Lit Up By The Spirit

Pentecost, Year B, May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

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

 

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

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

One of the interesting things about the story of Pentecost is what came before it.  Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared to the disciples and the rest of his followers several times.  He reassured them, he comforted them, he ate with them … and he told them to go out into the world to share their faith.  He told them that he wouldn’t be with them personally, but he would send the Holy Spirit to them, to help them and guide them and inspire them along the way.  And then he ascended into heaven, after telling them again to go into the world and spread their faith.

What are the disciples doing, a week later, on the day of Pentecost?  Why, sitting together in a room, just like they had been on Easter.  What weren’t they doing?  Going out into the world and sharing their faith as they had been commanded.  Now, they hadn’t been idle.  They’d done some necessary things, like sorting out leadership and sharing the stories of Jesus in the group to build the faith of the people who were already Jesus’ followers.  This sort of preparation and planning and sharing is very necessary to success.  But the problem was, that’s where they were leaving things.  They had the Word of God.  They had the preparations and infrastructure.  And what were they doing with it?  Sitting on their butts where it was comfortable and safe.  Not following Jesus’ commands to go out into the world and share the good news.

And then the Holy Spirit came.  It burst into their room, lit them up, and sent them out.  In fact, if you notice, there is no transition between being in the room and being out among the crowd.  The Spirit comes in, and suddenly they’re somewhere else.  It makes me wonder if the transition was so fast, so confusing, that they simply didn’t remember it well enough to tell the story, afterwards.  Sometimes life is like that when things happen quickly, especially if the Spirit is involved.  When I entered the process of becoming a minister, it was like that.  I remember knowing God was calling me to ministry and stubbornly not wanting to do it.  I remember filling out paperwork and meeting with the Synod committee.  But even at the time, I didn’t remember actually making the decision.  I don’t remember when things changed from “I’m not doing this” to “I’m doing this.”  I didn’t see any fire or wind, and I didn’t suddenly start speaking in other languages (which might have been helpful when it came to learning Greek and Hebrew).  But the Holy Spirit came, and set my feet on a new path, one I’d been resisting even as I did things that prepared for it.

Have any of you had an experience like that?  A time in your life when God set you on a path you hadn’t expected?  Or maybe one that you hadn’t wanted, but that turned out to be the right one for you?  God’s call isn’t just a matter of ministry.  God sends the Spirit into us to guide us in many ways, both within church and outside of it.  Some of you who are being Confirmed today, or who will be graduating in a week, you might not have experienced this yet.  But I’m pretty sure that some time in your life, you will.  Your lives are just beginning, and so far there’s been a lot of preparation, a lot of study, a lot of getting ready.  Some of you have plans for your future, some of you don’t, but you will each and every one of you find there are times in your life when God has a different plan for you than you expected.  It may be something big, it may be something small, but you will find yourself someplace you never expected to be.  But you won’t be alone, no matter what else happens, because the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Acts reading, the Pentecost story itself, the Holy Spirit is very impressive.  It is fire and wind and inspiration and it literally sets the disciples on fire for the Lord and sends them out on the wind to minister to people from every nation in the world.  And there will be times in your life, we pray, when you will get fired up like that.  When your faith will be strengthened and you can’t not follow God’s call, whatever that may be in your life, and it leads you to be and do things you never dreamed, to places you might not have chosen on your own but which will nevertheless be good for you.  It may be as obvious as Pentecost, or it may be a bit subtler, but it will be amazing and probably a little scary.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Gospel reading, the Spirit isn’t as showy, or as wild, but it is just as strong.  Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, who will speak in our favor and defend us and support us, who will help us know the truth even when the world tries to confuse us or just doesn’t understand.  And there will be times in your life when the Spirit will be your Advocate.  There will be times when you will be confused.  There will be times when the world’s ideas of right and wrong are just not true.  There will be times when the right thing to do may not be obvious, and times when you will be tempted to do things you know are wrong.  There will be times when you need your faith encouraged and supported in the midst of a world that doesn’t understand.  And we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you in those times of trial, advocating for you and strengthening you and showing you the right thing to do and say, and giving you the courage to face the world with faithfulness and goodness.  And again, it may not be obvious when you’re going through it that the Holy Spirit is there; sometimes, when you are going through hard times it’s difficult to see God’s presence in you and around you.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our second reading, from Romans, the Spirit is a comforter in times of trouble.  Saint Paul describes the whole world as groaning in labor pains, with the future Kingdom of God on its way but not here yet.  Like a woman in labor, we know that something good is coming … but there is pain and hardship before it can get here.  In this life, there is pain and sorrow and grief.  There are hard times.  There are people who hurt others, or allow others to be hurt through inaction.  There are all kinds of evils.  And sometimes it seems so hopeless we don’t even know what to pray for.  But even in the midst of that we have hope, because the Spirit is in us, and we know that God’s kingdom of peace and love and joy is coming even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t imagine that anything good could possibly come out of a world as messed up as this one.  There will be times when your life will suck.  Times when you will suffer.  Times when hope seems foolish.  But we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you then.  That it will wrap its arms around you and hold you tight, and know the longings of your heart, even when you feel too bad to express them.  Even when you are at your very lowest ebb, when you are weak and beaten up by the storms of life, the Spirit will be with you, supporting you, working on your behalf.  The Spirit will know all the darkest places in your heart, all the times when you feel like just giving up, and it will be with you.

