Lazarus was dead, to begin with

Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

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.

Lazarus was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.  This is the reason Jesus delayed the two days: so that everyone would know that Lazarus was dead.  Remember, he arrived four days late.  Even if he had come immediately when he got word, Lazarus would have been in the grave for at least two days by the time Jesus arrived.  But at two days’ dead, one could have argued that perhaps he was merely in a coma, or in that state between life and death where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.  But no, when Jesus arrived Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.  No food, no water, no air.  There was no possibility of his still being alive under any circumstances.  Lazarus was dead, and everybody knew it with a bone-deep certainty.  He was not mostly dead, he was all dead.  He was not merely dead, he was really most sincerely dead.  He was not just dead, he was dead and rotting.

It is said that there are two certainties in life: death, and taxes.  I suppose if you are too poor or manage to live completely off the grid, you might get out of taxes; but nobody gets out of death.  Not since Adam and Eve first decided that that apple looked mighty good, and surely God wasn’t serious when he said they’d die if they ate it.  The world is broken by sin and death, and in this life we can’t avoid either.  In life, nobody gets out alive.  Things wear out.  People die.  Communities die.  Nations die.  Cultures die.  Nothing lasts forever.

But we worship a God of Life.  We worship a God who created the universe and all that is in it.  We worship a God who created the earth to be a paradise, and saw that it was good.  We worship a God who wants us to not only have life, but to have it abundantly.  Overflowing with good things: peace and joy and love and hope and so much more.

If you have ever been angry at death, if you have ever been frustrated at the pain and sorrow and suffering in the world, you are not alone.  If you have ever wanted to punch death in the face, you are not alone.  God, too, gets angry at death; God, too, gets frustrated at the way we hurt one another;  God, too, gets upset at how we take the abundance he gives and waste it so that some have too much while others are desperately in need.  God, too, wants to punch death in the face—and sin and suffering, while he’s at it.

I know that, because in our Gospel reading Jesus was upset and angry.  Where it says he was “greatly disturbed and moved” that’s actually not a very good translation.  There isn’t a translation that really gets the feel of the Greek.  We keep trying to sentimentalize Jesus, here.  We keep trying to make grief his primary emotion for his friend.  And it is true that Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, and Jesus grieved deeply at Lazarus’ death.  But he was also frustrated.  Angry.  A better translation than “deeply moved” would be “deeply indignant.”  The Greeks, who read the New Testament in the Greek it was originally written in, have spent a lot of time over the last two thousand years pondering why Jesus is so angry, here.  There are a lot of possible answers.  But I think Jesus is angry at death.  Jesus was angry that Lazarus had died, but Jesus was also angry that anyone dies.  Jesus was angry at the way God’s beautiful creation is broken.

I think Jesus was also angry at how we take death for granted.  We take illness and brokenness for granted.  We think about the planes that crash, not the ones that land safely.  Whenever someone protests at the cruelty and unfairness in the world, someone else will shrug and say “life’s not fair, deal with it.”  Or maybe “but if you protect people from that, they won’t toughen up!”  As if cruelty and unfairness were supposed to be normal, or perhaps even good.  Death may be inevitable, death may be part of the way the world works, but it is not supposed to be.  That’s why Jesus came to earth; that’s why Jesus became human.  To break the power of sin and evil.  To smash it.  To destroy death, to swallow it up forever.  This is why Jesus came to earth; this is why, just a few weeks later, Jesus was going to die.

But notice when, specifically, Jesus gets upset, what moves him to the point of tears.  Jesus asks where they have laid the body, and the community tells him to come and see.  And then he starts crying.  The thing is, we’ve heard those words before.  They’re a common theme in John.  When Jesus first started inviting the disciples, that’s what he told them: “Come and see.”  Come and see the Lord of Life.  Come and see the one who is the Resurrection and the Life.  Come and see the Son of God.  He didn’t tell them all that, he invited them to follow, to see.  And when one disciple invites another to follow, that’s what he says, too: come and see.  Come, see and experience for yourself the lifegiving Lamb of God.  Come, see the abundant life God brings.  Come and see!  And when the woman at the well goes to her community, that’s what she says, too.  “Come and see!”  Come and see this man who might just be the Messiah, the holy Annointed One of God.  Come and see this man who knows me, who knew me before he saw me.  Come and see this one who promises living water so that we will never thirst again.

