurrection.  We know that no matter how much death rages around us in the here and now, we don’t have to fear it because it will be destroyed and we will be raised with Christ.  All the fears and pains of the world, they’re only temporary.  We don’t have to be afraid of all the things the world tells us to be afraid of.  We are free, free to spread love in a world drowning in death.  Free to spread hope in a world drowning in fear and cynicism.  Free to live, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Two Sons and the Father

Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 6th, 2016

Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 5:1-3, 11b-32

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.

This parable is one of the richest and most meaningful stories in the Bible, but when we read it we tend to focus on the younger son.  Our traditional name for it is “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” which is part of the reason.  But there are many other names for this parable, too.  Sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Prodigal God, the Parable of the Welcoming Father, or the Parable of the Lost Sons, or the Lament of the Responsible Child.  There are so many parts of this parable that we could focus on, and the part we tend to focus on is the younger son, the one whose selfish actions set the whole story into motion.  Yet when Jesus told the story, he started by focusing on the father—“there was a man who had two sons”—and he spent a full third of the story detailing the older son’s reactions.  And let’s not forget that he told this parable—and several others, right in a row—in response to the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes, who were disdainful that “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

We tend to think of the Pharisees as the villains, because Jesus had so many clashes with them.  But the reason that he did was because he spent a lot of time with them and they continually sought him out, invited him to speak, and brought them home to eat dinner with them.  In fact, Jesus had many allies among the Pharisees, and they were for the most part natural allies.  When we look at the historical record, the Pharisees beliefs and practices were in fact very similar to Jesus’ own teachings—making the differences even more noticeable.  Israel of Jesus’ day was a nation under occupation, a culture under siege from outside forces that were trying to make Israel just another province of the Roman Empire, complete with pagan worship, secular values, and a disdain for the traditions and beliefs of their forefathers and foremothers.  While Israel’s elite pandered to their foreign overlords, the Pharisees were the ones defending the faith from foreigners and straying countrymen alike.

The Pharisees were mostly middle-class, solid family-values people, who spent lots of time and effort working for God.  They taught people God’s word, and how to interpret it.  They stood up to foreign occupiers and their own leaders alike.  They insisted that God’s Word and God’s commands were still relevant and deeply necessary for life.  And, in so doing, they ran the risk of being discriminated against.  They supported Jesus because he taught and preached about God, and even when they disagreed with him, they admired his ability to reach and inspire so many people.

The problem was, the Pharisees were jealous.  Not of Jesus’ successes—no, that was all to God’s glory, and they counted him as one of their own.  They were jealous of God’s love.  After all, they had been slaving away for years—generations!—for God, in a world that was hostile to them and to the very idea that there was a God who actually cared about people enough to intervene in the world.  They had stood up to hostile leaders and social forces tearing them apart.  They had forgone opportunities for personal advancement and riches in order to remain true to God.  They had, just like the elder brother, been working like a slave for God, and they were very aware of it.

And now this Jesus—this man of God—starts talking to tax collectors?  Those stooges of the Empire, those unfaithful people who turned away from God and cheated their own people for their own personal gain?  Not only that, he welcomes them?  These traitorous parasites who are a manifestation of all that is wrong in the nation?  And Jesus eats with them?  He calls them friends?  He accepts one of them—Matthew—as one of his own disciples?  And all those other sinners, too, the people who have set themselves outside of God’s people by their own actions?  Those thieves and murderers, those adulterers and addicts, those thugs and prostitutes, those con artists and scammers and parasites?  And Jesus tells them that God loves them?

No.  That is not acceptable.  Not to the Pharisees.  The Pharisees are the ones God loves.  The Pharisees are the ones who have done the hard work and deserve the reward.  These sinners don’t.  These sinners are the ones who have thrown away and wasted the abundant gifts of God.  These sinners have ruined lives—their own and other peoples’.  These sinners have broken society, and they have hurt people.  They don’t deserve God’s love.  They deserve judgment.  They deserve to be punished for what they have done.