You are going out into the world in new ways.  Some of you are graduating and leaving town for further schooling or work.  Some of you are staying here and continuing to grow in our midst, but you will be making promises and taking responsibility for more of your own faith development.  But no matter what stage of life you are in, or where you are going, always remember this: the Holy Spirit will be with you.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Advertisements

What is to prevent us?

Easter 5, Year B, April 29, 2018

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

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

 

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

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

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  He had heard the word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ and of his saving death and resurrection, and there was water there.  What was to prevent him from being baptized?  It’s a good question.  Can anything get in the way of someone being joined to Christ in baptism?  Should anything get in the way?  Obviously, there are things humans can say or do that get in the way; we can discourage people, intentionally or unintentionally, from being baptized and thus joined to Christ’s death and resurrection.  We can put limits on who we will and will not baptize in our churches; we can make requirements on what they have to do or say beforehand.  Most churches have such requirements.  Maybe you have to take a class or profess your faith in the right kind of way or make promises.  Maybe you have to change careers, or change your way of life.  In churches like ours that baptize mostly infants, well, obviously we don’t require things of babies.  But we do put requirements on the families of those babies.  They have to promise to bring them to church regularly, for a start.  And we also make rules and put boundaries around who is and is not welcome in church.  We may say that all are welcome, but in practice some people are more welcome than others.

I tend to be in favor of such rules and boundaries.  When I baptize a baby, I always sit down with the parents about what that means, and what they’re promising to do for that baby as it grows, how they’re promising to raise them in the faith.  When I baptize a teen or an adult, I want to make sure they know what they’re doing, and I strongly recommend that their baptismal sponsors are close by to support them in their growth and faith.  And when I went to a seminar on evangelism, a few years back, and heard the story of how one church helped bring a couple out of a life of prostitution and pimping, set them up with another career, and then baptized the whole family, I was filled with praise for God—and I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable if they’d done it the other way around, baptism first and then helping them change their lives around.  And on a day to day basis, when someone suggests something new or different from what I’m expecting, my gut reaction is to protest.  Maybe some of you can empathize.

And then I come to this story.  The eunuch said: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  And there, by the side of the road, without classes or sponsors or enquiries into the eunuch’s lifestyle or anything else, he was baptized.  You may have noticed that verse 37 is missing.  We’re reading this passage as it was first written.  But later Christians read this story and were so uncomfortable with this idea, this implication that nothing at all should stand between someone and baptism, that they added in a verse in which Philip tells the eunuch that he has to believe in Christ with all his heart, and the eunuch says he does.  When modern scholars went back and looked at the oldest copies of the book of Acts, they saw that verse 37 was nowhere to be found, so they took it back out of our modern translations.  I understand why early Christians added that verse.  Surely, at least, you have to believe in order to be baptized?  Surely it can’t just be a matter of asking and receiving the grace of God poured out in water and the word?  And yet, in the earliest versions of this story, the Ethiopian asks, and he is baptized.  As simple as that.

