Lectionary 10B, June 10, 2018

Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1, Mark 3:20-35

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

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

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

This week’s Gospel reading has Jesus tangling with the scribes from the Jerusalem temple.  In the chapter prior to this, Jesus had healed people who were sick and cast out demons, causing quite a stir.  He’d also preached and taught and called the twelve disciples, so there was a great crowd everywhere he went.  And there was a ton of controversy about him, because he forgave sinners and was openly friendly with social outcasts, the tax collectors and the sinners.  He ate meals with the people that nice religious people were supposed to despise.  And he’d tangled with the Pharisees because he used a messianic title to refer to himself and they didn’t believe he was the Messiah.  So now here he is.  It’s still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but he has already created quite a stir.  And people are flocking to him because they know something good is happening, even if they’re not quite sure what.  They see people being healed, they see demons cast out, they see good news being preached, and they are excited.  They don’t know exactly what’s going on—some people think this Jesus fellow is simply nuts—but they know something big is happening.  Something worth keeping an eye on as they figure things out.

And this is when the scribes from Jerusalem show up.  Now, we don’t have a position exactly like the scribes today.  The word “scribe” means “someone who writes for a living,” which in the days before people had typewriters and computers and printing presses meant that they were the people who kept the records.  But don’t think of them as if they were mere functionaries or secretaries.  They were the ones who kept the records … which meant, effectively, that the records meant what they said they did.  They were the ones who recorded everything from history to poetry to business deals, and they were the ones who interpreted it.  In a lot of ways, they were like today’s lawyers and judges.  This was a very important and prestigious position.  No scribe was independently important, but as a class they were a force to be reckoned with.

The other thing about them is that their position and class depended on the patronage of the chief priests and the secular hierarchy.  Poor people can’t afford to pay a scribe to take notes for them, or to interpret the law for them.  Even middle class people only used a scribe’s services rarely.  The Temple and the chief priests were their primary employers, and the rich and powerful were their main other source of income.  And let’s review who the rich and powerful were, at this point in time.  The Romans ruled, either directly or through puppets like Herod.  Israel was a conquered territory ruled by foreign invaders who responded to any hint of rabble-rousing with immediate cruelty to the whole population.  The rich and powerful were either Romans or people who sucked up to them.  And the Romans did not like anything stirring up the ordinary person on the street.

As for the Temple, well, the chief priests were intimately aware that their existence depended on Rome’s good will.  Rome allowed the Temple to exist in the hopes that it would placate the Jewish people.  If the chief priests and temple authorities allowed the beginnings of an uprising, their heads would be first on the chopping block.  Or rather, first on the cross, because that was how the Romans executed conquered people.  Not to mention, the chief priests were supposed to be the ones with the monopoly on God’s power and wisdom, not untutored yokels from the sticks.  So, basically, when these scribes show up to see Jesus, they have a ton of reasons not to like him.  He’s a threat to their power and authority, and they are afraid at what might happen if he incites the crowds around him to violence and the Romans respond.

So when those scribes arrive, they don’t even bother to see what he’s doing or hear his message.  They have already decided he is a threat, and therefore he cannot be from God.  God’s Spirit cannot be present in someone they do not approve of, someone who threatens to upset their applecart.  Therefore, all of his supernatural powers—healing, casting out demons—must come from a demonic source.  It doesn’t make any sense AT ALL, because why would a demon want to cast out demons?  Why would a demon heal people?  Those are the LAST two things a demon would want.  Demons do evil, not good.  That’s their very nature.  But the scribes don’t care.  Jesus is a threat, so he must be discredited at all costs.

Think about that, for a second.  Think about the arrogance and hard-heartedness it would take, to see someone healing the sick and casting out demons, saving people from the very real evils in their lives in the most concrete way imaginable, and declaring that the healing force is demonic and evil.  They are literally seeing God’s power at work in front of their very eyes, and it’s not just that they don’t believe it.  No, it’s worse than that.  They see God’s power, and it’s doing something they don’t approve, so they believe it’s the devil.

And Jesus tells them that they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin.  Now, Christians in various times and places have sometimes interpreted it in various ways, mostly by taking whatever sin they find most immoral and calling it a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  But this passage is actually fairly specific about what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  It’s when you see the Holy Spirit at work and call it evil.  Everything else can be forgiven.  Unbelief, spreading lies about God, killing people, stealing, lying, cheating, and any other sin you care to name, it can all be forgiven.  But not looking at the power of God bringing healing to the world and calling it evil.

