Work to be done.

Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 33C), November 13th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12:2-6, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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

 

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

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

I have a book called the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse.  It has two chapters giving a timeline of every time a large number of people thought the world was about to end, from 2,000 BC to 2005, when the book was published.  The first chapter—2,000 BC to 1900—is eighteen pages long.  The second chapter, covering only the last hundred years, is thirty pages long. We are obsessed with the end times: how is it coming, when is it coming, and what should we do to make sure we come through it.  And yet, you will note that we are still here.  Every time we humans have thought surely, the end must be nigh, we have been wrong.  This world will end one day—and be replaced by God’s kingdom—but we are terrible at predicting it.  The disciples wanted to know when it would happen, too; but the closest Jesus ever came to a direct answer was in Mark 13, when he said he didn’t know.  He was a lot more concerned about teaching us how to face difficult times.

“Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” the disciples asked.  When is the world going to end?  Let us know, so that we can prepare!  And Jesus was very insistent that we needed to be prepared, that we needed to be waiting; but he didn’t tell us what the signs were that we should be looking for.

I think the reason Jesus didn’t tell us the specific signs was that if we knew them, we’d be paying too much attention to the signs themselves and not enough to how we’re supposed to be waiting.  Let me give you an example.  In the days of Paul, a decade or two after Jesus died and rose again, people were sure that Jesus was going to come back within their lifetimes.  They were sure that the end of this world and the beginning of the kingdom of God was just right around the corner.  You know what some of them did?  They quit their jobs, spent all day every day praying and waiting passively for Jesus to show up, and they expected the rest of the community to support them while they waited.  And waited.  And waited.  This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Thessalonians: yes, Jesus Christ is coming back, and yes, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and yes, we are supposed to wait faithfully for him.  But you know what?  We’re all waiting.  While we wait, there is work to be done.  Nobody gets to say “well, I’m waiting for Jesus, so I’m just going to sit around all day waiting—the community can pay for everything I need in the meantime.”  Everyone is waiting for Jesus, and nobody gets to use that as a reason to expect other people to pay their way.  This was not a case of people being disabled and not able to work, or willing to work and not able to find jobs; this was a case of people not thinking they had to work because Jesus was coming back soon.

And those early Christians were not alone.  Every time people think the world is going to end soon, they do things like this: quit their jobs, sell their stuff, and go out to a mountain or a field somewhere to wait for the second coming.  People have done it twice that I know of in the last decade!  And each time, of course, they were wrong about the date, and then they had to figure out how start over again.  Dropping everything to wait is obviously not the answer.  Which is why, when Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, was asked if Jesus was coming back soon and what they should do to prepare, answered this way.  “If I knew that Jesus were coming back tomorrow,” he said, “I would plant a tree today.”  In other words, go on with your lives, living faithfully as Jesus taught us.  That’s how we’re supposed to respond to troubled times; that’s how we’re supposed to deal with the knowledge that the world will eventually end.  Trust in God, and live your life faithfully.

If you find that hard, if you think “there has to be more to it than that!”, let’s remember what we know about God’s kingdom.  Isaiah describes it like this: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

In God’s kingdom, there is still work to be done.  In God’s kingdom, there are houses to be built and gardens and farms and vineyards to be tended.  Except better.  No need to worry about rent or mortgages or foreclosure; no need to worry about crops failing or hail or bad prices or any other problem.  No need to worry about failure at all.  Good communities, where people love and support one another, where everyone is welcome and everyone has a place and everyone has joy, and everyone has work to do that suits them.  No violence, no destruction, no calamity, no cheating, no fear, no anger—because no fear or anger is needed.  Only love, and joy.

And while we wait for God’s kingdom, we are called to work.  No passive waiting for us; the waiting of a Christian is active waiting.  It’s like waiting for Christmas.  We don’t just sit around, November and December; we get busy.  We bake cookies, sing carols, decorate.  We serve our neighbor.  We wait for Christmas by doing things, and in just the same way, we are called to wait for God’s kingdom by doing things.  To work for that world described in Isaiah’s vision.  We can’t create God’s kingdom ourselves, but we can make little pieces of our world a little bit more like it.  In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, so we work to feed those who are hungry.  In God’s kingdom, everything is full of love and joy, so we work to spread love and joy.  In God’s kingdom, there is work for all and all enjoy the benefits of their labors, and so we work towards the goal of just and good employment for everyone who can work.  In God’s kingdom, there is peace, and so we work for peace.  In God’s kingdom, all are healed, and so we work to heal those we can and support those we can’t.  We are called to act with justice and mercy.  We are called to love God and our neighbor.  We can’t fix everything that is broken and wrong in this world, but we can make things better, bit by bit.

That is counter-cultural.  You see, working to make the world more like God’s kingdom, is working to make the world a better place.  It’s working to change the world.  And the world doesn’t want to be changed.  Change is scary.  Change upsets the applecart.  Change means that people who are comfortable with the way things are become uncomfortable, and change means that the people in power might not be powerful any longer.  And so the world tries to prevent change.  The world wants us to be apathetic.  The world wants us to not even notice the injustices in the world, the pain and hurt we cause each other.  The world wants us to think that hurting people is normal, that pain is just the way things are, that there are winners and losers and that nothing we do matters.  If we don’t notice or care, we certainly won’t bother to do the hard work of waiting for God’s kingdom.

