United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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

 

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

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

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them.  I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.

On Tuesday, I was in Corinth.  Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times.  My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  During worship, we read this portion of the letter.  As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo.  The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left.  Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.

In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community.  Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored.  There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events.  Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite?  And have they helped you grow in status?  Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods.  It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good.  It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right.  Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.

This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth.  These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them.  They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together.  And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians.  This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions.  Who was the best Christian?  Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel?  Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough?  It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too.  It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else.  Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community.  But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing.  Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.

And so Paul called for unity.  Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose.  It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity.  Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better.  The Christian life is about following Jesus.  The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together.  The Christian life is about the cross.

Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right.  Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted.  He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear.  Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it.  And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up.  The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death.  The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done.  The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves.  We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is.  There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so.  And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create.  In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor.  God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us.  We don’t save the world—we can’t.  Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.

In a truly Christian community, there is unity.  Now, some people misunderstand what that means.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye.  In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being.  We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.

What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities.  The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world.  All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ.  The cross is who we are.  The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth.  That is where Christian unity comes from.  Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ.  Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second.  Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it.  There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ.  There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized.  There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world.  In him we live, and move, and have our being.  In him is the power of God to transform us and the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 23C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

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

 

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

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

A lot of people—a lot of Christians—seem to think that the most important thing we can do is to grow our churches—get more people attending, fill the pews.  Save souls in mass groups, and, not coincidentally, put the Christian church in the position of power in the community that it used to have.  There’s just one problem with that: when we look at Jesus’ ministry in the Bible, converting people in large numbers does not seem to have been something that concerned him.  Calling disciples and training them for the Christian life, yes.  Large mass altar calls, no.  Take a look at today’s Gospel reading.  It comes from the middle of Luke.  Jesus has already been preaching and teaching for a while, and doing miracles like healing people and feeding large crowds.  So people are following him!  Huge crowds of them!  Now, this is the part where a successful evangelist should start talking about the beautiful peace of following Jesus, the heavenly rewards, all the joys and benefits that come with being a disciple.  He should be sealing the deal, right?  Getting them all fired up and committed to God.

That’s not what Jesus does.  Jesus, in fact, does the exact opposite of that.  Jesus starts talking about how hard it is.  That there’s a very real cost.  Hating your family, carrying a cross—which wasn’t a religious symbol then, but rather a very real instrument of torture and death—and giving up all that you have.  I would bet you that a lot of the people following him just up and turned around at this point.  Jesus told them to count the cost of becoming his disciple, and they did, and they decided that they just did not want to pay it.  And who can blame them?  This is not a pretty picture Jesus is painting.  Jesus doesn’t want to lure people in with rosy pictures.  He is not playing the numbers game.  Jesus wants disciples, people who are committed to their faith, not people who will be fair-weather friends.  So he is very up-front.  There is no small-print to being a disciple, no important things hidden in the Terms of Service.  Jesus plainly spells the cost out for all to hear.

Let’s take the whole family thing.  Let’s assume Jesus is using a little bit of hyperbole here and he doesn’t actually literally want you to hate your family.  (This seems like a pretty safe assumption, given how much time and effort the Scriptures spend telling us to love people, and how often God uses family metaphors to describe God’s love for us.)  But even so, Jesus is saying that family can’t be your priority.  Life itself can’t be your priority.  If it comes down to a conflict between your family and God?  Or between your life and your faith?  You can’t be Jesus’ disciple if you’re not willing to give up your whole family and even life itself to follow him.  I don’t know that we really get how big a deal this was back then.  Yes, family is important to us even now, but there are other options available.  People leave home all the time.  It’s normal.

Leaving home was not normal back then.  You lived in the same community with your entire extended family for your entire life, and you worked in the family business, and you married other people from the community, and you lived at home with your parents or your spouse’s parents your entire life, and you took your parent’s place in the community just as your children would eventually take yours.  There wasn’t really any other option.  It wasn’t like today, where even if you stay in the same town most people get their own home where they can do things their own way.  And today, if you don’t like the family business, you can get a job in a different trade or profession that suits you better.  And if you and your family don’t get along, you can move somewhere else and make a new family and build new relationships.  Those things didn’t really happen in Jesus’ day.  If you cut yourself off from your family, you would have nowhere to go and no ability to start a new life.  And, Jesus says, if you’re not willing to do that for God?  You can’t be his disciple.

