Saint and Sinner

Ash Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

It has been my experience that most people generally fall into two categories: those who spend too much time dwelling on their own flaws and faults, and so think they’re worthless and horrible and not-good-enough, and those who mostly ignore the fact that they’re not perfect. This presents a problem for a preacher, because people generally only really hear the things that agree with what they already believe. So when you talk about sinfulness, the ones who dwell on their own sin and can’t believe God would love them tend to hear a confirmation of how bad they are, while the people who think they’re practically perfect think you’re not talking about them. And when you talk about God’s love and forgiveness for all people, the ones who think sin has nothing to do with them, personally, take it as confirmation that they don’t have to look at their own behavior and thoughts, while the ones who believe God can’t love them think you’re talking about other people.

The message of Lent—the message of Ash Wednesday in particular—has two parts. First, you are a sinner. I am a sinner. We are all sinners as individuals, as community members, in every way possible. We fall short of the glory of God. We do selfish things that hurt ourselves and others. We ignore God’s call. We break relationships, people, creation. We soak up the worst of society’s mores and habits and find a way to justify it. We spread poison with a smile, and when our choices hurt people we shrug and shift the blame. If salvation depended on our own righteousness, our own goodness, our own holiness, every single one of us would be destined for hell. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even those of you sitting there thinking “I’ve never done anything really bad! I’m a good person!” Would your spouse agree? Your kids? Your parents? Your boss? Other people in town? Or would they have a list of things you’ve done that you’ve forgotten about—things you justified to yourself or minimized—that did a lot more damage than you realized?

God made us out of dirt, and truth be told, we’re still a lot dirtier than we want to admit. We will all die. And if it was up to us, to our efforts, all that would happen is that we’d turn back into the dirt God made us out of. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The other message of Lent is that God loves you anyway. That’s what the cross is—a giant glowing sign from God saying how much he loves you, that he was willing to die to save you from the consequences of your own actions. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even when you genuinely did something horrible. Yes, even when you think you are too bad, too horrible, for God to love you. There is nothing you or anyone else can do that will make God stop loving you. He may not like what you’re doing—if you are hurting yourself or others, I guarantee that he doesn’t—but he will always love you no matter what.  And all that dirt?  God wants nothing more than to wash us clean.

This is the reality of the cross. We are sinful creatures of the dust, and we are the beloved children of God, washed clean in the waters of baptism. And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God. We are transformed by God. We are reborn and made the righteousness of God. We become the hands and feet which God uses in the world to share that love with all people. We eat and drink Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist and become the body of Christ. We are baptized into Christ’s death so that we may one day be resurrected as he is. And none of this happens because we deserve it! None of this happens because we’re good enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough, because we are not. We are dirt. It happens because God loves us that much.

Lent is a time to dwell in those two realities—our sinfulness, and God’s love. It’s a time to shape our hearts and minds, our actions and our words, to reflect those two realities. That’s what all those things people do for Lent are supposed to do. They’re supposed to help us live out our faith, live out the promises that God has made us, live out our baptismal promise. They’re designed to help us acknowledge both our sinfulness and God’s love, and return to the Lord our God.

If you have a Lenten discipline or observation that you already do that is meaningful to you, great. If not, I have a suggestion. Pick a Bible verse about one of those two realities, and recite it to yourself at least twice a day. Put it on a sticky note in the bathroom so you’ll see it when you brush your teeth, and take the time to really think about what you’re saying. Keep that verse in your heart and mind all through Lent, and see what it does for you. If you’re one of those who has trouble remembering that you are a sinner, I suggest Psalm 51:3-4. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” If you’re one of those who knows their sinfulness on a bone-deep level but has trouble remembering God’s love, I suggest Psalm 103:8, a saying that appears many times in the Bible, including our reading from Joel earlier this evening. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” You might even follow that up by singing Jesus Loves Me.  I know, it’s a kid’s song, but it’s got a really important message. And as you go through Lent, living with your verse, you may be surprised at how your experience of Lent deepens and grows.

Amen.

Who are you?

Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

I’m a science fiction geek, and one of my favorite TV shows is an old show called Babylon 5. And there are two questions that Babylon 5 asks over and over again: Who are you? What do you want? Those are really important questions to take seriously. To ask yourself, every once in a while. Because if you don’t, you can end up in places you didn’t want to go, doing things you didn’t want to do, being the kind of person you don’t want to be.