And if the world can’t make us apathetic, well, the next best thing is if we’re frightened and angry.  Because when we get scared, we tend to stop looking outside of ourselves.  We focus on ourselves, instead of on the plight of our neighbors.  And worse, instead of waiting and listening for God we chase after anyone who claims they can protect us.  We get angry, and we see people as threats instead of as fellow children of God.  It’s no wonder that when the disciples asked for signs of the end times, Jesus responded by telling them not to be led astray and not to fear.  Fear gets in the way of active waiting.  Fear gets in the way of loving God and loving our neighbor; we can’t love, if we’re afraid.  We can’t think if we’re afraid.  And we are called to love God, to love our neighbor, and to put that love into action.  That’s what the life of a Christian is; that’s what waiting for God’s kingdom is like.

There is destruction in this world.  There is confusion, and pain, and chaos.  There is evil.  But we hope and trust in a God who will take care of us even if this world kills us.  We hope and trust in a God who is creating a kingdom where there is no longer any death, or pain, or destruction, or evil, or fear, or hate.  Only love and joy.  That kingdom isn’t here yet, but it is coming.  May we trust in God, and wait actively for it.

Amen.

What are you afraid of?

First Sunday after Advent, November 29th, 2015

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36

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.

Jesus told the disciples: “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” What are you afraid of? What makes you faint from fear and foreboding?

Seriously, what are you afraid of? Our culture spends a lot of energy on fear: whipping it up for political purposes, covering it up with anger and hate and partying and a whole host of other things. We’re afraid of terrorists, so we close our borders to refugees, despite the fact that we’ve never had a terrorist come to this country disguised as a refugee. We’re afraid of ISIS, so we’re suspicious of Muslims, despite the fact that white Christians commit most of mass murders in our country. We’re afraid of uncertain economic times and the fact that the middle class is shrinking and college tuition is so expensive, so we pressure our children to be perfect in academics and in sports so they can get scholarships and eventually a good job. And so the percentage of youth and young adults suffering from anxiety and depression has skyrocketed in the last ten years. We’re afraid of admitting America isn’t perfect, so we demonize and attack those who point out things we need to do better at. We’re afraid of change, so we never ask ourselves if any part of the change might be a good thing. We’re afraid of mass shootings, so we blame mental illness and loose gun laws to make ourselves feel better, but we’re also afraid of what our political opponents might do so we never actually try and figure out practical ways to prevent future attacks.

We’re afraid of a lot of things, but we don’t want to face that fear, so we find all sorts of ways to avoid it. When I was diagnosed with clinical anxiety, I was shocked. It never occurred to me that I had it, because I never faced my fears, the things I was anxious about. They were always there, gnawing at my thoughts, but I didn’t want to face them. I buried them. And when my fears did come to the surface, well, I was afraid for good reasons! The things I was afraid of were very likely to happen—they did happen to me, and they were painful. So when I did manage to look at my fears, I still couldn’t see all the ways in which the fear itself was twisting me and tripping me up and trapping me. I spent so much time and energy desperately trying to pretend I was fine, that I was okay, that everything was going great and I could handle everything without help. Sometimes that meant isolating myself from the world and burying myself in stuff to keep from having to deal with the world. Some people turn to alcohol to soothe themselves, but my drug of choice has always been books. I weighed myself down with them, I used them as a distraction. Anything, so that I didn’t have to face what I was afraid of. Anything to distract me. Anything to keep my fears at bay.

People try to cope with their fears in a lot of different ways, and a lot of those ways are self-destructive, and many of them hurt those around us. We come up with distractions, bury ourselves in work or anger or drugs and alcohol or gambling or spewing hate or anything else that will keep us from having to face the darkness. In December, we turn to shopping and parties to fill that hole, as if having a perfect story-book holiday season will make everything okay, as if finding the perfect present and cooking the perfect dinner will make everything be peaceful and good and right. But if we aren’t willing to face our fears—to acknowledge that we are afraid—then we stay prisoners. We stay trapped, bound up, pretending we’re free while we run around like rats in a cage trying to pretend everything is fine and that if we just pretend hard enough, everything will be okay.

And then we try to use our faith to justify our coping mechanisms. After all, God couldn’t really mean for us to love those people, they’re dangerous! God couldn’t really mean for us to help those people, they don’t deserve it, and anyway what if we don’t have enough? God wants me to be happy, and so it’s okay to do whatever I want that I think might make me happy! It’s not like it’s really hurting anyone.

People have always been afraid. Because the world is a scary place, and always has been. Since the days of Adam and Eve, there has always been violence in the world. There has always been hatred and fear. There have always been people who lash out, taking their own problems out on those around them, creating even more problems in the world. There have always been natural disasters that devastate communities and bring suffering. Jesus talks about some of these in our Gospel lesson, in the context of the end times. He’s talking about things that were happening in his day—the civil war and Roman attack that would destroy the Temple in 70AD—but he was also speaking about the future, when this world ends and Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Scary things are happening now, and scary things will continue to happen. Even Christ’s coming—when all the evil in the world will be defeated once for all—will be scary. Our current social order will topple. All the powers of this world will be shattered. All the stuff we put our trust in will tremble and fall. This is terrifying stuff. And Jesus doesn’t try to hide or sugar-coat it. But on the other hand, he doesn’t spend much time dwelling on it. Because his focus isn’t on the scary stuff, his focus is on how we should respond.

