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.

In the Presence of God

Transfiguration A, February 26th, 2017

Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

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 I was a kid, I believed in God.  I believed that he existed, and I believed that he had created everything, and I believed that he had sent his only son Jesus Christ to die for our sins and save us.  I was quite clear on that.  I just didn’t see what any of that had to do with me.  Because while I believed everything that the Bible says about what God had done, thousands of years ago, I was pretty sure that God wasn’t involved in the world any more today.  I mean, not really.  Sure, I believed that faith in God dictated where you went where you died, but I found the idea of UFOs and aliens more plausible than God actually being active in the world in the then-20th Century.  And part of the reason for that was Bible stories like today’s Gospel and first readings.  You see, I looked around me and I didn’t see anybody being transfigured in glowing array on a mountaintop, and I didn’t see any burning bushes, or arks, or food for five thousand people appearing out of thin air, or any of those spectacular miracles and wonders the Bible describes.

It’s easy to read stories like the ones in today’s Gospel and first reading, and get caught up in the glamor of it.  God reveals God’s power in a tangible way.  Yes, we know that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God come to save the world, but it’s a little easier to believe when he’s lit up like a Christmas tree with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, on either side and a booming voice from heaven proclaiming him THE BELOVED SON OF GOD and telling us to listen to him.  They’re beautiful.  Wondrous.  I can just picture them as dramatic scenes in a movie, with lots of special effects.  But eventually, you have to ask the question: if that’s what God’s actions are like—if such dramatic, obvious miracles are the way God works in the world, why haven’t I ever seen anything like it?

I mean, there are healings that people call miracles, where doctors can’t explain them.  But most of those don’t happen because a faith healer lays hands on someone, and there is no dramatic moment of healing where everything is magically all better.  And people sometimes experience the light at the end of the tunnel when they die and are brought back to life by medical science, but all that proves is that God is waiting for us when we die.  It doesn’t show that God is active in the world.  And there are movies, and TV shows like Touched by an Angel, and stories of miracles, but nothing that I, as a young Christian, had experienced personally, or had been experienced by any of the faithful Christians I knew.  And so I believed in God, but went about my daily life without paying God any attention whatsoever.

And then I got a little bit older, and had to figure out how to deal with the fact that not only was God active in the world, God was active in my life, and was calling me to ministry.  This was a rude shock.  And, at first, I didn’t want to believe it.  After all, there still weren’t any burning bushes or glowing lights.  Just a nudge, a tug on my soul that got ever more insistent as I grew older, until finally I couldn’t deny it anymore and went off to seminary.  God’s activity in my life is not and has never been a constant thing, but I find the more that I pay attention, the more I see things that speak to me of God’s hands at work.  Often through indirect means, like other peoples words, or things that look like random coincidences except for the way something deep inside me says otherwise.  There are times that the presence of God feels overwhelming to me, even if nothing looks like it is happening on the surface.  The handful of times I have felt God’s presence so strongly it was hard to keep from falling on my knees, nobody else noticed anything.  But on the other hand, there are times when I feel nothing spiritually but dryness and emptiness and even with what I have experienced it is still hard to believe that God is really, truly present in this world, in my life or anywhere.  In my years of ministry, here and in Pennsylvania, I’ve talked with a lot of people, and while not all Christians feel the presence of God on a conscious level, those that do feel God’s presence only feel him some of the time.  We have all gone through dark and weary times when we feel abandoned even by God.

So the question I have now is, why do such moments of God’s presence only come to some, and only some of the time?  Why don’t we all feel God’s presence, all the time?  Why is the mountaintop experience so rare?  I have to tell you if it wasn’t rare, not only would faith be a lot easier, but doing the right thing would also be a lot easier.  We all get times of temptation, times when we don’t want to do the right thing we know we should.  If we could feel God’s presence, God’s loving arms wrapped around us, at those moments, I think we would be a lot less likely to sin.  An intellectual knowledge that God is with us seems like a poor substitute to his tangible power and glory.