Unfortunately, the scribes of old are not the only ones to feel this temptation.  You see, the Holy Spirit is disruptive.  The Holy Spirit is a troublemaker, it is disorderly, upsetting, disruptive.   The Holy Spirit is wind, ruffling our feathers and blowing the dust off us and inspiring us to move out of old, comfortable, worn-out tracks.  The Holy Spirit is flame, setting us on fire and purifying us.  The Holy Spirit is water, washing us clean and drowning our old sinful self and making us re-born children of God.  The Holy Spirit sets prisoners free and makes people see things they have been blind to.  The Holy Spirit forgives sins and crosses boundaries.  The Holy Spirit brings good news to people who are poor and oppressed, and healing to a world broken by sin and death.

None of that is comfortable.  In fact, most of it is really uncomfortable.  Given a chance, most human beings do not like change.  We prefer things we understand, even if they’re not all that great, to things we don’t understand, even when it is so much better than anything we could have imagined.  We are prone to nostalgia, viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses and forgetting all the bad parts of it, as an excuse to keep things the same.  We don’t want to be set on fire, and we don’t want to be reborn, and while we like being forgiven we don’t like others to be forgiven, and by and large we don’t want to see things that might make us think new thoughts, either.  And the more wealth and power and status and influence we have, the less change we want, because after all, we don’t want to risk losing things.  And the more likely we are to count the Spirit’s disruptive action as a threat.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and though it is not always comfortable, it is always good: healing people and communities, inspiring, and working to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  It isn’t always easy to understand, but it is always present.  Whether we understand it or not, whether we want to be disrupted or not, may we always see it for what it is.

Amen.

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Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31

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, O Lord.

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

Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW.  If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans.  All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway.  This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.

Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything.  She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness.  I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful.  But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.

We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day.  And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular.  “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like.  Why doesn’t God like them?  Because they’re sins.  Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world.  And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors.  Sin is the thing that breaks relationships.  Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous.  Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way.  Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.

The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter.  Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness.   To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another.  But you can’t have fellowship while sinning.  Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive.  Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”  And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us.  It means all children of God.  If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness.  If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.

One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.”  It’s a sin full of self-justification.  When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish.  You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled.  You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic.  And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally.  We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.

That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom.  God is love, as John tells us over and over again.  That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors.  Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds.  It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is.  But that’s why Christ gave his life.  That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean.  We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.

While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time.  Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors.  Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail.  But God is faithful even when we are faithless.  God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.

God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen.  We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today.  After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love.  And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed.  They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community.  Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after.  This is a pattern we see often in Christian history.  The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end.  And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community.  No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.

How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently?  I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave.  We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.

The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us.  The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic.  The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.

Amen.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Covenant: Noah

Lent 1, Year B, February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15

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.

Covenant.  It’s an important word in the Bible, an important concept, but it’s not one that we really understand today.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage … but in a world in which half of all marriages end in divorce, we might view such promises with jaded eyes.  We can also think of covenants like a code of conduct, a set of agreements about how a group is going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.  This Lent, our Old Testament readings go through the covenants in the Bible, and the first one is the covenant with Noah after the flood.

Well.  It’s called the Noah Covenant, because Noah was the only human there.  But it wasn’t just a covenant with Noah, it was a covenant with every living creature.  All humans, but also all animals, every living thing on the planet.  It’s the foundation for how God deals with us.  And it’s a promise of mercy.

But to go back to see why we need that mercy, let’s go back to the beginning.  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and all the plants and animals on the earth.  And Genesis 1 tells us that when God created each new thing, it was good.  Last of all, God created humans … and humans weren’t just good, humans were very good.  Life was a paradise and all of earth was a garden.  God had created a world in which everyone had enough, and no one had too much, in which everyone received everything that they needed and nothing profited by preying on other creatures.  The humans had work to do to maintain the garden, but it wasn’t hard work.  There were no weeds, no need for backbreaking labor.  It was all the fun and satisfying bits of working with your hands with none of the frustration or heartache or physical problems that come with it.  And even the animals were safe.  No preying on each other or on humans.  All things—plants, animals, humans—living together in perfect harmony, together, no pain or fear or any other problem.