Christ will come again. And in that coming, he will wipe away every tear from every eye. There will be peace, and justice, and righteousness. There will be no war, no violence, no abuse, no betrayal; there will be no injustice, no hardship, no natural disasters. Everyone will have enough and no one will have too much. There will be joy, and love, and peace, and we will be together with God. This is a promise that God made long before his Son was born in Bethlehem; this is a promise you can read many times in the Old Testament, including our first lesson. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” That promise is the coming of Christ. He came once already, as a child born in Bethlehem, to teach us how to live in love as God’s people, and he will come again to bring the kingdom of God, a new heaven and a new earth. That is the promise by which we live.

So what are we afraid of? Terrorists? Racial unrest? Losing our job? Losing a loved one? Being abused by a loved one? Cancer? A bad drought? The coal plant going out of business? America going to the dogs? What’s the worst thing that the world can do to us, anyway? It can kill us. And then what happens? We’re with God, and will be with God when he comes back to judge the living and the dead and re-create the world into the paradise he originally meant it to be. I don’t mean to belittle the very real suffering that we can and do face in this life—it can be horrifically bad, and some of you know that from personal experience. And our suffering in this life can really damage us, beyond the power of anything in this life to fix or heal.

But nothing can damage us beyond God’s power to fix and heal, and if that healing doesn’t come in this life, it will come in the next, when the Son of Man comes with power and great glory to shake things up and re-create them as God intends, full of goodness and love and life. That’s a promise, bedrock solid and sure, that the Christ who came once will come again, bringing God’s kingdom with him, and we will be healed and restored to the people God created us to be.

So again, the question is, what are we afraid of—and how do we respond to that fear. Because we have the promise, we know that no matter what happens in this life, whether our fears come true or not, God is going to win in the end. Nothing we are afraid of will win. The things we fear may win the game, but we already know who’s going to win the tournament. That’s not the question we face. The question is, are we going to let our fears dictate our response to the world? Are we going to let our fears control our actions and our lives? Are we going to spend our energy spewing hate and burying our heads in the sand and filling the gaps with anything that can distract us? And then try to use our faith to justify it?

When we get afraid, we tend to turtle up, hunching in on ourselves in self-protection, only emerging to fight anything that comes near. But that’s not the advice that Jesus gives. When you’re afraid, be on your guard! But not against the thing you’re afraid of. Be on your guard against the fear itself. Don’t let it weigh you down with worries and care, don’t let yourself hide get so caught up in avoiding your fears that you miss God’s presence. Because the Son of Man will be there. Stand up, raise your heads—no matter what the world does to you, you are not alone, and you will be saved.

May Christ help us stand up and face whatever comes, in the sure and certain hope that the kingdom of God is near.

Amen.

Thanks be to God?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33), November 17, 2013

Malachai 4:1-2, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugenm 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.

In many churches, after the Gospel is read, the congregation responds “Thanks be to God!”  It happens largely by rote, because it’s the appropriate thing to say.  I wonder how many people are going to have trouble saying “Thanks be to God” after today’s Gospel lesson?  Jesus is talking about wars, famines, plagues, persecutions, signs and portents, and he’s pretty clear that Christians won’t be spared.  These aren’t things only the unfaithful will have to deal with, and they’re not punishments for being bad.  They just are, and being faithful is not a get-out-of jail-free card.

Today’s Gospel lesson comes from the later part of Luke; the next chapter starts the beginning of the Passion narrative, the story of Jesus’ last days before the crucifixion.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, and he knows what’s coming.  He knows that the Pharisees and the Saducees and the chief priests are conspiring against him.  He knows that although he’s told the disciples—quite plainly—about what’s going to happen to him, they don’t understand and don’t want to understand.  Like many people today, the disciples thought that being faithful to God should mean success.  This is only a few days after Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey, with crowds shouting his name and praising him as the Messiah.  That was what the disciples hoped would be the pattern for the future—rapidly growing numbers of followers, the Gospel spread far and wide, society reformed to be closer to God’s plan.  Good people rewarded, faithful people praised, and bad or unfaithful people left out and gotten rid of.  They thought Palm Sunday was proof of how well things were going, and an example of how things were going to be from then on.  They were excited.

Jesus, meanwhile, knew what was coming.  While they were congratulating themselves and admiring the Temple like a tourist, Jesus was getting ready to die.  And he was trying to prepare them for what was going to come.  Jesus knew that faithfulness is not a magic armor against the problems of the world.  Jesus knew that his own faithfulness was going to result in his arrest, trial, and death on the cross.  True, the world would be saved through that faithfulness even to the point of death … but that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was really going to have to die a brutal, painful death, first.  And Jesus knew that God’s kingdom, God’s reign on Earth was going to come … but that the road to get there wasn’t going to be easy.  The disciples needed to be prepared for what was coming.

So when they stood around admiring the Temple, Jesus interrupted their admiration.  Yes, the Temple was very impressive—but it wasn’t going to last for long.  “The days will come,” he told them, “when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  The disciples were shocked—they were talking about the Temple, the holiest place on Earth!  Surely God wouldn’t let it be destroyed; or at least, surely its destruction would herald the coming of God’s kingdom when the Temple would be rebuilt even grander.  “Teacher,” they asked, “When will that happen, and how will we know?”

