An Autism-Friendly Church Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All

I just wrote a piece on autistics and the church for ClergyStuff.com‘s Exceptional People blog.

I’m a pastor and autistic. In my spare time I go around giving presentations to people about autism. When people learn this, they often want tips for their own congregation: what can they do to make it welcoming to autistics? They’re looking for something simple: maybe a quiet room, or stim toys in the pews. Some physical change they can make to the building that will make the space more autistic-friendly. Or maybe even a change to the service itself—something small, that will make a big difference.

Problem is, there’s no one thing—or even two, or five, or ten—that they can change about their worship space that will have the effect they want.

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What Would We Have Done?

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2017

Acts 7:55-60, Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16, 1 Peter 2:1-10, John 14:1-14

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

 

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

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

In first-century Judea, there were problems.  First and most pressing was the problem of the Romans.  The Romans, who had conquered their country and ruled it with an iron fist.  The Romans, who imposed heavy taxes on ordinary people and used the money to build huge palaces and fund the very army that was oppressing the Jewish people.  As if that weren’t bad enough, the Romans were monotheists who wanted everybody else to worship their gods.  So while technically they allowed the Jewish people to worship their own God, the true god, they also pressured people to worship Zeus and Hera and Athena and all the rest.  They mocked Jewish customs and beliefs, and under this pressure many people turned away from their heritage.  Everything that had once made Judea great was under siege, and people were abandoning the very core of what it had always meant to be Jewish.

And then came along this new sect of Jewish people, who followed a guy named Jesus who had stirred up a lot of controversy.  And after his death, they … didn’t go away.  They declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead.  Worse than that, they claimed that this Jesus was God’s own son!  They worshipped this Jesus as God!  While still claiming to be good Jews!  Now, as any Jew could tell you, there is only ONE god, and that God is the Holy One of Israel.  There is no other God.  To claim otherwise was blasphemy.  And here are these people who still claim to be Jewish, who still claim to worship the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land, who brought them home from exile, and yet they ALSO worship someone else?  Sure, they claimed Jesus was the Messiah sent by God, that he was part of the God their people had always worshipped, but that was ridiculous.  This whole business of worshipping three people—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—it was nonsense.  No matter what these Jesus-followers claimed, they must be pagan polytheists, just like the Romans.  The good and faithful people of God knew what God wanted of them, and it wasn’t this.  They knew who God was, and it was not this Jesus dude.  They knew what God wanted them to do, and it was to resist pagans and all who tried to turn people away from the worship of the one true God.  They believed they knew what God wanted with such fervor that they could not see the new thing that God was actually doing in their midst.

And so they put Jesus’ followers on trial for blasphemy, starting with Stephen.  They couldn’t protect themselves from the Romans, but by golly they could get rid of those Jesus-freaks.  They were so certain that they knew what God wanted that it never occurred to them to wonder if God might be doing something new.  They were so certain they knew how God worked in the world that when God took an active and direct stand in front of them by giving them Jesus and raising him from the dead, they looked at God’s redemptive work in the world and saw only the work of evil, trying to destroy God’s people.  God spoke his Word to them directly, and they couldn’t hear it because they were so certain they already knew what he would say.  I read this story, the story of the first martyr, and I want to believe that in that time and place I would have been Stephen, faithful to God even to the death.  But I have to ask myself, would I have been the crowd?  Would I have been one of the ones who was so certain I knew what God wanted that I attacked the people who were actually doing God’s work?

This is something that has happened throughout history.  God sends people to spread his work and do his will, and when it doesn’t fit into the nice neat assumptions people have about God, they reject it.  They say, no, God couldn’t possibly work that way.  In ancient Israel, people who worshipped God killed or attacked or imprisoned God’s prophets for pointing out the sins of the people.  In the first few centuries of the Christian era, people who worshipped God killed the followers of Jesus like Stephen in our reading today.  In medieval England, Christians burned people at the stake for distributing Bibles in English.  In 16th Century Germany, Christians killed Reformers for trying to bring new life to the church and get rid of corruption.  Every time God has sent people to do a new thing, to breathe new life and salvation into the world, a lot of God’s people have rejected it, at least at first.

This is something we should be wary of.  We live in a time of great upheaval and change.  Things are not ever going to go back to the way they used to be fifty years ago.  Some of the changes are good, and some aren’t.  But as we decide how to respond to all this change, we should be careful to remember that God is at work.  I guarantee you God is working in the world to bring his Word and his love to all people.  And it may look like what we’re familiar with, but it may not.  What God is doing in us and around us may fit our expectations, or it may surprise us.  It is not our job to dictate what God can and can’t do, what is outside the boundaries of what God can want to do.  When people—even deeply faithful people!—try to do that, they have often been wrong.  Just as Stephen’s attackers were wrong in our first reading.  They weren’t evil people.  They were devout followers of God genuinely trying to do what they believed God would want.  But they were so caught up in their own expectations of who God was and what God wanted that they couldn’t see what God was actually doing right there in front of them.  And so they killed Stephen.