Those are important questions, but they’re also hard questions. You have to stop and think, really think, not just let yourself get swept up by life. Who am I? When I strip away all the unnecessary stuff, all the baggage, all the distractions, all the assumptions, what’s left? Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I the kind of person God wants me to be? And what do I want? When I do something, is it because I want to or because it’s just easier to go along with everyone else? Am I just going through the motions of life? Am I giving lip service to my ideals, or am I living them? Are the things I’m doing getting in the way of being the kind of person I want to be? The purpose of Lent—the reason for the ashes, for the fasting, for the prayers, for the worship, for the confession—is to help us ask those questions, to take them seriously. The rituals are designed to make us stop just going through the motions of life, and take a good hard look at who we are, and what we’re doing.

Rituals can help us. Rituals are powerful things that can shape our understanding of the world. Rituals can help us connect to God and one another and give us tools to build good and loving lives full of connection with God and one another. If we take them seriously, rituals can help shape who we are and what we want. But if we don’t take them seriously, rituals can also be nothing more than empty show, hypocrisy, and pious platitudes.

That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s day. God had called the people of Israel to be his own people, a light to all nations. God had called them to be free to love one another, free to live in justice and peace and harmony. And they had responded! They had said “yes” to God. They chose to be that light. They had agreed to the covenant, to the solemn promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was part of their name: Israel means “God rules.” It’s a way of saying “we’re God’s people.”

And the thing is, they didn’t. They turned away from his ways. Oh, sure, they kept the rituals, the sacrifices and the special holy days and the temples and the fasting and the feasting, and all that, but they didn’t really mean any of it. They did what was easy instead of what was right. Instead of loving one another, they quarreled and fought. Instead of justice, they exploited one another. Instead of working together, they nitpicked and found fault. The powerful ignored the needy. Slavery, abuse, backstabbing, greed, hypocrisy, hatred, fear … those were the things that drove them. They’d go through the motions of doing the religious stuff, and then go right out and do horrible things. They still said they were God’s people, they still said they wanted good and faithful lives … but it didn’t really matter because they didn’t take it seriously. It was easier to just drift along and ignore all the ways they were falling short of who God called them to be.

There were people like that in Jesus’ day, too, which is why he warns the disciples against empty shows of piety. And there are people like that today, too. And before you start thinking of all the people you think are like that, stop and take a good look at yourself. Because human beings are very good at pointing fingers, and not so good at examining our own behavior. And finger-pointing is one of the things that God condemns in our first lesson! Nobody can fix other people; we can’t even fix ourselves! The only thing finger-pointing does is make yourself feel better by tearing down others. We are all sinners, here; forgiven by God, born anew in the waters of baptism, but we are saved only by the grace and mercy of God. Without God, we are nothing but dust, dirt. We keep falling in to old bad habits, destructive and self-destructive ways of thinking and being and acting. But God has chosen us to be his beloved children, washed clean and given new life.

The question is, what are we going to do with that new life? Who are we? God has called us his children, his people, forgiven us, and set us free to live lives of faith and love. But we sometimes use that freedom for other things, things that hurt ourselves and others, things that take us further from God, things that betray our deepest calling and lead us into bad places.  And the road that leads us into those bad places, the road that leads us to hurt ourselves and others … it’s not always obvious, when we set foot on it.  And it’s usually easier to start and harder to get off.  But not impossible.  The first step is to ask the questions: who am I?  What do I want?  Who is God calling me to be?  Even when the world is leading us in different places, taking the time to ask these questions and build our relationship with God can bear great fruit.  And that’s what Lent is all about.

Amen.

Why we do what we do

Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Psalm 51, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6

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.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your father in heaven.”  Wow, what a text to read on Ash Wednesday!  After all, here we are to practice a piety that can only be seen by others.  We’re here to get ashes put on our foreheads, and we ourselves can’t see it.  Only other people can see it.  And here we are, reading a passage from the Bible where Jesus says, practice your spirituality in private, where people can’t see you!  It’s kind of ironic.

Jesus’ objection isn’t primarily about other people, though; it’s about us.  It’s about the reasons why we do what we do.  I’m sure you all know people who act all pious, all high-and-mighty, just because they want other people to think they’re a good Christian.  I know people who give money—and then trumpet it for all to hear, because they want everyone to know how generous they are!  I know people who go on lots of spiritual retreats—and then talk your ears off about how enlightening it was, so that you’ll know how spiritual they are!  It’s not the giving or the retreats that are the problem, though; it’s the reason they’re doing it.

