The Problem of Pain

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, October 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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

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

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

 

The prophet cries out to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

It’s one of the big problems of the Bible: why is there pain?  Why does evil happen?  Why does God not smite the evildoers of the world?  Why do bad things happen, and especially, why do bad things happen to good people?  Where is God in all the brokenness of the world?  From the third chapter of Genesis when Adam and Eve eat the apple, to the last chapter of Revelation when we hear of the righteous being saved and happy in God’s kingdom come to Earth while evildoers are kept out, the writers of the Bible wrestle with the problem of pain, and argue about it.  Deuteronomy claims that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.  The book of Job, in which an innocent man suffers dreadfully, finally concludes that mortals are too limited to understand the problem of pain.  Ecclesiastes asserts that since so much of the world—good and evil both—is temporary and ultimately empty, the question is meaningless.  Lamentations focuses more at expressing profound grief than asking why.  Revelation says that even though the evil may prosper in the here-and-now, they will not reach God’s kingdom.  Other books have different perspectives.  And people of faith, both Jews and Christians, have been continuing the conversation and talking about it and arguing about it all the time.  Theologians have a fancy word for it, called ‘theodicy.’

The thing is, though, when you’re the one in pain, when you’re the one suffering, none of these answers are particularly convincing or helpful.  Despite the platitudes and Bible verses that well-meaning people of faith are prone to spout in times of trouble, when you or people you love are really suffering, no possible answer can satisfy.  “Everything happens for a reason” is a terrible answer to someone wondering why their child has cancer, or wondering why their father molested them, and in fact is more likely to harm someone’s faith than help it.  “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle” is even worse.  First, it implies that God caused your suffering, and second, lots of people face harder challenges than they can possibly handle, harder challenges than anyone could handle.  People break under the strain of hardship and tragedy all the time, and that platitude implies that if you do, it’s your own fault for not being strong enough to take what God wants you to.  Or, to take a verse from our reading today out of context.  “The righteous shall live by faith!” as if that means that having enough faith will mean nothing bad happens to you, when what God means is that faith means trusting God is still there even in the midst of the worst the world can throw at you.

We Christians really don’t like that idea.  We’re not comfortable with the reality of suffering, we’re not comfortable with the problem of pain, we want a world in which everything happens for a reason and if you’re a good enough person, nothing truly bad will ever happen to you.  I think it’s about two things: not wanting to question God, and control.  We Christians have this idea that being pious and faithful means quietly accepting everything God does in our lives and always having perfect trust in Jesus and never doubting, never struggling, never arguing, never wrestling with anything that happens.  Our Jewish brethren don’t think that; they argue with God all the time.  And if you look at the great heroes of the Bible—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the writers of the Psalms, pretty much all the prophets—they wrestled with God.  They questioned God all the time.  They disagreed … and not only was that okay, sometimes they changed God’s mind.  Sometimes they got told they just weren’t capable of understanding, but never does the Bible say they were wrong to question, to cry out, to demand answers.  The belief that you can’t argue with or question God, or complain to God, is not just wrong, it’s un-Biblical.  When we don’t think we can question God, those questions don’t go away, they just fester deep in our soul.

The other reason we cling to a belief that we can make sense of suffering is that we want to feel like we control what’s going to happen to us.  If being good earns you good things and happiness, if suffering is caused by doing things wrong or not having enough faith, then you can control whether or not you suffer.  If you are good, you don’t have to worry.  You can pray your way out of any problem.  If your faith is strong enough, you will literally be able to move mountains, so even if you have a serious problem, your faith will be rewarded by a miracle cure.  You can figure out the divine plan, do the right thing, and any problems you suffer will be merely temporary inconveniences on the way to glory.

The problem is, life just doesn’t work like that.  While some people are fortunate enough to have their good behavior rewarded with good outcomes, not everyone is.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  Sometimes evil people cause pain and suffering for others while they themselves have a wonderful life.  Sometimes the world is simply broken by sin and death, and it’s nobody’s fault, it just is.  And even if you believe, as we Lutherans do, that God is at work even in the darkest, ugliest parts of the world, that doesn’t help much when you’re walking through one of those dark, ugly parts and you feel so alone.  Even if you believe that Christ will return and judge the living and the dead … that’s not much comfort if you are suffering from the actions of evil people and you need relief from it now.  Those platitudes about everything happening for a reason and good people getting rewarded are a way of papering over people’s suffering and making ourselves feel better about it.  It doesn’t help the people who are suffering; it just reassures the bystanders that they’ll never suffer like that, and if they did, they have a stronger faith and would be able to handle it better.  It wouldn’t crush them, only make them stronger.

And if you’ve built your understanding of God and life around an idea that if you’re good enough and your faith is strong enough, you’ll never suffer, never doubt, never have something you can’t sail through easily … then if something terrible does happen to you, you’ll have no way of dealing with it.  When you are in the deepest trouble, when you are most in need, all your certainties will come crumbling down around your feet.  There are some things so terrible that they can’t be explained.  Some experiences so shattering, there’s no possible way of making meaning from them.  And sometimes people go through things that may not be as severe, but which drag on for a soul-grindingly long time.  And even knowing intellectually that God is with you, that God will never abandon you, doesn’t help much when you feel abandoned.  The only thing you can do, when all the explanations fail, is cry out to God.

Faith isn’t about being confidently serene no matter what.  Faith is about living with God.  It’s about a relationship.  And crying out to God, complaining, lamenting, letting out all your grief and pain and fear and horror, as the prophet Habakkuk does here, as Job does, as Jeremiah does in Lamentations and the psalmist does in the psalms, that’s a part of having that relationship.  Because what kind of a relationship is it if you can’t take your fears and doubts and troubles to?  Not a very strong or intimate one, that’s for sure.  Faith isn’t about being certain, and it’s not about being safe.  It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting God is right beside you as you do it.  And sometimes that trust is small and feeble and hard to keep ahold of, and that’s okay.  Sometimes we have questions that have no answers, and that’s okay.  God knows how we’re feeling, and what we’re going through, and God is willing to wrestle with us through our doubts and fears and questions.  God has been there.  God was tortured to death on a cross; there is no grief or pain or fear that God can’t understand.  There is no place on earth so dark or twisted or corrupt that God can’t work.  I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen, but I know that God is at work in the midst of them.

And although it can seem almost impossible to imagine, one day all pain and suffering will cease.  One day, all evil will be cast out and all wounds will be healed.  One day, the dead will rise from their graves and all the living and the dead will be judged.  One day, all sins will be forgiven and every tear will be wiped away from every eye, and there will be no grief or pain or suffering any longer.  We wait for that day, and although it seems like we have been waiting forever, it will come.

Amen.

The One Who Was, Who Is, and Who Is To Come

Easter 2, Year C, April 28, 2019

Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Revelation is probably the single most misunderstood book of the Bible.  When Christians today read it, we often try to crack the code and read it as a road-map of the future, a timeline so that we can be prepared for the end days.  Or we try and figure out what people today are associated with the various symbolic figures in the book: who’s the Beast?  Who’s the antichrist?  And so on and so forth.  Most of all, we get scared.  We read about all the terrible things that happen in the book, and we get scared: of God, or of the world, or of judgment.  But the thing is, the Book of Revelation was written to inspire and comfort its readers, not scare them.

Revelation was the last book of the Bible to be written.  The great persecution hadn’t started yet, but Christians were despised and discriminated against.  Almost all of them were poor and marginalized—slaves, women, landless laborers, the sort of people who were easy to use and abuse.  They were ostracized and mocked for their belief.  They were persecuted and suffered for following Christ.  American Christians sometimes complain about being “persecuted,” when what we mean is that  we don’t have the respect and prestige that we used to.  The Christians of John’s day had never had any respect or prestige.  They had been despised their whole lives, and their faith was just one more thing to despise them for.  And, when someone is poor, and has no social influence, and belongs to some weird minority—which is what Christianity was at the time—it’s really easy for that person to be hurt.  To suffer.  Anyone who likes to do evil can hurt them with impunity.

And the thing is, the Roman Empire wasn’t exactly a good and kind nation.  Their idea of creating peace was to kill their enemies and salt the ground so it couldn’t be used anymore.  The whole empire was built on slave labor on a scale that wouldn’t be seen again until the 18th Century.  They’re the people who thought up and regularly used crucifixion, one of the most sadistic ways of killing people ever created.  They divided the world into “us” vs. “them,” and if you were not a Roman citizen (and most residents of the Roman Empire were not citizens), there was almost no protection from the brutality of anyone who wanted to hurt you.  And most Christians were pretty near the bottom of the social pyramid.  So the Christians of John’s day were very used to suffering.  They were used to having evil done to them.  They were up close and personal with death, with violence, with all the terrible things that people can do to one another, because most of them happened to them at one time or another.

When someone has suffered, you can’t just paper over it and smile and assure them of God’s love.  When someone has had evil done to them, you have to deal with the reality of the evil.  You have to deal seriously with the question of why good people die and bad people live, why good people suffer while their abusers prosper, why evil exists, and with the question of where God is in the midst of al of this.  How can God be good if God allows evil?  Where is God when there is pain?  And if your religion doesn’t offer a convincing answer, well, it’s not going to last long.

The book of Revelation is John of Patmos’ answer to the problem of pain.  Evil is always present and acknowledged.  Yes, there is evil in the world.  But you know what?  Evil is temporary.  Evil is defeated, always.  God is stronger.  Even if things look grim, even if things look weird and strange and horrifying, the book of Revelation is quite clear: God is going to win.  Evil will be defeated and destroyed.  God’s love is stronger than any other power in the universe, no matter how much it may seem otherwise in the moment.  The book takes evil and suffering seriously, both showing the consequences of evil and the ways in which God will eventually defeat it, but the point of Revelation isn’t to dwell on the evil or destruction or suffering.  The point is that such evil and destruction will be defeated.  The point is that the suffering will eventually end and God will be triumphant, that God who created the world will also be there to re­create the world as the paradise God always intended it to be.  The point is that no matter how grim or hopeless things seem, God is always at work, and God’s will—God’s peace and love and salvation—will prevail.