So Jesus tells a story about a man who had two sons.  Two sons who are very different, yet who both separate themselves from their father in different ways.  The younger one is a sinner.  He leaves the family behind and wastes everything he is given, until he is humbled by a famine, at which point he goes home to beg for mercy.  Except he doesn’t need to beg.  The father, overjoyed by the return of a beloved child he’s been worrying about for years, throws a party to celebrate and gifts the younger son with more than he could have dared hope for.  The older son, also, separated himself from their father.  He was a dutiful son, who did everything asked of him.  And so when his brother returns, all he can see is how unfair it is—he’s the one who deserves the party, not his jerk of a brother!  And so he refuses to come in.  He holds his own sense of justice and righteousness more valuable than his brother’s life.  And so he is angry at his father’s love.  Can you blame him?  He’s done all the hard work.  He’s done the right thing, while his brother did everything wrong.  He’s the one who deserves the reward.  The father’s treatment of the younger son is unfair on every level imaginable.

Just like God’s treatment of sinners—forgiveness and welcome—is unfair on every level imaginable.  Sure, it’s great and heartwarming if you’re the sinner, the younger brother, but it’s not great if you’re the righteous one, the Pharisee, the good Christian, the older brother.  The whole point of grace is that it’s forgiveness for people who don’t and never can deserve it.  It’s not fair.  It’s unconditional love for the undeserving.

The problem is, the more we focus on fairness—the more we focus on who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t—the more we separate ourselves from God.  The more we act like the older brother, the more we join him outside the party.  And remember, in the Bible a feast or party is the most common metaphor for heaven.  The older brother is right that it isn’t fair, but by focusing on what is or isn’t fair, he is separating himself from his father, from his entire family, and from the feast.  He’s worked hard, he’s earned a celebration, and he’s keeping himself outside the gates because of his own resentment.  The older brother took one look at the heavenly banquet and turned up his nose at it, because he didn’t like the guest list.

The father acts out of love.  The father is more concerned with welcoming one he thought he’d lost forever than punishing him for leaving in the first place.  The father loves both his sons, but he’s never needed to worry about the elder.  This party is the action of one who has spent many sleepless nights staring at the ceiling and hoping and praying that his child is alive, out there, somewhere in the world.  The party isn’t because the younger son deserves it; it’s because the father is so happy.  He’s been happy about his older son the whole time.  All this joy at the younger son’s return is spilling over at once—the joy at the older son’s goodness has been present all along, manifested in a thousand ways the older son either didn’t notice or took for granted or didn’t value.  He spent all that time working for his father, and yet he doesn’t seem to value his father’s love and the gifts he’s been given.  And so the older son is jealous.  He resents that his father has any love for the undeserving brother.  He refuses to come to the party.  He refuses to come to his father.  He wants his jerk of a brother gone again, or at least suitably punished.  He wants everything to be all about him, even when he doesn’t need anything and his brother does.

There are two sons in this parable.  One is a sinner, while the other is a good son.  Yet the two are more alike than either wants to admit.  Both disregard their fathers’ gifts, in different ways.  Both are deeply loved by the father.  Both separate themselves from their father.  And the father comes out to seek both.  There are many ways to separate ourselves from God.  Some, like the younger son’s path, are obvious to see.  Some are more insidious, like the older brother’s jealousy.  Yet no matter why we separate ourselves from God, God loves us, and seeks us out.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Who are you?

Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

the Word made flesh

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

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.

Titus wrote: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  What a poetic and beautiful way to describe the coming of Christ, the Messiah!  The grace of God, which brings salvation, coming to earth.  And in the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  In a little while, when it comes time to light the candles, we’ll read the opening of the Gospel of John, which describes Jesus as the Word of God through which all the world was created.  That’s quite a lot to put on the shoulders of one little baby, born in poverty and darkness in a stable in a tiny town in a backwater part of the world!