Then came the fall.  Adam and Eve disobeyed God, and everything changed.  It wasn’t just that they knew about evil, after eating the forbidden fruit; it was that the possibility for evil corrupted all of creation.  The land became hard to work.  Plants and animals became dangerous, just as humans did.  People and animals started preying on each other, so that one might benefit from the pain and destruction of another.  Weeds sprang up, not just in gardens but in human hearts.  And it wasn’t just a few bad people, either.  Even the best humans had jealousy and fear and hate in their hearts.  The question wasn’t “is there evil in this person’s heart?” but rather, “how much evil is in their heart?”  And evil thoughts and inclinations lead to evil actions.  Murder, abuse, violence, injustice of every kind.  And then we get to Genesis 6:5—“The Lord saw that humanity had become thoroughly evil on the earth and that every idea their minds thought up was always completely evil.  The Lord regretted making human beings on the earth, and he was heartbroken.”  God had created the world to be good—God had created humans to be very good!  But that goodness was completely overcome by evil.  And God grieved.

Imagine yourself in God’s shoes.  You made this wonderful world with everything in it set up perfectly for the good of all.  You created everything in it to be good and wonderful.  The only thing anyone needed to do was maintain the existing good order.  But humans failed even at that!  And so now not only is creation not good, it’s pretty thoroughly bad.  Even when someone or something looks good on the surface, you know there’s rot beneath it.  And every time you get your hopes up, they’re dashed.  And if humans couldn’t keep doing the right thing when everything was perfectly set up, what hope do they have of staying on the right path now, when everything is so messed up?  Put yourself in God’s shoes.  What do you do?  What do you do, with everything and everyone that you love bent on destruction?  Imagine that, for a minute.  How you would feel.  How God must have felt, grieved, and heart-sick.

Everything was all screwed up.  Humans most of all, but also the rest of creation.  So God decided to start all over again: destroy almost everything, and keep just enough of the best of creation—human and animal—to restart things.  You know the rest of the story: God found Noah and his family, who were righteous and good and the best people in the entire world of their generation.  And God told Noah to build an ark, and gathered animals to go on the ark, and then God flooded the earth and everything that wasn’t on the earth drowned.  Human and animal and plant, if it wasn’t on the ark, it was gone.

But even as angry as God was at all the evil in the world, God still loved the world.  And as God watched the destruction, God realized that God could not and would not do it again.  That the gain was not worth the cost of all the lives.  And yes, every one of those people and animals that died was marred by sin.  Yes, there was wickedness in the heart of every human who perished.  But they were still God’s children, and he loved them, and he couldn’t just write them off and start over.

And even though Noah was the best man of his generation, the most righteous, and his family were just as righteous as he was, they were still full of sin.  You know what the first thing Noah did, after everything with the flood was all over?  He planted a vineyard, made wine, and got drunk.  And then one of his kids mocked him for it.  The most righteous humans of their generation, and the first thing they do once they’re through the flood is go off the rails.  The flood did not solve the problem of human wickedness.  Even watching the destruction of everything they had known did not remove the evil from the hearts of Noah and his family, and it didn’t scare them into doing the right thing, either.

So God made a covenant, a promise, a new type of relationship, not just with Noah, but with all of creation.  God promised never to destroy the earth again.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much wickedness there is in the world or in human hearts, God will not just write us off and start over.  I’ve heard some people talk about this promise like it’s just about a flood, that God’s covenant here means that next time God will use some other method to destroy the world and humans, but that is missing the point.  God regretted the death.  And God promised twice that he would never again destroy the earth.  This covenant isn’t about the method of destruction.  This covenant is God changing God’s mind about how he’s going to restore the good creation he made.  Not with destruction … but with redemption.

Human nature did not change because of this covenant.  We still have wickedness in our hearts.  We still hurt ourselves and one another.  We still destroy when we should be building; we still wound when we should still be healing; we are silent when we should speak and speak when we should be silent.  We let hatred and suspicion of people who are different lead us into all kinds of evil thoughts and deeds.  All of that was true before Noah, and it was true after him as well.

What changed was God’s reaction.  God promised to live together in relationship with us even though we are sinners, even though we fall far short of the good people we were created to be.  God promised to find other ways of dealing with human sin … and that other way turned out to be Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Amen.

What Kind of Savior?