Let’s look at our lessons.  Moses experienced the power and glory of God … but the rest of the Israelites mostly just saw the storm up at the top of the mountain.  Peter and James saw Jesus transfigured, and Moses and Elijah appearing with him, but the rest of the disciples didn’t.  Most of the people who appear in the Bible never hear, directly, God’s voice.  Instead, God’s presence and God’s message is told to them by others.  Nobody gets God’s tangible presence all the time, but there is always someone experiencing God.  God’s people are never abandoned, but God is present to different people at different times.

This is one of the reasons we need one another.  This is one of the reasons we have to come together as the Body of Christ.  Sure, like Moses, we might be able to go experience God on a mountain-top by ourselves, but we can’t sustain it.  The experience ends, and we come back down the mountaintop.  And in those times when we ourselves can’t feel God, it’s not our own intellectual knowledge of God’s presence that sustains us, and it’s usually not the memories of those mountaintop experiences.  The love and support and witness of our brothers and sisters in Christ is what sustains us through the dark times.  We witness to others, and in our need they witness to us.  Sometimes in words, sometimes in deeds, sometimes by just being there with us when we desperately need them.

And there are times when we desperately need them.  Times when sin and death and pain and all the brokenness of this world grabs us by the throat.  Nobody, in this life, gets God’s presence perfectly forever.  That gift is not given to us until Christ comes again and we stand in God’s kingdom.  In this fallen world, pain and brokenness and sin keep fighting back against the light of God’s presence.  And sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere.  Even where God’s light shines brightest, sin creeps in.  God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and Moses gave them to the people, who made a covenant with God.  And then Moses went up the mountain and experienced the glory of God’s presence in the giving of God’s moral teachings, while down below the people got so scared and bored they made a golden calf to worship and threw a party in which they broke the covenant and almost all of the Commandments at once.  If you had told Moses, up there on the mountain in the light of God’s presence, that something like that was going to happen, he probably would not have believed you.

And Peter and James, up with Jesus and Moses and Elijah on that mountaintop, if you had asked them whether or not Jesus was going to die within two months, they would definitely have said absolutely not.  Even after he told them three times he was going to die, even up to the actual arrest itself, they didn’t believe it was going to happen.  They didn’t believe that the sin and brokenness of the world was going to break in so devastatingly.  They experienced the highs, the power, the glory, and thought it would last forever.  They thought that Jesus would drive out the Romans and set himself up as king of a new Jewish kingdom that would last forever.

But the highs can’t last in this lifetime.  In this fallen world, sin and death and brokenness keep sticking their noses in.  And so God keeps breaking in to our world with his light and his presence, and sin and death and brokenness keep trying to make the world darker.  There will come a day when that is no longer true; there will come a day when Christ will come again and there will be nothing but light and life everlasting.  There will come a day when the last broken remnants of pain and grief and death and sin will be healed and wiped away.  But until that day, we have to deal with them.  But we don’t have to deal with them alone.  God keeps sending God’s light into the midst of our darkness; God keeps showing us God’s power and love and grace, in many and various ways.  And God gives us communities so that we can share the light and the love he gives us, and support one another in faith and love.  Thanks be to God.

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.

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Day, December 25th, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, 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.  Amen.

I think it’s hard for us modern people to understand the miracle of light in the darkness.  Sure, we get that darkness is bad—you’re a lot more likely to hurt yourself when the lights are out, either by tripping over something or walking into something you didn’t see.  And when it’s dark, the animal part of your brain gets a lot jumpier.  Or, at least mine does.  When I get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water by the light of the nightlights, there is always that bit of my brain that is sure there is something lying in wait to get me in the shadows.  I know perfectly well that there isn’t anything there, under the bed or around the corner, but there’s always a little corner of my mind that just won’t listen to reason.  I know the darkness is bad.