This is the invitation to life.  This is the invitation to participate, to become part of God’s kingdom.  It doesn’t start with explaining all the details, it starts with an invitation.  Come, and see for yourself what God has in store for you.  Come, and see the life God has for you and for all of us.  Come and see the love of God made flesh and bone.  Come and taste the bread of life and wine of salvation poured out for all people.  Come and touch the one who loves you and knows you more deeply than anyone else ever could.  Come and hear the word of life.  Come and see.

Jesus has been inviting people to come and see for three years, at this point.  He’s been teaching and living his message, for three years, and putting it into practice with miracles that bring abundant life for all.  Jesus has healed the sick, forgiven the sinner, fed the hungry, and done wonders beyond measure so that people can see and experience God’s abundant life.  Not just for some, but for all.  Everyone there knows who Jesus is and what he has done.  Some of them have been there to see it; some of them have heard him speak; some of them have heard the witness of others.  He has asked them all, in word and deed, to come and see what new thing God is doing.

And now, here, when they ask Jesus to come and see, they mean a tomb.  They mean death.  They mean the very opposite of what Jesus has come to do.  They have seen, but not understood.  They think he could have kept Lazarus from dying … for now, at least.  Their comment isn’t about healing, or about resurrection, although many of them believed that one day all the dead would be raised.  The highest their expectations go is the prevention of death for a little while.  Death, in their minds, still gets the final say.  Death to them is the end which we can sometimes put off but never prevent, which can never be beaten.  And so Jesus is so frustrated and upset he begins to cry.

The Gospel of John is structured around seven signs, seven miracles, that Jesus showed the people around him, signs of God’s abundant life.  The first was the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine.  The raising of Lazarus is the last and the greatest.  All right, Jesus says through his tears.  You’ve seen, but you haven’t understood.  My job is to destroy death; my job is to bring life.  So here it is, a foretaste of the feast to come.  And so Jesus, in anguish and frustration, prays loudly to God so that they might hear and orders them to roll away the tomb.  And he commands the dead man to come out … and Lazarus does.  Not as a zombie, not still sick, but alive and well enough to sit down to dinner with them all in the next chapter.

Death has one more shot.  Two weeks after raising Lazarus, Jesus will be crucified by the authorities, and he will die, and he, too, will be placed in a tomb.  And after that, he will rise, and the power of death will be destroyed forever.  The general resurrection, when all graves everywhere will be opened and all who have died will live again, whole and healed and restored, will not happen until Christ comes again.  But we know it’s coming.  We have seen our God, who brings life.  We have seen our God, who destroys death itself, who opens graves, who brings life in the most impossible places.  Life is here.  Come and see.

Amen.

Giving Living Water

Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

 

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

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 there is one question guaranteed to get most good, active Christians to hang their head in shame, it’s this one: how often do you share your faith with others?  You see, we know we’re supposed to be evangelizing, spreading the Good News.  We know there are a lot of people in the world who desperately need the Good News, who long for some deeper meaning to their lives but looking in all the wrong places.  We know that the world is full of parched souls searching for living water, and that Jesus Christ is the living water that will quench that thirst and give them abundant life.  And yet, sharing our faith is scary.  It’s a very personal thing, and what if we don’t know enough to answer all their questions, and what if they laugh, or what if we offend them?  And so we just … don’t.  We have living water in a world dying of thirst, and we don’t share it.