It’s like people who buy big books just so they can put them on their coffee table so people will think they’re smart.  If you buy a book just to put it on display, you may indeed get people to think you’re smart … but that doesn’t mean you actually know anything more than you did when you bought the book.  So, Jesus says, if you pray long public prayers to prove you’re a good Christian, you may succeed in getting people to think you’re a good Christian … but it doesn’t impress God, because God knows darn good and well why you’re doing it.  If you give lots of money and make sure everyone knows it, yeah, people will think you’re very generous … but God will know you’re only doing it to score points.  And while it will score you points with your fellow human beings, it won’t score you points with God.

You see, for God, why we do things is almost as important as what we do.  God is more concerned with inward truths than public show, and unlike humans, God knows the inward truths of our souls even more than we ourselves do.  God wants us to pray because we love God so much we desire a deeper connection with him.  God wants us to give because we love others so deeply that we long to help them any way we can.  God wants us to read our Bibles because we long for God’s Word.  God wants us to fast because we long to purify our hearts and minds and bodies.  God doesn’t want us to do these things to score points, and he doesn’t want us to just do them by rote because they’re expected—instead, God wants us to use these tools to do what he gave them to us for: to draw closer to God and to one another, to build ourselves up as God’s children.

Lent is a time with many pious traditions, and many churches and communities and families have their own practices.  Ashes on Ash Wednesday; fish instead of meat on Fridays; giving up chocolate or candy.  But how often do we do these things just because that’s what we’re supposed to do?  I know that when I was a teenager, my family didn’t really have a tradition of giving up anything for Lent, and I decided to start just because it sounded cool.  I didn’t know why people gave things up for Lent; I just know that some religious people did, and I wanted to be one of them.  And I liked talking about it—oh, no, I can’t have chocolate, I gave it up for Lent.  That was pretty much all I got out of it, the first several years I did it.  I got to feel pious, and I got to make sure people knew I was committed to Jesus so much I’d even give up chocolate for him.  It didn’t change anything in me; it didn’t bring me closer to God, and it certainly didn’t bring me closer to anyone else.  It didn’t deepen my faith, and it didn’t deepen my understanding.  It just made me look good.  When you get right down to it, it was pretty empty.

As I got older, I realized that my giving up chocolate was empty.  Now, I could have just stopped doing it and assumed that giving stuff up for Lent was meaningless, and rolled my eyes at the people who did it.  Because I know a lot of people who do it for the same reasons I was doing it, and get nothing out of it.  But I didn’t.  Because there are a lot of other people for whom giving stuff up for Lent is a deeply spiritual experience.  There are people whose Lenten practices have helped their faith to grow and mature.  So what’s the difference?  I spent a long time studying and searching for the answer.

It turns out, there are two major things that turn ritual into deep experience.  The first is attention.  If you’re just doing something by rote and not paying attention, chances are you’re not going to get much out of it.  You have to take time and energy and focus on your actions.  We don’t give stuff up so that we can look holy—we give stuff up so that we have roadblocks in our daily life, time when we would normally break out the candy or turn on the television but instead take time to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  You have to take the time to open yourself up to God, to see what God is trying to teach you.  If you take that time to contemplate and pray and listen to God, then all of a sudden giving something up for Lent can change from an empty gesture to something full of meaning.

But not everybody responds the same way to the same spiritual disciplines.  For some people, fasting—giving up something they cherish—is deeply meaningful.  For others, it isn’t.  For some people, adding in extra prayers or extra time reading their Bibles is more important than fasting.  And for others, time spent in service and charity is the most meaningful thing they can do during Lent.  But no matter what spiritual practices you choose to follow for the next forty days, they will only be effective if you give them your whole heart and attention, and open yourself up to the lesson they teach.

So tonight, as we receive the ashes, take time to think about it.  Clear your mind of all your daily concerns, all the nagging things that draw your attention to the world outside.  Remember who you are, and whose you are.  Remember that you are God’s beloved child, whom Jesus Christ died to save.  Remember that we are all sinners, and that the wages of sin are death.  Remember that the only way through death and into life is through Jesus Christ, but we can’t get there on our own.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Amen.

 

Ash Wednesday: The Wrong Reasons

Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

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

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

There are many reasons for doing things in church.  One of them is good.  The others are not, and in our readings today we hear the difference.  The good reason is a sincere faith and a desire to draw closer to God.  Ultimately, everything we do together as Christians should flow from our faith and our relationship with God.  But all too often, it doesn’t.  All too often, we find ourselves doing things because we want to look pious, or because it’s what everyone else is doing, or just because it’s always been that way.  And from the outside, it looks much the same: you can’t tell just from looking at someone whether they’re in church on Sunday morning because they have a hunger for God, or if they’re just there because if they aren’t their family will nag them.  You can’t tell by looking at someone whether they’re teaching Sunday School because they got dragged into it, or because they have a desire and a call to share the news of Jesus.  You can’t tell just by looking at someone whether they’re wearing a cross of ashes on their forehead to help them remember their sinfulness, or because they want everyone they meet to see what a devout Christian they are.

