Anti-Semitism and racism in America

There is a wave of racist and anti-semitic hate sweeping America.  As Christians, we worship a God who created all people of all races, loves all people, and died for the salvation and reconciliation of all.  Bigotry and hatred are not Christian–in fact, they are anti-Christian, in that they work directly against the reconciling and loving work of God in Christ.

For those of you who haven’t been aware of the sharp rise in bigotry and hate crimes, I encourage you to take a look at the Southern Poverty Law Center.  They are dedicated to documenting and combating racism, anti–semitism, and every sort of bigotry and intolerance, and so they have information both on general trends and specific incidents.

I’d like to point out the case of Tanya Gersh, a Jewish woman who has been targeted by American neo-Nazis and faces huge amounts of unbelievable harassment.  The SPLC is suing the man who started and directed the harassment.  They have sent threats by every possible method.  Some of the milder examples include the following:

“Day of the rope soon for you and your entire family.”  Pictures of Tanya being gassed (just as Jewish people were gassed during the Holocaust).  Images of ovens with threatening messages sent to her twelve-year-old son.  (Remember how the bodies of millions of Jewish people were cremated in the ovens of Auschwitz and the other concentration camps.)  Christmas cards with threatening messages.  “Thanks for demonstrating why your race needs to be collectively ovened.”  “You have no idea what you are doing, six million are only the beginning.”  “We are going to keep track of you for the rest of your life.”  Hundreds of letters, texts, emails, phone calls, all designed to terrify and hurt Tanya and her family.  These are the milder ones.  Most were much worse.

Why was Tanya targeted?  She’s a real estate agent in Whitefish, Montana, home to the mother of Richard Spencer, one of the country’s most prominent white nationalists, and until recently Richard Spencer’s own home base.  After Trump was elected, Spencer spoke to a crowd of white nationalists calling them to “Hail Trump!  Hail our people! Hail victory!” to which the crowd responded with Nazi salutes.  A video of this went viral, and many good citizens of Whitefish were shocked and disturbed to hear that their home town was associated with neo-nazis.  Not wanting their town to be used to support Spencer’s work, they wanted Spencer’s mother to sell the commercial property she owned in the town.  Tanya was the real estate agent working to broker a peaceful and fair solution.

Enter Andrew Anglin, founder and owner of the largest white supremacist website in the country.  It’s called the Daily Stormer, named after a 1930s Nazi tabloid.  Anglin, who calls Trump “Our Glorious Leader,” wrote article after article urging his followers to harass Tanya, her family, and other Jewish people in Whitefish.  He published pictures of them and contact information and encouraged people to go to Whitefish to attack them in person.  And the flood of hatred and evil began.

This is not Anglin and The Daily Stormers’ only effect in the last seven months.  They were emboldened by Trump’s election, which they call “the ascension of our Glorious Leader.”  Anglin regularly encourages his followers to intimidate Muslims and “any foreigners you see” so that they will “be afraid.”  He’s organized 31 chapters in the US and more in Canada, energizing and radicalizing people so that they commit acts of intimidation, terror, and violence.

Dylann Roof, who massacred nine African Americans at Emmanuel church in Charleston was a regular user of The Daily Storm.  So are several others who have killed or attempted to kill black men and women in recent months.  One even killed a member of the British Parliament.

The SPLC lawsuit, if it is successful, will take a bite out of his organization.  It won’t restore Tanya’s peace of mind, but it will pay for treatment for the trauma she and her family have endured, and the loss of income from clients driven away.  And, hopefully, it will discourage people from doing this kind of vicious evil.

I hope you are as horrified by the neo-Nazis, the so-called “alt-Right”, as I am.  And I hope you will join me in speaking up whenever you see racism, anti-Semitism, or any other form of bigotry.  If you are a Republican, this is especially important given how the white supremacists have attached themselves to the GOP’s coattails.

This kind of vileness is not okay.  It is anti-Christian and makes a mockery of both our faith and our nation’s ideals.

For further reading:

The SPLC case docket

The man behind the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer website is being sued by one of his troll storm targets.–(warning, this Washington Post article includes some of the more explicit and horrifying harassment.)

Suing the Trolls: A woman’s lawsuit against a neo-Nazi’s “troll storm” could change how to fight back against online harassment.

 

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Can you blame Thomas?