I understand, because I’ve been there.  When I went off to seminary, some of my friends were shocked.  See, they didn’t even know I was a Christian.  I’d never even mentioned my faith, because I knew they weren’t believers and I didn’t want to make things awkward.  And in the Lutheran church, before you get accepted to seminary to become a pastor, you have to write six pages about your faith and how you feel called by God.  It’s not judged on academic standards, but just on how you talk about your faith.  That was the hardest six pages I’ve ever had to write in my life.  I wasn’t used to sharing my faith, and it made me feel so naked.  I know just how hard it can be to share our faith with others, but I also know how vital it is.  Each and every one of us is here because someone—parents, teachers, grandparents—shared their faith with us.

So let’s take a closer look at our Gospel reading, to see what we can learn from it.  The first thing that strikes me is that Jesus knows her.  And it’s that knowledge, not the theology, that gets her to sit up and take notice.  It’s the fact that he knows her that gets her village to listen, too.  Now, we can never have the kind of intimate knowledge of someone that Jesus has, but we can and do get to know the people around us.  And you know what?  One of the key ingredients about whether someone responds positively to the Gospel or not is whether there’s a relationship there.  If they know and trust the person who’s telling them about Jesus, they’re a lot more likely to listen with an open heart and mind than they will to someone randomly coming up to them and asking them if they’re saved or not.  Jesus could build that relationship quickly; for us it takes longer.

Pastor Mark Nygard, currently serving in Bowman, North Dakota, was a missionary in Africa for many years.  His first assignment, he was the first missionary in the area.  It took him twenty years to gain his first convert, because it took that long to build up the kind of trust and relationship with the community that would inspire them to open up enough to him.  He didn’t start by talking—he stared by listening.  He started by listening to their concerns, hearing what they hoped for, what they feared, what they cared about.  And once they knew he cared about them—not just as souls to be saved, but as people—they were willing to listen to him talk about Jesus.  Just like, in our Gospel reading, it’s Jesus knowing and caring about the woman that gets her to open up to him.  He knows, her he accepts her, he cares about her … and that’s what shocks her.  That’s what sends her out to her friends and family and community to share the Good News.

Second, Jesus took a risk in talking with her.  You see, she was a Samaritan and Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish.  Jews and Samaritans did not get along.  They had never gotten along.  They worshipped the same God, our God, but they disagreed about everything: which books should be considered holy Scripture and which shouldn’t, where one should worship, and many other things.  They did not live in the same towns, they did not drink out of the same wells, they did not eat together, and if they absolutely had to be at the same place, they ignored each other.  Notice that both the Samaritan woman and the disciples are uncomfortable that Jesus is talking with her.  Yet we are not sent to spread the Good News only to people who are already like us, but to everyone.  It’s a lot easier to talk to people we already know than it is to go out and meet new people.  Meeting new people is a risk, especially when they come from different cultures as the Samaritan woman did.  Yet however different they are, they are still children of God, created by him, and they still have a thirst for the living water that Jesus gives.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last few years I’ve heard Underwood natives—the people who grew up here, whose families have been here for generations—note that there are all these people they don’t know in town.  People who came in to work the mine or the power plant, or who work in Bismark or Minot but wanted their kids to grow up in a small town.  Some came from across the state, some came from across the country.  And so often, instead of welcoming them in and getting to know them, we just keep talking to the people we already know.  If Jesus had done that, the Samaritan woman wouldn’t have come to faith, and neither would her community.  And neither would any of our ancestors.  We are called to spread the Gospel to all nations and all peoples … and the first step is getting to know the ones here in our midst.

Third, Jesus didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the nitpicking theological points.  He doesn’t start out by quoting chapter and verse.  He knows what she wants and needs because he knows her, and that’s what they talk about.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus does explain the fine points of Scripture, but it’s almost always to his disciples, the inner circle who already follow him.  When he talks to people like the Samaritan woman, he talks about the things in their lives that matter to them.  He talks about how the Good News fits into that.  So, for a woman who spends a lot of her day hauling water for drinking and cooking and cleaning, he talks about living water that nourishes our souls and never runs dry.  And they talk about her life, and where God is in the midst of it.