If there is a time of the church year most prone to doing things for the wrong reasons, it is Lent.  There are many traditions we observe during Lent without really knowing why we do them, what they are about.  We do them by rote, or we forget about them entirely.  How many of you have ever given up chocolate for Lent?  Did you know why you did it?  I know I used to give up chocolate without really knowing why.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the ancient Hebrew people had the same problem.  They knew all the right rituals and ceremonies, and they did them—but they didn’t understand why they did them.  They went through the motions, but their hearts and souls were not changed.  They looked on their religious rituals as a recipe for prosperity.  “If we fast on the right days, and eat the right foods, and offer the right sacrifices, God will like us and give us what we want.”  So they were very strict at keeping the outer observances and rituals strong … and yet, all their actions brought them no closer to God.

So God sent Isaiah to tell them what God really wanted, and it wasn’t what they expected.  You see, God wasn’t concerned so much with the rituals as God was with their entire lives.  God didn’t want empty show; God wanted whole lives lived with justice and mercy.  It didn’t matter what they did on the Sabbath if they spent the rest of the week exploiting and ignoring the poor and vulnerable people around them.  How they treated their fellow human beings had a direct connection to their relationship with God.  All the rituals in the world couldn’t bring them closer to God if it didn’t also bring them closer to their neighbor.  The rituals were not a way to score points with God; they were supposed to be a guide for how to live in a right relationship with God and all of God’s creation.

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,    and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”  Jesus put it this way: when asked which was the greatest commandment, he answered with two: love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In other words, you can’t really separate love of God from love of neighbor.  Doing all the right rituals isn’t enough.  Being a faithful child of God means living our whole lives as children of God.  It means loving God and loving our neighbor, not just in words but in deed.

Jesus, too, had something to say about religious ritual, as we heard in our Gospel lesson.  We should give to those in need, and we should pray, and we should fast, but we should not do it to show off how pious we are.  Prayer, devotion, worship, giving, fasting, all of these should be things that point us to Christ.  The rites we practice should bring us closer to God and to our fellow human beings.  If you’re just going to church or giving up chocolate to impress others with how faithful you are, how good a Christian you are, you may well succeed in impressing the people around you—but God knows the difference.

In Lent, we prepare for Easter by acknowledging our sins, and our need for the salvation that comes through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.  We prepare for Easter by drawing closer to God, and fasting from those things that draw us away from our fellow human beings.  We prepare for Easter by living out those things we know we should do but seldom take the time for.  We prepare for Easter by taking a good, hard look at our lives, and seeing what needs to change to live as children of God.  There are many rituals that can help us do this; the ashes we are about to receive are one of them.  But the rituals are not the point; the rituals are signs to point us to Christ.

As you consider what you should do this Lent to prepare for Easter, here are some things to ask yourself: When I wake up on Resurrection Sunday morning, how will I be different?  Is there a habit or sin in my life that repeatedly gets in the way of loving God with my whole heart or loving my neighbor as myself? How do I address that habit over the next 40 days?  Is there anyone in my life from whom I need to ask forgiveness or pursue reconciliation? What practical steps can I take to carve out time for daily contemplation?  What are some things in my life that I tell myself I need but I don’t?  Can I give one or two of them up for 40 days?  Why am I giving this particular thing up? How does giving it up draw me closer to God and prepare me for Easter?  What am I going to tell myself when self-denial gets hard?  Is it necessary or helpful for me to share the nature my fast with others or should I keep it private? What do the ashes mean to me this year? What does baptism mean to me this year?

We are all sinners.  We do things we shouldn’t, and we fail to do the things we should.  We ignore the needy around us, and we ignore God’s presence in our lives.  Too often, we worship God and study God’s Word out of habit or because we want to look good.  And yet, God loves us still.  We are not worthy to be children of God, and yet God claims us as God’s own.  Our sin and brokenness lead only down to the grave, but the grave does not have the final say, because Christ died for us.  Christ died for us, and rose again, and we are tied to his death and resurrection.  We will die, yes; we are dust, and to dust we will return.  But we will rise in Christ our Savior.

Amen.