As it happens, the destruction of the Temple was not a sign of the end times.  Most of them would live to see it.  In 70 AD, just about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, killed most of its inhabitants, and razed the Temple to the ground.  The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem is all that is left of it.  The Temple was destroyed in retaliation for a rebellion against the Roman Empire, and it was neither the first nor the last such rebellion.  In the 2,000 years since there have been many wars.  There have been famines, persecutions, earthquakes and famines, portents and signs from heaven.  There have been people claiming to be followers of God who have led many people astray, and there have been many who claimed that they knew when the end was going to come and led people astray that way.  And during all that time, Christians have not been immune from any of these hardships.  To the best of my knowledge, good and faithful Christians have never suffered less than other people, and sometimes Christians actually suffer more than other people because of persecutions.

The disciples certainly suffered in the decades after Jesus’ death.  Some were killed in persecutions of Christians; Peter, for example, was crucified like Jesus was.  Paul was imprisoned many times for his faith.  And many of those who weren’t killed for their faith got swept up in the wars and uprisings around them.  When Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed, many Christians who lived in the city died alongside their neighbors.  Many of those who didn’t die suffered in other ways.  As if that weren’t enough, there were people right from the beginning who claimed to be followers of Jesus who distorted the Good News and led people astray.  Jesus’ followers needed to know what they were up against; they needed to know life wasn’t going to be a bowl of cherries.

Jesus had tried telling them this in parables and other teachings, but they hadn’t listened.  So in today’s Gospel Jesus was very blunt.  Yes, the end is coming.  But you aren’t going to know when, and there’s going to be a lot of bad stuff happening between then and now.  Don’t be surprised by it, and don’t ever think that bad things mean you’ve been abandoned by God.  Because throughout all that time, through all the wars and rumors of war and natural disasters and false prophets, God will be with you.  No matter what happens, God will be with you, guiding you.  God’s Holy Spirit will fill you with life even in the midst of death.

I’ve never been in a war zone, or a natural disaster; I’ve never been persecuted by my faith.  But there have been hard points, times when I’ve felt my life crashing down around my ears.  There have been times I’ve failed, and felt life bowing up in my face.  But even then, God was with me, giving me strength and inspiring me with the Holy Spirit to face the trials in front of me.  I didn’t always see that strength and inspiration at the time—too often it felt like I was on my own.  But looking back I can see God’s grace and the gifts God gave me when times were hardest.

I know many of you can tell similar stories—times when you have faced things that seemed like they would destroy you.  Abuse, bankruptcy, serious illness or injury, mental illness, addiction, rape, the suicide of loved ones.  All these and more have disrupted and destroyed lives of those inside this church and this community.  Things may look nice and pretty on the outside, but people tell me stories of the darkest times in their lives, and that darkness can be deep and overwhelming.  And yet, when people tell me those stories, filled with heartbreak and frustration and despair, I often hear something besides pain.  I hear how God helped them through that darkness, in many and various ways.  Sometimes it was through the actions of friends and family who offered a shoulder to cry on when things seemed beyond hope.  Sometimes it was through a surprising turnaround at the last minute.  Sometimes it was through a beloved hymn or scripture passage that comforted them.  Sometimes it was the strength to endure, or the courage to begin rebuilding their life and themselves after their old life and self had been destroyed.

We get this picture sometimes, of what life is supposed to be like.  Like the disciples, we often think that being faithful Christians means that things should always go well for us.  We think that troubles should be easily surmounted, that hard work should always ensure prosperity, that praying should ensure we always have everything we want when we want it, and that our church should always be harmonious and filled with life.  And then something happens—a drunk driver who kills two teen girls, maybe, or cancer strikes a loved one, or the economy fails—and we can’t make sense of it.  Where was God?

People ask me, sometimes, why bad things happen to good people, why a loving God allows horrible things to happen.  People ask me why there is suffering and evil in the world.  I don’t know.  But this I do know, for certain and sure: no one suffers alone.  God, who created us, who loves us so much that he became human and died for our sake, whose Spirit dwells within us, is always with us.  No matter what evils we face, no matter what has been done to us, no matter what we have done or failed to do, God is with us.  Even when friends and family abandon you, God does not.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Holy Ones

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

There is some scary stuff in the Bible.  Really scary, stuff that talks about the end of the world.  Most of it can be found in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  Beasts, antichrists, wars, persecutions, Death on a pale horse, all kinds of mysterious and unsettling things.  And mostly, when we modern Christians talk about them, we play up the scary parts: shape up, if you don’t want to be Left Behind!  If you don’t confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and if you don’t live a good live a good life, you’ll be out in the middle of all that nasty stuff!  We forget—and sometimes we never realize in the first place—that these passages were not written to scare people.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  They were written in times of persecution and death and horror to comfort people, to tell them that no matter how bad things got, God had not abandoned them and God was at work in the world.  The visions are frightening because they reflect the reality those first readers were living.  But even in the midst of those things, God was working and protecting God’s people.  The first reading is a prime example.  Daniel receives a vision in a dream, and is frightened by it.  But the messenger in Daniel’s dream says not to worry.  The dream represents what’s already happening in the world, and yes, it’s bad, but God is with Daniel and his people. “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

Now, that begs the question.  Who are the holy ones?  Is it some special group of super-believers who are awesome and perfect?  Great theologians like Martin Luther?  People who devote their lives to doing good works like Mother Theresa?  People who are persecuted and die for their faith, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  Do you need to be someone really special to be counted among the holy ones of the Most High God?  Do you need to do something really incredible to receive the kingdom and possess it forever and ever?