Christmas Eve, 2017

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

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

 

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

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

I have a confession to make.  This year, I have not found it easy to get into the Christmas spirit.  I have spent a lot of time wondering what difference it makes that Jesus was born, in this world in which so many terrible things have happened.  This year, I have not enjoyed the candle-light that comes with Advent and Christmas.  The light in the darkness imagery, which I usually find powerful, has been corrupted by current events.  Specifically, Charlottesville, and the Nazis who paraded down its streets one night, carrying torches and calling for the murder of anyone they didn’t like.  Those torches brought light, but only so that they could cast deeper shadows.  Which then begs the question: what kind of light are we waiting for?  What is the light that shines in the darkness, bringing good news?  Which brings up another question: what kind of savior are we waiting for?  What kind of savior is this baby Jesus, born in a manger two thousand years ago?  Which leads to the final question: what difference does it all make?  What does it matter, to you or to me or to anyone, that two thousand years ago a poor Jewish baby named Jesus was born in a backwater village, grew up, lived for about thirty years, before being executed for treason and blasphemy?

There’s all kinds of light, and there’s all kinds of saviors.  If you had asked most Roman citizens in the year that Jesus was born if they needed a savior, they would have said they already had one.  Emperor Augustus was the ‘savior’ of the Roman Empire.  That was his official title.  They put it on all the money.  He saved them from disorder by seizing control and turning the Republic into a dictatorship.  He saved them from war by brutally putting down Rome’s enemies so that none of them would dare oppose him again.  He was the biggest, the best, the most powerful, and so he won control of everything, and ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘truth’ were whatever he said they were.  If you were one of his supporters, life was pretty good.  If you weren’t, however, or if you just happened to be one of the masses of people he didn’t care about one way or another, life got worse.  Emperor Augustus brought light to some people by making the world darker for others.  He saved some people by hurting others.

All too often, that’s what the world thinks light and salvation are supposed to look like.  And when you are scared, or upset, or hurting, or angry, or proud and someone promises you that they will fix all your problems for you, it’s very easy to go along with it.  To say that if a good life for me and my people means that other people have to get clobbered and hurt, well, it’s worth it.  To say that the power to hurt and control others is what makes a person or a nation great.  To go through life with your fists up, expecting the worst, assuming that anybody who isn’t your family or tribe is out to get you and you’ve got to get them first.  To look for the kind of light that you can control and use as a weapon, the kind of safety that’s rooted in hurting others before they can hurt you.  And it seems like a lot of people are looking for that kind of light and salvation.  We’ve all seen it, in the rhetoric of politicians, in rants on facebook, in the torches and online mobs of white supremacists.

But the light that God gives is not a weapon, and it’s not something we can control, and God did not create us to treat the rest of God’s creation like enemies, and God’s salvation is not based on hurting others before they get a chance to do it to you.  God’s salvation is not about temporary safety from people we hate or fear.  God’s salvation is about creating a world where hate and fear are gone, permanently, a world where all people—even those we believe are our enemies—have a good and safe and happy place.

God’s light is Jesus Christ, who lived and died without a scrap of earthly power to his name.  He was born a poor child in the middle of nowhere, member of a race that’s spent most of its existence getting pushed around by just about everybody.  He was born in a stable, and while angels heralded his birth, the only humans who took any note were poor shepherds and weird foreigners called magi.  And that baby, that savior grew up, but he didn’t grow up with power to rival the self-professed savior of the world, Emperor Augustus.  Jesus the savior grew up with quite a different power, a different salvation.  A power that’s about healing and justice for all people, not just those on top of the heap.

Listen to the words of Isaiah: all the boots of the tramping warriors, all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  All the trappings of violence and hate, all the weapons of oppression, will be destroyed.  There will simply be no place for them in God’s kingdom.  All people will be free, from whatever holds them captive: freed from unjust laws and bullies and abusers, but also freed from fear and greed and hate.  That’s the salvation that Jesus brings.  A world where nobody walks around with their fists up to fight with, but with their arms open to embrace with.  And the light he brings is a light for all people who live in darkness.  It’s a light that obliterates the shadows, instead of making them loom larger.  It’s a light that brings joy for all people—not just the chosen few, but for all of creation, all humans and animals and rocks and plants and stars.

That’s the kind of light and salvation that Jesus brings.  It’s not just for a few people, it’s for everybody.  And while the fullness of that light will not be seen until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we as Christians live in response to it.  We can’t control the world, but we are called to let Christ shape our response to it.  We are called to live in the light of that future reality, to live as people who walk in light and not in darkness, people who have seen the salvation of God.  We are called to live as people who know that the baby Jesus, born in a manger, has made and is making a real difference in the world and will continue to do so.