This is Good News to her, but it should also be good news to us.  You don’t have to know all the Bible by heart to share the living water.  You don’t have to have memorized all the correct theological beliefs or clever arguments to persuade people.  You just have to be able to talk about their life, and where God might be in it, and where you’ve experienced God in your own life.  It doesn’t take professional training in evangelism, although that can help; all you really need is sincerity.

Last, take heart in Jesus’ words to his disciples.  The fields are ripe for harvesting, and we are not the only workers.  Spreading the Gospel does not rest wholly on our shoulders.  It’s not about one heroic witness that wins a soul for Christ.  Rather, like farming, spreading the Gospel is the culmination of a lot of little things.  Someone has to plow the fields, and then someone has to plant the seeds.  Then someone has to fertilize them, and maybe irrigate them.  Then someone has to spray for weeds.  Then comes the harvest.  But all of these roles don’t have to be the same person.  Maybe your job isn’t to convert them.  Maybe your job is just to till the soil, or plant seeds, or water them with living water.  Each one of us is an important part, and each one of us has a role to play.  But none of us is the only part.  We share in this labor with all Christians.  We are sent by Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father, with the Holy Spirit inspiring us and guiding us.  We don’t have to do everything.  We just have to do our part, and trust that God will send others to do theirs.

Jesus met the woman at the well, and talked with her.  He knew her, and cared about her, and built a relationship with her, and she listened because of that relationship.  He built that relationship despite all the social taboos against it, despite the pressure to stick with his own people.  He shared his experiences, and he showed her how God was a part of her life, and the gift of living water that God wanted her to receive.

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.

What Forgiveness Looks Like

Lent Wednesday Worship 2017

 

Ezekiel 18:25-32, Psalm 103:6-14, Ephesians 4:25-32

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

 

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

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

Of course we all know that Christians should forgive, and we all know that God forgives.  This is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith.  But when you start looking at what that looks like in practice, well, then things get a little murky.  Because in practice, we don’t always agree on what that looks like.  Is there something special you have to do or say to be forgiven?  Do you have to stop doing the sin?  And what if it’s an addiction or caused by a mental illness, and you can’t stop?  Or what if people don’t believe you’ve stopped?  Or what if you are sincere in your desire to change, and backslide anyway?  Some people would say that everything can be forgiven and there are no requirements.  Take that too far, and you get kind of a loosey-goosey nothing matters anything goes world.  Nothing matters because anything can and will get forgiven and swept under the rug.  On the other hand, some people would say that there are things that can’t be forgiven, and that there are pre-requisites to being forgiven, which quickly sets us up as judge, jury, and executioner.  Forgiveness becomes something you earn, instead of a gift given from God, and the world is divided up into “good” people who deserve forgiveness and “bad” people who don’t, and then you can do anything to the “bad” people because after all, they deserve whatever they get.  Forgiveness is a great principle, but in practice it gets very messy.

Part of the problem comes with the phrase “forgive and forget,” where once something is forgiven you’re supposed pretend it never happened.  But no matter how hard you pretend, it still happened.  Hurt was done.  Pretending doesn’t make it not have happened.  For example, if someone gets drunk and then gets behind the wheel of a car and hits someone on their way home, and kills them and totals their car, forgiving them doesn’t mean it never happened.  The victim is still dead.  The car is still totaled.  The consequences still exist—not just consequences for the person who drove drunk, but for a lot of other people.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean the consequences go away.  So what does it mean?