Think of it this way.  I know you’ve seen marriages where one of the spouses is … unhealthily attached to their family of origin?  Like, they always and only want to go to their own family’s holiday gatherings, and never their spouses, and if one of their parents has advice on something, they give it more weight than their spouse’s opinion?  And it’s really clear to everyone that their parents and siblings are more important to them than their spouse?  That is not a healthy marriage.  When you get married, you have to learn to prioritize.  It’s not that you literally hate your parents and siblings, but your spouse and kids have to be the top of your priority list.  In the same way, to be a disciple—a healthy disciple—following Jesus has to be your #1 priority.

As for possessions, well, it’s not that having stuff is bad; but how often do our possessions—the things we own, the things we want to own—guide our lives?  How much of our time is taken up with earning money to buy stuff, and then using it and taking care of it, and then getting more stuff?  How often do the cares of our house and our work and our cars and our stuff keep us occupied and prevent us from doing the things that need doing the most?  It’s not that our possessions are bad, just that if we put too much of our heart and mind into them, they can keep us from putting our hearts and minds—and hands—where they are actually needed.  For example: boats are great, I love being out on the water on a boat.  But if I had a boat and a neighbor needed help and I say I can’t because I’m taking my boat out on the lake … well, that’s a problem.  But the problem isn’t with the boat, the problem is with my priorities.  To be a disciple, our priorities have to be with Jesus, not with our possessions.

And as for carrying the cross, well, like I said: the cross was an instrument of torture and death.  You carried your cross on your way to be executed.  Jesus knew, as the crowd did not, that he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified.  He was going to die for the sake of the world.  The world is a place of sin and brokenness and pain and oppression, and far too often the powers of this world get their powers by adding to that brokenness and pain, and so they don’t like those who try to bring justice and mercy and healing.  What Jesus is saying here is that if you truly follow him—if you are truly his disciple—you are going to need to be willing to stand up to the powers of this world and work for healing even when they like things broken, and work for peace and love when they are making a profit on war and hate and fear and suspicion.  And the powers of this world are not going to take that lying down.  And they will lash out to protect themselves.  And if we are not willing to take the heat, we cannot be disciples of Jesus.  It’s not that all Christians get crucified—literally or figuratively—but some do.  If following Jesus leads us to our own equivalent of Calvary, well, we have to be ready to carry our cross, whatever that may be.  If working for justice, peace, and love in God’s name means running up against society and taking some hard knocks, well, that’s par for the course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran who lived in Germany in the early 20th Century.  He was a youth leader.  As the Nazis came to power, most Christians in Germany joined the party.  After all, the Nazis were very family-friendly.  They emphasized wholesome family values, and they had a slogan emphasizing that: “Children, kitchen, church.”  But Dietrich could see the evil underneath that shiny exterior.  They were supporting those wholesome family values by persecuting and killing anyone who didn’t fit their picture of what a good German should be: Jews, Romani, Communists, homosexuals, Slavs, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, non-whites, all were harshly discriminated against, and eventually rounded up and killed by the millions.  And so, while most Christians went along with this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not.  He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime, working against them to build a Christian church that held true to Jesus’ way of healing and love and justice.  And eventually the Nazis executed him.  That was his cross to bear.  Before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book, which is one of the great Christian classics of the 20th Century.  It’s called the Cost of Discipleship.  It’s about being willing to be a disciple even when it means challenging or going against the world around you.

Bonhoeffer said it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old self which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at his call.”

That is the cost Jesus is talking about.  To be his disciple, we have to be willing to pay that cost, even if it means conflict with our families, giving up things we might enjoy so that God’s work may be done, or even suffering for the sake of God’s healing work in the world.  May we become true disciples, willing to set aside all the things of this world and follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.

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 Light of God in dark places

Transfiguration of our Lord, Year B, February 15th, 2015

2 Kings 2:1-12, Psalm 50:1-6, 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9

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.