The book of Revelation isn’t a road map, it’s a vision.  Like an impressionist painting, the purpose is not to provide an accurate, factual account, but to make you feel, to capture an impression.  When we read it, we’re supposed to feel how terrible the evils of the world are—and we are supposed to be relieved and filled with joy by the knowledge that they will end, that they are finite, that God is greater than they are and their time is limited.  We are supposed to take comfort in the knowledge that even if we have to live through the worst the world has to offer, even if we must suffer and die, our lives are not in vain and there will come a time when all evil will be destroyed, all sickness and injury will be healed, all people will be made whole, and all of heaven and earth will be made new.  And all this great joy and hope comes to us through the saving life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.

The book of Revelation starts and ends with this hope, and keeps returning to this hope and joy throughout the book, even in the midst of some of the most frightening parts.  So let’s take a look at the introduction to Revelation, which is our second reading for today:  God is the one “who was, and is and is to come.”  God was present before all things—God created all things, seen and unseen!—and God is with us now, and God will always be with us.  We can trust in God, because God will never end.  God is the Alpha and the Omega: Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega was the last letter of the Greek alphabet.  So John is telling us that God is the A to Z, the beginning and the end.  But also, that God is part of everything and in everything.  There is no part of the universe that God does not touch.  There is no part of the universe that is hidden from God, or that is more powerful than God.  All the physical things that we can see and touch come from God, and all the unseen things—all the spiritual forces—bow before God.

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who shows us what God is like in his actions and words.  Jesus Christ is the one through whom we come to meet God more fully than any other path.  Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead.  As Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so one day all the dead will be raised, when Christ comes again in glory.  We are dust, and to dust we shall return; but the God who created us out of the dust in the first place will re-create us, will resurrect us just as Christ was resurrected.  Even the powers of death are nothing before God, for Jesus Christ has destroyed death and rose from the grave, and will one day raise us from the grave as well.  He did this because he loves us, and forgives us our sins.  There is evil in the world—there is evil in us—but God forgives us through the saving actions of Jesus Christ.  And because of that love, because of that salvation, we have a calling: we have been made God’s people, called to serve and be part of God’s kingdom.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.  The day will come when Christ will return, and the dead will rise, and evil will be defeated, and all the living and the dead will be judged.  So we don’t have to worry.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil happens, no matter how much we suffer, we know that God loves us, that God is with us, that God’s love will win in the end and all the evils in and around us will be defeated.

Amen.

 

Fruit Worthy of Repentance

Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 62:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

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

 

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

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

In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his followers they should recognize the signs so they could tell what was really going on.  Unfortunately, they prove immediately that even when the signs are clear (such as major disasters and acts of evil), they don’t understand the message they’re supposed to.  And I’m not sure if we’re any better than they are.  In fact, I think all too often we make the same mistake they did.

There had been two major tragedies in the area.  In one of them, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later order Jesus crucified to appease the crowd and the religious elite, had sent his soldiers in to the Temple and killed those who had gathered there to worship.  Why, we don’t know; Pilate was a cruel man, and not terribly bright, from what records we have of him; he was prone to violent overreactions.  Then there had also been another great tragedy: a tower had fallen and killed a lot of people.  Not an unusual event in a land with regular earthquakes and relatively poor building materials and techniques.  But still, a tragedy, one that would have been big news.  And the people had looked at these two tragedies, and heard Jesus telling them they should be alert for signs to tell them what sort of age they lived in, and they had concluded that those people had died because of their sins.

Which sort of misses the point, because the thing is, we’re all sinners.  Every single human being ever born, except Jesus Christ, is a sinner who cannot save themselves from their sins, or the consequences of them.  We don’t like to remember that.  We’re fine with noticing the sinfulness of people we don’t like, or don’t care about; but unless we have a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we will do a great deal to avoid noticing our own sinfulness.  As a pastor, one of the most frustrating things is how people with mental illnesses often fixate on their own sins, real or imagined, to such a degree that they cannot accept God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, while most people convince themselves that they’re not sinners—or, at least, not bad sinners, even if they give lip service to acknowledging their sins—and thus don’t think they need much forgiving.  It’s either feast or famine: we either fixate on our sinfulness to the exclusion of all else, or try to ignore it and excuse it.  We rarely have a realistic appraisal that might lead us to change our behavior.

The other thing humans love doing, besides ignoring our own sinfulness, is control things.  We crave control.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own destiny even when it is perfectly obvious that we are not.  We want the world to fit into nice, simple categories with nice, simple reasons for things happening.  Then, all we have to do is figure things out and take the appropriate steps to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us.  Put these two factors together, and you get the common human response to tragedy: figure out why those who suffered or died deserved what happened to them.  Then reassure yourself that since you don’t deserve it, it could never happen to you.  Is someone you know sick?  Well, they didn’t exercise enough or eat the right foods.  But you do, so you won’t get sick.  Did somebody slide on an icy road and crash their car?  Well, they were a bad driver, but you’re a good driver, so you won’t have an accident.  Is someone poor?  Well, they must just be lazy, but you’re not lazy, so you’ll never be poor.  Did someone get raped or assaulted?  Well, they must have led their attacker on, but you‘d never do that, so you’ll never be assaulted.  Did some big tragedy happen?  Well, it must have been a punishment from God because of their sin, but you’re not a sinner, or not as bad a sinner as they were, so it can’t happen to you.  It’s very reassuring.

You can judge the person suffering, and give them all sorts of advice, and never have to grapple with the fact that sometimes bad things just happen and we can’t control it.  Sometimes tornadoes and floods just come.  Sometimes people get sick because of things outside their control.  Sometimes accidents just happen.  These and other tragedies are manifestations of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, but they are not caused by any one person’s actions or inactions.  And even when a tragedy is caused by the sinfulness of one person in particular, all too often, the consequences are not felt by the sinner.  The Galileans that Pilate killed in the temple weren’t killed because they were particularly horrible sinners who deserved death more than any other group of people; they were killed because Pilate was a sinner, a cruel, stupid man, and he decided to have them killed.  They died because of his sins, not their own.

Knowing the time and reading the signs is not about reassuring yourself by blaming the victim for their suffering.  It’s about realizing that the whole world—including your and me!—is broken by sin and death.  It’s about recognizing that the whole world and everything in it—including you and me!—desperately needs to be healed, made new, and reconciled to God.  It’s about knowing that you and me and everyone in the world depend completely on the grace and mercy of God, and trusting that mercy, and letting it overflow in our lives.  It’s about being transformed by Christ, instead of conforming to the ways of this broken, sinful world.  It’s about knowing that we and everyone else deserves the judgment that is coming, and still trusting that God is at work to bring salvation and healing and new life.  In other words, it’s about repentance.

But repentance is another thing we don’t understand.  We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty.  As if the thing God wants most out of us is that we feel bad.  Sometimes our understanding of repentance broadens enough to include trying to atone or make up for specific sins we have done, but all too often it’s just about feeling bad about what we did.  This is why a number of non-Christians of my acquaintance really don’t like Christian talk of sin and repentance.  From what they’ve seen, either it’s shallow and doesn’t lead to real meaningful change, or it leads to depression and anxiety and still doesn’t lead to positive change.

But for Luke, repentance isn’t just about admitting your sin and feeling bad about it.  Repentance is about bearing fruit.  You may have heard sermons in the past that “repentance” literally means “turn,” and that true repentance is turning away from sinful behaviors.  And that’s true.  But the repentance God wants isn’t just any old change, any old turn.  It’s not just about rejecting sin, it’s about turning towards something good.  Towards the beginning of Luke, John the Baptist tells people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  And here, Jesus immediately connects talk of sin and punishment and repentance to the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t produce.  It’s root-bound, in poor soil, and without enough water, and so it does not bear fruit.  And the gardener says, instead of cutting it down, let’s fix the problems and heal it and see if it bears fruit then.  And if it doesn’t bear fruit even after that … then comes the judgment.  Repentance, here, is not about the tree apologizing for not bearing fruit; repentance is the gardener working to get the tree to bear fruit.  The fruits of the Spirit, the fruits God is calling us to bear, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the things that we need.  These are the things the world so desperately needs.  These are the things we are called to produce and bear into the world.

So what are the things we need to do to bear fruit?  What are the ways that our soil needs to be prepared, and the soil of our community?  Where are the places in us or our community that need fertilizer or water, or weeds removed?  May God so garden in our souls that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may we help others bear such fruit also.

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.

What It Means To Be The Body: On Sex, Ethics, and Community

Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

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

 

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

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

When Christians in America today talk about sex, we tend to talk about it in terms of individual moral behavior.  And we also tend to talk about sex from the perspective of sex being inherently bad or shameful unless it’s done the right way.  The problem with talking about it as an individual moral issue is that the Bible says very little about individual moral issues, focusing instead on the ethics of the community as a whole.  So, for example, in our lesson from Corinthians, Paul is not speaking to individuals but to the whole Corinthian community.  We know this because Greek language is different when you’re talking to one person or to a group.  And the problem with talking about sex as if it’s inherently bad or shameful is that what the Bible has to say about sex is a lot more complicated than can fit into the standard purity jargon.  And I think it’s important to think about this a little bit more deeply in a time when sex scandals are in the news.  So let’s look at our reading from Corinthians.