This is even more surprising when you consider who the Ethiopian is.  He is an outsider, a foreigner, a eunuch.  Ethiopia, then called Aksum, was a wealthy and powerful empire based in the horn of Africa.  Israel had had ties with them for a thousand years, at that point.  The queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon was an Ethiopian, and these connections had resulted in a small Jewish community in Ethiopia that is still there today.  This Ethiopian was probably not Jewish, himself, as he was unfamiliar with Isaiah and needed help understanding it, but he obviously respected God.  He owned a copy of the book of Isaiah, and books were expensive.  And this is early in Acts; up to this point, everyone who has been baptized is Jewish, and the Christian community still believed that in order to follow Jesus you had to become Jewish.  In fact, if Philip’s congregation finds out he baptized someone who is not Jewish, they will be angry with him.  But the Holy Spirit brought Philip to that place, to that Ethiopian, and he asked to be baptized.  What is to prevent him?  Nothing!

More serious, however, is the fact that he is a eunuch.  A eunuch is a man who has been castrated.  Many cultures in the ancient world would castrate some men and boys, because it was believed to make them more trustworthy.  A man who was castrated couldn’t impregnate someone else’s wife or father children.  He had no family to compete for his loyalty, or any kind of a life outside of work.  But eunuchs weren’t respected.  They weren’t really seen as men, but they weren’t women, either.  They were weird, the butt of the joke.  They crossed gender and sexual boundaries.  They were queer.  You might employ one, but you wouldn’t sit next to him at dinner.  Or at worship.

In Israel, the laws in Deuteronomy forbade eunuchs from entering the Temple grounds.  So this person had learned of God from his Jewish neighbors, and had travelled 1500 miles to learn more.  But when he got to the temple in Jerusalem, they would have turned him away.  Because he was a eunuch, and thus not the right sort of person.  Sorry, sir, it doesn’t matter how much your heart yearns for the Lord, it doesn’t matter how much you love God, it doesn’t matter what else you do in your life: your kind are not welcome in God’s temple.  That’s what they would have told him.

So, the Ethiopian eunuch was returning home, a 1500-mile journey, empty-handed except for a copy of the holy scriptures.  Which he was reading.  Because even the rejection of the humans running God’s temple could not drive his heart away from God.  Now, there are two interesting things in the passage he was reading when Philip arrived.  The first is that it is a passage that Christians often apply to Jesus, the lamb of God who was slain as an offering for sin.  The second is that if you read on for just another few chapters, God promises the foreigners and the eunuchs that there will come a day when they will be part of the people of Israel and welcome in God’s house, because, as God says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”  All the outcasts—the foreigners, the weird ones like the eunuchs, the poor, the marginalized, the rejects—will be welcome.  Not only welcome, but sought out by God.

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  And Philip, he could have said plenty.  He could have quoted chapter and verse on why the Ethiopian had to become Jewish, first.  He could have said, “Sorry, Jesus loves you, but eunuchs just aren’t good enough to participate in worship, the day Isaiah speaks of hasn’t come yet.”  He could have said, “Well, you need to learn more about Jesus before we’ll let you be baptized.”  There were so many reasons that Christians—then and now—would have found to prevent this queer foreigner from being baptized.

But the Holy Spirit had put Philip in that place, and Philip listened to the Spirit’s call, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.  The Ethiopian eunuch asked for God’s grace to be poured out on him, and Philip had every reason to stand in his way … and he chose to help, instead.  That’s the last we hear of that Ethiopian eunuch in Scripture.  But while I don’t know for sure what happened next, I can guess.  You see, in 330AD Ethiopia was the first nation in the world to become Christian.  While the Roman Empire was still waffling back and forth about whether or not to persecute Christians, Ethiopia was a stronghold of the faith.  And it has been a Christian nation ever since.  I went to seminary with several Ethiopian-Americans.