The Transfiguration is a weird thing. Most of Jesus’ career is the sort of thing we can relate to rather easily: he wandered around with a group of friends, telling people about God. Some of us talk about God more than others, and some don’t talk about God much at all, but we can all relate to hanging out with your friends and travelling a bit, right? And he also healed people. Most of us can’t heal people with a touch as Jesus could, but we do have faith healers, and we pray for people who are sick all the time, and when we are sick we pray for healing. He had enemies who were trying to spread rumors about him—too many of us have experienced such a thing in our own lives. He ate dinner with a lot of people—we can relate to that, too! And then we have today’s story where he goes to the top of a mountain and gets lit up like a bonfire. And while I’ve seen such things done by special effects in science fiction TV and movies, I’ve never seen anyone glow with a heavenly light. I doubt any of you have, either.

So while it’s generally fairly easy to find a way to connect other Gospel readings to our everyday lives, I’ve always struggled with the Transfiguration. And I think that Peter and James and John did, too. Now, they lived in a day when people were far less skeptical about miracles and wondrous things, but that doesn’t mean they happened every day. Which is why Peter and James and John were terrified and confused and trying to search around for some way to fit this awesome thing into their heads. So Peter suggests building three “dwellings”—temples, tabernacles, booths, something like that. A chapel, maybe. So that people could come to the mountain to the special place and pray to God for whatever miracle they needed. As if it were the mountain that were holy.

That’s actually a pretty common human reaction to an encounter with God. Let’s set up a shrine to mark it! And tell everyone else about it, too, so that they could come up and see the special place where it happened! And pray there, because maybe God will be more likely to hear their prayers at that special place where special things happened! God is most likely to be there, on the mountaintops, right? In the special places? Where special things have happened? And if you go to the right place and pray the right way, you are closer to God than you are in your ordinary life, right? And if you worship in a beautiful church building you’re closer to God than when you worship in a mall or a hotel, right? It’s all about location, and ambiance, and going where you know people have encountered God before and hoping he’s still there. Peter’s confused and scared, he doesn’t know what’s going on, so he thinks “A special place needs a special building for people to visit. Let’s build some!”

It’s not necessarily a bad impulse; after all, we do need places to gather and worship together and celebrate God’s gifts and presence among us. It’s just not what God was trying to show the disciples. The point of the Transfiguration is not that mountaintops are holy, that particular mountain or any other. It’s not about the place. God is with us always, no matter where we go. God is in the most awesome locations—like mountaintops—but God is also with us in the nastiest, most horrible places on earth. That mountaintop is no more or less holy than any place else on earth, no matter what happens there. No, it’s not about location. It’s about connection to the past, to the future, and to God. And it’s about light.

The connection to the past is easy to spot. Moses and Elijah showed up! The two most beloved and awesome holy men of Israel’s history! Jesus is the culmination of what God has been doing in the Jews since he called Abraham out of Ur, since he called Moses through the burning bush, since he spoke through Elijah! God is doing a new thing through Jesus, but it’s not out of the blue. It’s all connected. For thousands of years God has been trying to teach his people to love God and to love one another so that they might be a blessing to the world, and Jesus is the fulfillment of that teaching, the manifestation of that love. No matter how much the religious leaders argued and quibbled and rejected Jesus, no matter how different he looked from what they expected the Messiah to be, Jesus is where the story has been heading all along. And now is the time the disciples most need to learn that.

You see, the Transfiguration is the turning point. The hinge, if you will, of Jesus’ ministry. Up to this point, he’s mostly been staying out in the hinterlands. The backcountry. With the hicks and the country people. And yeah, crowds came to see him, and the local community leaders are annoyed by him, but he’s not much threat to the powers that be, at this point. So he pretty much gets ignored by the authorities. But he’s about to set his face toward Jerusalem, and the sorts of trouble and stirring up crowds that’s acceptable out in the backwater of Galilee is just not going to be tolerated in Jerusalem. As Jesus comes to Jerusalem, and disagrees publicly with the political and religious establishment, things are going to get dire pretty quickly. And by “dire” I mean conspiring to have him crucified on trumped-up charges just to get rid of him. That’s what the disciples are going to be facing, when they walk down that mountain. Everything is going to get worse—a lot worse, as bad as things can possibly be—and it’s going to start with the religious leaders of their country trying to prove that Jesus is some sort of heretic.