Third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

If I didn’t know today’s Gospel story, and I had to pick which disciple was going to not believe that Jesus was risen, I would not have figured Thomas as the one.  Peter, maybe; Peter was always getting things wrong and not understanding what Jesus was doing.  But Thomas?  In John chapter 11, Thomas was the only disciple who seemed to get that going nearer to Jerusalem seriously meant risking death, and wanted to go anyway.  True, that was partly out of grief over Lazarus’ death, but at least it was something.  And then later, at Jesus’ Last Supper, Thomas asked a very good question, which Jesus used as the foundation for one of the great statements of who he is.  Thomas, in other words, gets closer to understanding Jesus than the other disciples before Jesus died.  And, unlike Peter, he’s never had a major mistake.  He’s never said or done anything so bone-headed that you just have to sit there shaking your head at it.  So why is it that Thomas, out of all the Disciples, is the one who doesn’t believe Jesus has risen from the dead until Jesus comes back to actually show him?

Let’s consider the larger picture.  Jesus died, and on the third day he rose again.  The disciples spent that time terrified that the authorities were going to come and arrest them, too.  They stay inside a locked room, where it’s safe.  Or at least, it feels safer than being out on the streets, among the people who so recently cheered Jesus’ crucifixion.  Let’s get real, if either the chief priests or the Roman governor decided to get rid of the rest of the group and sent troops?  A locked door would not keep the centurions and Temple guards out.  If all their fears come true, there is absolutely NOTHING the disciples could do about it.  They are absolutely helpless in the face of the powers that want Jesus’ movement crushed.  Nothing they say or do could possibly save them if the powers of the world truly decided to crush them.  But I’m sure that locked door made them feel safer.  It was absolutely, completely, and totally useless for any practical defense.  The lock on that door has one purpose, and one purpose only: to make the disciples feel better.

I’m sure it was very comfortable inside that locked room.  They could sit there and talk about how awesome Jesus was to their hearts’ content.  They could sing songs, and share stories about Jesus, and what he had done in their lives, and feel safe and secure and warm and happy.  They never had to take the risk of someone not understanding them.  They never had to take the risk of anyone looking at them and going, why do you care so much about a dead guy?  Or worse, wow, you guys sure are stupid for following him for that long.  And they never had to worry about putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.  Jesus asks hard things of his followers.  Jesus told us to forgive those who sin against us, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, love our enemies and people who are unloveable, and a lot of other hard things.  It’s a lot easier to talk about how we should feed the hungry than it is to actually do it.  It’s a lot easier to say, of course we should love our enemies, when we don’t have to actually put that love into action.  And if you’re hiding away in a locked room with only the people who agree with you, you never have to worry about any of that.  It’s very comfortable.

Which may be why, after Jesus appeared to them on that first Easter Sunday, and breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and sent them out to spread God’s peace and forgive sins, they … just keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I mean, this was a dramatic moment!  Jesus appeared in a locked room!  Jesus, who had been DEAD, was ALIVE.  And although he could apparently walk through walls when he wanted to, he was no ghost, no spirit.  His body was as living as the rest of him.  And then he gave them the Holy Spirit.  Now, when the Spirit comes, things are supposed to happen, right?  The Spirit is life!  The Spirit is fire and water and the breath of God and inspiration and it takes people, shakes them up, gives them faith, and sends them out into the world!  Look at what happened when the Spirit came into the disciples fifty days later, at Pentecost—they went out and spread the Gospel and baptized thousands!  Our first reading, Peter’s preaching to the crowd and three thousand people were baptized?  That’s from Pentecost!  That’s what happens when the Spirit moves people!  And here, the disciples have just seen the risen Lord, and he has personally breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and what do they do?

Nothing.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada, not one thing.  They keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I think we can all agree that this was not the fault of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that Jesus was not at work in their lives!  Jesus was really, physically present!  Jesus had personally and tangibly given them the Holy Spirit!  Jesus had told them to get out into the world and start spreading his peace!  And the disciples responded by going, well, that’s awesome, we’re really happy Jesus, but the world is a big and scary place and this locked room is pretty comfy, so we’re going to stay right where we are, instead.  But we’ll make sure to tell Thomas all about it!  I can just imagine Jesus standing there face-palming.