I think the first thing to remember is that we are not God, and this is not heaven.  We forgive because we have ourselves been forgiven and we have the example in Jesus’ love, but we don’t forgive in the same way God does.  God removes our sins from us—but we can’t remove other peoples’ sins from them.  God heals us and heals the world, and when Christ comes again all the things in ourselves and in the universe that are broken now will be healed and made better than they ever have been before.  That’s what God’s kingdom is: a place where everything and everyone is healed and whole and there is no pain or suffering.  And God’s forgiveness is an important part of what heals the world.  But we don’t live there yet, and while we can make this world better than it is we can’t make it as good as it will be when Christ comes again.  Our forgiveness and our capacity for healing are, in this world, finite.  So what does it mean to forgive in this world where consequences continue even after forgiveness, and healing can only go so far?

We forgive because God has forgiven us.  We love because God loves us, and taught us what true love really means through the life, death, and resurrection of his son.  God’s goal for us—for each one of us as individuals, for us as a community, for humanity as a whole, and for the entire cosmos—is to be made whole and life full and abundant lives.  God does not want us to be broken.  God does not want us to be in pain.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  But we turn away.  We hurt ourselves and others.  We break things, and people, and communities, and the fractures spread further than we know.  The easy thing to do is to respond in kind: to return pain for pain, evil for evil, hurt for hurt.  And if we can’t get back at the one who hurt us, well, surely we can find someone else to dump our pain on, until it becomes routine.  Until anger and fear and hate and resentment and malice and selfishness guide how we see the world, and each step takes us and our community further away from God’s love and abundant life.

The only way to turn away from that path—the only way to turn back towards the abundant life God gives—is forgiveness.  Not as a way of pretending the evil didn’t happen, not as a way of sweeping things under the rug, but as a way of guiding our own actions.  We can’t control other people.  All we can do is guide how we respond.  Are we going to be cruel, or kind?  Are we going to add to the pain in the world or, so far as it depends on us, bring healing?  Are we going to tear down or build up?

I know a number of people who were abused as children.  In some cases it was simple neglect.  In others, complex emotional manipulation.  In others, physical abuse.  There are a lot of reasons for it: some of the abusers had been abused as children themselves and just didn’t know healthy ways of treating their children.  Other abusive parents just didn’t want children in the first place and probably should never have had them.  Other abusers were just plain cruel, or self-centered, or in a few cases had untreated mental illness.  And our society hates to admit that sometimes people abuse or neglect children in their care.  We assume it can’t be true unless there is incredibly blatant evidence hitting us in the face that can’t possibly be explained away any other way.  And so, most of the time, we blame the victim.  They must just be a bad kid.  And how ungrateful they are that they don’t want to spend time with their parents!

The abuse survivors have to live with the consequences of others’ actions: not just the actions of the abusers, but of everyone around who looked away or assumed that everything was fine.  Years of trauma that have caused anxiety, PTSD, and a variety of psychological problems.  Many of them—quite justifiably—hate and fear the ones who harmed them so deeply.    People say, “oh, you should forgive them and mend your relationship!”  But if the abuser continues the same behaviors, there is no way to mend the relationship without opening the door to further abuse.  Even when the abuser really has changed, the damage done may be great enough that no relationship in this life could ever be healthy.  So the most loving thing to do may be to say “I forgive that person.  I don’t hold any bitterness about their actions in my heart, I’m not brooding over what they did to me, but I can’t be around them.”  The most loving and forgiving thing may be a clean break that allows people new space to grow in.  It’s not necessarily “nice,” and it certainly isn’t forgetting what has been done.  But it is a way that opens space for building up new lives, new hopes, new grace.

God loves us always, unconditionally.  But God hates the way we hurt ourselves and each other.  Through our actions and inactions, we add to the pain in the world, the suffering, the malice, the grief.  There will come a day when all that is broken will be made whole, when all pain and suffering will be healed, when all tears are wiped away.  That day will come when Christ comes again.  Until that time, we are called to live in love and forgiveness.  We can’t fix all the broken things, but we can open up space for love and kindness to grow.  Even when a relationship can’t be repaired, we don’t have to carry the bitterness with us in our hearts.  Sometimes forgiveness means trying again; sometimes forgiveness means learning to move on.