Before we talk about sex, though, we have to talk about community in Christ Jesus.  Because that community of all believers is, for Paul, the absolute bedrock foundation for morality.  All Christians are members of the Body of Christ, a metaphor Paul uses repeatedly throughout his writings, and especially in his letters to the Corinthians.  We are members, one of another.  Nobody can stand alone, and how we act affects others.  If our actions hurt others, they are bad.  If our actions build up the body, make it stronger or more unified or more healthy, they are good.  We don’t have to worry about our eternal salvation because Jesus has forgiven and freed us from our sins.  Therefore, we are free to pay attention to how our behavior affects our brothers and sisters in the here and now.  If we hurt one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we abuse one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we ignore the needs of others for our own selfish gain, we hurt the body of Christ.  And Paul explicitly addresses this message to the stronger, more powerful members of the community.  The more power you have, the stronger your faith is, the greater your responsibility to take care of the weaker, poorer, more marginalized members of the community.

Paul’s morals have nothing to do with legalism, and everything to do with relationship.  It doesn’t matter whether something is legal or not.  It doesn’t matter whether something is normal or not.  If it hurts people, especially if it hurts your brothers and sisters in Christ, you shouldn’t do it.  And if there are people in the community who are more vulnerable than you are, it is your job to look out for them, as it is the job of the whole community.  There’s an exchange from a book by Terry Pratchett that describes it well: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things,” said Granny Weatherwax.  “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—” said the young man.  “But they starts with thinking about people as things,” Granny responds.  I think Paul would agree.  If you think about people as things—as commodities, as obstacles, as enemies, as burdens, as freaks—it’s a lot easier to hurt them.  Because their needs and wishes and feelings are irrelevant, because they’re not really people.  They don’t matter.  But when you see people as siblings in Christ, instead, as members of the same body of which you yourself are a part, you act differently.

What does this have to do with sex?  Well, everything.  If you start with the assumption that other people are objects for your gratification, then prostitution, sexual harassment, and sexual assault become no big deal.  If other people are there for your gratification, if they’re not really people, or at least not people worth caring about, then their wishes don’t matter and you can use and abuse them without a second thought.  Instead of a mutual intimacy to build a relationship, sex becomes a means of domination.  It becomes selfish and ugly, instead of a God-given gift.

In Paul’s day, prostitution was both legal and commonplace.  In Corinth, people would hire prostitutes for their parties as a matter of course.  Nobody thought much about it.  Paul’s objection to prostitution was not that sex is inherently sinful.  No, Paul’s objection to prostitution is what it does to the body, the Body of Christ.  Say you were a Corinthian man, and you went to a party for your guild, and there were a bunch of prostitutes there for anyone who wanted one.  They’re party favors.  And it’s legal, and it’s fun, and everyone else is doing it, so why not?  But in order to use a prostitute, you have to think of them as a commodity to be bought and sold, objects who exist for your personal gratification.  You have to think of sex as a commodity to be bought and sold.  So then you leave the party, and go back to your house.  But you bring that attitude, that mindset with you; it lingers.  The idea that women exist for your gratification, as commodities, instead of as people.  It would affect the whole body of Christ, because it would affect how you thought of, spoke to, and treated the other women you knew.  And that sort of thinking, that other people are not really people, it spreads.  Pretty soon, it’s not just women.  It’s men with less social or economic standing.  It’s people of a different race or culture.  It’s anyone who’s inconvenient.  And thinking leads to actions, to all kinds of mistreatment.  Once you stop thinking of people as people, any kind of mistreatment becomes justifiable.  It affects you and everyone around you.  It damages the body of Christ.

Prostitution isn’t legal today, but it exists right here in North Dakota.  Girls and boys are kidnapped, raped, sold, beaten, and kept moving around to prevent them from finding help.  It happens because some people think the pain and degradation of those young people is less important than the money to be made from them, or than their own gratification.  Prostitution continues because there are too many people who don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get pleasure or profit.  And it’s not the only sin or injustice that begins that way.  When something bad happens, when people hear about someone doing something terrible, they often come to me and ask how someone could do something like that.  And the answer is, because they don’t see other people as people.  They don’t see other people as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They see them as things, as commodities, as obstacles.

Then we turn to the revelations of sexual harassment that have been so public in the last few months.  Here, too, is sexual misconduct that stems from treating people like things.  And it’s not just Hollywood, or politics, or something that happens to a certain kind of women.  There are far more cases than will ever be reported in the news, simply because most of the victims and perpetrators aren’t powerful enough or well-known enough for people to care about.  I was in middle school the first time a pickup truck full of college boys yelled sexual things at me.  These sorts of things aren’t new.  I’ve seen a lot of people wondering why it happens, and how to stop it, and what are the right punishments for it, and what consequences for it are too much and what consequences are too little, and what about men who might say things they shouldn’t but don’t know it’s wrong?

This is actually something psychologists and sociologists have been studying since the 70s.  In the vast majority of cases, the men who do things like this know perfectly well where the line is, they just don’t care.  Or, if they don’t know where the line is, it’s because they don’t want to know.  They don’t care about where the line is because they don’t care about their victim as a person; all they see is something they can use for their own pleasure.  When harassers claim that they didn’t know any better, it’s a lie because either they did know better, or they chose not to know better.  They chose not to see anything but their own personal gratification.

So how do we as Christians respond to all of this?  How should we respond?  Obviously, we should condemn the behaviors that hurt and injure people or take advantage of them, whether in a sexual sense or any other.  But I think we need to go back to the basics, to the foundation of Christian ethics.  And that foundation is the knowledge that we are all members of the body of Christ, that we are all children of God, created by him, named by him, and claimed by him.  We are, each and every one of us, fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves us and all of creation.  From the least of us to the greatest, every human being is a person who matters, a person for whom Christ died.  When we forget that, we leave ourselves and our world open for all kinds of evil.  When we remember that, everything else falls into place.  May we always remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and one body together, and may that knowledge guide our thoughts and actions.

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.

In Times of Trouble

All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

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.

Revelation is quite possibly the most misunderstood book of the Bible.  It was the last book of the Bible to be written, and it was written during the time of the worst persecution of Christians.  And when I say persecution, I don’t mean the kind of thing a lot of modern American Christians think is persecution, being asked to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” or things like that.  The persecution of the early church was of quite a different nature.  People were killed for being Christian, if they happened to be in the wrong time or place.  If they were really unlucky, they might get tortured to death, or thrown into arenas filled with wild animals for the entertainment of their pagan neighbors.  And in this time of trial, when everything was as bad as it could possibly be, a mystic named John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation as a comfort for his people who were suffering and in grave danger.

Yes, comfort.  The book is violent, weird, gory, and pretty freaky, but it’s also a book dedicated to reminding all who read that God will win in the end.  Revelation does not sugar-coat anything.  It doesn’t try and sweep evil under the rug or downplay it or ignore it.  Revelation confronts evil head-on and shows it for what it is, but Revelation also insists that evil is only part of reality.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil there is in the world, no matter how much it looks like the devil is winning, we know how the story ends.  And it ends with the devil being cast down, the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of all people, and heaven coming down to earth as all things are made new.  It ends with the water of life, and the healing of the nations.  It ends with peace, and joy, and love.  And yes, our world can be violent, gory, and freaky, and there is evil here even in our own hearts, but we know how everything ends.  God wins.  Love wins.  Evil is destroyed forever.  That’s the end of the story.

The other thing that gets misunderstood about the book is that it’s not a road map.  It’s not a history of the future.  It is a vision, a dream, full of symbolism that doesn’t correspond to nice, neat, timeline that we can pin down and understand logically.  It’s kind of like an impressionist painting, which shows the emotion and essence of a scene but would be absolutely useless for identifying the people in it.  God didn’t give John of Patmos this vision to share as a textbook or map applying to only one series of events, but as a comfort in all times of trial, big and small.

Our first reading, today, is not from the end of the story, where the final victory and healing is.  It’s from the middle.  Specifically, it’s from the middle of the seals, a period full of earthquakes, pestilence, and death on a pale horse.  But before the seventh seal is opened and more earthquakes and blood and fire spring forth, God takes time to show us where the great multitude from every nation are, the faithful good people of every time and place, the ones who have died in the Lord.  And the thing is, even in the midst of all this violence and war and pestilence, they are safe.  They are with God.  Everything is literally going to hell around them, and yet they are with God.  Nothing can hurt them now, and nothing can grieve them, because God supplies everything they need and protects them from all the evil around them.  They are not safe because of any particular merit or strength on their own, but because God has claimed and sealed them as his own.

It’s kind of like the Beatitudes, in our Gospel reading.  Because the people Jesus says are blessed—they aren’t really the sort of people we tend to think are blessed.  Jesus has just been healing and teaching the most wretched people in that part of the world, the sick and injured and lame and poor and sinners and outcasts.  And now he’s telling his disciples that they are blessed.  The poor in spirit, the ones whose faith is small and who are plagued by doubt and pain and grief and depression?  God’s going to give them God’s kingdom.  The people who mourn, who have lost so much?  God will comfort them.  The meek, the ones who get pushed around and abused and trampled on and society doesn’t even notice they’re hurting?  They’re going to inherit the earth.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who see all the hypocrisy and self-serving callousness and all the evil in the world that we just take for granted as normal and ache for a day when things will change?  They’ll get the justice and mercy and righteousness they so desperately crave.  And on, and on.

Jesus keeps picking out people who the world sees as unfortunate, and saying that they are blessed.  It’s not hyperbole.  It’s not a metaphor.  It’s not just a case of “well, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a silver lining.”  The word translated here as “blessed” could also mean “highly honored.”  It doesn’t mean material wealth, as we so often reduce it to, or reward, or something nice happening to you.  It means that you are honored, that you are seen and valued.  Specifically, that you are seen and valued by God.

And these people—these people that the world does not see, or that the world sees but disregards—these people are seen by God.  And loved by God.  And God is present with them, no matter what.  Even in the midst of death and pain and grief, God is present.  God brings healing, and consolation, and justice, and mercy, and hope.

