What is Baptism?

Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

 

Ritual baths to cleanse away impurity have always been an important part of Judaism.  They’re called mikvehs.  Have you touched a dead body or someone with a disfiguring disease?  Mikveh.  Have you just finished menstruating?  Mikveh.  Have you just recovered from some gross or disturbing medical condition?  Mikveh.  Are you converting to Judaism?  Mikveh.  Getting ready for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar?  Mikveh.  Did you just buy new dishes from a gentile?  They need to be purified in a mikveh.  Unlike the Christian sacrament of baptism, mikvehs in Jewish religion are something that people do many times throughout their lives, any time someone needs to be ritually purified.  John the Baptist was part of this long tradition.  He invited people out to the Jordan river for a mikveh that would cleanse them from the impurity of their sin.  But he probably wasn’t expecting this to be a permanent change in their spiritual status, any more than any other mikveh was.  It would be something that needed to be repeated over and over again throughout the person’s life.

This is why John the Baptist was so confused and horrified when Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized.  John’s baptism—John’s mikveh—was all about sin and ritual purity.  Jesus, as God’s son, was not sinful.  He was already pure.  He didn’t need to be washed and made clean.  But in the process of being baptized, Jesus was doing something new.  Jesus was taking the ritual bath of his Jewish heritage, and turning it into the Christian ritual of baptism.

On the surface, they are very alike.  Both involve water symbolically washing away impurity; and while modern Jewish mikvehs don’t usually have anything to do with sin and repentance, John’s version did, and so do Christian baptisms.  Yet Christian baptism is not just about repenting from sin.  If sin and repentance were the only part of it, we’d need to re-baptize people all the time.  Baptism is a lot of things.  Here are some of them:

Baptism is an initiation rite.  In baptism, we become part of the Christian community and fellowship.  The person being baptized (or their parents, if they are too young) make promises to be a part of the Christian community, and the congregation responds by promising to support them in their life of faith.  Through this we become part of the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in the world.  We confess the same faith as all Christians in every time and place.  We begin our service to the same Lord, and our worship of the same Savior.

Baptism is an adoption.  In baptism, we are claimed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the seal of the cross of Christ forever.  The words that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism—”This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”—are also the words God speaks over every person being baptized.  We are adopted into the family of God and become brothers and sisters with Christ and with every other Christian who has ever been or ever will be.

Baptism is a washing away of sin, but not on a temporary basis.  We are not cleansed by the water itself, but by God’s promises of forgiveness.  It is that promise, and not the water, we trust in; it is that promise to which we turn, and it is that promise that will never be rescinded, no matter how much we sin after our baptism.  It’s the first time we experience the grace of God, which showers down upon us for the rest of our lives.

Baptism is new birth.  Just like being born from our mother’s womb means passing through the waters of birth, so too does being born from above mean passing through the waters of baptism.  By the way, if you’ve ever been asked if you have been born again, the answer is yes: it happened when you were baptized.

Baptism is death.  In the waters of baptism, our old sinful self is drowned, and we rise out of the water as new people, tied to Christ’s death and resurrection.  As Christ died, so too we will one day die; as Christ rose from the grave, so too will we one day rise from the grave, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

Baptism is when the Holy Spirit first enters into us.  It is when we are anointed with the power of God.  Every time there is a baptism in the New Testament, the Spirit is there.  Sometimes the Spirit appears before the baptism, sometimes during it, sometimes after it, but in all cases, the Spirit is there.  The Spirit is planted in us like a seed, and helps us grow in faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit helps us prepare for and participate in God’s coming kingdom, to the glory of God the Father.

Baptism is both God’s gift and our response to that gift.  It is God reaching out to us to claim us as God’s own, and it is how we accept and reach back to God.  It is something that God does to us and in us, and it is something we choose and claim as our own and affirm and incorporate into our lives.