If they’re going to go up against that—if these uneducated hicks are going to stand firm in the face of the disapproval of the most educated, powerful religious leaders of their day—they’re going to need some reassurance that Jesus truly is of their God and of their faith, and there’s not much better way to prove that to them than to have them see him with Moses and Elijah. In the dark days to come, the disciples are going to need to be able to draw on the faith of their forefathers and foremothers to help them survive and get through. And here are Moses and Elijah to reassure them. Put yourself in their shoes. Think about a time when remembering a faithful person has helped you when your own faith has faltered. Maybe it was someone from the Bible, maybe someone you knew personally. Even just remembering a story of their courage or commitment can help, can’t it?

But the faith of their ancestors will only carry the disciples so far. After all, this isn’t just a case of following the next prophet. God is doing a new thing, and that new thing—the salvation of the cosmos—is going to lead them to places they never dreamed, through hazards they can’t imagine yet. They’re going to go through some awfully dark places, and they’re going to need a light to carry them through. And the thing is, when you look at the story of the Transfiguration, it is really similar to some of the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Like, the blinding white robes, the two supernatural beings, it’s all very similar. They’re getting a foretaste of what’s coming. Not the horrors and death and despair that are in their immediate future, but the joy and wonder that will come after. They’re going to go through Hell on Earth for the next while, but they are not going to be facing it alone, and that hellish time won’t last forever. It can’t. God is going to win, in the end. The power of death and hate and fear will be broken forever. They don’t know it, but they are witnessing a foretaste of God’s victory. They’re seeing a little bit of the great party to come. They don’t understand what they’re seeing, but it’s going to help carry them through when they need it. Because they can’t just stay up there on the mountain in a nice pretty building remembering the good old days. They have to go back down the mountain and head towards Jerusalem. And this experience, this shared vision of light, is going to help them stay together and get through the dark days ahead.

Think back to your life, to the times when you’ve had dark times to walk through. The death of a loved one, or a serious illness, or abuse, or addiction, or depression, or isolation. We’ve all had dark times of one kind or another. How did God help you through them? What light did God give in your darkness? You may not have realized what it was at the time—the disciples didn’t get what was happening, either, and I know in my own life when I’ve had dark times, I was never able to see God’s presence until I looked back afterwards. God’s light may have come in many different forms. It may have come through the support of friends and loved ones. It may have come through memories of better times. It may have come through prayer or scripture or music or art or a good book. We look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom—when death will be no more, when we will be healed and made whole, when all evil will be wiped clean and all tears will be wiped away. But in the mean time—as we walk through dark places—thank God for the light. For the faithful ones of past years who have helped to shape us, and for the light even in the darkest place. May we see God’s light and be comforted by it.

Amen.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26), Year A, September 28, 2014

 

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

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

 

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

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

Have you ever noticed that the cross is everywhere these days? It gets slapped up on billboards arguing for one political position or another. People wear it all the time as jewelry—even people who never go to church or do anything religious will wear it. If you google “cross” online, you’ll see lots of beautiful shining pictures like this one. Light, beauty, respect, worship. Those are all things we tend to associate with the cross. And almost every Christian organization, building, group, book, or artwork is going to have a cross on it somewhere. Like a brand logo in advertising. This is who we are.

Glorious glowing cross
Glorious glowing cross

Which is why people today tend to be so surprised that during the first three centuries, Christians did not use the cross as an emblem. At all. If you go to the Middle East and go to the oldest Christian churches still standing, there are no crosses anywhere. If you go to the catacombs, the underground burial chambers where Christians buried their dead and worshiped in secret from their persecutors, there is a lot of art on the walls. You’ll see murals of worship, of Bible scenes, of saints and angels. But you will not see any crosses anywhere until the fourth or fifth century.