Do you remember a few weeks ago, in my sermon series on the Reformation, when I talked about a theology of the cross, which basically means that God chooses to show up in unlikely places?  God chooses to show up in the middle of pain, and loss, and darkness, so that those who suffer are never alone.  So we should be looking for God’s presence in places where people are suffering, places where people are poor in spirit, places where people hunger and thirst for righteousness because there is nothing but selfishness and injustice to be had.  God shows up there.  God blesses people trapped in those places.  Not because they are better than anyone else, or deserve it more, but because they need it more.

Most people have times in their lives where they are poor in spirit.  Most people have times in their lives when they grieve, and grieve deeply, the loss of someone they loved.  And if you don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness right now, well, you probably haven’t been paying much attention in the last year or so to national and international news.  There are people who have it worse, true, but suffering is not a competition.  And when you are in pain, when you are grieving, when everything around you is falling apart, the good news of God is twofold:

First, God sees you.  The God who formed you in your mother’s womb sees you and knows you and loves you and will never let you know.  You are not alone.  No matter what happens, even if the very worst anyone can imagine happens to you—even if things are worse than you could have imagined before—you are not alone.  And God is working in you to bring healing and strength and hope, and God is working in those around you to bring you a supportive community.  But even when those around you fail or fall short. God will not.

And second, this is not the end of the story.  There is grief, and pain, and injustice, and evil, in the world today.  There are horrifying things in the world today.  But they will not win in the end.  We know what happens.  They will be destroyed, and all things on heaven and earth will be made new, and the dead will be raised, and all people will be judged, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.  And there, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, there will only be peace, and joy, and love, and faithfulness.

Those who have died in the faith, all those centuries of Christians from the earliest days after Jesus to those who died just this last week, they are safe in God’s arms.  And someday we will join them.  And the day will come when we will all awaken, when we will be resurrected and made new, and judged, and healed, and join the great cloud of witnesses around God’s throne.  Thanks be to God.

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.

The Abundant Life of God

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10

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

 

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

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

The Bible talks about abundance a lot.  We get two examples in today’s readings.  Psalm 23 talks about God leading us through green pastures and making our cups overflow.  In our Gospel reading, Jesus is more direct.  He tells his listeners, “I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible, because it is one of the few places where Jesus sums up his entire mission in one sentence.  He has come that we may have life, and have it abundantly.  Forgiveness of sins?  Yeah, that’s part of an abundant life.  How can you live if you are crushed beneath the weight of the harm you have caused yourself and others.  Healing?  That’s part of an abundant life, too.  Just getting through the day is hard when you are in need of healing.  Good and healthy relationships with God and our neighbors?  That’s also part of an abundant life.  Healthy relationships—the mutual love and support of friends and family—is one of the things that makes life worth living.  God desires good things for us and for all people.  God constantly works to give us good things.  God constantly works to enrich our lives and give us every good thing.

But when we modern Americans think of abundance, we think of it in a different way than people did back in Jesus’ day.  We tend to equate abundance with material prosperity.  There are a lot of Christians who believe in the prosperity Gospel.  If you are good, and follow Jesus, God will bless you with wealth and health.  There are many books written about this, many churches that preach on this all the time.  How to do the right things and pray the right prayers so that God will give you money and power and all the things your heart desires and your life will be perfect and shiny and happy and nothing will ever go wrong.

That’s not how these passages were heard in Jesus day, or before that in the days of the Old Testament.  In those days, when there was a famine, people starved to death.  In those days, there were bandits lurking on every road to attack travelers, kill them, and steal from them.  In those days, almost half of all children died before age 5.  In those days, waves of epidemic diseases would periodically sweep through, killing adults and children both—measles, mumps, cholera, various poxes, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough.  In those days, war was constant, and Israel spent more time ruled by foreign invaders than an independent nation.  In those days, kings raised high taxes and used forced labor to build themselves palaces and monuments, spending more time aggrandizing themselves than ruling and protecting their people.  In those days, a handful of the richest people in society owned most of the resources, forcing people to slave away for a meagre existence.  In those days, life was very precarious, and only rich people could expect the kind of material prosperity we tend to take for granted.

They still believed in the abundance of God.  They didn’t believe that meant that everything would be shiny and happy and perfect.  They didn’t believe that meant the world would be nothing but puppies and kittens and rainbows.  But they did believe that God was present and at work no matter what happened, in good times and bad.  God’s gracious gifts were not just limited to material possessions.  God’s gifts included hope for the future, shelter in the storm, and the protection and guidance even in the midst of a very dangerous and grim world.

Notice that in both the Psalm and John, there is abundance, but there are also enemies.  God prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies.  God’s rod and staff and guidance don’t prevent us from having to go through the valley of the shadow of death.  Jesus came that we might have life, but there are thieves and bandits around who want to kill and destroy.  These passages do not deny the harsh realities of life.  These passages do not try to offer a simple message of God-given riches to those who are faithful enough.  These passages tell us that God will be with us, protecting and guiding and helping us, even in the midst of all the problems of life.  These passages tell us that God’s abundance is about more than just material possessions and outward appearances.  Abundant life is not a life with a sports car and a vacation home.  Abundant life is a life that keeps growing even in the middle of death and destruction.  Abundant life if a life that not even hell itself can destroy.

And notice that this abundant life isn’t about staying safe in the paddock.  No.  God sends us out into the world, and leads us to better places.  God has work for us to do, work that can’t be done without going into the world and working with and among those we find out there—whether they are fellow sheep or thieves and bandits.  And as we go on our way, as we walk through good places and bad, we are not alone.  God is with us even in the darkest parts of our lives, wherever the valley of the shadow might be for us.  God is with us when bandits attack us, when enemies attack us, and whether things are going well or badly, whether we are making good choices or bad ones, no matter what is happening, God is working in us and around us to give us life and hope and good things.

Things are a lot better now than they were in Jesus’ day.  Fewer people die of hunger; fewer people die of violence; fewer people die from preventable diseases.  There are far fewer people in the world living in extreme poverty.  There are far fewer tyrants.  But there is still sin in the world; there is still pain and death and evil. There are still enemies.  For some of us, who struggle with mental illness or disability or addiction or hatefulness, our enemies are in our own bodies and brains.  For some of us, who suffer from abuse or neglect, our enemies may be gathered around our family table.  For others, who are vulnerable or outcasts, our enemies may be the forces in society that oppress them and keep them in pain and fear.  For all of us, the enemy is death and destruction and despair.  But no matter who our enemy is, no matter what they do or try to do, we are not alone, for God is with us; God’s rod and staff comfort us and protect us; God knows us by name and leads us as a shepherd.

This is not about material blessings.  This is about relationship.  We know our master’s voice.  We know that God will guide us and protect us.  He loves us, and we love him.  He creates communities, flocks, which go through life together and support one another.  The good shepherd doesn’t just have one sheep.  The good shepherd has many sheep, who live and work and travel together.  Knowing the shepherd’s voice means we also know our fellow sheep.  The love that God gives us is not only for ourselves, but for all.  God gives us blessings so that we may bless each other.

When our cup overflows, with love or hope or joy or faith or wealth or any other good thing, we do not hoard the excess but share it so that all the world may know the abundance of God’s blessings.  Have you ever seen that thing they do sometimes at parties where they make a pyramid out of wine-glasses and pour wine into the top until it overflows into the glasses beneath it?  That’s what we’re supposed to do when our cup overflows with blessings—pass them along so that others may also be blessed.  Maybe that blessing is in riches or prosperity.  But maybe that blessing is love, the love of friends and family.  Maybe that blessing is in the form of wisdom, or hope, or skills to be shared.  Maybe that blessing is in the form of health and healing.  Maybe that blessing is in the form of forgiveness.  But whatever form God’s blessing takes, that abundance is meant to be shared so that all the world may know the abundant life that God brings.  May we hear God’s voice and follow him, and may his abundant life overflow in our lives, now and forever.

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.

The Foolishness of the Cross

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 29th, 2017

Micah 6:1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Matthew 5:1-12

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

 

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

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

Here’s a question for you: what does the kingdom of heaven look like?  I bet you all get a picture in your head when I ask that, and I bet that for a large share of you, that picture is dominated by clouds, angels, pearly gates, and lots of people in white robes and halos strumming harps.  It may surprise you, but that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven,” could also be translated “the reign of God.”  In other words, “anywhere that God’s will is done.”  When Jesus says “The kingdom of heaven is near,” he’s not necessarily saying the world’s about to end, so you should shape up.  He’s also referring to God’s presence here, now, in this world.  I mention this because our Gospel reading from today comes from the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus tells us what God’s reign looks like.

In last week’s Gospel Jesus started his ministry by announcing that God’s reign was near, and then calling the first disciples and telling them he was going to teach them to fish for people, and then he started healing people, and attracting great big huge crowds of sick people, demon-possessed people, the desperate, the poor, the outcasts, Syrian foreigners, and anyone just looking for a good show.  This was not fishing for people in a selective sense, this was a big, wide dragnet bringing in everybody.  Bottom-feeders included.  What I’m saying is, that a lot of the people in that crowd—possibly even most of them—would not be the sort of people society approved of.  In fact, if you use the fishing metaphor, most of the people in that crowd would be the sort that the larger culture would tell you to throw back in the water—you don’t want them, surely?  Those smelly, sick, weird, poor, outcast, foreigners?  But when all these people had gathered, Jesus goes up on a mountain and makes sure his new disciples get a front-row seat as he begins to teach.  He’s promised them that God’s reign is near, and he’s promised them he’s going to teach them to fish for people.  And now he begins to tell them what that means.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up the next three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and forms the theological core of the book.  This is Jesus describing what it looks like when God’s will is done.  This is Jesus describing what the kingdom of Heaven looks like.  This is Jesus teaching his new disciples what it means to follow him.  And he starts off with the Beatitudes.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek, and so on and so forth.  When I was reading the Scriptures assigned for today, and I read this Gospel and then the passage from First Corinthians where Paul says that the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” and I went back and re-read the Beatitudes and thought to myself, yup, Paul is sure right.  Because this doesn’t sound wise, it sounds stupid.  Blessed are those who mourn?  Blessed are the persecuted?  Blessed are the poor?  In Luke’s telling, Jesus says “blessed are the poor,” and in Matthew’s telling Jesus says “blessed are the poor in spirit,” but I have been poor in spirit and I have worked with poor people and you have to have a really strange view of “blessing” to consider either state blessed.  (Some translations use the word “happy” instead of “blessed,” which is even worse.)