We put boundaries around our faith.  Who can and cannot be Christian, who is and is not welcome in church, what people need to do or say in order to become baptized.  And there are often good reasons for such rules and boundaries.  I know just how soothing it can be to stay within your comfort zone, and how difficult it can be to think and act outside of it even when God is calling us to do so.  But we always have to ask ourselves: are those rules and boundaries for God’s benefit … or ours?  Are the conditions and expectations we create necessary, or is they a stumbling block?  And, most importantly, what is the Holy Spirit calling us to do?

May we, like Philip, follow the call of the Holy Spirit even when it calls us to set aside our rules and cross our boundaries.

Amen.

Love in Action

Easter 4, Year B, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

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.

“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  Thus begins our reading from First John.  And Jesus also talks about laying down his life for us on the cross in our reading from the Gospel of John: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  This is sacrifice of the greatest nature.  Being willing to die in order to save someone else.  Imagine what the Christian community would be like if we all followed this example.  It’s a model of Christian life—and death—that doesn’t quite fit with the ways we tend to think about Christian love and generosity.

On the surface, it does.  There’s lots of talk, in Christian circles, about love.  Lots of talk about sacrifice, and service.  Jesus gave everything, so we should too.  But have you ever noticed how often that ethos of loving service and self-sacrifice ends up, in practice, turning into a bit of superficial niceness?

Jesus’ command to love and serve becomes superficial niceness through a refusal to let that love transform our hearts and minds.  It’s relatively easy to paste a smile on our face, even if that means hiding what we’re really feeling.  Have you ever done that?  Maybe you don’t agree with someone, or you’re hurt by something they said, but you want to be ‘nice’ and Christians are supposed to get along, and so you don’t say anything and smile and change the subject.  Now, that niceness right then might prevent a fight … but it also prevents the possibility of reconciliation and healing.  Maybe they didn’t realize they hurt you.  Maybe you didn’t understand where they were coming from.  Maybe, if you’d sat down and talked it out in love, you could have found common ground and a deeper mutual respect.

And maybe not. Love can’t solve all disagreements.  But there is no possibility of that deeper understanding without taking the risk of being open and loving.  That niceness may prevent an open disagreement, but it can’t bring you closer together.  In a world where our whole culture is telling us not to trust one another, to be suspicious of people who think or act or look differently than we do, being nice is at least better than attacking other people.  But it’s not going to change us or our society for the better, either.  It’s not going to overcome the gaping divisions or heal the growing wounds we inflict on one another.  Niceness puts wallpaper over problems.  Love puts in the hard work of healing.  But to love means to make yourself vulnerable, and that’s a scary thing.  So we Christians choose niceness too often.

Another way modern Christians interpret Jesus’ command to love and serve is through the pay-it-forward idea.  Which, at its heart, is a good idea.  Instead of looking at the world as a dog-eat-dog place out to get you, try to increase the amount of good in the world by doing good deeds for others without expecting them to pay you back.  As Christians, we are supposed to be doing good deeds and helping others in the name of Jesus.  But have you ever noticed how often pay-it-forward gets boiled down to simple, cheap, and easy things like “buy coffee for the person behind you in line”?  Buying coffee for others is great.  But if that’s the sum total of the way you act out your Christian love and charity, if the only times you take time, effort, and money out of your busy life to serve others is when it’s cheap and convenient, that’s pretty superficial.  It’s nothing like the deep love for one another Jesus calls us to have, the kind of love that is willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others.

Christian love is transformative.  Laying down your life for the sake of love can change the world.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for the world, and it broke the power of sin and death, opening up the way of salvation for us.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for us, and that changed the world on a fundamental level: it means that however strong the powers of sin and death may seem, they are ultimately going to lose and be defeated by the love of God.  Now, obviously, us laying down our lives for the sake of others isn’t on quite the same scale, but it can still transform the world.

Consider Dashrath Manjhi, of Bihar, India.  Manjhi was a poor laborer who lived in a small town that was 15km away from the nearest hospital … as the crow flew.  Unfortunately, there was a mountain in the way, forcing people to travel 55km to get around it.  In 1966, his wife Falguni Devi was injured and died.  Manjhi set out to prevent anyone else from dying because they could not get to the hospital.  He was a poor man, who had nothing but a hammer and chisel.  It took him 22 years, but he carved a 9m wide road through the mountain, so that now the hospital—and the city it’s part of—is easy to get to for everyone in his region.  It saved lives and opened up economic opportunities for his whole region.  His love, and his sacrifice of 22 years of backbreaking labor, changed everything.  And if you hear this true story and tell yourself “I could never do anything like that,” consider this.  How much less time do you think it would have taken if the rest of the community had helped?  If they’d all come together instead of laughing at him for being so ambitious?