And where was Thomas when all this was happening?  Well, that’s the interesting thing.  Thomas was the only one of the disciples who WASN’T cowering in a locked room.  He was out and about in Jerusalem somewhere, and that’s why he didn’t see Jesus when the rest of the disciples did.  Maybe he was doing the grocery shopping.  Maybe he was visiting friends and family.  Maybe he was doing what Jesus had told them to do all along—feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, forgive the sinner, spread God’s peace.  I don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t say.  But whatever he was doing that first Easter Sunday morning, he was braver without even knowing Jesus was risen than the other disciples were after a personal appearance by Jesus and a personal, tangible gift of the Spirit.

So Thomas was out and about in Jerusalem while the rest of the disciples barricaded themselves in a locked room.  Then he gets back and they tell him awesome news!  Jesus is risen!  He gave us the Holy Spirit and told us to spread peace!  Isn’t that wonderful!  And if I were Thomas, I would have said something along the lines of, okay, great, what happens next?  Because whether you believe Jesus was risen or not, nobody can stay in a locked room forever, right?  So where are we going, what are we going to do, how are we going to start spreading that peace and forgiveness like Jesus commanded?

This is where the disciples start hemming and hawing and coming up with excuses for why they can’t actually go out and start sharing the good news, spreading God’s peace, forgiving sins, or doing any of the other things Jesus has taught them and commanded them to do.  Well, you know, it’s too late to start today, we better wait until tomorrow, when we can get a good head start on it.  And, you know, people don’t want to listen to messages of peace, the city’s pretty tense right now and everybody is busy with cleaning up after Passover and getting back to their normal lives, so they probably wouldn’t listen right now.  And we can’t possibly do anything until we’ve got a good plan, and we’ve never done this before so we don’t know what would be best.  And people might get mad if we tell them that Jesus, the same guy they crucified, is God’s Son and rose from the grave!  And what if the Romans hear about it, they’d get mad.  What if the high priests hear about it, they’d get even more angry, and so we can just stay here sharing peace with each other and forgiving each other when we make mistakes, okay?  Any excuse that will justify staying up there in that comfortable locked room.

I can just imagine Thomas standing there staring at them, listening to all their excuses for staying where it’s comfy and cozy and they never have to actually put their faith into action.  Do you blame him for not believing them that Jesus rose from the grave?  Do you blame him for not believing that the Holy Spirit had come into them?  They’re not acting like Jesus is risen!  They’re not acting like they’ve been given the Holy Spirit!  They’re just sitting there like bumps on a log!  Why should Thomas believe them?

Why should anyone believe us?  Because we do the same!  We have been given the Holy Spirit!  Many times!  We were given the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptisms, and again at Confirmation, and again throughout our lives whenever God wishes to inspire us.  But how often do we act like it?  How often do we let that Spirit, that relationship with the risen Christ, drive us out into the world to start spreading God’s peace and love?  We come for Easter services and say He is risen, alleluia! And then we go back to our homes and have a nice family dinner and an Easter Egg hunt.  And then we go right on about our business like nothing has changed.  We stay firmly in our comfort zone, in our safe and ordinary lives, coming up with all the reasons why we can’t open up to what the Spirit calls us to do.  Just like the disciples stayed up in that locked room.  And then we wonder why no one listens to the Good News we have to share.

The disciples don’t look like Jesus is risen.  Sometimes, neither do we.  Jesus says that those who have not seen and believed anyway are blessed, but most people are like Thomas.  We need to see something.  If not Jesus risen with our own eyes, then at least the Holy Spirit sending us out into the world.  May we follow the Spirit wherever it sends us.

Amen.

Where Jesus Is

Second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017

 

Acts 2:14a, 22–32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

The powers of death and hell have been broken.  Christ is alive.  He has promised to be with us, and he has promised to give us his Holy Spirit.  And he is!  Throughout every part of our lives, good and bad, we are never alone, for Christ is with us.  That’s just as true for times of sorrow and suffering as it is for times of joy and celebration.  But one thing I’ve noticed, throughout my life, is how easy it is to miss Jesus.  To not notice the Holy Spirit.  To walk around with God right next to me and be completely oblivious to his hand at work in me and in my life.  Now, sometimes—a lot of the time!—that’s because I’m not paying attention.  I’m just going about my life, following my own plans, and even though I know I should be trying to follow Jesus, it’s a lot easier just to go on about my business.  But there are other times when I need God’s presence, when something bad has happened and I feel alone.  And only later do I realize the ways in which God was with me all along.