And then you hear the ways Christians try to make sense out of this passage, and things get even worse.  Sometimes they’ll tell you it’s good that you’re suffering, because it means God is going to bless you!  Or maybe, you’re suffering, so according to the beatitudes you must be blessed, so if you can’t see how God is blessing you it must mean that your faith isn’t strong enough.  Because if your faith were strong enough, God would bless you by taking away your suffering.  And there have even been times in the past where the powerful have used this passage to tell people on the bottom of society that they should just accept being abused and degraded and exploited because God blesses the meek.  As for “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” well, modern American Christians have a strange view of persecution.  There are people who honestly believe that Christians in America today are being persecuted because we can’t force society to follow our rules and agree with our beliefs.  In Jesus’ day, on the other hand, persecution meant torture and death.  And every single one of the disciples (and most of the other early leaders of the church) were killed because of their faith.  I saw two of their tombs on my trip.  Again, being tortured to death … even if it’s for a good cause, most people would not call that a good thing.

Jesus told people God’s reign was near, called the disciples he was going to fish for people, attracted a large crowd of people nobody wanted, and sat down to teach.  And he told them that God’s blessings fall on the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek who get trampled on, and the ones who get attacked for trying to do the right thing.  In other words, God’s blessings fall on the people who need it the most: the people like the ones in the crowd listening.  It’s not because God loves the poor more than the rich, or wants to see people suffer, or anything like that.  Rather, it’s because they need God the most.

God’s will is very different from our will.  If you read through the rest of the Sermon on the Mount—some of which we’ll be doing from now until Lent—you’ll see what I mean.  We humans divide people up into the people who matter, and the people who don’t, and then we just accept it when people get hurt.  God, on the other hand, takes special care with those hurt and blesses them.  We humans store up grievances and hatred against one another, and God counts that just as bad as murder, as Jesus says in verse 22.  We want to take revenge when we are hurt, and God tells us to turn the other cheek and love our enemies.  We want to be rewarded for our good deeds and our charity, and God says to do it in secret without reward.  We think that we survive and thrive by our own skill and hard work, and God reminds us that everything that we have and everything that we are is a gift from him, so there’s no point in worrying or stressing over it.   We want to look down our noses at people who aren’t as good as we are, and God tells us we’re hypocrites and not to judge others or he’ll judge us.  We think power comes through being bigger and stronger and winning elections and getting people on your side, and God died alone on a cross, mocked by the crowds, with his friends and family mostly scattered and in hiding, and through that lonely death he saved the world and broke the power of sin and death.

Paul was telling the truth when he said that the cross was foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.  It is counter to everything the world tells us about how things work; it is counter to everything we human beings want to believe.  It’s the opposite of power, strength, glory, honor, riches, and everything else we want.  Just like those crowds were the opposite of the kind of crowds most people would want to attract.  Just like the people Jesus calls blessing on in the Beatitudes are the opposite of the things we want to be.  And yet, it is in these things that God reveals God’s power and will.  God wants a world filled with love and healing, and so God goes directly to the people most desperately in need of love and healing.  God chooses what is weak and foolish and uses it to reveal himself, and to expose the dark, rotting underbelly of all the things the world holds up as awesome and wonderful.

There are a lot of Christians who, when faced with this reality, turn away from it.  This has been true since Christianity first became the majority religion.  They don’t want to face up to the weakness of the cross, the foolishness of it.  They don’t want to love their neighbor; they don’t want to treat everybody, even the weak and powerless, as they themselves would want to be treated; they don’t want to be merciful or peaceful or do justice and love kindness; they don’t want to walk humbly with God.  So they take their own view of the way the world should be and wave Jesus as a banner over top of it.  And it’s hard to blame them, because it’s a lot easier to do that than it is to take these words of blessing seriously.  To take the cross and its weakness, it’s foolishness, seriously.

But take a look around at the world.  What has chasing after power and glory and strength gotten us, anyway?  What has cherishing our anger and fear gotten us?  What has separating out people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t led to?  What has the world’s wisdom brought?  A lot of pain and suffering and violence and brokenness, that’s what.  Don’t you hunger for peace?  Don’t you yearn for healing?  Don’t you ache for God’s healing, loving embrace to wrap you up and all the world up and make things better?

God doesn’t cause pain and suffering, but God can and does bless it; God can and does use it as God used his own pain and suffering on the cross.  And, in the midst of it all, God plants the seeds of his kingdom, which is near to us even now.  Thanks be to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, for blessing us, for loving us, for showing us a better way.  May we be merciful; may we be pure in heart; may we hunger and thirst for righteousness; and may that hunger be filled.

Amen.

Where is God?

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 29C, October 16th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, Luke 18:1-8

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 you’re reading the Bible, one of the important things to do to help you understand it better is to consider the context.  What else is going on around it?  How does this passage fit into the larger pattern of Scripture?  This is tough to do in a worship service, since we usually don’t have time to read large swathes of the Bible, and so focus on smaller passages.  Today’s Gospel reading, for example, is a parable.  This single parable that we read is just one part of a section that goes from Luke 17:20 through 18:14.  It starts with some Pharisees asking when the Kingdom of God was coming.  And Jesus started by saying that the kingdom of God was already among them, that it wasn’t coming in the big obvious things but in the little ones we might overlook.  Then he spends the rest of chapter 17 and the first half of chapter 18 explaining what he means by that.  The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is part of that explanation.

So this is a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart, but it’s also a parable about God’s kingdom among us.  There’s a widow—and in those days, a widow was a lot worse off than widows are today.  Women usually couldn’t own much property or a business, so a widow—a woman with no male relations—would have very little way to support herself.  And women couldn’t bring legal suits or use the courts to defend themselves without a man to support their claim, which a widow probably wouldn’t have.  In other words, the system gave them almost no protections, economic or legal, against anyone who wanted to prey on them.  A judge didn’t have to be corrupt to add to a widow’s misery; all he had to do was follow the letter of the law.  You can imagine what a corrupt judge such as the one the widow faced might do!

But the widow was persistent.  The widow kept on demanding justice.  She kept on showing up, even when people tried to shut her down.  I imagine the judge wasn’t the only one annoyed by that widow.  I bet you that everyone else in society—all the judge’s friends and neighbors, his colleagues, and the leaders of the town—thought she was aggravating and irritating.  I can almost hear them: “She lost!  Why does she keep harping on it!” or “Yes, of course it’s a shame, but that’s life—what did she expect?” or “He was wrong, but she’s just too loud—if she were quieter, more polite, maybe he would have listened,” or even “Well, he’s a judge, he must have made the right decision, I bet she’s just hoping she can get special treatment or cheat the system.”  The whole system was against the widow, the judge was against the widow, and it’s very likely that the rest of the community was against the widow, too.  But she persevered, she kept on, she never lost faith in God or faith that justice could come even for her.  And eventually, that faith and persistence paid off, and the judge relented and gave her justice.  Not because he agreed with her or saw the error of his ways, but just to shut her up.

So this leaves me with two questions: where is God in this parable, and what does this parable have to do with God’s kingdom?  Let’s start with the first question.  Although we usually assume that God is the authority figure in a parable, that is obviously not the case here.  The unjust judge is not a metaphor for God—he can’t be, because we are told both that he is unjust and that he does not fear or care about God.  And the widow obviously isn’t a metaphor for God, either—she’s the one seeking God’s justice!  God’s place in this parable is a little less obvious: God is supporting the widow and giving her courage.  God is helping her in her quest for justice in a million ways, big and small.  God is working behind the scenes to change the judge’s heart and mind.  This is made more obvious in a different translation of verses 7 and 8: “Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them?  I say to you that he will produce vindication to them in quickness. When the son of humanity has come will he find faith in the earth?”  Where is God?  Bearing patiently with those who cry out to him.

As I studied this parable this week, I was reminded of a friend’s struggle with her insurance company.  She has a chronic condition, which can be treated with medication.  Without this medication, her quality of life is pretty bad.  There are two different meds that are commonly prescribed for her condition.  One is expensive, the other relatively cheap.  Her insurance company only covers the cheaper one.  But while that cheaper drug works for most people, it is not effective for her.  Not only that, but she finds that the side effects it creates are almost as bad as the condition it’s supposed to treat.  So she’s been struggling with her doctor and her insurance company for quite a while to get the medication she needs that will actually manage her condition instead of making her feel worse.  Where is God?  Helping her get through each day.  She is not suffering is because God isn’t listening to her; she is suffering because her insurance company isn’t listening to her.  And because our entire health care system is messed up.  Like the widow, she prays and draws strength and courage from God and has faith that one day she will receive justice.  One day, she will get the medication she so desperately needs.  One day, if she makes enough trouble, even if the insurance company never gets better, they’ll give her what she needs just so they don’t have to keep fighting about it.  And meanwhile, God is with her.  Just like God is with the widow in the parable; just like God is with us in our struggles against the injustices of this world.