We tend to think of the cross as power and salvation, but we forget that the cross was a torture device.A gory crucifix

A method of execution reserved for the worst of the worst. No Roman citizen could be crucified; that punishment was reserved for foreigners and slaves. And the kind of foreigners and slaves that the Romans most hated, to boot: the ones who were a danger to the existing social order. The ones who challenged the authorities. Revolutionaries, violent bandits, slaves who rebelled. The lowest of the low and the worst of the worst. That was the kind of people who were killed on crosses. It was a long death, slow and painful and public. In those first few centuries, when crucifixion was still a regular punishment meted out by the Empire, Christians didn’t need to paint it on walls. They’d all seen it done to people, every agonizing and horrifying moment of the hours (and sometimes days) it could take to die on a cross. It was not a symbol of glory and power and beauty. It was a sign of weakness and horror.

So when Paul says that Christ became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—that’s something. Being willing to die is one thing; it happens. Good people and bad people alike are willing to die for loved ones and for principles. Being willing to allow yourself to be tortured to death … that is another matter entirely. And that’s what Jesus did. Let’s be quite clear on that. Jesus was not just another human. He was human and God together. He was the Word who blew over the waters at creation, and the one who walked on the waters of the Sea of Galillee and calmed storms with a word. If he had not allowed himself to be handed over, tried in a kangaroo court, whipped, paraded naked through town, and nailed to a cross, it would not have happened. But Jesus loved the world so much that he was willing to die for it. And not just die, but die horribly, in a long, drawn-out, ugly death. He loved us that much, so much that he would let that happen to save us.

In our second reading, Paul asks us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, the same attitude, the same love. To turn away from selfish ambition and conceit, but act with humility and for the good of others.

Humble Pie

Now, humility, that’s a loaded word. And it’s a word that can be used like a weapon. For a lot of people, humility is different for the powerful and the powerless. Powerful people give lip service to humility with false modesty while regarding themselves as better than others. Meanwhile, when people lower down on the totem pole dare to speak up for themselves, to protest when they are hurt and abused, they get told they should be more humble. Submit to authority, no matter what. Not because they need to be humble, but just to shut them up and keep them from bothering people. An abusive husband may talk about how women should be humble, but what he really means is that he wants his wife to just take anything he dishes out. Needless to say, that is not the kind of humility that Paul is talking about.

Paul describes Jesus as humble, but I don’t think the chief priests and the elders would have described Jesus as humble. They wanted him to submit to them. Instead, Jesus submitted to God, which meant standing up to them. In our Gospel lesson today, they came to him to challenge his authority. You see, they were the ones who were supposed to have all the authority in society, and particularly religious authority. They were the ones who set policy, the ones who decided religious doctrine, the ones people came to for advice and judgment. And here was this Jesus dude, this ignorant backwater hick from Nazareth, of all places, who not only had huge crowds come listen to him preach, who could not only do miracles like heal people and feed thousands, he came into the Temple in Jerusalem and upset the apple cart. Literally. Well, it wasn’t an applecart, it was the stalls of the moneychangers and merchants who set up to do business in the outer courts of the Temple and disrupted the worship of those who came to pray.

“Who do you think you are?” the chief priests asked him. “What gives you the right to come in here and criticize us and disrupt things?” They wanted Jesus to back down and apologize. They wanted Jesus to bow to their authority. They wanted Jesus to be humble—by which they meant subservient to them. And if he wouldn’t do what they wanted, well, there were ways to deal with troublemakers. Just after this conversation, they decided that he was too dangerous to live, and began trying to arrest him. If Jesus had backed off and apologized, he would probably not have been crucified. But this is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is humble, but Jesus’ humility is about submitting to God, not to humans. The way the chief priests run the Temple works—for them. They were very good at keeping things running smoothly and business going on as usual.

The problem was, that very business got in the way of people worshipping God. It drew people away from God, and so it had to go. So Jesus would not back down. Jesus would keep on saying what the people in power didn’t want to hear because they needed to hear it, even if that meant he was going to suffer. And he was going to allow himself to be crucified, to be handed over to death, because he loved all of creation, from the rocks to the stars to the animals to the people of every tribe and race and class and nation, so much that he was willing to die to fix what we screwed up. He was willing to suffer in agony if that was what it would take to open up and expose the sinful, broken nature of the world so that we could be healed.