Consider Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran woman from Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa.  Her country was torn by religious, ethnic, and political turmoil that caused a civil war.  She started working with a church group to help people heal from the trauma of war, and from there she started gathering women from all sides of the conflict and bringing them together to work for peace.  They prayed for peace in churches and mosques, they talked to everyone who would listen, and through their tireless efforts the war was ended.  After the war, they continued to work for reconciliation and peace, bringing people from all different backgrounds together and helping them rebuild their lives.  Gbowee and her followers were tireless in their actions to bring both justice and mercy to a country that was desperately in need of both.  They gave counseling and support to women who had been raped and abused, they gave counseling and job training to young men who had grown up fighting, they insisted that the re-united country build a sustainable future which had room for everyone in it.  They did it out of love for their fellow human beings and hope for the future, and in so doing they transformed Liberia and are bringing peace and stability to the neighboring countries.

Consider Bikers Against Child Abuse.  They’re a motorcycle gang whose goal is to protect victims of child abuse and help them feel safe.  When a child has been abused, they volunteer their time to act as bodyguards as long as the child needs them, to help them understand that their abuser can’t hurt them any more.  It helps children who have experienced the worst things a child can start to feel safe again and heal.  They give of their time and attention so that the most vulnerable children can know the life-giving and positive love that God wants for them.

Consider the Community Cupboard of Underwood.  Before we started it, I knew there were people who were poor and hungry in our community.  But I was surprised, as we started up and learned more, at how many of them there were.  How many people in our community have trouble affording enough food to feed themselves and their families.  But by coming together as a community, now there is help for people who need it.  And we’ve helped with other things, too—helping people find housing they can afford, or household goods, or clothing they can wear to work and not feel ashamed of.  It’s taken a lot of time and effort and resources, and nobody could have done it alone.  But together we’ve improved the lives of people living right here in Underwood.  Out of love for our fellow people of Underwood, a whole lot of people have laid down their time and money, and made our community better.

Hate can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to destruction.  Fear can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to defensiveness.  Self-righteousness can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to judgmentalism and legalism.  The only thing that can transform the world for the better—the only thing that can make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom—is love.

Jesus Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life for our salvation, and the salvation of the world.  He chose to do what was hard, and painful, because he loved us.  And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us.  Most of us won’t be called to die for someone else, but laying down your life can take many forms: laying down your time, your attention, your money.  And sometimes it’s hard.  But imagine what the world would be like if we all took that command to love seriously.  If we all were willing to lay down our lives, and all that entails, out of love.  May we all learn to follow Jesus’ example.

Amen.

Easter 3, Year B, April 15, 2018

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-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, O Lord.

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

When I read our first lesson for today, my first thought was: “Really, Peter?  You, of all people, are criticizing what others did during the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution?  Does the word hypocrisy mean nothing to you?”  Peter criticizes the crowd of Jerusalem residents for what they did: for first praising Jesus, and then turning on him when he didn’t do what they expected, and listening to the religious and political leaders who saw Jesus as a threat.  And then, when Pilate offered to release a criminal, they chose the one who’d been imprisoned for leading a rebellion against the hated Roman conquerors, instead of Jesus, who taught about peace and healing and love.  None of this is good.  But let’s look at what Peter was doing, during that time.  First, in the days leading up to Jesus’ death, he consistently misunderstood what Jesus meant and tried to stop him talking about the upcoming crucifixion.  Then he repeatedly fell asleep when Jesus asked him to keep watch in the garden.  Then, after Jesus’ arrest, he watched the trial but not only did he fail to come to Jesus’ defense and point out the lies the witnesses were telling, he denied that he even KNEW Jesus!  There is no point in this sequence of events where Peter does the right thing.  Not one.  He didn’t call for Jesus’ death, but he did not say a word to prevent it.  And here he is, criticizing what OTHER people did?  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