So it’s comforting to read about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the Bible and know that I’m not the only one who has trouble recognizing Jesus when he’s there right next to them.  You see, our Gospel reading for today is only one of several places where Jesus appears to people after his resurrection—people that knew him well!—and they don’t recognize him.  I’m not sure why that is.  In the walk to Emmaus in today’s reading, the disciples explain to Jesus that the women at the tomb had a vision.  They don’t believe that Jesus rose from the grave; they believe the women who saw the resurrected Jesus just had a vision.  They are walking along right next to Jesus, and I’m sure they were wishing that Jesus was there with him in their grief and sorrow.  They were with Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him.  We are told that they were kept from recognizing him—maybe because they’ll understand more if they listen to him and speak with him before they learn he’s Jesus?  Maybe it will have a better impact that way?  Or maybe it’s their own wrong understanding that’s keeping them from seeing Jesus.  Maybe it’s the fact that, despite the testimony of the women, they don’t believe that Jesus is really risen that keeps them from seeing him.  Maybe, despite all they’ve seen and everything that Jesus has said, they just can’t accept the idea of someone rising from the dead.  Maybe they’d say, well, resurrection is a nice theory, and I’m sure God could raise the dead if he wanted to, but it obviously couldn’t be true now, here, today, in my ordinary daily life.  We think that too, sometimes. We don’t recognize God’s presence in our lives because our lives are too ordinary, we think, for God to be with us.  And yet, God is there even if we don’t recognize him.

There are other followers of Jesus, too, who don’t recognize him after he rose from the dead.  Earlier that first Easter morning the women went to the tomb and were surprised by the stone being rolled away.  Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener at first.  She doesn’t recognize him because she’s looking for the wrong thing.  Her grief is blinding her.  She’s looking for a dead body instead of a living Lord.  We do that, too; look for Jesus in all the wrong places, or mistake him for someone else when we do see him.  Jesus is with us, but we don’t always recognize him.

But there is one place that we can count on Jesus being, absolutely for sure, and that is the meal we share together here in worship, the bread and wine that are his body and blood.  Hear the words that Jesus told his own disciples, that have been handed down ever since: Take, and eat.  This is my body, given for you.  Take, and drink, this is my blood, shed for you.  When we come together in the name of Jesus Christ, the bread and the wine become his body and blood.  Even when our eyes are kept from seeing him, he is here.  In the bread and wine, we can see him, touch him, smell and taste him—a tangible reminder that he loves us so much he died for us, and that we too will someday rise as he did, because we are tied to his death and resurrection.

Notice when the disciples recognize him.  Notice when their eyes are open.  Not on the way, as they’re walking and talking and learning from Jesus.  They spent probably hours together, on that road.  And they were good hours, hours spent drawing closer to Jesus even if they still didn’t recognize him.  Hours of learning.  Hours where their faith was nourished and grew.  But they didn’t see Jesus for who and what he was until he took the bread and wine, and blessed it, and gave it to them.  Just as he blessed it and gave it to them in his last supper before his death.  Just as he gave his body and blood for them on the cross, so now he gives it to them again in this meal.  And that’s when their eyes are opened.  There’s something about this meal that does that: opens their eyes, and connects them to God.  We human beings are tactile creatures.  It’s one thing to intellectually understand something, or remember it, or think about it.  It’s something else to have a visceral and bone-deep experience.  Where our bodies are affected, not just our brains.  We don’t get to be there at Gethsemenee or Golgotha or the empty tomb.  We don’t get to put our finger in the wounds in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side.  But we do get this.  We get the body of Christ, placed into our hands.  We get the blood of Christ, shed for us and for all people, to take and drink.  How it happens that bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood, we don’t know.  I can’t scientifically explain the transformation.  But we know that it happens, that Jesus meets us—always—in the breaking of the bread.

Today we are celebrating with several children who are coming to Communion, some for the first time, and all with a better understanding of it.  We gathered weekly during Lent to learn about Holy Communion, and what God has done for us.  And the first place we started was talking about meals: what meals do they remember?  What events are marked in their family by special meals?  Are there any stories their family tells about things that happened at special meals in the past?  And every year I do this, kids tell me stories.  Because in the human experience, food is one of the universal ways we build community and memories.  Every special event is marked by a meal, and every time we share that meal, we remember.  When we come together to share in God’s holy meal, the bread and the wine that are Jesus’ body and blood, we remember all that Jesus did.  We remember the meals that he shared in life, with his disciples and with the Pharisees and with sinners.  We remember how he fed the five thousand people in the wilderness.  We remember his last supper, how he gave his body and blood in the form of bread and wine, and commanded his disciples to love one another.  This meal that we share helps us to remember all the meals in the past that helped bring us here.  This is important, because in order to know where we’re going we have to know where we’ve been.  To understand what God is calling us to do out in the world we have to know what God has done for us.