The world has a lot of darkness in it, and there are some people who want to make that darkness deeper, or who think that light and salvation and safety belong only to themselves.  But we are called to spread the light to all people who walk in darkness.  We are called to open our arms to embrace all of God’s children in love, as Mary and Joseph embraced their baby boy, as Jesus himself embraced all people who came to him.  We are called to live lives of joy, knowing that God has given us light and salvation.  We are called to remember that Christ is here, with us, now, this night and every moment of our lives, and that Christ is at work in us and through us even when the world seems darkest.

May we always follow the true light of Christ, and may that light shine forth for all the world.

Amen.

A Relational God

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

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, O Lord.

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

In the ancient world, they had a very transactional view of God.  By which I mean, most cultures in the Ancient Near East, the cultures around the Holy Land, kind of thought of their gods as vending machines in the sky.  If you prayed the right prayers, sang the right songs, conducted the right rituals and festivals, and offered the right sacrifices, your god would be happy and would send you rain for your crops and protection from your enemies.  Perform the right rituals and you would be rewarded.  But if you neglected those rituals, your god would be angry, your crops would fail, your herds would die, and your enemies would triumph over you.  This should be fairly familiar to us, because lots of people in the modern world think of God as a vending machine in the sky, too.  Lots of Christians think that if you pray the right prayers, go to church often enough, and believe the right things, that God will reward you with material prosperity: wealth, health, whatever they want.

The problem with this idea is that God is not a transactional god, but a relational one.  That is, God does not base his actions on a kind of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours tit-for-tat sort of calculation, but rather on relationships.  God’s focus is not on measuring whether any one person is worthy of help or punishment, but on building relationships with all of God’s people.  God’s focus is on love, on grace, on helping us grow to be the good, generous, loving people God created us to be.

And not just individual relationships, either.  Modern society is very individualistic, which leads to a sort of “me and Jesus” focus where it’s all about your personal relationship with your Lord and Savior.  But when you look at God’s Word in the Bible, God is just as concerned with community relationships.  Community relationships as in God’s relationship with the whole community, yes, but also as in how people from different parts of the community treat one another.  Which, if you take the image of God as our Father seriously, makes perfect sense.  After all, think about it: doesn’t a loving and good parent care about how their children treat one another?  If a parent has several children, and one of them is bullying another, a good and loving parent will not be happy with the bully.  If one child is cheating another, a good and loving parent is going to be upset.  If one child is going hungry and another has more than enough but doesn’t share, a good and loving parent is going to have a serious problem with the child who doesn’t share.  Well, God is our good and loving parent, and God is the good and loving parent of each and every human being on the planet.  Even those who are not Christian were created by God in God’s own image.

You can see this concern for human relationships in many places in the Bible.  It’s in the way Jesus spent so much time with the poor, sick, outcasts, sinners, people society had rejected.  It’s in the way the laws of the Old Testament consistently focus on making sure that the people on the fringes of society didn’t get left behind or shut out.  The laws of God spend a lot of time specifying that every good thing applies not only to the VIPs but also to the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, the poor.  The Biblical laws also outline quite a lot of protections for those people, so that society can’t trample over them without noticing.  And you know how sometimes when someone’s been knocked off their feet financially, it’s so hard to get your life back together?  The Biblical laws have provisions to help with that, too.  The Biblical laws spend more time specifying protections and rights for people on the margins than they do on anything else.  You cannot follow the spirit of God’s laws if you focus on ritual and ignore the plight of poor people, foreigners, widows and orphans, and anyone else who suffers.  You just can’t.

Unfortunately, human beings are really good at self-justification, and by the 8th Century BC, the time of the prophet Micah and many of the other prophets, all of this had gotten lost.  Because it’s easier to pray the right prayers than it is to care about the wellbeing of those who are different from you.  And it’s cheaper to offer the right sacrifices in worship than it is to make sure that all of God’s people receive fair treatment by the law and by those with more wealth and power than them.  And it’s certainly simpler to think of God as a vending machine in the sky than it is to take seriously what a relationship with him and all his people means.  So they changed society to favor the rich and powerful, the ones who they thought “deserved” better treatment because after all, if you can tell how much God loves someone by how rich they are, then obviously God must not care about poor people.