Baptism is a sacrament.  It is something commanded by God, which combines a promise of God with a visible symbol for all to see.  Baptism takes something intangible—God’s promises and our faith—and unites it with something which we can see, touch, taste.  It takes something absolutely ordinary and every-day (water!) and turns it into the most extraordinary thing imaginable.  It connects us with God.  It is the living water which sustains our souls.  It reminds us of God’s presence and God’s promises and our own promises every time we turn on the tap or cross the river or go to the beach.

God shows no partiality.  The gift of God’s grace, the gift of living water, the gift of adoption, the gift of the Holy Spirit, these gifts are open to everyone.  All we have to do is receive them.  God has done the hard work already—God has sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to call us, to teach us, to heal us, to claim us, to die for us, and to rise from the grave for us.  All we need do is respond to what God has done and is doing in us.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; nothing that can invalidate the promises God made at our baptism.  We can go astray, leave the faith, abandon God, and still when we come back our baptism is just as valid as it ever was.  All we have to do is say ‘yes’ to it again, say ‘yes’ to God again.

This is the foundation of the Christian life.  This is the foundation of the Christian calling.  This is the foundation of everything that we have and everything that we are, which is why in many ancient Christian traditions, the Baptism of Jesus is a far more important holy day than Christmas.  God calls us to do many things, to love one another, to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and care for the sick and clothe the naked and visit those in prison and free those held in bondage by the injustices of the world.  All of these things have their foundation in baptism.  We are children of God.  We are members of the body of Christ in the world.  We are brothers and sisters of all God’s children.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ.  We are claimed by God and sent out into the world to do God’s will.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

What is to prevent us?

Easter 5, Year B, April 29, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Baptism and Discipleship

Trinity Sunday, June 11, 2017

Genesis 1:1—2:4a, Psalm 8, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20

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.

Every year at the end of Confirmation, we play Confirmation Jeopardy.  One of the questions is a trick question: why do we baptize?  And the kids usually come up with some really good and true answers.  We baptize because it saves us!  We baptize because it connects us to Jesus!  We baptize because it washes us free from sin!  And all of these are correct.  But they’re not the simplest answer, the answer I’m looking for, which is that we baptize because Jesus commands us to.  “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Baptism is a sacrament, a holy rite which washes us clean of our sins and connects us to the death and resurrection of our lord and savior Jesus Christ.  When we are baptized, we are baptized into Christ’s death.  Just as Christ died, so we too will one day die—and just as Christ rose from the grave, so we, too, will rise from the grave when he comes again to judge the living and the dead.  We are born children of a fallen, sinful human race.  In baptism, the old, sinful self is drowned and we are reborn as children of God, citizens of God’s kingdom and heirs of God’s promise.  In baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit.  In baptism, we are made part of the body of Christ in the world, which is the community of all believers.  Baptism does many things, and it is an extremely important part of the life of a Christian.  It only happens once, but it changes who we are and who we belong to on a fundamental level.  And we don’t do it because we think it’s nice, we do it because Jesus commands us to do it.

But notice that baptism isn’t alone.  It’s not the sum total of Jesus’ command.  It is sandwiched in the middle of other stuff.  Jesus does not just say “Baptize your children and anybody who wants to join your church.”  Jesus’ command has three parts.  The first is this: go and make disciples of all nations.  In other words, baptism is intimately connected with discipleship.  Baptism depends on discipleship.  So what is discipleship?  We talk about it a lot, but don’t always stop to define it.  Discipleship comes from the same root word as “discipline.”  A disciple is someone who is disciplined about their faith.  Someone who puts it into action and practices it regularly.  It’s not just an accident, and it’s not an afterthought.  Faith is an action, a verb, something a disciple does.  They work at it, through prayer and study and worship and trusting God even when they have doubts and letting the love of God guide their actions and their words.  That’s what a disciple does.