Amen.

 

Telling the Truth

Ash Wednesday, 2017

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

Ash Wednesday is a day for telling the truth.  Not the shiny, pretty lies that we want to hear; not the pretty surface the world wants to see, but the truth.  And the truth is, we are sinners.  God created us to be good, but we have turned away and gone astray.  There is goodness in even the worst of us, because God’s good work can’t be completely broken … but there is also sin in even the best of us.  Some of that sin we choose; some of that sin we learn from those around us; some of that sin we inherit from the general sinfulness of humanity.  In one of the creation stories in Genesis, God creates us out of the dust of the earth, molding us like a potter molds a vessel.  Then God breathes life into us.  Then we don’t trust God and turn away from him.  And sin breaks into our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and all of creation, bringing death and pain as its constant companions.  And so we will someday die, and whether we are buried or cremated, our mortal remains will eventually crumble to dust, the same dust God originally created us out of.

Now, our reactions to the great truth of our sinfulness vary.  Some of us deny it; some of us would be gold-medal contenders if “self-justification and excuses” were an Olympic sport.  We’re not really sinners, we think; we haven’t done anything that bad.  If you find yourself thinking this, I would suggest taking a good, hard look at yourself.  Would your spouse agree?  How about your kids, your parents, your friends—your enemies?  How have your actions and inactions caused pain for yourself and others?  How have your actions and inactions increased pain and hate and fear and suffering in the world?  I guarantee you, that no matter how good you think you are, you have done things that have added to the suffering in the world, and you have failed to act when you could have brought healing or hope.  We all have.  And most of us avoid this truth with self-justification and self-righteousness.  Some people can even take a bad thing and talk about it as if it were something good!  Parents who abuse their children, for example, often believe that they are helping their children—toughening them up, say, or getting rid of whatever traits they don’t approve of.  But whatever form the self-justification and denial takes, it prevents us from dealing with the reality that every single one of us is broken and sinful, and that even the best human society is riddled with sin and brokenness and darkness.

But denial and self-justification isn’t the only response to the truth of sin.  Some people take it far too much to heart.  People who have been abused are often manipulated into believing that they are worthless because of their sin and thus deserve whatever abuse is heaped upon them.  People with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses often believe that their sins are so deep and dark that they can’t ever be redeemed or loved.  Even small mistakes—even things that aren’t mistakes at all—are seen as huge gaping chasms isolating and dragging them down.  They know the truth of their sin so well that they cannot see that there is a truth greater than sin, and that is the love of God.

We are broken, sinful creatures, every single one of us, and that is the truth.  We make the world a darker, more painful place by our actions, by our words, and by the things we leave undone and unsaid.  This is the truth.  Little by little our sins add up, increasing the death and pain in the world.  This is the truth.  But there is another truth, deeper and greater than this one, and that is the love of God.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, not even ourselves.  Not even our brokenness, our pain, our sins.  Nothing in all of the universe can stop God from loving us.  Even as we sin, even as God hates all the ways we destroy ourselves, other people, and all of God’s creation, God does not stop loving us.  God will always love us, even while he condemns the things we do to ourselves and others.  God’s love is stronger than God’s condemnation; God’s forgiveness is greater than God’s judgment.  God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  This is the truth that we cling to as Christians; this is the truth that caused God’s Son to be born as a human, to die for our sake, and to rise again in glory, so that we might be saved.  We tell the truth about our sins not to revel in gloom, or to prey on people with anxieties, but so that we can understand what God has done for us—and why it was necessary.