So, there they were.  With a society that followed some of the letter of God’s law, but completely ignored it’s spirit, and a religious community that was zealous in making sure that every worship service was done extravagantly well, but ignored pretty much everything else God ever said.  And every year the poor got poorer, and life got harder for ordinary people because the laws and customs that were supposed to protect and support them were ignored and changed.  And the people in charge of everything—religious leaders and social leaders both—thought things were going great.  They thought they had a wonderful connection with God!  They thought that the way they treated the most vulnerable people in their society didn’t matter.

God had a much, much different perspective.  God thought things were going horribly.  God was like a parent who sees one of their children hurting another of their children and then expecting that their parent won’t care.  That’s why God sent a bunch of prophets—Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea—to try and change the hearts and minds of the people so that they would go back to the fair and good ways God intended for them.  And that’s where our first lesson for today comes in.  First, God condemns the religious leaders who say things are awesome because they’re comfortable, but attack and hurt people who are struggling to survive.  “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”  They’re all going to be disgraced.  They are all going to be publicly humiliated, and everyone is going to know that they’re hypocrites who are perverting God’s Word.

Then God turns the prophet Micah’s attention to the rest of society, and specifically to the leaders who keep changing the laws to tilt the playing field ever more in their own favor.  Because they are creating a society in which more and more people suffer, they are guilty of creating all that suffering.  When people starve to death, it’s their fault.  The blood of all those who died because of poverty and injustice are on their hands, and God is keeping track.  “9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  …  12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.”  They have hurt other members of God’s family; they have consistently and repeatedly caused others to suffer and be trampled on for their own selfish gain.  And they’re going to pay for it.  God is not going to protect them from their enemies.  God is not going to be placated by offerings and sacrifices and prayers and any of the other things they offer God, because on a fundamental level what God wants most are good and life-giving relationships not just between God and humanity, but between God’s children.  And you cannot build a good relationship with people if you’re cheating them, abusing them, causing them to suffer, or even just ignoring their suffering.  You just can’t.

We keep forgetting this, though.  We keep thinking of God as a vending machine in the sky, who will give us what we want if we just pray the right prayers, believe the right things, or worship in a ‘spiritual’ enough way, or read our Bibles enough.  But if we believe, study, pray, and worship the right way and ignore the suffering of others, we’re hypocrites.  If we do all the religious stuff right but don’t work for a society that treats even the lowliest people fairly and well, we’re fulfilling the letter of the law but not the spirit of it.  And if we work on our personal relationship with God but neglect our relationships with the rest of God’s people, we’re missing half of what God calls us to be and do.  May we seek to be all that God created us to be, and work for a society where all God’s people receive the justice and mercy they need to flourish and grow.

Amen.

Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross

Reformation 4: Theology of the Cross, October 22, 2017

1 Corinthians 1:18-2:2, Psalm 9:7-18, Mark 15:33-39

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

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

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

So there was this centurion, a Roman soldier, one of many occupying Jerusalem.  Like all the Roman soldiers, he was there to do what the Romans called “maintaining order,” but which really mean keeping the boot on the neck of the Jews so that they would never get any funny ideas about freedom or anything like that.  His job was to protect Roman interests, keep their puppet Herod on the throne despite how much his own people hated him, and kill anyone who protested the established order.

One of the people he killed, or helped to kill, was a guy named Jesus of Nazareth.  Now, Jesus had the rare distinction of being counted a threat to both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities.  And he was crucified, which was about the cruelest way the Roman Empire knew how to kill someone.  It was gruesome, bloody, and horrifying, and it took a long time.  Days, sometimes, if the so-called criminal was really healthy to begin with.  Jesus died in just a few hours.  And the centurion was there for every bloody, agonizing minute of it.  Just as he’d been there for the executions of other bandits, freedom-fighters, protestors, and anyone else who dared to oppose Rome.  And the centurion, he looks up at the mutilated corpse of this backwater preacher who was executed for the crime of daring to speak out against the way the world works, and this centurion says, “Truly, this man was God’s son!”