But even if we get things wrong, even if we mistake what God is doing in the world or blind ourselves to his actions, that doesn’t mean there is no hope for us.  Even if we go as far astray as anyone possibly can, God can still reach us.  There was a man there, when they killed Stephen, named Saul.  Saul was a deeply faithful follower of God.  Saul loved God, and Saul had studied the holy Scriptures, and Saul believed with all his heart that killing Stephen was the right thing to do.  After Stephen’s death, Saul went and attacked other followers of Jesus, too, and that wasn’t enough so he went to other cities to persecute the followers of Jesus there.  Saul was consumed with hate for those he believed had betrayed God.  But Saul’s hate was not the end of the story.

One of the cities Saul travelled to in order to persecute Christians was Damascus.  But on the way there, God struck him blind and gave him a vision.  I have no doubt that God had tried to reach Saul before, that God had tried to turn him away from the path of violence and hate, but it wasn’t until God struck him down on that Damascus road that Saul realized what God truly wanted of him.  God struck Saul down and gave him a vision, and then sent a follower of Jesus to open his eyes.  And Saul realized what he had been doing, changed his mind, and became a devout disciple of Jesus Christ.  Saul was the one who followed God’s call to go out and spread the good news of Jesus to Gentiles, not just to his fellow Jews.  While preaching to the Gentiles, Saul used a Gentile version of his name—Paul.  That’s right, the guy who wrote most of the letters in the New Testament, whose words we read in worship almost every Sunday, he started out not only opposed to Jesus but actively working to kill Jesus’ followers.

God works in mysterious ways.  And God does things we don’t expect and could never have predicted beforehand.  God is constantly working new ways to bring his love and salvation to the world.  We don’t always understand what he’s doing; we don’t always like it.  Sometimes, we let our own expectations blind us to what God is doing.  When times of change and turmoil come, may we be like Stephen, open to God’s will and faithful to the last.  But if we find ourselves in Saul’s shoes, may God give us the same grace he gave Saul: to turn us around, give us hearts for God’s love, and send us forth to be God’s hands in the world.

Amen.

The Abundant Life of God

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Can you blame Thomas?

Third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Where Jesus Is

Second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017

 

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

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

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

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

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Come and See

Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

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

 

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

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

Throughout the Gospels, there is a common thread, a repeated invitation to come and see.  Come and see Jesus, come and hear his teachings, come and experience his healing, come and be fed.  Come and see.  And the disciples—the twelve, plus Jesus’ other followers—have come, and they have seen.  They have witnessed the saving actions of Jesus, including his death on a cross, and now these two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, have been witnesses to the resurrection.  They have seen what God has done.  They have seen life come out of death, a life that is too powerful to ever return to the grave.  And now there is a new invitation: go and tell.

Go and tell people that Jesus is alive.  Go and tell people that the Lord of Life has broken the powers of sin and death.  Go and tell his disciples that they will see him again, that he is with them.  Go and tell.  Twice in ten verses, the two Marys are told to go and tell.  And our Acts reading is Peter telling the story of Jesus to new believers.  First, we come and see; then, we go and tell.

What makes this story worth telling?  What makes this story important?  What makes this story matter, to us here today?  This story matters because it is not just a story of something that happened a long time ago to people who looked and dressed funny.  This story matters because it is our story, and because it is still ongoing.  This world is broken by sin and death—we are broken by sin and death.  We live in a world where there is evil, where we hurt ourselves and others, where might makes right and innocent people suffer while the ones who hurt them prosper.  We live in a world where people cherish their feuds and enmities, and deny the humanity of anyone who’s not like them.  We live in a world where any amount of pain and suffering can be shrugged off and ignored as long as it happens to people somewhere else who aren’t our kind of people.  We live in a world where too many of those with power abuse those who have none.  We live in a world where people choose to hurt each other, in word and deed, through things we do and things we fail to do.  Things fall apart.  And especially given what we see on the news, it is so, so easy to focus on all the problems.  On all the bad things.  On all the general crumminess and misery in the world.  It is so easy to be afraid.  But that story, the story about how terrible everything is, is not God’s story.

God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, that first Easter morning, and the stone was rolled away from the tomb.  God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, and the aftershocks are still being felt to this very day.  God’s story is this: death does not win.  God’s story is this: God shows no partiality, but loves us, all of us, everyone, rich and poor, the powerful and the vulnerable, of every race and tribe and nation, here and throughout the world.  God loves us all, and God chooses to save us.  God chooses to reach in to the terrible, crummy world, and work in it, to bring light to the darkness and healing where there is brokenness, forgiveness where there is sin, reconciliation where there is estrangement, hope where there is despair, joy and love where there is fear, and life even in the grave.