So if this is a parable about the kingdom of God, where is the kingdom in the parable?  Partly, the kingdom of God is in the future when the Son of Man comes back to earth.  Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and he is a righteous judge (unlike the one in this parable), and we are to have faith until that day.  But remember, Jesus starts this whole section by telling his listeners that the kingdom of God was already there among them.  So where, in this parable, is the kingdom of God?  Again, it can’t be the judge.  Because we are told throughout the Bible that God’s two most important desires for humans are justice and mercy, love of God and love of our neighbor.  The judge has neither justice nor mercy, and loves neither God nor his neighbors.  The unjust judge is, in fact, the exact opposite of God’s kingdom.

The judge’s whole job is to work for justice, and he isn’t.  And it is the job of all human beings to love God and love their neighbor, and the judge isn’t.  In fact, he’s taking his God-given job and actively working against God’s wishes.  He is a part of an unjust and unmerciful system, and instead of working to correct it or help those hurt by it, he is completely upholding the worst parts of it.  He is taking something meant for the good of all people and using it only for his own good, not caring how that hurts people and interferes in God’s will.  Unfortunately, this is something that we are all too familiar with today.  The healthcare system is supposed to heal people, or at least help them.  We all know just how often that isn’t the case.  Our justice system is supposed to protect all people, and all too often it persecutes the most vulnerable people and ignores the crimes of the powerful, just as it did in our parable.  There are so many cases in our world today where people who desperately need justice or mercy are denied both.

And yet.  Even with all the injustice and cruelty in the world, Jesus says that God’s kingdom is here among us.  Now.  In our hearts and in our communities.  And I wonder: is the kingdom in the parable the widow’s persistence?  Is that what the kingdom looks like in the present world?  Jesus says the kingdom of God is here, and it is not coming in things that can be observed.  We look around us and we see a world filled with injustice, a world filled with hate, a place where there is little justice and mercy for those who need it most, a world where people love neither God nor their fellow human beings.  Where is God’s kingdom in all of that?  God’s kingdom is in the people who persist in faith and love.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone strives for justice in the face of greed and prejudice.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone chooses to respond with love instead of hate.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that this world is not the sum total of reality.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that God will win in the end.  May we persist in our faith until Christ comes again.

Amen.

An Easter People

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8th, 2016

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

If you’ve taken a moment to glance through your Bibles at the Gospel of John in the last few weeks, you may have noticed something a bit … odd in the Gospel readings.  Not in the readings themselves, but in the fact that these particular texts are assigned to be read now, in Easter.  Easter is a time of resurrection.  We celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the time when he will come again in glory and all those who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead, as well.  That’s why we read from Revelation in Easter—we’re celebrating Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to the general Resurrection, which Revelation gives us a vision of.

And that’s what’s so peculiar about the readings from John that we’ve been reading.  Because they’re taken from before Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And not just any time throughout his ministry.  No, they come from what is called the Farewell Discourse, the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after their last meal together, before he was handed over to the guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is Jesus praying and teaching the very night before his crucifixion.  Jesus knows he is about to die, and is preparing for it by preparing his disciples for it.  The disciples don’t know Jesus is about to die, because they’ve been willfully blind to what Jesus’ teachings mean … but even so, they know just how tense the situation is, how much the authorities in the city would like to silence Jesus and his followers.  It’s a time of fear, a time of pain, a time of death, a time when nobody but God could see any hope… and even that hope could not come without suffering.  So why, out of all the times during the year, do we read this discourse during Easter?  The time of great joy and hope?  The time of healing and resurrection and new life?  On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense.

But the thing is, even as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection—even as we look forward to the general resurrection of the dead that is to come—we still have to live in a world filled with death.  Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste of the feast to come … but before we sit down to the full feast that is heaven, we’ve got to get through life today, first.  We know there is healing to come, but we live in a world of sickness.  We know there is life to come, but we live in a world of death.  We know there is hope and love to come, but we live in a world of fear and hate, where sin and brokenness run rampant and abuse is all too normal.  Like the disciples, we want to know God, and to live in God’s kingdom—but like the disciples, we are still caught up in a world of fear and death.  We are a resurrection people.  We celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and we look forward to our own resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead … but we live in a world of death, and will until Christ comes again.  And I think that’s why these readings from the Farewell Discourse are read in Easter.

The question—the great question, that most of the New Testament revolves around—is how do we live as children of the resurrection in a world broken by sin and death?  How do we keep the faith, how do we maintain our hope, how do we live and speak and act, in a world that is determined to sell itself out to power and greed and hate and lust and fear and all the sin and brokenness there is?

Revelation has two answers.  Revelation is a dream, a vision, not meant to be taken as a literal history of the future but rather as a reassurance of two great truths.  First, that no matter how bleak things get, no matter what horrible things happen—in our own lives, and in the larger world—God is at work.  God is present, God is active, no matter how bad things look.  Just as the disciples couldn’t see God’s hand in Jesus’ death until afterwards, in the light of the resurrection, so too God is present and at work even when we can’t see him, even in the darkest moments there are.

And the second answer that Revelation gives is that we don’t have to worry about the end of the story.  We don’t have to worry about how things are going to turn out.  We already know.  God wins.  Sin and death are defeated.  Heaven comes to earth, and this world truly becomes God’s kingdom as it was always meant to be.  There is resurrection, and healing, and life, and joy, and love, and hope, and all pain and sorrow and evil will be gone.  No matter what happens, no matter what trials we have to live through in this life, we know how the story ends.  Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, suffering and evil and brokenness, even though it kills us—and this world will kill us, each and every one of us—we don’t have to be afraid, because we know how the story ends.  And it’s a good ending, the best ending possible.

We don’t have to worry about the end, just the middle.  Just the here-and-now.  Just getting through each day.  And that’s what Jesus was talking about in the Farewell Discourse, as he said goodbye to his disciples and tried to prepare them for what was to come.  How to get through each day, because knowing how the story ends gives hope but that may not be enough by itself when the going gets rough.  And Jesus’ answer is love.  In these three chapters, Jesus talks about a lot of things, but the common thread is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another.  That’s how we get through the middle times.

Now, when I talk about love I don’t just mean a kind of wishy-washy platitude, and when I talk about sin and brokenness and evil I don’t just mean on a cosmic scale.  I know you’ve all experienced it.  For example, I know you have all seen and experienced how feuds, rivalries, jealousies, and prejudices can build up in a small town, how they can hurt and twist people over and over again.  I know you’ve seen how people turn to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems and hurt themselves and their families and friends in the process.  I know you’ve seen how petty and nasty and mean people can be to one another, even when they smile and hide it behind a nice façade, and the damage that does to people.  And there are members of this parish who have been abused; there are members of this parish who have been raped.  If you have been lucky enough never to have suffered that way, you know people who have—even if they’ve never told you about it.  We have a nice community, a good community, but even in our own homes and hearts and minds there is sin and brokenness, there are victims and aggressors, and oftentimes people who are both.  And the love of God—the love that Jesus asks us to have for one another—is right there in the midst of it.  Not just in platitudes and sayings, but in action.

That love is the love that leads us to be there for people when they need help—when they’re sick, or in pain, or hurt.  That love is the love that leads us to work for a just peace and reconciliation, even when choosing a side and striking back would be easier.  Striking back and lashing out are the easiest things in the world when pain and fear come.  Building walls and closing out problems is simple, too—just go with the flow, follow the world’s advice, contribute to the pain in the world—but that’s not what God calls us to do.  We are called to love.  To open our hearts and our hands and our lives.  To witness to the abundant life and love that God brings.  We are called to heal the world, not add to the hurt.  We are called to be kind when it is easier to be mean, to be forgiving when it is easier to be resentful.  We are called to love in tangible ways, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and brokenhearted, and in all things be Christ to our neighbors.  And when we, together, put God’s love into action, that is when we are most truly a resurrection people.  When love is not just a word but a way of life, that is when we see a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.  Love is how we live as an Easter people in a world still full of sin and death.  May God teach us truly how to love one another in thought, word, and deed.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

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.

Wars and Rumors of War

25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15th, 2015

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-13

 

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.

Wars and rumors of war. What a thing to read about the Sunday after 43 people were killed in a bombing in Beirut and 128 died in shootings in Paris and the Iraqi Kurds repelled a massive ISIS attack earlier this month. We have certainly had wars and rumors of war. Then Jesus says that there will be earthquakes and famines, too. I don’t know of any famines that are especially bad right now—that doesn’t mean there aren’t famines, just that famines in some places are so “normal” they don’t make the news—but Japan had an earthquake this week that touched off a tsunami. Fortunately, it was a lot smaller than the one a couple of years ago, and the damage was manageable. Jesus’ predictions were right on the money. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because they’ve been right on the money for the last two-thousand years. There have always been wars. There have always been catastrophes. There have always been famines, persecutions, betrayals. These are not signs of the end of the world, Jesus says—the end is still to come. This is what it means that the world is broken by sin and death. God’s kingdom will break in; God’s kingdom, when it comes, will break all the chains of evil, but we’ve got to live in the meantime. Jesus knew what his disciples would have to face, and he knew what we would have to face. And he wanted to give us comfort, cold though it sometimes is, to face it.

Our Gospel reading takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus was taken away and crucified. Jesus was at the height of his influence; his disciples were sure that any day now, a rebellion would begin and Jesus would sweep out the hated Roman oppressors and their toadies, replacing them with his loyal followers. They were high on life; they thought for sure that with Jesus at their side, nothing could touch them. Everything was going to go perfectly, because, after all, he was the Messiah, right? The great palace and temple in Jerusalem would be theirs for the taking—and that was saying something. In Jesus, day, the Temple was a pretty amazing place. It had been built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built by Ezra and Nehemiah, and greatly expanded by King Herod, making it one of the grandest buildings in the Roman Empire. It was huge, and it was grand, and it was glorious. It wasn’t just a building, it was a whole complex—they’d had to build out the top of Mount Zion so that it would fit. It was designed so that all visitors could see the glory of God. But it wasn’t just a pretty building. It wasn’t just the core of Jerusalem. It wasn’t just a place of worship. It was a symbol.