And yet, he’s not just a baby, is he?  Jesus is more than that.  So often, when it gets close to Christmas time, we let our sentimentality take over.  Isn’t that a cute baby in that pageant?  How sweet those children sound, singing Away in a Manger.  How heart-warming to have family and friends coming together for a special meal.  How beautiful that picture of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus looks!  The sentimentality overflows, from made-for-tv movies to Christmas pageants in churches.  We think of the “reason for the season,” and we try to be a little nicer, a little more generous, as we go about our daily life.  And that’s a good thing!  That heart-warming message of hope and love is an important part of Christmas.

But let’s remember just how great the love is; let’s remember how awesome the hope is.  Because Jesus’ birth isn’t just a reminder that babies are sweet and we should be kind to one another.  There’s a reason that all those different Bible texts we read tonight have extraordinary expectations of that little baby!  You see, that little baby is God in human flesh.  God, immortal, all-powerful, chose to come to Earth and be born as a human.  The Word became flesh, truly God and truly human at the same time.  Yes, he was a human baby, born in sweat and tears and blood in a cold stable to a poor family.  He probably cried and fussed like any other baby; he definitely needed to be fed and have his diaper changed like any other baby.  But he was also God, present and active in the creation of the universe.  He is the grace and love of God given physical form.  He is the one who breaks the chains of slavery and oppression.  He is the one who brings justice and peace.  He was and is the light that brings hope and joy to the world.  That hope is for more than just a little extra kindness at Christmastime.  That hope is for the redemption and renewal of the whole world.  God, who created the world and watched his good creation become broken and marred by sin, became human for the sake of saving the world.

Why would God chose to do that?  Why would God choose to be limited by becoming a human being—and a baby, at that, the most vulnerable and helpless that any living creature can ever be, a baby, totally dependent on others for even the most basic needs?  In Christ Jesus the greatest power in the world chose to be the most vulnerable and powerless he could possibly be.  What could God possibly think worth it?  I’ll tell you: us.  Every person who has ever lived or ever will, and all of creation around us.  God thinks we’re worth that.  God loves us so much that he was willing to do anything to save us, and he proved it when he became a human being, when he became a baby who was born in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.  What extraordinary love that is!

But that’s just the beginning of the story.  You see, Jesus grew up.  And he taught people how to live better lives; how to see the kingdom of God in their midst.  He taught people how to build better relationships with one another and with God, how to forgive one another and to see God’s face in all of creation.  And then he proved his love in the most dramatic way possible: suffering and dying on the cross.  And in that ultimate act of weakness, in that death, were the seeds of the greatest victory possible.  In his resurrection, Jesus Christ shattered the gates of hell.

That’s why the angels sing at the birth of Jesus: they know what he really is.  A baby in a manger, yes, but also the light and hope of the world.  God in human flesh, God become human, coming to heal all of creation.  God came to live among us so that we might become his children, loved and cared for just as Mary cared for Jesus as a baby.  That is the great joy of Christmas, for in the dead of winter, in a lowly stable in the middle of nowhere, hope is born for the whole world.  Two thousand years after Jesus’ birth, twenty-five hundred years after Isaiah’s prophecy, we still live in a world filled with boots of tramping warriors and blood-soaked garments.  We still live in a world where there are people who have no home, and no family to care for them.  We still live in a world where there is fear.  But God’s light has come into the world; God’s hope has come into the world; God’s Word has come into the world.  That is the grace of God: that he would take on flesh and blood for our sake, to save us from our own sin and brokenness.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Holy Ones

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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.