And that’s why Jesus connects baptism and discipleship.  Baptism makes us children of God and unites us with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Discipleship is living that out.  Discipleship is when we don’t just say we love Jesus, we actually put that love into action.  Baptism matters, but if we aren’t willing to follow that up and live like we mean it, how important is it?  It’s kind of like me being a fan of the Seattle Mariners.  Yes, if I’m going to watch baseball, they’re my team.  But I haven’t watched a game of theirs in years, and I don’t even know who’s on the team now, or how they’re doing.  So, while I am still a fan, I’m not much of one.  There’s no inspection or test to see if I’m worthy of being called a fan, there’s no chance that I’d be kicked out of a game for not being enthusiastic enough, but if I were really a fan, well, I’d have figured out a way to follow my team even though I’m half a continent away.  In the same way, you only need to be baptized once and even if you fall away from the faith, that baptism never loses its power … but at the same time, it’s not quite as meaningful if you don’t live a life of discipleship.

So, then, how do we make disciples?  Most crucially today, how do we as a community raise this child baptized here today and all children baptized here so that the promises of their baptism will be completed in their discipleship?  Faith isn’t something you learn in a classroom, it’s something you experience.  Faith isn’t taught, it’s caught.  And to catch it, it really helps to be around people who live out their faith in discipleship.  Who pray regularly, who worship regularly, who study their Bibles, who listen and watch for God in everything that they do, and who put that faith into action.  We become disciples through contact with other disciples.  We learn faith by doing, by acting it out.  We learn faith by choosing to love and trust God and let that love and trust guide our actions … and we learn faith by seeing how other people love and trust God.

The parents are the most important in this.  Children absorb faith from their parents, whether that faith is strong or weak.  When parents are disciples, children usually become disciples, too.  If children pray with their parents, if they read Bible stories with their parents, if they talk about how their faith impacts their daily life with their parents, chances are they will continue on in the faith to the rest of their lives.  But parents are not the only role models children have.  Their grandparents, godparents, Sunday School teachers, and others in the community also guide and shape their faith and help them grow.  The most important thing about Sunday School, for example, is not the curriculum or the funny videos.  The most important way Sunday School shapes a child’s faith is how it connects them to faithful role models in the congregation.

And discipleship is not just for the few, the chosen, the ones who are like us.  We are not sent to make disciples only among our own children, but among the whole world.  And the same methods that work for raising children in the faith work for making disciples out in the world, too.  When people we know, people we have a relationship with, see us living and acting out our faith, when they see it make a difference in our lives, they are drawn to the Gospel and are more likely to become disciples themselves.  If you look at places where Christianity is spreading rapidly—in Africa and Asia—it’s because they are serious about discipleship, both among those who are already Christian and among those who are coming to the faith.  They live their faith, and allow God to make a difference in their lives, and all who see them are drawn to them.  They don’t just say they love God and their neighbor, they put that love into action.  And when their neighbors experience that love, they want to become a part of it, too.

The first part of the command is to make disciples, which means we have to be disciples.  The second part of the command is to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  And the third part is to remember that Jesus is always with us, no matter what.  You see, the heart of the Christian life is about relationship, because God is about relationship.  God comes to us in three ways—as our creator and father, as the Son our savior, and as the Spirit that inspires and moves us.  When it says in 1 John 4 that God is love, that’s what it means.  The very heart of God is a relationship between Father, Son, and Spirit, and God’s work in the world is reaching out to extend that loving relationship to us.  We are never alone because once we become children of God in baptism, that bond of relationship will never break.  God loves us no matter what.  Discipleship isn’t just about doing the right thing, it’s about loving God and experiencing the love God has for us, and letting that love flow out through us to the world.

When we let God work in us and through us, God’s reconciling love fills us and spreads out into the world, breaking down barriers, lifting up those who are poor and brokenhearted, healing all who need it.  The living water of God, in which we are baptized, rises up in us and flows out for all the world.  When we are united with Christ in baptism, when we follow the Spirit in discipleship, the love of God is always with us, and we are called to spread that love to all the world.