Jesus’ humility led him to allow himself to suffer for the sake of others; it also led him to stand up and speak out and take action for the sake of others. It’s a humility based on love, on choosing to do the right thing even if it will cost you. That’s what the cross is. And that’s the kind of humility that Paul wants us to have. The same mind that was in Christ Jesus, God in human form, who poured out his life to save us. Paul wants us to have the humility to follow God, whether that means standing up to people or sacrificing for the sake of others. It’s not humility for the sake of humility, it’s about doing the right thing, even when that’s hard or painful. It’s about making love—love for God and love for all the world—be more important than our own ego. It’s about letting God work in us and through us even if it’s not convenient, even if it hurts. That’s what the cross means.

We put crosses on billboards and on jewelry, we get them tattooed on our bodies, we put them in our churches and on our walls at home. We share pictures of them on Facebook. But are we willing to walk in the way of the cross? Are we willing to take on pain for the sake of others, and are we willing to stand up and speak out for the sake of others? Are we willing to seriously let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus? Thanks be to God for his work in us, which helps us to walk with Jesus.

Amen.

Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year A, June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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.

This week at Wednesday evening worship, when I read this Gospel and said “The Gospel of the Lord,” the response was kind of weak. This is not the sort of reading that one would naturally say “Thanks be to God!” for. This is the sort of reading that makes people frown and look sideways at their Bibles. The Prince of Peace saying he has not come to bring peace, but a sword? The Son of the one who commanded us to honor our father and mother saying “I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Really?

Let’s back up a bit, and see if some context will help. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends out his disciples to preach his message. And he tells them he’s sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Our Gospel reading is part of the instructions Jesus gives before sending his disciples out for the first time to preach on their own. This is what Jesus wants his followers to know about what they’re getting into when they preach Jesus’ message. This is what awaits those who preach the Gospel. Division and strife.

There’s an old saying that has always particularly struck me: “The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What does this mean? Well, let’s take a look at Jesus’ ministry. What did Jesus do on Earth? Well, first off, he never met a sinner he didn’t forgive and eat with. Whenever Jesus met someone who was outcast, someone whose life was in tatters, someone who was ignored and oppressed by society, he forgave them whatever sins they had committed and he ate with them. When he met someone that everyone knew was a sinner, he didn’t join the chorus of finger-wagging and tsk-tsking. Doesn’t mean he liked what they were doing, but he apparently figured that society had already done more than enough condemning already. He forgave them, loved them, and shared fellowship with them.

I want you to stop and take a moment. Think of someone or some group of people that you believe are sinful. Some person or group of people who have done bad things. Some person or group of people that most of the good people in town look down on. Those people, whoever they are. Think about that person or group. Then imagine Jesus going to visit them in their home, telling them he loves them, and staying for dinner. It’s not a comfortable thought, is it? That right there was enough to get the pillars of the community upset.

And when Jesus saw someone in pain, someone hurting, someone ill or injured or grieving, he healed them. Right then and there. No matter what else was going on. He didn’t care if it was the “right way” or the “right time,” he didn’t care whether the person was an insider or an outsider, he didn’t care about the rules of society. If he saw someone hurting, he healed them. And in so doing, he stepped on a lot of toes.

Even worse, he was not shy about calling out the sins and failings of the pillars of the community. All the “little” things they swept under the table, all the things they had convinced themselves weren’t sins at all. The things nobody would dare point out. He called them out on their greed, their hypocrisy, their selfishness, their callousness, their blindness. He pointed out the ways they interpreted the Scriptures so that their own culture was justified and other peoples’ was dismissed. He went out in public and pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. And the pillars of the community really didn’t like that.

Jesus spent his life seeking out the people whose lives were in ruins, who had been shoved aside by the community, and loving them. And then turning around and telling the leaders that they were just as sinful as any of the ones they looked down on, and they needed to shape up. This is not, to put it mildly, a way to become popular. The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. People who are afflicted, whether through the whims of fate or their own bad choices, don’t need any more afflictions, they need comfort. And people who are comfortable and have everything going their way don’t need more affirmation; they get enough of it from everybody else. What they need is a good kick when they get too complacent. And that’s what the Gospel does: it reminds the sinners and the sufferers of God’s love and mercy, and it reminds the self-righteous ones who coast on their laurels that they, too, fall short of the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel Jesus preached, it’s the Gospel Jesus lived, and it’s the Gospel that eventually got him killed. Because, of course, nobody likes being told they need to shape up. Nobody likes being told they’re a sinner. The pillars of the community have resources to shut up people who point out the Emperor has no clothes, and in first century Palestine, those resources included crucifixion. Jesus’ death on a cross was a direct result of the message he preached. Every time he ate with and forgave sinners, the leaders of the community grumbled against him. Every time he pointed out the sins of the good people, they grumbled against him. And began to lay traps for him, first to discredit him and finally to kill him.