There is some scary stuff in the Bible.  Really scary, stuff that talks about the end of the world.  Most of it can be found in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  Beasts, antichrists, wars, persecutions, Death on a pale horse, all kinds of mysterious and unsettling things.  And mostly, when we modern Christians talk about them, we play up the scary parts: shape up, if you don’t want to be Left Behind!  If you don’t confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and if you don’t live a good live a good life, you’ll be out in the middle of all that nasty stuff!  We forget—and sometimes we never realize in the first place—that these passages were not written to scare people.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  They were written in times of persecution and death and horror to comfort people, to tell them that no matter how bad things got, God had not abandoned them and God was at work in the world.  The visions are frightening because they reflect the reality those first readers were living.  But even in the midst of those things, God was working and protecting God’s people.  The first reading is a prime example.  Daniel receives a vision in a dream, and is frightened by it.  But the messenger in Daniel’s dream says not to worry.  The dream represents what’s already happening in the world, and yes, it’s bad, but God is with Daniel and his people. “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

Now, that begs the question.  Who are the holy ones?  Is it some special group of super-believers who are awesome and perfect?  Great theologians like Martin Luther?  People who devote their lives to doing good works like Mother Theresa?  People who are persecuted and die for their faith, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  Do you need to be someone really special to be counted among the holy ones of the Most High God?  Do you need to do something really incredible to receive the kingdom and possess it forever and ever?

No, you don’t.  You don’t have to do anything.  All you need is faith.  And it doesn’t need to be the greatest faith ever in the history of the world; faith as tiny as a mustard seed is enough.  That faith is a gift from God who loves us, and through that faith we receive the grace of God.  Through Christ Jesus our Lord we are saved, and marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.  Through Christ we inherit the kingdom and are made God’s own people.  Through Christ we are made God’s holy ones.  Through Christ, we are made saints.

Yes, that’s right—saints.  “Saint” is an old word meaning “holy one.”  We tend to think of saints as great holy people, better than you or I could ever be.  Sometimes people use it for that, as a title for especially perfect Christians.  But the older meaning of the word, the one the Bible uses, includes all people of faith, good and bad, small and great.  All people who set their hope on Christ are saints who have been made holy by God.  The power of God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and that same power is at work in us who believe, redeeming us, washing our sins, and bringing us together in Christ.

Now, that doesn’t mean that believers are perfect, or sinless; far from it.  If you were at Pastor Hartley’s funeral yesterday, you heard the pastor speak eloquently on the sinfulness of all humankind.  Even good and faithful people are full of sin.  We are not saints because of any inherent goodness on our own part.  We are saints because God has chosen to make us saints, holy and blessed and loved.  We are saints because God has chosen to give us the kingdom, claimed us as his own, and blessed us.

Today is All Saints Sunday.  Today, we remember all the holy ones of God, all those who have gone before us in the faith, all those who are faithful today, and those who will be faithful in the days to come.  We particularly remember those saints who have touched our lives, and those who have died recently.  They were not perfect—no one is—but they are beloved children of God who now rest safely in God’s care.  All of their sins have been washed clean; all of their tears have been wiped away; all their wounds have been healed.  They have been given their inheritance, they have been given the kingdom.  Whatever sin and grief and pain and fear they felt in this life, they now know the fullness of God’s blessing.

Everyone here has been touched by the saints who went before us.  I want you to remember those who were particularly meaningful for you who has since passed on.  Maybe it was a parent or grandparent.  Maybe the saint who means the most to you was a teacher or a friend.  Maybe they taught you about Jesus through their words, or maybe they showed you what it meant to be a Christian through their actions.  When we light candles for them, we remember them, what they meant for us, and how the light of Christ shone through them.  We remember that we, too, are called to bear the light of Christ to those around us, just as they once did.  And we remember that even in death they are safely in God’s care, and we will see them again, when we, too, come into our inheritance in Christ.

But lighting candles on All Saints’ Sunday is not the only day of the year when we remember them; and it is not only through the candles that the saints who have gone before us are present in our worship service.  Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper—every time we take Communion—they are here.  This table is God’s table; it is a foretaste of the feast to come, a foretaste of the feast

Amen.