No, you don’t.  You don’t have to do anything.  All you need is faith.  And it doesn’t need to be the greatest faith ever in the history of the world; faith as tiny as a mustard seed is enough.  That faith is a gift from God who loves us, and through that faith we receive the grace of God.  Through Christ Jesus our Lord we are saved, and marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.  Through Christ we inherit the kingdom and are made God’s own people.  Through Christ we are made God’s holy ones.  Through Christ, we are made saints.

Yes, that’s right—saints.  “Saint” is an old word meaning “holy one.”  We tend to think of saints as great holy people, better than you or I could ever be.  Sometimes people use it for that, as a title for especially perfect Christians.  But the older meaning of the word, the one the Bible uses, includes all people of faith, good and bad, small and great.  All people who set their hope on Christ are saints who have been made holy by God.  The power of God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and that same power is at work in us who believe, redeeming us, washing our sins, and bringing us together in Christ.

Now, that doesn’t mean that believers are perfect, or sinless; far from it.  If you were at Pastor Hartley’s funeral yesterday, you heard the pastor speak eloquently on the sinfulness of all humankind.  Even good and faithful people are full of sin.  We are not saints because of any inherent goodness on our own part.  We are saints because God has chosen to make us saints, holy and blessed and loved.  We are saints because God has chosen to give us the kingdom, claimed us as his own, and blessed us.

Today is All Saints Sunday.  Today, we remember all the holy ones of God, all those who have gone before us in the faith, all those who are faithful today, and those who will be faithful in the days to come.  We particularly remember those saints who have touched our lives, and those who have died recently.  They were not perfect—no one is—but they are beloved children of God who now rest safely in God’s care.  All of their sins have been washed clean; all of their tears have been wiped away; all their wounds have been healed.  They have been given their inheritance, they have been given the kingdom.  Whatever sin and grief and pain and fear they felt in this life, they now know the fullness of God’s blessing.

Everyone here has been touched by the saints who went before us.  I want you to remember those who were particularly meaningful for you who has since passed on.  Maybe it was a parent or grandparent.  Maybe the saint who means the most to you was a teacher or a friend.  Maybe they taught you about Jesus through their words, or maybe they showed you what it meant to be a Christian through their actions.  When we light candles for them, we remember them, what they meant for us, and how the light of Christ shone through them.  We remember that we, too, are called to bear the light of Christ to those around us, just as they once did.  And we remember that even in death they are safely in God’s care, and we will see them again, when we, too, come into our inheritance in Christ.

But lighting candles on All Saints’ Sunday is not the only day of the year when we remember them; and it is not only through the candles that the saints who have gone before us are present in our worship service.  Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper—every time we take Communion—they are here.  This table is God’s table; it is a foretaste of the feast to come, a foretaste of the feast

Amen.

The Hard Work of Waiting

Advent 1, Year C, Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, John 18:33-38a

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

 

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

 

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

 

Stores are decked out for Christmas, radio stations are playing Christmas carols, people are putting up Christmas trees, there’s a crèche out in the narthex … and in church we’re reading about the end of the world again.  Somehow, it doesn’t really seem to fit into the season.  Today is the beginning of Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas, and yet you wouldn’t know it from today’s Gospel lesson.  We’ve been talking for weeks about the end times, and while that may be appropriate for the end of the church year, it seems somehow odd for the beginning of it.  Particularly when we’re getting ready to welcome a new baby into our midst—Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem.

Yet Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is not the only coming of Christ we need to worry about.  In Advent we prepare not only for Christ’s coming at Christmas, but also Christ’s coming again.  We welcome not only the baby Jesus in Bethlehem who was born two millennia ago, but also the Christ who will come again in glory.

Advent is a time of waiting.  It is a time of preparation.  Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we as Christians live caught between the already and the not yet.  Already, because Jesus Christ was born two thousand years ago, taught, died, and rose again.  Not yet, because Christ’s promise of the Kingdom will not be fulfilled until he comes again.  And so all of the Christian life is, in that sense, a time of waiting; Advent is the time of year that reminds us what we are waiting for.

And that’s why today’s lesson is assigned for the first Sunday in Advent.  If I asked you what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, I bet I know what you would say.  For most people, what sticks out in their mind is the negative stuff: fear and trembling, distress among the nations, the need to escape, etc.  We hear about the Son of Man coming in a cloud and our mind goes right to thinking about judgment, hell, and damnation.  Some people hear and are afraid that they will be among those judged harshly.  Some people hear and think how unbelievable and out of touch Christianity is.  And some people hear and seem to get positively gleeful about all the sinners in the world who are going to be judged harshly, who are finally getting their comeuppance.

And yet, that’s not what Jesus was talking about at all.  Listen closely: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  And again: “The kingdom of God is near.”  And again: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  And again: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.”  And again: “Be alert at all times.”  Jesus is not focusing on what’s going to happen, or when, or to whom.  Instead, Jesus focuses on the waiting itself.  How are we going to wait for what we know is coming?

What’s our response going to be?  Will we cower in fear, seeing the troubles around us?  Will we let the bad things in our lives and in our world weigh us down so much that they’re all we can see?  Will we hunker down with a bunker mentality, shutting out all the world’s problems out of fear?  Will we ignore the troubles around us and be caught off guard when Jesus comes, surprised that Jesus actually did what he said he was going to?  Will we distract ourselves with the minutia of life?  Will we accept that the way things are is the way they will always be, and forget the promise of the Kingdom of God?