So why, if that’s the case, would anybody want to preach the Gospel? What makes it worth it? Freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from having to pretend things are just fine when they’re not. Freedom from the idea that might makes right. Freedom to seek justice even when it’s not popular. Freedom from pettiness and cynicism and apathy; freedom to be the best we can be. Freedom to acknowledge when society is messed up and the freedom to live lives of joy and hope even in the midst of a broken world.

But in order to be free, you have to first acknowledge all the things that are holding you down. And that’s not always easy or fun. To be resurrected in Jesus Christ, you first have to die. And nobody likes dying. Even in a community where most people are Christian, the heart of the Gospel is no more popular than it was in Jesus’ day. There are some sinners we don’t want to forgive; some outcasts we don’t want to bring back in to the community. And there are certainly truths about ourselves and our sins that we don’t want to face! Comforting the afflicted can make you pretty unpopular. Afflicting the comfortable is even worse. If we’re really serious about following Jesus, we’re not going to be winning any popularity contests. If we’re really serious about following Jesus’ commands to forgive sinners and heal the broken and call out sin where we see it even when we see it in the leaders of the community, we’re going to face resistance. There will be conflict; there will be division. Not because God wants there to be conflict or division, but because that’s how people react when you call them on their bad behavior.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be blindsided by this, and he doesn’t want us to be, either. He’s quite clear: following the Gospel means taking up the cross. It means that people will be upset with you for telling them what they don’t want to hear. If you water the Gospel down so that people who are comfortable in their sins stay comfortable, and those who are afflicted and cast out and unforgiven stay afflicted and cast out and unforgiven, you are denying Jesus. You are denying the message he was willing to die to give us. And Jesus has a warning: if we deny Jesus, he will also deny us.

But in the midst of all this, there’s good news. We don’t get sent out alone, and we don’t get sent out without help. Yes, there will be conflict, and division. And in some places and times, there will even be physical danger. After all, most of the twelve disciples were eventually killed for their belief in Jesus Christ and their spreading of his message. Today there are still places in the world where being Christian can get you killed. But God is with us whenever the Gospel is truly preached. When we preach Christ, when we live the Gospel, Jesus lives in us. God knows each sparrow’s fall; God knows all of what happens to us. God knows each hair on our head and God is with us always, even when things get dark. We may lose a bit of life in this world; we may find ourselves deep in conflict even with those we love. But we are not alone in our conflict. And the Good News, the word of freedom and hope and love, is worth it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Third Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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

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

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

When we read the letters of Paul in the Bible, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they are letters.  They’re full of weighty theological matters about the nature of God, the nature of community, and what it means to be a Christian.  But they’re also letters about specific people and circumstances.  Paul was an itinerant preacher who traveled around preaching the Gospel and planting churches.  He made his living by making tents and awnings, and spent his evenings preaching and teaching.  When he had a church established in a town, he would pack up his belongings and move on to another city to set up his business and his ministry all over again.  Even though the churches he started were pretty self-sufficient by the time he moved on, they would still write to him for advice.  We don’t have copies of the letters they wrote to him, but the letters Paul wrote back were preserved and circulated to other churches, and eventually ended up in the New Testament.  First Corinthians is one of two letters Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth.

The Christians in Corinth were divided by a lot of issues, which should sound pretty familiar to us today.  They were divided over theology, over how to handle church meals, over where people sat in worship, and over matters of sexual morality.  How many churches today are fighting over what they believe, or about how to interpret the Bible, or about potlucks and soup suppers?  And there are certainly a lot of churches divided today over disagreements about sex and morality!  The Corinthians were also divided along gender lines and class lines and ethnic lines.  And how many churches today are divided between men and women, or rich and poor, or by ethnicity?  How many churches are there where only a certain type of people are welcome?  We have a lot in common with the first Christians who gathered in Corinth, and looked to Paul for guidance.