We don’t follow Jesus because he was a nice guy who said some wise things 2,000 years ago.  We follow Jesus because we have seen the life that he brings, and we want to experience it and share it with all the world.  We follow Jesus because he offers us a better story than doom and gloom and despair and fear, a story that looks at the very worst the world has to offer and acknowledges all the worst parts of it and says, this is not the way the world is supposed to be and God is at work to do something about it.  We follow Jesus because he brings healing and forgiveness and new life.  And some of that new life and healing and forgiveness will have to wait until Christ comes again in glory and heaven comes to Earth.  But some of it?  Some of it happens here, now, among us.  I have seen people be petty and cruel; I have seen people make excuses to heap more pain on those who are already devastated.  I have seen people lash out out of fear.  But I have also seen people be kind and generous, not just to those they already like but to everyone.  I have seen people build bridges instead of walls, and I have seen people stand up to bullies and I have seen people and communities change things for the better.  I have seen people bring love and joy to the places it is most desperately needed.  And in each of these times and places I have seen God at work, Jesus Christ present in the words and deeds of ordinary people.

This is our story.  This is not just the story of one dude who died and got resuscitated a long time ago.  This is the story of how Jesus Christ is still at work in us and around us.  This is the story of change, and hope.  This is the story of God working in us and around us.  Come and see.  Look around you, and see the signs of God’s presence.  Look around you, and see what God is doing.  I guarantee you that in every dark place in the world, if you look closely enough you will see God at work to bring light and healing.  Come and see.  Come and see what Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago in dying for our sins and rising to new life.  Come and see what Jesus Christ is doing in us and around us right now to break the power of sin and death and bring new life to all people.  Come and see the seeds of the kingdom God is planting in us and around us, flowers that spring up even though the world tries to choke them to death.  Come and see.

And then go and tell.  Thank the Lord, and sing his praise.  Tell everyone what God has done.  And I don’t just mean tell non-Christians.  I mean, we should tell them, too, but believers are part of “everyone.”  Notice that before Peter got to telling the story to Cornelius and his household in Acts, the women had to go tell the disciples.  Both the angel at the tomb and Jesus himself told them to share what they had seen with the other followers of Jesus.  We need to hear that story, too.  We need to hear about God’s power to destroy death.  We need to hear about the earthquake that is in the process of reshaping the world.  We need to hear about life even in the midst of death.  We need to hear the story of God’s saving actions and let it inspire us, let it help us to see God’s work in us and around us.  We need to hear the story, too, so that it can build our faith and strengthen us to be part of God’s mission in the world.  We need to hear the story so that we can grow in faith and love.  We all need to hear that story, so we all need to be telling it to one another.

We need to hear the story from the time we are very small to the time we are very old.  The world has so many stories to tell, and so many of them are bad ones.  The world tells stories about pain, about despair.  The world tells stories about selfishness, and greed, and hate, and fear.  And the only way to counter those stories is with stories about life: the life that God gives, the life that Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us.  The life that God wants for all of creation.  We need to hear that story, over and over again.  And so we need to keep telling it.

In just a few minutes we’re going to baptize young Axel.  And his parents are going to promise to bring him to church and place in his hands the holy Scriptures—in other words, to teach him the stories of faith and raise him in the community that tells those stories.  We as a congregation are going to promise to tell those stories, to support him in his growth in faith.  And in a few weeks we’re going to confirm some young members of this congregation, and they will affirm the promises made in their baptism and promise to live as part of that community of faith, to hear the story of what God has done in Christ Jesus and is still doing around us today.  Every one of us has made those same promises, either at our own baptisms, or our confirmation, or the baptism of our children, or the baptism of other children in the community.  We promise to tell the stories, to pass them on, to encourage one another, to build one another up in the faith.  We promise to set aside our fear, we promise to reach for the joy and love that Christ brings, we promise to tell the story of Jesus Christ, and we promise to open ourselves to let God’s story shape us and our lives.

Come and hear that story.  And then go and tell it, and may God be with you every step of the way, breathing new life and healing and hope and joy and love into every corner of your soul and your life.

Amen.