Really?  We know he was right, of course, but be honest with yourself: if you didn’t already know that that’s how Jesus died, if you had been there on that day two thousand years ago and been told “somewhere in this crowd is God made flesh and come to live among us,” would you pick the criminal who was brutally executed for disturbing the peace as the one?  Really?  I don’t think so.  Very few people, then or now, agreed with him.  I mean, the vast majority of both Jews and Gentiles for the next several centuries looked at Christians and said, “you want me to believe that God came to earth and suffered?  He died?  How weak is that.”  It makes no sense.  The cross of Christ was a stumbling block and a foolishness to most people.  And even after Christianity became the dominant religion, most Christians never stop to think what it really means that Jesus died on a cross.  We talk about the power of God, the might of God, but not the weakness of God.  Not the pain of God.

There’s a saying that Americans love an underdog, but that’s only partially true.  We like winners.  If an underdog wins, great!  That makes their victory all the sweeter.  But it’s a general human trait to be attracted to power, to justify power, to assume that power and glory and beauty means goodness.  We want stories in which the good guys win.  We want stories in which bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people … and so, in real life, when bad things happen to someone we try and find some reason they deserved it.  Especially if they’re poor, or different than us.  We want to believe that what happened to them could never happen to us because we are good people and we don’t deserve bad things.  We want to rejoice in the star quarterback’s skills, we don’t want to hear about how he beats his girlfriend.  We want to look up to that prosperous businessman, we don’t want to hear about how he cheated his partners or his customers or his contractors, and we don’t want to hear how he abused his employees.  We want to support and honor our police officers, not hear about the bad apples who use their power to bully and hurt people.  We want to hear stories in which everybody sees evil for what it is, good triumphs over evil, and evil gets its just deserts.  We don’t want stories where the bad guys lose, and we especially don’t want stories where most people don’t even recognize evil for what it is.  Yet that’s the story of Jesus’ death: a good man challenges evil where he finds it, and gets roundly condemned by most people around him, and gets killed, and the empire that put him to death goes on about its way unchanged and victorious for centuries afterwards.

As Christians, this is something that’s very hard to come to terms with.  Our savior—God made flesh—was not a hero.  He didn’t have a heroic Hollywood victory.  He died in pain and agony.  And that’s what God came to earth to do.  He came to earth in the last place anybody would think to look.  He didn’t choose to be born as a prince, and he didn’t choose to amass earthly power or wealth.  In fact, when he talked about power or wealth, he was pretty much always critical of it and of the people who had it.  He didn’t raise an army, he didn’t create a new government, he didn’t make a big splash—only a handful of people in the entire world remembered him when he was gone, although he transformed their lives and their telling of his story transformed others.  All the glory, all the wealth and power and control of society, all of that came later.  What came first, was death.  Death on the cross.

Our God comes to us in the form of a crucified man, a man who suffered and died.  God could have become human anywhere in any place and time, and he chose to be born as a poor man and get killed?  What does that tell us about God?

Well, it tells us that the best place to find God is in the last place a sane person would look.  In pain and suffering.  The cross is God saying “no” to power, “no” to wealth, “no” to greed, “no” to ambition.  The cross is God saying “you know all those things you humans care about and worship?  All the glory and feel-good self-justification?  They’re all wrong.”  The cross is God taking the established order, the way we think the world is meant to be, and turning everything on its head.

The cross is God saying “yes” to all those who are abandoned and abused.  God says yes to the suffering of Jesus in the crucifixion, and so God says yes to those who are suffering now.  God will be present when you suffer.  God goes to places of hell on earth, the places where we are afraid to go, even the hells we create for ourselves, and sets us free.  And if, in that moment, freedom or physical salvation is not possible, God stays there, in the midst of suffering and evil.  It’s not that it’s okay that people suffer, but that God will not abandon those who do.

When we focus on the cross, when we remember that God is always with those who suffer, those whom the world abandons, it changes our perspective on God, and it changes our perspective on the world.  When you focus on the cross, on the God who is present even in the most hellish experiences the world has to offer, we call that a theology of the cross.  When you forget that, when you focus on power and glory and miracles and all the nice lies we tell ourselves about bad things only happening to bad people, that’s called a theology of glory.  And Martin Luther used to say that the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross is that a theology of glory calls evil ‘good’ and it good ‘evil.’  A theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.