We don’t know exactly what questions they asked, but I wonder if they were surprised by how Paul responded.  Because, you see, he didn’t start by addressing any of the issues that divided the Corinthians.  He didn’t start in by talking about who should sit where during worship, and he didn’t start in by talking about sexual morality.  He didn’t start out by addressing the role of women, or the economic and ethnic issues that divided them, or even how to interpret the teachings he had handed on to them.  Instead, he started by reminding them of the most basic foundation of their faith, the one point on which all the Gospel rests: the cross of Christ.  He’d address all the other issues over the course of the letter, to be sure, but he starts with the cross of Christ.  Because the cross is why they’re there; the cross is what brings all these people together.

It’s what brings us together, too.  The love of God, poured out for us on the cross through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No matter what we disagree on; no matter what disputes and disagreements arise, the cross is the core of our faith and our community.  Now, there are a lot of people who don’t like thinking or talking about the cross, even among Christians.  It’s pretty gory, and it can be depressing to think about Jesus death and the reason Jesus died.  To remember that we are sinners.  Have you ever noticed that there are a lot more people in church on Easter Sunday than on Good Friday?

And for people who don’t believe, well, the whole idea of the cross just doesn’t make sense.  There are a lot of people who believe that Jesus was a moral teacher with a lot of good ideas, but the idea that salvation can come through something as barbaric as a crucifixion, well, that they just can’t swallow.  It sounds like foolishness to them.  I remember one Christmas day when I was in seminary, a couple of my cousins sat down with me after dinner and tried to convince me not to become a pastor.  “After all,” they said.  “It’s not like faith and religion make a difference to anybody.  If you want to help people, become a social worker.  If you like Jesus’ teachings, you can still share them.  Why would you want to become a pastor?”  The very idea of God being born in human flesh, and then dying to save a sinful, broken world, was unbelievable to them.  Foolishness.

And yet, in that act of weakness and surrender, when Jesus gave up his life for the very people who rejected and tormented him, God’s power shone forth.  In that act of darkness, in that murder of an innocent, the light shone forth.  In the cross, the gates of Hell were shattered and the chains that bound us were destroyed.  In the cross, God saved the world.  In the cross, the kingdom of heaven comes near to us and the seeds of that kingdom are planted in us and in the world around us.  Paul explained it this way in another letter he wrote: “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Christ chose to die for us even though we are sinners, even though we are broken, even though we could never deserve it.  Christ chose to die for us out of the greatest love there is, and that love was powerful enough to remake the world.  That love, poured out on the cross, broke the chains of sin and death and made us free in Christ.

We are here today because of the love shown on that cross.  We are here because experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ turned his disciples from timid followers who scattered at the first sign of trouble into faithful and courageous men and women who were open to the Spirit’s presence and spread God’s Word.  We are here because throughout the two millennia since then, countless billions of people have heard and been changed by the story of God’s love that comes through the cross, and have known the power of that cross to guide and save them through good times and through the deepest persecution.  We are here because we, too, have seen God’s power in our lives, the power of the one who came to save us by offering his life as a ransom for ours, who calls us by name and asks us to follow.

Paul knew that that power—the Word made flesh, the Love that conquered death and hell—is the ultimate reality for Christians.  It’s the center.  It’s the heart.  Everything we do and everything that we are should flow from that reality.  Every other issue we as Christians face must be guided by the light of the cross.  Everything, from morality to social justice, from theology to worship, from how we handle the problems with the roof to how we handle church potlucks to how we treat people, everything begins and ends with the cross on which Christ died.

It’s easy to forget that, as we go about our busy lives.  Even in church, sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted by the business and politics of running the church and forget about why we’re here.  It’s easy to get distracted by important issues like morality (or the lack of it), or by church attendance, or by our own internal disputes.  And those things are all important!  But more important still is our faith in Jesus Christ, who loves us and calls us to follow him, who died for us on the cross, who transformed us and saved us.  We may disagree on many issues—Christians have been disagreeing for two millennia, since the very beginning!—but we must never forget what brings us together.

Amen.