Love in Action

Maundy Thursday 2017, April 13, 2017

 

Exodus 12: 1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26, John 13: 1-17, 31-35

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

 

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

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

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Maundy comes from an old Latin word, “Mandatum,” which means “command” or “order” or “rule”—it’s the same root that gave us “mandate.”  And we call today Maundy Thursday because, in the night in which he was handed over to be crucified, as he gathered with his disciples and shared wine and bread and washed their feet, Jesus gave them—us—a commandment.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  And he keeps coming back to it.  We’re only reading a short portion of Jesus’ final words to his disciples as recorded in John; he keeps talking for another three chapters.  And while he talks about a lot of things, he keeps coming back to love.  Love one another.  Love as I have loved you.  Love so that your joy may be full.  Love.  Love.  I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Except, the problem is, it’s not a new commandment.  If you flip back in your Bibles to the Old Testament, you will find commandments to love all over the place.  The book of Leviticus is a collection of laws; in it God commands us both to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to “love the foreigner living among you as yourself.”  Deuteronomy also commands us to love the foreigner.  When Jesus told the lawyer that all God’s commandments and all the words spoken through the prophets could be summed up as “Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” this was not an innovation.  This was exactly what God had been telling people, in Scripture and through preaching and prophecy and every method available, since time immemorial.  So what the heck does Jesus mean by saying it’s a “new” commandment?  “Love one another” is not new.  It is as old as the hills.

Maybe the new bit is the second part: not just “love one another,” but “love one another as I have loved you.”  Love one another as Jesus loves us, with Jesus’ example for a guide.  So then the question becomes, how does Jesus love us?  Well, for one thing, Jesus’ love for us has no limits.  Jesus does not merely love the people who love him, or who are good enough, whatever that means.  No.  Jesus loves everyone.  Jesus loves sinners—which, you may remember, is all of us, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Jesus loves all people, everywhere—including people like Judas who are in the very process of betraying him.  How do we know that Jesus loved Judas?  Because Judas was there, at this meal.  Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray Jesus, was going to hand him over to be crucified.  Jesus knew what was in his heart.  And Jesus, knowing all of this, washed Judas’ feet with the rest of the disciples.  Jesus, knowing Judas was actively working against him, acted like a servant to do a dirty, gross job like foot-washing, even for the one who was his enemy.  And, more than that, Jesus gave Judas his own body and blood.  When he blessed the bread, and gave it to his disciples, and told them that it was his own body broken for them?  Judas was there.  Judas received Jesus’ broken body just the same as all the rest of the disciples did.  When Jesus blessed the wine, and gave it to them and told them it was his blood, poured out for them and for all people for the forgiveness of sins?  Judas received the cup just the same as everyone else.  Jesus offers his body and blood to everyone, even Judas, even the one who is betraying him right then and there.  And he does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus’ love looks like.

To love one another as Jesus has loved us means we can’t draw lines about who is in and who is out.  It means we can’t make distinctions between who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t.  Because Jesus loves everyone, and Jesus died for everyone.  Jesus may not like what we or anyone else have done, but that does not stop Jesus from loving.  There is nothing, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing we do or fail to do, no matter how much it pains Jesus, can ever make him stop loving us.  Which means that if we are to love as Jesus loves, then we have to love everyone, no exceptions, no matter who they are or what they have done.  We don’t have to approve of their life or like everything they do—I’m sure Jesus did not like what Judas was doing—but we do have to love them.  There is no excuse.

The second question is, what does it mean for us to love people as Jesus loves us?  Jesus showed his love in a lot of ways: feeding people, healing people, building relationships with people, but the greatest and most dramatic way he showed his love was by dying for us.  Now, obviously, most of us are not called to that extreme of self-sacrifice.  So how are we supposed to love people?

Let’s consider our reading from Corinthians.  Now, we only heard just a small part of the letter, where Paul tells the story of Jesus’ last supper.  But the Corinthians were a problem.  They had the Gospel, and the believed, but they didn’t know how to live it out.  They didn’t understand what the radical love of Jesus Christ meant for them and their community, so they just kind of went along acting like everyone else in society did.  Which, among other things, meant that they didn’t worship together and celebrate communion together.  What happened was that the rich people who didn’t have to work showed up early in the day with all the food, and had a great time eating and drinking and discussing Jesus’ words.  Meanwhile, the people who actually had to work would get there in the evening, worn out, just in time to get the crumbs of the meal and maybe sing a hymn or two as all the “important” people were leaving.  I’m sure that the people who were able to be there all day would have said they loved their poorer brothers and sisters, but it wasn’t their fault those others had to work, and why should their own feast and study be curtailed just because some people couldn’t make it?  They would have said that they loved their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ, but their actions did not show it.

And so Paul spent a lot of time, in his first letter to the Corinthians, explaining what Christian love looks like in practice.  And one of the things it means is that you can’t just dismiss other peoples’ needs because they are inconvenient to you.  Christian love means that all are welcome at Jesus’ table, not just in theory but in practice.  And for people to be welcome means that everybody’s needs need to be taken into account.  Not just the people we like, not just the people whose needs are convenient, not just the people whose needs are similar to your own.  We are all part of the body of Christ.  We are all people for whom Christ died.  We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us, and that means that we can’t just give lip service to our love for one another.  We have to actually put it into action.

Love in action is what the Christian life is all about.  God saves us because he loves us, and in response he asks us to love one another.  God’s love is deeper and wider than we

Amen.