Waiting isn’t easy.  Any child on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa Claus, could tell you that.  I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has ever been happy when told they have to wait.  Waiting is boring.  And our society doesn’t make it any easier.  Our culture is increasingly based on speed, on response times, on getting things immediately.  If you want it, buy it, even if you can’t afford it, and pay it off later.  Stores start putting out Christmas displays earlier each year, so no one has to wait for Christmas fun.  If you have free time, find something to do: a TV show to watch, a website to surf, music to listen to, a text to send.  We spend incredible amounts of time, money, and energy to avoid having to wait for anything.  Last night I went to see A Christmas Carol in Garrison, and I had ten minutes between when I got seated and the beginning of the program.  A whole ten minutes to wait?  I got out my smart phone and checked FaceBook, and then played a game.  When they flickered the lights because the show was starting, for a second or so I was annoyed because I had to stop the game.  For that second, the thing I had used to distract myself from waiting was more important to me than the thing I was waiting for.  Here’s another example:  I have a friend who will drive blocks out of her way to avoid hitting red lights.  She’ll take a longer route to avoid having to sit and wait.  In the end, she’ll spend more time avoiding the wait than she would have spent actually waiting.  She’s not alone—I bet a few of you here have done that sometimes.

The thing is, sometimes waiting is good for us.  The anticipation can heighten our desire for the thing to come.  And waiting can help to focus on the goal, the end point, The time in between can give us an opportunity to get ready.  When a couple finds out they’re expecting a child, the nine months a pregnancy lasts gives them time to arrange things—get supplies, make space for the baby, figure out how to rearrange their lives without the baby actually there to demand their attention.  Can you imagine what it would be like for a baby to be born at the same time its mother figures out she’s pregnant?  How hard it would be to do everything at the same time!

But even when it’s necessary, even when it’s good for us, waiting is hard.  The longer the wait, the easier it is to lose focus, to wander off in search of something new, to decide we didn’t really need it, anyway.  So it’s no wonder that Jesus took pains to tell his disciples how they should wait for him to come again.  First, we should remember that there is something to wait for.  Christ will come.  Second, don’t be afraid.  When Christ comes, he comes for the redemption of the world.  Jesus Christ comes to save.  So stand up and hold your head high, even though the world around you may be trembling in fear.  Trust in God’s Word; no matter what else changes (and things will change), God’s Word will remain.  Don’t get dragged down by the cares of the world.  No matter how bad it gets it’s not the end of the story, because something new is coming.  And always, always, remember to pay attention, and look for the signs of God’s kingdom which is close at hand.

Advent is a season of waiting, of preparing, not just our homes and our trees but our lives as well.  Advent is a time to remember that we don’t just celebrate the birth of a baby two thousand years ago in Bethlehem; we celebrate the Son of Man whose work is not done yet.  Advent is a time to remember that we have our feet in two worlds, the world around us and the kingdom to come.  Advent is a time to remember that we are always waiting, and a time to focus on the one we are waiting for, who comes to save.  May we wait with hope for the coming redemption.

Amen.

Christ the King: the Feast to Come

Christ the King Sunday, Year B, Sunday, November 25th, 2012

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14, Psalm 93, Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-38a

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

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

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

Having just been through an election year, I had a hard time getting enthusiastic about celebrating Christ the King Sunday today.  It seems every time we turn around these days, we see examples of leaders doing terrible things.  Lying, cheating, betraying their principles, doing stupid things, more concerned with getting or maintaining power than they are with using that power wisely for the benefit of their people.  Mouthing pious platitudes while backstabbing others, and then throwing mud at their competitors to make themselves look better.  Pontius Pilate would fit in perfectly.  Indeed, his question to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson—What is truth?—would fit perfectly in the mouth of a modern-day politician.

As if the examples of our leaders weren’t bad enough, there’s the term “king” itself.  Kings are people out of story books, at best, and at worst—well, any student of history can point out that most kings have been at least as bad as our modern politicians, if not worse.  So why devote a whole Sunday to proclaiming Christ’s kingship?  It sounds so old-fashioned, so irrelevant, so naïve.  Yet the metaphor of Christ as king—the metaphor of God’s “kingdom”—is woven throughout Christian understanding.

What is truth?  What is kingship?  What is God’s kingdom, and what are we saying when we pray “your kingdom come”?  So often when we think of these questions and things like them, we start with what we know—the leaders and kingdoms around us—and project those onto God.  Instead, I think we should look at God and use that as our measuring stick.

In the Gospel lesson, we have two examples of leadership before us: Pilate, and Jesus.  Pilate is a typical ruler of his day.  Jesus … is not.  Pilate is concerned for his reputation.  Pilate is concerned with maintaining his power, not an easy thing in a place as turbulent as Judea was.  Pilate wanted to be in control, and he wanted everything to fit into his own ideas of how things ought to be.  Pilate evidently liked using dramatics to appease the crowds and portray himself as a good leader.  We know from history that Pilate and the priests and elders of Judea often clashed, and that not long after Jesus’ death Pilate would be removed from his post.  History also tells us that Pilate could be both cruel and capricious.  There he is, his hold on power crumbling, and his enemies bring him someone they want him to execute.  He dithers about what to do, going back and forth to try to figure out what the heck is going on.  In the end, he concludes that Jesus is probably innocent of the charges against him, but that it would be politically inconvenient to drop the charges and let him go.  So, instead, Pilate executes a man he knows is innocent in order to keep himself in good standing with the crowds.