That Temple was the core of Judaism. It was most obviously the center of Jewish religious practices of the day, but it was also the center of Jewish culture and the center of Jewish politics. God could be anywhere, of course, but he was especially present in the Temple. Nothing too terribly bad could happen to the Jews as long as the Temple stood, because it showed that God was with them and they were faithful to God. Being Jewish meant worshiping at the Temple. Take the church building you love the most—multiply that feeling by ten and add to it the feeling you have for every iconic building in Washington, DC—and you can imagine what they felt like. The Temple had withstood invasions, wars, earthquakes, famines, every catastrophe imaginable, and it stood. It would always stand, they believed. Because God was with them, and the Temple was God’s, and God would not let the Temple fall.

The disciples looked in awe at the great and mighty Temple, and one said to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” You can almost hear them nudging each other and giving each other meaningful looks—what’ll it be like to live in the best houses in Jerusalem and come to the Temple every day? What’ll it be like when all this glory and grandeur is theirs? But Jesus knows that, in this life, the Temple will never be theirs. He’s not going to reign in glory in this life, he’s going to be crucified instead. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Now this, to the disciples, was the greatest catastrophe they could imagine. For some, it might have been more than they could imagine. This isn’t just the end of their hopes and dreams, this is the end of their whole people, their culture, their religion, their everything. The Temple, destroyed? The heart of their faith, gone? The proof of God’s presence, smashed? How? When? Why? They pestered Jesus with questions, anxiously needing answers. Would it be part of his battle with the powers that be, after which the Temple would be re-built even grander? Would it be part of the end judgment of the world? What would happen? They wanted names, dates, a firm timeline.

Jesus didn’t give them one. Because the point wasn’t the Temple itself. The Temple would be destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, in retaliation for a failed rebellion. To this day, only a wall remains—the Wailing Wall, where devout Jews go to pray. There’s a Muslim Mosque where the Temple once stood. But that’s not the point. If they focus on the glory, the grandeur, the ambition, they’re going to be totally caught off guard when trouble strikes. The more they imagine that following Jesus will bring only happy fun times, the more devastating it will be when they realize that’s not the case. And the crucifixion was going to happen in just a few days. They needed to face reality, and they needed to face it fast.

Jesus didn’t give them specifics. He gave them words so generic that pretty much every generation since has tried to claim that they applied specifically to that generation—in every age, there are people who believe these words of Jesus’ mean that the end is coming now, here. Because the point isn’t when these things will happen; the point is not to be surprised by them.

There will be people claiming God’s authority and using it wrongly, to promote their own ends, and they will lead many people astray. As a student of history, I can tell you that in the two thousand years since Jesus’ day, there have been many people who have used God’s authority to do evil, and some of them have been very popular. We vilify the Muslims who do this, while forgetting the crimes Christians have committed—and are committing right now, across the globe—in the name of God.

Jesus said there will be wars, and rumors of war. But when has there ever been peace on earth? There hasn’t been peace on earth since Cain slew Abel in Genesis chapter 4. This is part of the way sin corrupts human nature. We hate. We fear. We betray one another. We hurt one another—and then we get together in groups to do it on a larger scale. There will be famines—and boy, howdy, have there been famines. Some of them are caused by weather or blight; some of them are caused by political corruption diverting food from those who need it most. Earthquakes and storms—those happen all the time, too. Have you ever seen one of those half-sheet inserts from Lutheran World Relief asking for money for the disaster du jour and felt nothing but a drained since of déjà vu? I know I have. And as if that isn’t enough, Jesus says, brother will turn against brother and parent against child.

Quite a litany. All of that to go through. Are you feeling depressed, yet? But the point of these words isn’t to be depressing or hopeful. The point is to be ready. Where’s the Good News? Where’s the Gospel in Jesus’ words? Here it is: the end of all this misery is coming, and we don’t have to face the in-between times alone, and no matter what happens between now and then, Jesus will reign. You see, all of these terrible, horrible, evil things? That’s what the world’s been like since sin came into things. That’s “normal” for Planet Earth. At least, that’s what “normal” has been up till now. But it’s not going to stay normal. The world isn’t trapped any longer in a round of one damned-thing-after-another. It may seem that way—particularly when the news media gobbles up every tragedy, hungry for the most grotesque pictures that will shock and titillate the viewer—but it’s not. These evils are no longer meaningless, because the birth pangs have begun. This is not God’s plan for the world. There will be justice, and there will be mercy. Our call as Christians is to live out faithful lives in the meantime, responding to a broken world with love and justice and trust that this is not the end. This is the beginning.

And we don’t have to do it alone. Whether we live ordinary lives in relatively quiet parts of the world or in places where there is actual persecution, we are not alone, for the Holy Spirit is with us. We don’t have to worry about having all the answers, or solving all the problems, or being good enough or strong enough or brave enough or faithful enough. Because no matter what happens, the Holy Spirit will be with us.

And it doesn’t matter how powerful the things of this world seem to be. It doesn’t matter how much damage any country or ruler or terrorist or corporation or politician or anyone else does—they can’t change the fact that this world is God’s world, that Jesus redeemed it with his sacrifice, and that God’s kingdom will come.

Amen.

The Snake Problem

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Bearing the Cross

Second Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 1st, 2015

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22:23-31, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38

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 can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard it. I’m talking with someone about their day, and they mention some little thing that annoys them that they can’t change—maybe it’s a co-worker’s irritating habits, maybe it’s a relative’s drama that keeps spilling over to the rest of the family. “Well,” they say, “I guess that’s just my cross to bear.” Really? Jesus’ death on a cross, his sacrifice and agony, compared to Aunt Ethel’s temper tantrums? That’s what you’re comparing it to? When Jesus said “take up your cross and follow me,” you think he meant having to deal with a co-worker who sometimes grabs your lunch by accident or can’t get important paperwork done on time? Really?

Sometimes when I hear that phrase it’s sadder. There’s something truly horrible in someone’s life—abuse, for example—and they don’t think there’s any way out. Maybe they’re scared, maybe they don’t think they deserve anything better, maybe they feel guilty or ashamed. And that’s how they comfort themselves: “I guess it’s just my cross to bear.” And it’s good that their faith is a comfort to them, but at the same time, calling that suffering their cross to bear can trap them in it, make them less likely to reach out for help, because they think their suffering is God’s will. Jesus came that we might have abundant life, that we might be saved and healed, that our sadness and grief and pain might be wiped away. Jesus died on the cross so that we might be saved, connected to God, so that God’s love might be poured out on the world. Jesus’ suffering and death are not meant to trap us in our own suffering, but to free us. To open us up to possibilities.

Devout Christians use that phrase a lot, but I’m not sure we take much time to ask ourselves what Jesus meant when he said it. What is the cross, and what are the crosses that Jesus might be calling us to carry? We tend to apply it to any problem, big or small, that we don’t think can be changed. Sometimes those really are the crosses God has given us to bear. But sometimes, I don’t think they are. So let’s ask the question: what is the cross, and what does it mean to carry it?

First of all, the cross was painful. It was big, and heavy, and public, and nasty, and torturous. It was a big deal. It was an agonizing, painful death, and it was reserved for the worst of the worst. Slaves and foreigners and murderers were crucified. Not citizens. Not anybody who mattered. Nobody was watching Jesus and going, “what a great guy he is for being able to endure that.” They weren’t saying, “gee, isn’t it too bad?” No. They were looking at him and going, he must be scum to deserve that. What a horrible person that Jesus is! They saw him, and they despised him, and they mocked him. The cross killed him, but that wasn’t the only thing it did. It changed how people saw him, from then and ever after.

It even changed how the disciples looked at Jesus. I mean, here Peter is, Jesus starts talking about the cross—talking about the fact that he’s going to have to suffer and die—and what does Peter do? He tries to shut Jesus up. He doesn’t want to think about it. It’s too hard, too bad. Peter wants to think about all the nice, pleasant, good things that Jesus could do. He wanted to think about public respect, and power, and glory, and miracles, and political power. So when Jesus starts talking about the cross—that huge, painful, shameful thing—Peter tries to shut him up. Peter doesn’t want to have to deal with the pain and shame and grief and loss that are going to come hand in hand with Jesus’ death on the cross. He doesn’t want to hear that salvation is going to come through pain.

So when we look at life’s little annoyances and call them our cross to bear, we are really, really misunderstanding what the cross was, and what it did. It was not an annoyance. It was not something to be sighed over and swept aside. When we have crosses to bear, they are big, and they are heavy, and they hurt. Maybe not physically, maybe not where people can see, but they are going to have an impact. And a cross may make people look at you differently. It may make them look at you funny. It may be something that sets you apart, something that people would rather sweep under the rug and ignore, just as Peter wanted to ignore Jesus’ cross. It may be something that causes people—even other Christians!—to be uncomfortable or ashamed or judgmental.

The other thing about Jesus’ death on the cross is that you have to look at what came out of it. Yes, it starts with pain and grief and shame and loss and horror. But that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what it means. Because that pain and suffering did something. It changed the world—it changed us. Jesus died, but he rose again, and when he rose we were dragged with him from death into life. We are tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection. It matters. Jesus’ suffering brought new life, abundant life, and healing, and hope, and joy, and love. It was hell to go through, but it made a difference.