But this meal is not just about memory.  It’s not just about remembering what Jesus did a long time ago.  It’s also about experiencing Jesus’ presence here and now.  Because Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy who lived a long time ago.  Jesus is present in our lives, now.  Jesus didn’t just sacrifice himself for us once on a cross, Jesus offers his body and blood to us every week, to strengthen us in faith and love, to help us connect to him, and to nourish both our bodies and our souls.  We may not always see Jesus, we may not always be aware of God’s presence, but in the meal we share in worship we can see, feel, taste, and smell our Lord’s presence.  May it strengthen us in faith towards God and fervent love for one another.

Amen.

The Process of Being Born

Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

 

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

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 was there in the room when both of my brothers were born.  I don’t remember much about Nels’ birth; I was only four and a half.  But I was sixteen when Lars was born, and I remember it very well.  And one of the things that I remember is how long it took, and how much was involved.  It seemed to take forever.  Mom was at the center of things, with Dad supporting her, and nurses and doctors coming in and out as things ebbed and flowed.  There were moments when things got very intense, and then everyone would relax for a bit.  Then another pang would come, and things would rev up again.  It seemed to take forever, and there was a lot of yelling and mess and gross stuff, but at the end, there was a new life: my baby brother Lars.

I think that may be one of the reasons I’m so comfortable with the Lutheran understanding of what it means to be “born again.”  In those traditions which emphasize being “born again,” it’s usually talked about as a relatively simple event.  You hear a call and come to Jesus.  You see the light and become a Christian.  You feel God’s presence in your life and get baptized.  Over and done, boom.  I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the point is that a born-again Christian can usually give you a time and date for the moment they believe they were born again, born from above.  In theory, that moment of being born again changes you forever.  In theory, once you have been born again, the Christian life is simply a matter of continuing on in holiness and growing in a straight line towards God.  You shouldn’t still struggle with your faith, or sin, or fall back into un-Christian behavior.  It happens, of course, but it’s not supposed to happen.

I can’t name a date and time when I was saved or born again, but that isn’t because I haven’t experienced that second birth Christ talks about in our Gospel.  I can’t give you a specific moment partly because I’m pretty sure it’s still happening.  We are all, every one of us, in the middle of being born from above.  We are still in the middle of all the pain and mess of our second birth.  It’s an ongoing process.  No Christian, in this life, is perfect in faith; no Christian, in this life, follows God’s call completely.  None of us are free from sin; none of us are free from temptation; none of us is free from doubt.  There are times when we feel close to God, and times when we feel separated.  We are forgiven, and then we fall back into sin, and then we confess and are forgiven anew.  Faith is not a simple one-and-done thing; it’s a complex reality to be lived through.

Martin Luther put it this way: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.  The process is not yet finished, but it is going on.  This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”  In other words, the life of a Christian isn’t about already being a perfect faithful Christian, but about growing in faith.  It’s not a one-great-moment and then everything’s settled and fine forever.  There are highs and lows, peaks and valleys.  There are pains, setbacks, trouble; there are times of rest to catch your breath.  Just like in a birth.  There are a lot of people who have a part to play in our growth in faith; some of them are there for the whole long process, and some are just there for one part of it.  Just like in a birth.  It’s a long, drawn-out process, just like a birth.  And, at the end, there is new life … just like in a birth.  Except that this birth takes our whole lives, and the new life is the life we have in Christ.  This birth is not about blood and biology; this birth is about faith and the family of God.

This birth comes through water and Spirit.  That should sound familiar to you.  There is a sacrament we have—shared by all Christians—of water and the Holy Spirit.  Baptism.  When we are showered with the waters of baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  We become part of a new family, the family of God—just as we become part of our birth family when we are born.  The water washes away the old, sinful self; our sins are drowned in the waters of baptism.  And yet, we still sin.  But that doesn’t mean that baptism isn’t effective, and it doesn’t mean that the transforming power of water and the Spirit isn’t still at work in us: that just means that the Spirit’s work in us is not yet done.  Although we only are baptized once, the reality of baptism lasts our whole life long.  Every day, we are drowned in the waters of baptism, and every day we rise to new life in Christ.  As our faith ebbs and flows, as our commitment to Christ grows (and sometimes shrinks), the Holy Spirit works in us continually.  We are in the process of being re-born as children of God.