And when you get right down to it, all human beings live in glass houses where sin is concerned.  Christ Jesus died because of the world’s sins, and that includes our sin, here and now.  And, unfortunately, a lot of that sin is the exact same sin of that crowd who first welcomed Jesus and then turned against him.  They wanted to be saved, but on their own terms, in ways that were familiar to them.  And then they listened to the voices of anger and fear telling them that Jesus was a way of threat to their faith and their way of life.  And they swallowed all the lies about Jesus that anybody could come up with.  When Jesus seemed like a winner, they were on his side.  When Jesus seemed like a loser, they abandoned him and even cheered for his death and destruction.  And given a choice between Jesus, whose promise of peace and salvation required them to change their hearts and minds, and Barabbas, whose promise of salvation was a bloody crusade against their enemies, they chose the violent one.

If you look around our society today, you will see exactly those same types of sin today, committed by good, Christian people.  We get this idea in our heads that we already know what life in God’s kingdom is going to look like, and it’s going to look like things we’re familiar and comfortable with.  Better than what we’ve got now, of course, but still pretty similar.  After all, we’re already God’s chosen people, right?  So we might still need God’s salvation, but we think it’ll fit neatly into our lives and society the way it is, just like those people of Jerusalem who called for Jesus to save them on Palm Sunday.  Which means we may not recognize God’s salvation, God’s call, when it’s right here among us.

And there are a lot of voices speaking and shouting in anger and fear, right now.  Fear about Americans of different races.  Fear of Americans of different political parties.  Fear of foreigners.  Fear of anyone who is different.  And while we are quick to see the flaws of people we count our enemies, we blindly follow the nastiest voices on our own side.  We follow people who seem like winners, and attack those who seem like losers, with little regard for what is right or wrong.  And we look for violent solutions, assuming that peace, security, and a just world can be created through violence and destruction.  Even when we know this is wrong, we fail to speak out against it, or even deny what we know to be true.  Every sin and flaw that led the crowds to call for Jesus’ death, and to Peter’s denial, is still within us here today.  And that desire to blame others while hiding our own sins, as Peter did in our first lesson?  That’s also still a part of us today.  In the words of one of my favorite Lenten hymns, “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.  ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.  I crucified thee.”  You and I and every person living today are just as guilty of Jesus’ death as the people who stood in the crowd shouting “Crucify!”

So the question is, if we’re still plagued by all the sins and flaws that have plagued the world since the very beginning of the world, what does Jesus’ death and resurrection matter?  What difference does it make, to you and I and our world, that Jesus died for us, and rose from the grave?  Is it just pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by?  Sure, we keep screwing up and hurting ourselves and others now, but when we die it will be okay because we’ll go to heaven?  I mean, that’s true, but it’s also a little limited.  Yes, Jesus’ resurrection means we will go to heaven, but Jesus also promised us new life in the here-and-now.  Jesus repeatedly said that God’s kingdom was all around us, if we only knew how to see it.

We are full of sin, but we are also full of the Holy Spirit, and full of God’s love.  For all that the world around us is calling for cynicism, hate, fear, and violence, God is working in us and around us to soften our hard hearts and purify us.  God keeps calling us to see that there is a different way, a better way, a way of reconciliation that leads to mercy and justice and peace.  Every time a bully stops hurting people, God is there.  Every time people stand up to a bully and protect the victim, God is there.  Every time people stop their knee-jerk reactions and choose to be kind and generous, God is there.  Every time people stop a cycle of violence and destruction, God is there.  Every time we give so that the hungry may be fed, the sick healed, homeless housed, refugees saved, God is there at work.  God is working towards a day when love and peace will be everywhere and sin will be defeated for good.

And God is calling us, you and me, to be a part of that work.  God is calling us to repent, to acknowledge the sin and brokenness in ourselves and turn to God for healing and forgiveness.  The world is full of sin but we don’t have to let it rule us anymore.  We can open our hearts and minds to Jesus, and let him change us.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it is hard, even when it will not win us friends or popularity.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it costs us.  May we always confess our sins, and strive to act in love as God calls us to do.

Amen.

Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.