Our sins are many.  They harden our hearts, they blacken our hearts and souls and minds.  They lead us astray, sometimes convincing us that their path is the path of righteousness.  Our sins have caused us and others real pain, real suffering, real death.  We cannot sweep this under the rug, and we shouldn’t try to.  Because when we acknowledge our sin, God relents from punishing.  When we acknowledge our transgressions, God who is faithful and just forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  When we admit the darkness in our hearts and lift them up to God, God creates in us new hearts.  But that cleansing, that washing, those new hearts can’t come as long as we deny that we need them.  We can’t be reconciled to Christ if we already think we’re in good with him, but the second we admit our need, change becomes possible.  Salvation becomes possible.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.  We are sinners, and we will someday die.  Yet we are also beloved children of God, who loves us, forgives us, and reaches into our graves to give us new life in his kingdom.  This is most certainly true.

Amen.

In the Presence of God

Transfiguration A, February 26th, 2017

Exodus 24:12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

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

 

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

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

When I was a kid, I believed in God.  I believed that he existed, and I believed that he had created everything, and I believed that he had sent his only son Jesus Christ to die for our sins and save us.  I was quite clear on that.  I just didn’t see what any of that had to do with me.  Because while I believed everything that the Bible says about what God had done, thousands of years ago, I was pretty sure that God wasn’t involved in the world any more today.  I mean, not really.  Sure, I believed that faith in God dictated where you went where you died, but I found the idea of UFOs and aliens more plausible than God actually being active in the world in the then-20th Century.  And part of the reason for that was Bible stories like today’s Gospel and first readings.  You see, I looked around me and I didn’t see anybody being transfigured in glowing array on a mountaintop, and I didn’t see any burning bushes, or arks, or food for five thousand people appearing out of thin air, or any of those spectacular miracles and wonders the Bible describes.

It’s easy to read stories like the ones in today’s Gospel and first reading, and get caught up in the glamor of it.  God reveals God’s power in a tangible way.  Yes, we know that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Son of God come to save the world, but it’s a little easier to believe when he’s lit up like a Christmas tree with Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament, on either side and a booming voice from heaven proclaiming him THE BELOVED SON OF GOD and telling us to listen to him.  They’re beautiful.  Wondrous.  I can just picture them as dramatic scenes in a movie, with lots of special effects.  But eventually, you have to ask the question: if that’s what God’s actions are like—if such dramatic, obvious miracles are the way God works in the world, why haven’t I ever seen anything like it?

I mean, there are healings that people call miracles, where doctors can’t explain them.  But most of those don’t happen because a faith healer lays hands on someone, and there is no dramatic moment of healing where everything is magically all better.  And people sometimes experience the light at the end of the tunnel when they die and are brought back to life by medical science, but all that proves is that God is waiting for us when we die.  It doesn’t show that God is active in the world.  And there are movies, and TV shows like Touched by an Angel, and stories of miracles, but nothing that I, as a young Christian, had experienced personally, or had been experienced by any of the faithful Christians I knew.  And so I believed in God, but went about my daily life without paying God any attention whatsoever.

And then I got a little bit older, and had to figure out how to deal with the fact that not only was God active in the world, God was active in my life, and was calling me to ministry.  This was a rude shock.  And, at first, I didn’t want to believe it.  After all, there still weren’t any burning bushes or glowing lights.  Just a nudge, a tug on my soul that got ever more insistent as I grew older, until finally I couldn’t deny it anymore and went off to seminary.  God’s activity in my life is not and has never been a constant thing, but I find the more that I pay attention, the more I see things that speak to me of God’s hands at work.  Often through indirect means, like other peoples words, or things that look like random coincidences except for the way something deep inside me says otherwise.  There are times that the presence of God feels overwhelming to me, even if nothing looks like it is happening on the surface.  The handful of times I have felt God’s presence so strongly it was hard to keep from falling on my knees, nobody else noticed anything.  But on the other hand, there are times when I feel nothing spiritually but dryness and emptiness and even with what I have experienced it is still hard to believe that God is really, truly present in this world, in my life or anywhere.  In my years of ministry, here and in Pennsylvania, I’ve talked with a lot of people, and while not all Christians feel the presence of God on a conscious level, those that do feel God’s presence only feel him some of the time.  We have all gone through dark and weary times when we feel abandoned even by God.