We don’t get to choose what the Spirit does in us.  We don’t get to choose where it sends us.  Just like the infant in the birth canal, we go where we are pushed.  We don’t know what’s coming; the future is beyond our understanding.  But we know that we are on the way; we know that something wonderful is coming.  We know that something new is coming, and that we will be new in it.  We trust the Spirit to lead us to God.  We trust the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to work in us and around us, and to work in and around the whole of creation.  We trust that love will win, and that love will be active in faith.  The whole purpose of God’s work in the world is that his love will overflow in us.  For God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but live God’s abundant life now and in the world to come.  God didn’t send Jesus into condemn the world, but to save it.

That salvation works through faith.  Faith is not just a static thing that we have, it is something we do.  It’s something we are.  It’s something we grow into.  Belief isn’t just about memorizing the right answers.  In Greek, the word for faith—pistis—can be both a noun and a verb.  In other words, it can be an idea, but it can also be an action.  But in English, faith is a noun, and a noun only.  There is no verb form; “faithing” is not a word.  When faith is used as a verb in Greek, it’s translated as “having faith” or “believe.”  Which still makes it sound like faith is an object you possess and carry around with you, instead of something you do.  When Jesus talks about “having faith” or “believing” in our English translations, he’s not saying that we need to memorize the right beliefs and be able to recite them on cue.  He’s talking about trusting God.  He’s talking about living faithfully, and trusting God to bring us through the labor pangs.  Jesus is talking about putting our belief into action, living with the reality of God’s salvation as the motivating force in our lives.  Jesus is talking about letting the Spirit work God’s will in us, opening us up to the power of God.

We can’t see the Spirit directly.  We don’t see where it comes from or where it goes.  We can feel it working in us; we can see it in the love of God poured out for all the world.  We can experience it in the new life that brings God’s love more clearly to all the world.

Amen.

Holiness

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, February 19th, 2017

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, 32-37, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

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.

In our first reading from Leviticus, God tells us to be holy, as God is holy, and in our second reading Paul tells us that we are God’s holy temple, and in our Gospel reading Jesus tells us to be perfect, as God is perfect.  So, then, I think we need to take some time to ask the question: what does it mean to be holy and perfect?  And immediately, we run into a problem.  When we hear the Scriptures tell us to be holy and perfect, what do we all start thinking about?  Our own moral status.  Am I, personally, holy, or am I sinful?  Am I perfect, or am I flawed?  Have I, personally, done everything I should have done and refrained from doing what I should not?  It’s a very individual way of looking at things.  And it’s no wonder, because the larger religious culture tells us that what we should most be worried about is our personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

The problem is: the phrase “personal relationship” is not found anywhere in Scripture.  Most of the Bible doesn’t care about our individual relationships with God; it is much more focused on our communal relationship with God.  And today’s readings are a perfect example.  Each one of them is not aimed at individuals, but at the community.  In Leviticus, God does not say “you should be holy on a personal level,” God says “you should all be holy together.”  In Corinthians, Paul does not say “you personally are God’s temple,” he says “all of you are God’s temple.”  And Jesus doesn’t say “you individually should be perfect,” but rather “all of you collectively should be perfect.”

We know this because most languages, including Greek and Hebrew, have two words for “you,” while English only has one.  In most languages, if you are talking to a group, the pronoun to address the group as a whole is different from the pronoun to address a single person.  It’s like in English, if you go to the south, there’s a difference between “you” and “all y’all.”  In the rest of the country you might say “you guys” instead of “you” if you were talking to a group.  But in English translations of the Bible, they just use the word “you” for both one person and groups of people.  So it’s easy to miss that God or Paul or Jesus or whoever isn’t just talking to individuals but to a whole group of people.  And while a lot of times it doesn’t matter, sometimes it does.  Holiness and perfection are not primarily about our individual moral state.  They are about what kind of community we create together by the grace of God and in God’s image.