But at the same time, I have light any time I want it.  I can flip on a switch, or turn on my phone, or grab a flashlight.  There are streetlights outside so that I can talk through town even after dark with enough light to see.  And if the power went out for a long time, I’ve got a lot of candles I could dig out.  The only time I ever have to deal with darkness—truly deal with it—is when I want to.  When I choose not to turn the lights on.  But that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have electric lights.  They did have oil lamps … but those were expensive, and a lot dimmer than any modern electric light.  The oil to provide good light for fifteen minutes of work could cost as much as a day’s wages for a poor laborer.  So poor people generally didn’t use lamps at all.  When the sun went down, the only light available was that of the cookfire.  And, since the Middle East is arid and trees are scarce, even wood was expensive.  You didn’t burn it unless you had to; you might only light the fire when you actually had a meal to cook.  If you were a poor person, you went to bed with the sun.  And while middle-class people could afford lamp oil, it was still an expensive and precious commodity.  There were no streetlights, no lamps on peoples’ front porches.  When night came, the light went away.  You went home, probably to bed, and stayed there until dawn.  The darkness could be pushed back a little by a lamp or a cookfire, but only dimly, only temporarily.

So when our Gospel reading calls Jesus the light of the world, that means something far more significant than we really get.  The light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can’t overcome.  This is not just a dim and feeble lamp that you save for when you absolutely need it.  This is a light that shines, always.  That gives light to everyone, not just those huddled around it.  This is a light that shines deep into the gloomiest corners of the world, the murkiest corners of our hearts.  There is no shadow that can hide from it, no evil that can escape it, no hate or fear or selfishness that can prevent that light from shining.  That light sustains our life, sustains our souls.

That light came into this world in the form of a baby, born in a manger, the Word of God made flesh and blood and bone.  That light is Jesus Christ, and his light still shines in this world.  It does not matter how dark the world gets.  It does not matter how much sin and evil try to hide, it does not matter what shadows they try to cast over all the world.  The light of Jesus Christ will always be there, guiding us to God and showing us the truth.  The light of Christ will always be there to soften the hard-hearted and heal the broken-hearted and judge the cruel-hearted.  The light of Christ will always be there to expose our self-deceptions, to quiet our fears, to help us see the world as it really is.  That light helps us to see the truths deeper than any illusion.

Much as we fear the dark, we sometimes turn to it.  Because, you see, the dark is easier.  It’s easier to let our fears control us than it is to be brave.  When dealing with people who are different, it’s easier to hate than it is to love.  It’s easier to cling to comforting illusions and self-deceptions than it is to face the truth.  It’s easier to puff ourselves up with self-righteousness than it is to follow God’s true path of righteousness.  It’s easier to assume we’re always right and good than it is to face the times when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we are wrong.

But the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The light of Christ helps us see God as he truly is, and turns our hearts and minds to God, so that we may become his children ever more truly.  The light of Christ helps us see ourselves and others more clearly.  Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our light and our life.

Amen.

How to Lament

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Sin of Sodom (It’s Not What You Think)

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 7th, 2016

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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.

Here’s a trick question: who was the prophet Isaiah talking to in our first lesson?  If you were listening, it sounds like Sodom and Gomorrah.  That’s how Isaiah starts out, in verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  Except Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist anymore by the time of Isaiah.  They’d been destroyed a thousand years earlier in the time of Abraham.

As it happened, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel.  God’s people, who worshipped the Lord, who had a covenant with God.  But things were rotten in the state of Israel.  And that’s why Isaiah starts out by talking about Sodom and Gomorrah.  Because all the sins of Sodom?  They were happening in Israel.  And the people of Israel didn’t think there was anything wrong.  They thought, “oh, we’re God’s people, we worship God, we have the promise and do all the right things in worship and read God’s Word, so we can do anything we want and it’s just fine.”  And Isaiah wanted to point out the problems in that argument.  It’s like if I saw a group of Americans doing and saying racist things, and being nasty to Jews, and called them out by saying “Hey, Nazis, listen up!”  Everybody knew how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were, back then, just like everybody knows how bad Nazis are now.  So if you described someone as being from Sodom and Gomorrah, people took notice.  It was a harsh condemnation.

But what they were being condemned for will shock you.  See, when we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, we think sex, and more specifically, homosexuality.  But that’s because we modern people are obsessed with sex and sexuality.  The ancient Hebrew people heard the story differently; to them, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality.  Sodom and Gomorrah attacked vulnerable people they should have been protecting.  The sexual aspect of it was just the cherry on top the sundae of evil.  The prophet Ezekiel is the only person in the entire Bible to explicitly name the sin of Sodom, and here is what he had to say: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  In other words, the people of Sodom were rich and prosperous, and they ignored the vulnerable in their midst.  In their power, they cared only for themselves.  To Ezekiel, being a Sodomite has nothing to do with what you do in bed.  It’s about how you treat those less fortunate than you.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who feasts while others starve.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who ignores injustice as long as it only affects other people.