It seems like the triumph of this broken, earthly kingdom over God’s kingdom.  It seems like Jesus’ kingship—whatever that may be—is at an end.  It seems like the raw power and corruption of this world wins out over justice and righteousness.  And yet, in that very act, God’s kingdom begins to break in.

It’s no accident that in the hours before Jesus’ death on the cross, Jesus and Pilate trade barbs about kingship and the nature of power.  It’s no accident John tells us this story of what passed between the two as Pilate was deciding whether or not to have Jesus killed.  Because Pilate may be the one on the judge’s bench, here, but he’s the one on trial.  Him, and every other ruler of this world.  And in this wrongful death, Jesus shows us what it truly means to be a king.

Jesus, you see, is not in this for power, or riches, or to have crowds screaming his name.  If he were, as Jesus points out, he wouldn’t have let himself be captured without a fight.  He would have taken the crowds that have followed him throughout his years of teaching and tried to turn them into an army to defend himself, to overthrow the Roman ruler and his corrupt government and install Jesus in his place.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Jesus handed himself over, knowing that he was going to his death.  Why did he do that?  Because Jesus knew that it was only through his selfless act of love that he could break the power of sin and death.  Jesus loved the world—that power-mad, sinful, broken, messed-up world—so much that he was willing to die for it.  Jesus loves each and every person who has ever lived and ever will live—as sinful and broken as we all are—so much that he was willing to die in pain, and agony, alone on the cross.  For Jesus, kingship doesn’t mean arrogance or self-aggrandizement or selfishness.  For Jesus, kingship means putting the needs of his people—all his people—before his own well-being.

So if that’s what kingship means, where is Jesus’ kingdom?  In Greek, the word “kingdom” can also be translated “rule” or “reign.”  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where Jesus reigns, where God’s will is done.  Jesus’ kingdom is a place where no one goes hungry.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is sick, or hurt, or grieving, and every tear has been wiped away.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where all people are filled with joy.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where no one is abused or bullied, where swords have been beaten into plowshares.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where love wins.  Jesus’ kingdom is the place where truth and integrity are the norm, where justice and mercy go hand in hand.  Jesus’ kingdom is like a party, a banquet, where all are invited and there is enough for everyone.  Jesus’ kingdom is what God intended the world to be from the very beginning, and Jesus’ kingdom is what the world will be at the end, when Jesus Christ comes again.

Jesus’ kingdom, obviously, is not the world we live in.  And Jesus’ kingdom is obviously a better place than anywhere we could build ourselves.  For the fullness of God’s kingdom, we will have to wait until Christ comes again.

And yet.  And yet, we are not just citizens of this world, we are also citizens of Jesus’ kingdom.  We live caught between the two, acknowledging the reality of the world around us and yet yearning for the coming of the kingdom.  We live knowing the spiritual hunger of this world and yet anticipating the feast to come.  We can’t create Jesus’ kingdom and we can’t hurry it’s coming, but we can live in the reality we know is coming.  In Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we get a glimpse of what it will be like.  But we also see other glimpses of it.  Remember, Jesus constantly said that God’s kingdom was close at hand, if we only had eyes to see it and ears to hear it.  Every time someone chooses love over hate, we have a foretaste of the feast to come.  Every time someone chooses to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, we have a foretaste of the feast to come.

As followers of Christ, we are called and invited to join in the work of the kingdom.  We are called to spread love and mercy and forgiveness, to act with integrity and justice.  We live in this broken, sinful world, and we are sinners ourselves, yet we have tasted a little bit of the feast to come.  We have seen glimpses of Christ’s kingdom.  May we learn to live in the light of the coming kingdom.

Amen.

The End of the World As We Know It

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 28B (Ordinary 33B), Sunday, November 18th, 2012

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-8

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

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

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

A few years ago, for Christmas, I got a book called Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse: The Official Field Manual for the End of the World.  It’s a funny book, but very informative and readable.  The longest part of the book—almost fifty pages—contains short summaries of the major apocalyptic predictions from 2000 BC through 2004 AD, when the book was published.  The end of the world is a very popular subject—people have been thinking about it for a long time.  And it seems like people are thinking about the end of the world even more these days.  The Left Behind series are all international bestsellers.  Action-adventure movies like The Day After Tomorrow make Hollywood lots of money showing the world’s destruction with jaw-dropping special effects.  Whether for religious, political, environmental, or economic reasons, we seem obsessed with the idea that the world is going to end, and end soon.

And so there are a lot of people who, very sincerely, predict dates they believe the world will end.  If we know, they think, we can prepare.  We can say the right prayers, if that’s what’s needed, or stock up on canned goods and bottled water, or whatever it is we need to get through the end of the world.  We can control our fate, even if the world is going to hell in a handbasket around us.  The next prediction coming up that I know of is December 21, when the Mayan calendar runs out.  The last big one was Harold Camping’s prediction that Rapture would come on May 21, 2012.  At a paragraph each, the dates predicted for the world’s end over the past couple thousand years take up almost 50 pages in my handbook.  The last two decades or so have averaged one major apocalypse prediction per year.