So, then, what does a holy community look like?  What does a perfect community look like?  I should point out that the word “perfect” is sort of misleading; the Greek word is something like complete or whole, and it comes from a word that means “the end.”  Perfection is about becoming what you will ultimately be like, and what will the community of believers ultimately be like?  Where will we end?  In heaven, in God’s kingdom, in the place that has no end.  So the point Jesus is making is that we should be creating communities that are striving to become like the community we will be when all our wounds and brokenness have been healed and all our tears have been dried and there is nothing but light and joy and love and peace.

Leviticus is one of the books of the Law designed to guide God’s people into being this kind of holy community.  We Christians do not follow these laws because of the decision of the Council of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts.  Many of these laws either don’t really apply to the modern world or are specific to Jewish religious rituals or are these odd things that appear in one or two verses and don’t really seem to connect with much of anything else.  But there are some overarching themes, certain types of things that get emphasized over and over and over, and these tell us a lot about what God desires of the community of believers.  Our first lesson today was drawn from some passages that deal with these overarching themes.

Note that when Jesus told his followers to love their neighbor, he wasn’t saying something new.  He was quoting from the ancient laws given by God.  You shall love your neighbor.  And, in the same chapter, you shall treat everyone—even foreigners—as your neighbor.  You shall specifically love your foreign neighbors as yourself.  How does this love show itself?  In a lot of ways.  Respect the elderly.  Point it out when people in the community do bad things.  Act with justice, so that the rich important people don’t get special treatment and the poor don’t get ignored.  In business, make sure that all your dealings are honest so that everyone gets treated fairly and your employees get paid a good wage, but if that isn’t enough and there are some people going hungry, make sure they are fed.

Now, human nature, when faced with these passages, is to find some way to squirrel out of it.  Surely God didn’t mean we need to make sure everyone gets fed?  What if we don’t have enough money?  What if they’re addicts or lazy or bad people who don’t deserve it?  But the command to make sure everyone has enough to eat is repeated many places in both the Old and New Testaments, and it is never limited to the deserving.  I guarantee you that there were alcoholics in the ancient world, and lazy people, and bad people.  But none of these are excuses.  The whole community has a responsibility to make sure that everyone gets food.  Everyone with a field must leave some crops in the field for any hungry person to take.  Now, today when farmers are a tiny percentage of the population and most people live in cities, the type of gleaning Leviticus describes wouldn’t work.  But we still have the obligation as God’s holy people to make sure that nobody is going hungry.

And then there’s the thing about foreigners.  This is something we talk a lot about, today.  Why should we let foreigners in?  Especially ones who are different than we are?  What if they’re criminals?  What if they’re terrorists?  Surely God would not want us to take such a risk.  And yet, we should remember that the ancient Israelites were far more vulnerable than we are.  We have a rich, powerful nation with extensive security apparatus and a strong army to protect us.  Israel and Judah were small, relatively poor countries trapped between larger and richer countries.  They got invaded regularly, and conquered several times throughout the Bible.  But this is not an excuse God allows.  You shall not oppress the foreigner, and you shall love them as yourself.

We modern American Christians, when we think of holiness and perfection, tend to focus on believing the right things.  And, certainly, what we believe is very important.  But what we’re supposed to believe isn’t included in the holiness code of Leviticus and it isn’t included in the Sermon on the Mount.  See, “faith” is a verb.  Faith isn’t something we are, it’s something we do, a way of life.  Faith is not passive.  If our faith in God is true and good, it will lead us to act in the world.  It will lead us to act with justice and love.  Not just on an individual level, either.  Not just in our own immediate circle of friends and family.  But in our whole society, for everybody.

I look at this holy code, this way of life that God calls us to live together, and it is very easy to get discouraged.  Because the world doesn’t look like that holy community.  The Christian community doesn’t look like that holy community that God wants us to be.  Instead of loving our neighbors, we get suspicious; instead of loving the foreigners among us as ourselves, we hate them and send government agents to harass and deport them.  And in our nation, thirteen percent of households are food insecure, so that while they aren’t starving they don’t always have enough for everyone to eat.  Thirteen million American children live in those households where there is not enough food.

And I’m a historian.  I know that humanity has never lived up to the holy society God calls us to be.  Never.  The ancient countries of Israel and Judah didn’t live up to it; that’s why the prophets kept having to call them to account.  And no Christian society has ever managed it either.  Even in the best times and places, there has always been injustice, hunger, hate, and evil lurking in the background, no matter how nice and pretty it looked on the surface.  And so it is easy to despair.