When Jesus tells us to take up our cross, he isn’t saying that suffering is good on its own. He’s not saying that pain, by itself, is a good thing. Pain is bad. What he’s saying is that sometimes it’s necessary to achieve something else. Jesus didn’t die on a cross because he liked pain or because he thought pain was good for him. He died in order to save the world. He suffered so that we wouldn’t have to. That’s what taking up our crosses means. It means doing the right thing even when it hurts. Taking up our cross means following Jesus and being his hands in the world even when it’s not nice, or convenient, or happy. It means living out the Gospel even when your friends shake their heads at you. It means reaching for life and healing even if that means pain in the short term. Taking up your cross means living a kingdom-centered life in a world that wants everyone to focus on money, power, and prestige.

Taking up your cross isn’t about dying. It’s about living. What kind of life are you going to live? Here and now, where are your priorities? What’s most important in your life? Not the stuff you think should be most important—the stuff that you actually treat as most important. Where do you focus your time and energy? Because a lot of people will say “my family and my faith are most important!” but they actually spend more time and energy and attention on their jobs, their sports, their favorite TV show, their latest toys, and keeping up with the Joneses. Because that’s what our world values. That’s what our culture pushes. The rat race: work hard and make more money and look good and do all the right stuff and buy all the right products and you’ll be happy and people will love you and none of the bad things in the world will happen to you. And so people chase those goals, and they get busier and busier and more and more distracted by all sorts of things they chase after in the name of happiness and security, and all too often we don’t even notice the people we hurt along the way, and we try to fill the emptiness by working harder, and you know what? Bad things still happen. The busy-ness and distraction won’t prevent them or fix them.

The life God calls us to is a life of love for God and for one another. If we are truly living that life—if our priorities are truly on that love—it will affect how we act, what we do, how we treat ourselves and the people around us. And it will mean following God’s priorities, instead of society’s priorities. And our society won’t like that. And your friends and family may not like it, either. And following that love may take you in places you wouldn’t choose to go, and living a life centered on God’s love may mean standing up to the broken, sinful things in the world, to spread life and love where there is precious little of it.

But here’s the other thing about the cross: even Jesus didn’t carry it alone. He did for part of the way, but it was too much for him. He couldn’t do it alone, so a man stepped in to help, named Simon of Cyrene. And together, Jesus and Simon carried the cross on their backs. And we don’t have to carry our crosses alone, either. Jesus is with us every step of the way, and believe me, he knows what it’s like to carry a cross! But God also sends us others, people like Simon, to walk with us and help us carry the cross even if only for part of our journey. And yes, it’s hard to carry the cross. But we don’t have to do it alone.

Amen.

The Difference Between Healing and Curing

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, February 8th, 2015

Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

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

 

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

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

There is a difference between healing and curing. And, if you’ve spent much time in hospitals or doctors’ offices, you probably know what I mean. Modern medicine can work miracles of curing: we have machines that can see inside your body and tell doctors exactly what the problem is. We have blood tests that can tell us how your body’s doing. We have surgeries to cut out tumors or fix blocked arteries or replace body parts. We have antibiotics and antivirals to knock out disease. We’ve got physical therapy to help get you back on your feet as quickly as possible. We have chemotherapy and radiation to kill cancer cells. We’ve got vaccines to prevent us from catching deadly diseases in the first place. We’ve got inhalers to manage asthma and other lung conditions. We’ve got drugs to regulate your heart, your kidneys, your thyroid, your lungs. We’ve got drugs to regulate brain chemistry if you have seizures or depression or anxiety or schizophrenia. And, if whatever ails you can’t be fixed, we’ve got all kinds of assistive technology: high-tech wheelchairs that respond to the touch of a finger. Oxygen bottles you can carry with you anywhere. Prosthetic legs good enough to dance or run or play basketball with. I thank God regularly for all those things.

And yet, I speak with people who have been in the hospital for a while, or had any serious or long-term illness, and hear them talk about what it was like, and they say that they felt worst in the hospitals and doctors’ offices and therapy rooms. Not because of how sick they were—in several cases, they were in less pain in the hospital than they were at home, due to medication. But because they felt so isolated. So cut off from life. They felt less than human. They felt like a problem to be fixed, not like a person. Even when they had caring doctors and nurses, when they were well-treated, their time in the medical system made them feel less human. Because our medical system—our whole society!—focuses on curing problems instead of healing. We want something simple, easy, quick, something that restores normalcy right away.

I had to face that tendency in myself when I was doing my chaplain training in seminary. For a summer, I worked as a chaplain at Oregon State Hospital, the mental hospital where they filmed One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. In the afternoons I would spend my time on various wards, and then the next morning I would sit with my fellow chaplain trainees and discuss our work with our supervisor. We had to regularly do “verbatims” where we reported whole conversations to the group so we could be critiqued and evaluated. Now, the thing was, none of the patients in that hospital were ever going to get cured. They just weren’t. They had serious mental illnesses that they were going to struggle with their entire lives. They might be able to learn to manage their conditions well enough to leave the hospital for a group home, or even their own home, but they weren’t going to get better. Nobody working there—not the doctors or aides or nurses or chaplains—was going to be able to fix anything.

My God, but that was hard to face. Day after day I’d report my conversations with patients back to the group, and day after day they’d point out that I was trying to fix them—I’d focus on little things that I could give advice about, rather than sitting with them and being with them. We were there to pray with them, to honor their struggles, to rejoice in their successes and mourn their failings, to help them build community even in the hospital, to help them know that they were beloved children of God even as they suffered and were cut off from the larger world. We were there, in other words, to help them heal even as they suffered things that could not be cured. And I was focused more on things like résumés and pill organizers. Because those were the easy things to fix. Facing the stuff that couldn’t be fixed—the illnesses that couldn’t be cured, only endured—was hard. And because I wasn’t willing to face that, I left the people on my wards to face it alone.

Healing, you see, is different. Healing is about renewing the body and soul. Healing is about being raised up. It’s about reconnecting with the community. It’s about becoming most deeply yourself, the person God intended you to be. Healing is about our whole lives as God’s children. Curing wounds and fevers can be a part of it, but only a part. In my time as a pastor, I have seen healing occur in deathbeds and funeral homes. I have seen people cured of disease and yet still lost and isolated and broken. Curing is not the same as healing.

Our Gospel is about healing. The Gospel includes both curing and healing. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a fever, and he took her by the hand and raised her up—and by the way, that’s the same phrase used about the Resurrection, that Jesus was raised up—and she was healed. She was cured of the fever, and restored to her place in the family and the community. And, immediately, she began to serve them. (Have you known people like that, who get right up out of their sickbeds and hop back to work instead of taking it easy and resting a bit? That’s what she was like.) And the word service—the word that they use in Greek is “diakonia.” If it sounds like a churchy word you’ve heard before, good! It’s the word we get “deacon” from. The deacons are the ones who serve, who teach and serve meals and help with the sacraments and lead. She’s not just restored to her normal daily grind, she’s restored to fellowship and to participation in the ministry of Jesus. She becomes part of the Good News, part of the Gospel, part of the community of God’s people. That’s healing.

And you notice that as Jesus goes through Galilee, he spends a lot of time curing the sick, but he spends a lot of time praying and preaching and talking, too. Because curing people is only one part of the package. Jesus doesn’t just want the fever gone and the broken leg fixed—he wants more than that. He wants to heal us. Not just as individuals, but as a community. As a world. He wants us to be whole. He wants us to be renewed. He wants us to be most deeply ourselves and he wants us to be connected with God and with each other. It’s all connected, the individual cures and the larger healing.

But you may also notice that people came to Jesus mostly for the cures. The short-term fixes. Cast out this demon, fix this broken leg, get rid of this fever. Because, you see, healing is hard work. It means being open to change. It means being open to God. It means, first and foremost, acknowledging that things in your life and community and self are wrong, broken, and that you can’t fix them on your own. It means acknowledging that you need God and you need other people. And it also means accepting that God can heal even those parts of yourself that you think are so broken that nothing can ever make anything better. It means letting go of your fear, and letting go of your self-righteousness and ego. Sometimes, healing means learning to live with what can’t be cured. Sometimes, healing means accepting that things can’t be fixed, and accepting that you are a beloved child of God even still.

And healing also means reaching out to other people. Even the people you don’t want to. It means building community and love and acceptance even with people you don’t like or understand. It means being willing to be honest, even if that means facing the parts of yourself and others that aren’t so nice. There is more of God’s healing in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting than there is in some churches. You see, churches, like hospitals, can also be focused on cures. Quick fixes. Making things look good, putting a happy smiling face on things. After all, if God is here with us, shouldn’t everything be good and happy and cured? AA isn’t like that. In an AA meeting, the first thing everyone does is introduce themselves and acknowledge their brokenness. And out of that brokenness, they support and love one another. Out of that honesty, they build a community that changes lives. They heal, even as addiction continues to take its toll.

But so many churches get focused on fixes and cures. And so, when we come across things that can’t be cured—like death, and grief, and long-term illness, and depression, and addiction, and abuse—we either sweep it under the rug or we try and fix it. “Pray about it,” we say. And sometimes, “can’t you just stop it? Get better?” And sometimes even “maybe you just haven’t been praying hard enough. Maybe your faith isn’t strong enough.” We don’t like facing the hard truths, and so we ignore them, and sometimes in so doing we ignore the people in our midst who are suffering, who need healing most of all. It’s hard to feel helpless. It’s hard to acknowledge that we can’t fix things, that some things just won’t be fixed until Christ comes again. But there can be healing even in the midst of pain, and grief, and illness. There can be love and renewal even in the midst of brokenness. There can be hope in the midst of loss. There can be community even when the world tries to isolate us. And when we reach out—when we comfort people who are sick, and bring food to those who grieve, and are willing to be honest and compassionate with ourselves and others, and be there for people even when there’s no quick fix or easy answer—when we do that, we are part of God’s healing. We are God’s hands in the world.

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.