So the question I have now is, why do such moments of God’s presence only come to some, and only some of the time?  Why don’t we all feel God’s presence, all the time?  Why is the mountaintop experience so rare?  I have to tell you if it wasn’t rare, not only would faith be a lot easier, but doing the right thing would also be a lot easier.  We all get times of temptation, times when we don’t want to do the right thing we know we should.  If we could feel God’s presence, God’s loving arms wrapped around us, at those moments, I think we would be a lot less likely to sin.  An intellectual knowledge that God is with us seems like a poor substitute to his tangible power and glory.

Let’s look at our lessons.  Moses experienced the power and glory of God … but the rest of the Israelites mostly just saw the storm up at the top of the mountain.  Peter and James saw Jesus transfigured, and Moses and Elijah appearing with him, but the rest of the disciples didn’t.  Most of the people who appear in the Bible never hear, directly, God’s voice.  Instead, God’s presence and God’s message is told to them by others.  Nobody gets God’s tangible presence all the time, but there is always someone experiencing God.  God’s people are never abandoned, but God is present to different people at different times.

This is one of the reasons we need one another.  This is one of the reasons we have to come together as the Body of Christ.  Sure, like Moses, we might be able to go experience God on a mountain-top by ourselves, but we can’t sustain it.  The experience ends, and we come back down the mountaintop.  And in those times when we ourselves can’t feel God, it’s not our own intellectual knowledge of God’s presence that sustains us, and it’s usually not the memories of those mountaintop experiences.  The love and support and witness of our brothers and sisters in Christ is what sustains us through the dark times.  We witness to others, and in our need they witness to us.  Sometimes in words, sometimes in deeds, sometimes by just being there with us when we desperately need them.

And there are times when we desperately need them.  Times when sin and death and pain and all the brokenness of this world grabs us by the throat.  Nobody, in this life, gets God’s presence perfectly forever.  That gift is not given to us until Christ comes again and we stand in God’s kingdom.  In this fallen world, pain and brokenness and sin keep fighting back against the light of God’s presence.  And sometimes it seems to come out of nowhere.  Even where God’s light shines brightest, sin creeps in.  God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, and Moses gave them to the people, who made a covenant with God.  And then Moses went up the mountain and experienced the glory of God’s presence in the giving of God’s moral teachings, while down below the people got so scared and bored they made a golden calf to worship and threw a party in which they broke the covenant and almost all of the Commandments at once.  If you had told Moses, up there on the mountain in the light of God’s presence, that something like that was going to happen, he probably would not have believed you.

And Peter and James, up with Jesus and Moses and Elijah on that mountaintop, if you had asked them whether or not Jesus was going to die within two months, they would definitely have said absolutely not.  Even after he told them three times he was going to die, even up to the actual arrest itself, they didn’t believe it was going to happen.  They didn’t believe that the sin and brokenness of the world was going to break in so devastatingly.  They experienced the highs, the power, the glory, and thought it would last forever.  They thought that Jesus would drive out the Romans and set himself up as king of a new Jewish kingdom that would last forever.

But the highs can’t last in this lifetime.  In this fallen world, sin and death and brokenness keep sticking their noses in.  And so God keeps breaking in to our world with his light and his presence, and sin and death and brokenness keep trying to make the world darker.  There will come a day when that is no longer true; there will come a day when Christ will come again and there will be nothing but light and life everlasting.  There will come a day when the last broken remnants of pain and grief and death and sin will be healed and wiped away.  But until that day, we have to deal with them.  But we don’t have to deal with them alone.  God keeps sending God’s light into the midst of our darkness; God keeps showing us God’s power and love and grace, in many and various ways.  And God gives us communities so that we can share the light and the love he gives us, and support one another in faith and love.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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.