Sin warps our best efforts, and yet God loves us still.  We fall short of the holy lives and holy community that is God’s desire and will for us, and yet God loves us still.  We let the worst parts of ourselves dictate too much of what we do as individuals and as a society, and yet God loves us still and sent his only son Jesus Christ to save us.  We fall short; we cannot achieve that holy life God calls us to.  And yet, there is still hope.  Not in ourselves, but in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Day, December 25th, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The True Prince of Peace

Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7, 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Two thousand years ago, there was a man who was called the Savior.  He rescued his people from the doubts, fears, and wars that consumed them, and so they called him the Prince of Peace.  He was worshiped as a god.  His face was put on the money.  He brought a new peace and prosperity that was supposed to last forever.  And his name was Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.  He did some great things, but within a century the peace he created had crumbled, replaced by civil war and corruption.  No empire lasts forever; no merely human peace can prevent hostilities.  And the only salvation a human can bring is temporary, limited, and finite.  The good news that Emperor Augustus brought did not long outlast him.

But during his reign, something else happened.  A baby was born.  Not in a palace, not in the center of power, but in a stable in a backwater town in a backwater region of a remote region of his empire.  A baby born to a poor, ordinary couple, completely unremarkable in every way except one: God had chosen them to raise his son, Jesus, born on a cold winter’s night, in poverty and obscurity.

While the man the world called the prince of peace was feasting in his palace, attended to by slaves and courtiers, the true prince of peace was being laid in a manger.  While Emperor Augustus was sending out messengers with his laws and decrees, God was sending angels to shepherds and wise men with an invitation.  God’s instructions were simple: don’t be afraid, for something wonderful has just happened.  Go see the baby in the manger, and rejoice, for there is good news for all people!

And they went, and they saw, and they told everyone, and everyone who heard it was amazed.  But you know, the Bible didn’t say what they were amazed at.  Did they believe? Was it that kind of amazement?  Or was it the kind of amazement where they were surprised and perplexed at the things the shepherds and wise men told them?  Because then, as now, they were used to saviors and princes of peace like Emperor Augustus.  So what did they think when they were told that their savior, the one to bring peace, was an ordinary-looking baby born in the middle of nowhere in a stable?  Could they imagine the kind of peace and joy and hope that the baby was born to bring, or were they imagining the kind of peace and joy and hope that they were used to?  Could they really believe that it was for all people?  Can we?

Emperor Augustus brought peace through the sword.  He was a great military leader who crushed his enemies, and then used politics to benefit his supporters.  He made sure that his supporters prospered and his enemies suffered.  It was great news if you were one of his people, but bad news if you were one of his enemies.  And so the enemies became bitter, and just waited for the chance to strike back, and others just coveted Augustus’ power and sought to take it from his successors, and the peace that Augustus brought could not last.  That’s the way the world works, so often.  We make peace by suppressing violence, rather than by building relationships.  We treat life like a zero-sum game where no-one can benefit unless someone else suffers.  And so what’s good news for one group is bad news for another.  And so conflict flourishes, jealousy and hate prevail, and peace is more of a temporary ceasefire than a lasting reality.

That is not the kind of peace that Jesus came to bring.  That is not the Good News that Jesus is for all people.  Jesus didn’t make those kinds of distinctions.  Jesus came for everyone: rich and poor alike, men and women, old and young, sinners and saints, of all races and tribes and nations.  For those who were sick or hurting, Jesus brought healing.  For those who were lonely or outcast, Jesus brought community.  For those who were hungry, Jesus brought food.  For those who were oppressed, Jesus brought the promise of justice.  For those who were rich, Jesus brought the promise of a deeper love and joy and purpose than is found in mere possessions.  For the sinners, Jesus brought forgiveness.  For those who were imprisoned, Jesus brought the promise of freedom.  For all people, Jesus brought new life.  For everyone, good news and hope.  The kind of good news and hope that endure in good times and bad.

That is the kind of Good News Jesus came to bring 2,000 years ago, and that is the Good News that Jesus continues to bring to all who open their hearts and minds to him.  Not the good news brought by politicians or military leaders.  Not the good news that benefits only some and hurts others.  But good news for all people, good news that endures no matter what, that brings a peace the world cannot understand.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.