Let me give you an example of the difference between a theology of glory and a theology of the cross, and what they look like in practice.  Let’s go back to that centurion at the beginning.  The Roman Empire had a theology of glory.  See, the Roman Empire was big and powerful and mighty, and the Roman Empire enforced a peace across its boundaries, the Pax Romana.  It was prosperous: it built great buildings and great engineering products, it brought water to cities in the desert, it did so many great and wonderful things.  The Emperor was called the “savior of the world.”  They put that on their money: Caesar, Savior.  That’s a theology of glory, to look at all the wonderful things they did and focus only on the good.  A theology of the cross looks at that and asks the question: how did they accomplish all of it?  And they answer is death and destruction and slavery.  They established peace by slaughtering anyone who disagreed with them, and they built all of that stuff with slave labor.  They had more slaves per capita than any society in the world until the 19th Century of the American South.  A theology of Glory looks at the peace and the beautiful surface and goes “wow, isn’t that great.”  A Theology of the Cross looks at the cost, all the lives shattered and destroyed to build that empire.

Or how about Nazi Germany. In the 1930s and 40s, most Christians in Germany supported Hitler.  Sure, he had a lot of hate-filled rhetoric, and sure, he established concentration camps where millions of people were slaughtered, but at the same time he was in favor of good, old-fashioned family values.  Honoring your parents, women staying at home.  He was very hard on people of different sexualities.  So Christians looked at him and said, “he’s a great guy, it doesn’t matter all the people who are dying because of his policies.  It doesn’t matter, the people getting marched away to concentration camps, because look at the nice society he is building.”  That’s a theology of glory.  A theology of the cross says all of those “family values” are worth nothing if they are built on the bones of the slaughtered.

Or how about the American Civil Rights era?  Many white people, including many white Christians, were absolutely against the Civil Rights marchers.  They were too disruptive, too much of a threat to the established civil society.  Even those who said “but they’ve got a good point!  They’ve been treated unjustly,” said “but they’re too militant about it, they’re too loud, they’re disrupting things.  They should be quiet and ask nicely and politely for the rights and privileges that have been denied them for centuries.”

Or how about the movie last year called Birth of a Nation, about an enslaved Baptist preacher named Nat Turner who led a slave revolt in the early 1800s.  Now, if you watch many movies about the antebellum South or listen to people today talk about the Confederacy or Southern history, you will probably hear a lot about their proud heritage, the valiant and brave fighters like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and states’ rights.  You probably will not hear much about the so-called ‘right’ they fought to protect, which was the right to own their fellow human beings.  Or they’ll admit it, but dance around it, or try and mitigate how bad it was.  This is a theology of glory, focusing on the glamour while ignoring the cost.  A theology of the cross reminds us that you can’t just ignore evil because it’s accomplishing things or done by people you otherwise admire.  In contrast to these other stories we tell of a glorious south, the 2016 movie Birth of a Nation shows in graphic detail just what slavery was like, how degrading and evil it was to black people, how it twisted and warped even good white people.  You cannot watch that movie and keep any illusions about slave-owning society.

And there is a question that keeps getting asked throughout that movie, at each horror.  Each time a black woman is raped by her owner, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slaves are tortured in horrifying ways to force them to work or to keep them from running away, people ask: “Where is God?”  When Nat is punished for baptizing a white man, people ask: “Where is God?”  When slave-owning Christians use the Christian faith to try and convince their slaves that God wants them to quietly accept as good all the evil that their masters do to them, people ask: “Where is God?”  And the movie’s answer to this question is twofold: first, that what happens is absolutely not God’s will.  None of the suffering, none of the pain, none of the horrors, none of the slavery.  These things are evil, and they are absolutely not God’s will.  And second, where is God in all of this?  God is with those who are suffering.  Even though their cause is hopeless, even though they all die in the end, even though the bad guys win, God is with Nat and his family and friends every step of the way.

A theology of glory gets blinded by power and wealth and beauty and glory.  A theology of the cross looks at the world from the point of view of those who suffer, and sees the consequences of human sin.  A theology of glory calls good ‘evil’ and evil ‘good,’ while a theology of the cross calls a thing what it is.  A theology of glory accepts Human justifications, while a theology of the cross sees the world from God’s point of view.  In every society, in every age, there is always a temptation to a theology of glory.  It makes sense to us.  It’s easier.  But it ignores God’s wisdom and presence in the world.  It ignores God’s will, and it ignores those who suffer.  A theology of the cross looks for God even in the darkest places.  A theology of the cross acknowledges the evil that humans do to one another, even when it’s people we otherwise might look up to.  A theology of the cross knows that God is there even when people suffer.  May we always see the world through God’s eyes, and through the perspective of the cross.  May we reach out to those who suffer, to see their pain and heal their wounds.

Amen.