When times are tough, when the world seems uncertain, there is a comfort in knowing what will happen.  There is comfort in being able to say that no matter what may happen now—despite all the bad things that are happening to good people and good things happening to bad people—our problems won’t last forever.  For people of faith, there is the added consolation of knowing that there will be a reward for our faithfulness no matter how grim things look.  Throughout history all kinds of religious literature about the end times has been written to reassure people—and sometimes to scare them into behaving.  In the Hebrew tradition, which Jesus inherited, Daniel was the major prophet of the apocalypse.  Hebrew apocalyptic literature is full of dreams and visions, intended for spiritual comfort during times of trial.  Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic writings are not intended to be roadmaps or calendars.  Instead, they are highly symbolic reassurances that God will be with us no matter what.  Even as bad things happen, God is with us, and the bad things won’t last forever.  In the end, evil will be vanquished and God’s will will be done.

Reassurance is all well and good, but people still want to know exactly what’s coming, and they want to know when.  Modern people who read the Left Behind books or listen to the Harold Campings of the world want to know.  The disciples wanted to know, too.  So when they’re admiring the architecture of the Temple and Jesus points out that those monumental pieces of architecture won’t last forever, four of them take him aside to ask when.  What date do they need to have everything done by?  What should they do to prepare?  Do they need to buy swords to drive out the Roman invaders?  Stock up on sacrifices at the Temple to absolve them of their sins before it’s too late?  Stand out on a hilltop on the appointed day wearing their best robes?  When do they need to be ready?  That’s what people today still want to know, isn’t it?  That’s what those fifty pages of dates in the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse are about, right?  When does the world end?  How long do we have?

Jesus doesn’t answer their question.  He doesn’t give them any kind of time frame for when the world will end.  Instead of giving them a straight answer, he simply tells them to pay attention.  Stay vigilant, don’t get complacent.  Over the centuries, people have used his words and other apocalyptic texts in the Bible, from Daniel to the book of Revelation, to produce timelines and predict the date the world will end.  So far, they have all been wrong.

But I know the answer.  I know the date Jesus was talking about.  I know when his prediction became reality.

It happened in the year 70 AD.

Yes, that’s right, 70 AD, just forty or so years after the time of Jesus’ death.  But wait, you say, it’s 2,000 years later and we’re all still here!  The world couldn’t have ended in the year 70!

The world as a whole may still be here, but the world of the disciples ended in 70 AD.  You see, that was the year Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Jewish Christian community with it.  The Jews were ruled by Romans, and they hated it.  They expected God to send them a messiah in the form of a military leader who would throw off the yoke of their oppressor and restore the Jewish state.  In 66 AD, they launched a great rebellion that lasted for almost a decade.  They lost.  As part of their campaign, the Roman Army destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple that had been the center of Jewish life.  If you go to Jerusalem today, you can see those great stones the disciples marveled at, fallen down just as Jesus said.  Only one wall remains of the magnificent Temple the Disciples admired.  We call it the Wailing Wall, where observant Jews still go to pray and mourn what was lost.  And it wasn’t just the buildings.  The surviving rebels—and the Romans considered anyone within Jerusalem a rebel—were sold into slavery, never to return.  Throughout that war and its aftermath, many Jews were killed or sent into exile.

The disciples—all the first Christians—were Jewish.  They went to the synagogues and the Temple, they kept Jewish dietary laws and purity rituals, they celebrated Jewish festivals, and they spoke Hebrew and Aramaic.  They looked for new converts within the Jewish fold.  When Paul began preaching to gentiles, there was great debate as to whether or not one could become a Christian without becoming Jewish first.  As the message of Jesus spread to the gentiles, the center of the faith remained in Jerusalem.  They were poor in worldly goods, but they were rich in spirit and rich in the Gospel.  And when Jerusalem was destroyed, so were they.

We don’t know what happened to them.  They disappeared into the mists of history.  Some were probably killed by the Romans or sold into slavery.  Others may have abandoned their Christian faith and melted back into the ordinary Jewish world.  Still others were probably absorbed into the Gentile-Christian community.  The Christian faith survived and flourished, but it was carried by the Greek-speaking Gentiles.  God’s word survived, but the Good News was spoken in Greek, not Hebrew.  The message of Jesus remained and spread, but it was carried by people who spoke a different language, ate different foods, were not circumcised, wore different clothes, told different stories, followed different laws, had different names, sang different songs, and celebrated different festivals.  The church the Jewish Christians had nurtured was gone.  In its place was something different.  But that new church still heard God’s word and preached the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Nobody knows what happened to the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.  But I can tell you this: God was with them.  No matter what happened to them, I guarantee you that Jesus Christ was with them, comforting them in their grief and supporting them as they faced hardships and suffering.  And when Christ comes again, whenever that may be, they will be among those who shine like the stars.

In the two millennia since Jesus taught, we are no closer to being able to predict the end of the world than the first disciples were, either the end of the whole world or just our little corner of it.  We can’t put the apocalypse on our calendars or know what it will look like.  We are blessed that we don’t face a threat as dire as the Roman army, which was more powerful and deadly to their way of life than anything we face today.  But our world is changing rapidly, and while some of the changes are good, some are not.  North Dakota, especially, faces a lot of changes brought by the mineral wealth of the area, with money and people both flocking to the state.  Like the disciples, Jesus calls us to be watchful.  As in their day, there are people from all across the political, religious, and economic spectrum, who use the name of God to further their own agenda.  There are some changes we need to adapt to, and others we should not.  We don’t know what the future will look like, and we don’t know what challenges we’ll face along the way.  But this we do know: God is with us, and God will be with us no matter what.  As we face the storms of life, the earthquakes that shake our world, we know that we have a strong foundation in Jesus Christ.  We know that God’s Word will endure forever.  And we know that Christ will come again.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.