And what about Isaiah in our reading today?  What has him so concerned about the people of Israel?  What are they doing, that is so terribly bad that he calls them Sodom?   Here’s what he tells them to do: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  In other words, pretty much the same thing as Ezekiel.  You see, in Isaiah’s day, there was great injustice in Israel.  Rich people cheated poor people.  They had altered the good economic system that God had given them so that it benefitted people at the top of society and was harsh and unfair to people on the bottom.  If you came from a rich family, it didn’t matter how terrible you were, everything would be forgiven you and you would get every opportunity there was.  If you came from a poor family—or were orphaned or widowed, and had nobody to speak up for you—well, no matter how hard you worked, you would never get ahead in life, because the whole system was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  Poor people were more likely to be convicted of crimes, not because they were more criminal, but because the justice system was biased against them.  I’m sure there were a lot of justifications for it; I’m sure that the people at the top of the pile had a whole lot of arguments for why it was right, and fair, and good that they had everything and others were barely scraping by.  But the fact remains that it was evil and unjust in God’s eyes.

And so God told Isaiah to call them out on it.  God told Isaiah to tell them, with no sugarcoating, what he thought of their arrogance, their hoarding of God’s abundance, their injustice, their lack of care for those around them.  They were just like Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter what pretty justifications they had.  And all their wonderful worship was useless as long as they continued in that evil.  They said all the right words and did all the right things in worship, but it didn’t matter one bit.  All their beautiful worship, all their fancy words and emotional songs and all their reading of Scripture was not only irrelevant, it was offensive, as long as they kept preying on the poor and vulnerable.  And it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to say, well, I don’t do that, I’m a good person.  There were some individuals in Israel even then who acted with justice and mercy as God commanded.  But the society as a whole was corrupt.  The society as a whole was unjust.  The society as a whole was cruel and ignored—or even attacked—the most vulnerable people among them.  Even though you make many prayers, God said through the prophet Isaiah, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

This reading should make us nervous.  There is goodness in America; there is justice and mercy.  But there is also injustice in America. There are opportunities for growth in America, but there are also people who are oppressed, because of the color of their skin or their religion or where they grew up.  We Americans are, as a nation, very prosperous.  As a nation, we are by far the richest country in the world.  Yet nationwide, one in every five children goes hungry sometimes because their family cannot afford food.  There are hungry people here in Underwood, and in all the small towns across North Dakota.  There are people incarcerated on minor charges because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines.  There are people incarcerated on major charges who got much harsher sentences than others who committed the same crime because their skin was darker.  There are orphans and abused and neglected children in America who receive the care and support they need, but there are also children failed by the system, children who fall through the cracks, children left to struggle through it alone.  There are elderly people who receive the support and care they need as their health declines, but there are also others who don’t because we just don’t know what to do.  There are hungry people, sick people, disabled people, jobless people in America who get the help they need to get back up on their feet; there are others who get ignored because we’re more worried about the possibility of fraud than about making sure that people get the help they need.

And I wonder what Ezekiel or Isaiah would call us?  What words would God give them to describe us?  Now this was the sin of our sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  Does that describe us?  As a nation, as a church, as a people, does that describe us?  We have slipped up far, far too often, and let our prejudices and our greed and our fear shape our society instead of the justice and mercy God requires of us.  How much blood is on our hands?

We Christians, we know God.  We have God’s Word in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have beautiful hymns, we have the faith handed down by our ancestors and inspired in us by God.  And these are all important.  But as God told the Israelites in our reading, our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable people among us.  That care comes in many forms: government policies, private charity, our business practices, our community’s treatment of the people in our midst, and the way we live our everyday lives.  Hopefully, that care is a part of all aspects of our lives, just as our faith is.  Too often, we as individuals and as a society fall short of the care God asks of us.

Seek justice, God says.  Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow.  May God forgive us our sins, wash us clean, and guide us in the path of his justice and mercy.

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.