That’s why we baptize.  That’s why discipleship is important.  Because the God who created us, who gave his life to save us, who comes to us and inspires us and nourishes our souls, loves us, and loves all the world.  We want to be a part of that great love, and share it with all: our children, our community, our world.

Amen.

Baptism and the Love Command

Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017

Acts 17:22-31, Psalm 66:8-20, 1 Peter 3:13-22, John 14:15-21

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

 

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

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

 

We are only baptized once in our lives.  Baptism is many things, but one of them is an adoption.  When we are baptized, God speaks to us the same words he spoke to Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River: you are my beloved child.  In baptism, we are re-born children of God.  And, like any adoption, it only happens once, and changes the reality of who we are and whose we are.  That one moment changes us.  It re-forms our relationships and our place in the world.  We are born children of a fallen humanity; in baptism, we are re-born as children of God.  In baptism, God claims us as his own, washes us clean from our sins, creates us new people in him, and unites us with the death and resurrection of Christ, so that as Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so we, too, will be resurrected when Christ comes again.  Like an adoption or a marriage, baptism only has to happen once, because it completely changes us from one thing to another.  Martin Luther used to say that baptism was an everyday reality, that through our baptisms we die every day to sin and rise to new life in Christ Jesus.  Just like new parents signing the adoption papers, or newlyweds signing the marriage license, baptism is the beginning of a new life together, that lasts our whole life long.

God’s adoption means our salvation.  Just as Jesus Christ died and was resurrected, so we too will die one day … and when Christ comes again we will rise from our graves just as he did, healed and made new and perfect, all our sins washed away and every bad part of us gone.  In our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Just as Jesus rose from the grave, so we too will one day rise from the grave.  We live now in this world, but in baptism God has made us citizens of his kingdom.  Just as when a couple adopts a child from a foreign country, that child becomes a citizen of his new parents’ country, when God adopts us as his children in baptism, we are made citizens of God’s country.

But like an adoption or a marriage, sometimes we need to re-affirm our baptism.  We need to remember our baptism and think for a bit about what it means, and re-commit ourselves to living with the baptismal relationship.  Just like married couples celebrate their anniversaries, or sometimes renew their vows.  Like any relationship, the more you put into your baptismal relationships, the more you get out of them.  So it’s important to take the time to think about what that means.  We need to think about what it means to be a child of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, and how we should be responding to the love of God poured out on us in our baptisms and throughout our lives.  God will never abandon us or cut us off, just like loving parents never abandon or cut off their children; in return, we should be living as God calls us to live.

Today at Augustana we are confirming two young people, MiKayla and Kaleb.  If you look at the rite in your hymnals, you will see that the formal name for it is not “Confirmation” but “Affirmation of Baptism.”  This rite is a time to remember our baptisms and re-dedicate us to the one who claims us as his own.  Not just for the two young people standing up in front of the church in white robes, but all of us.  We are all baptized children of God.  We are all called to live and work as God’s people in the world.

Now, if you ask different Christians how we should live and work in the world, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  Some will have a long list of things we can and cannot do—but not all Christian groups would put the same thing on that list.  And some people would say we shouldn’t have hard-and-fast rules at all, but rather go where we feel the Holy Spirit calling us.  So the question is, what guiding principle should we live our lives by?  What is the core thing that Jesus wants us to do as we follow him?  What central thing should guide our interpretation of Scripture and the rules by which we live?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus said to the disciples: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  What commandments does he mean?  There are a lot of commandments in the Bible, some of which were specific commands for specific times and places, some of which are more general and apply to everyone everywhere in every time.  What commandments is Jesus talking about in this reading?  Well, this is a short excerpt from the Farewell Discourse, Jesus’ last instructions for his disciples the night before he was arrested and put on trial.  It’s four chapters long, and in those chapters Jesus gives the same commandment: love one another.  If you love me, Jesus says, you will love one another.  You cannot love Jesus without also loving your neighbor.  In baptism, God claims us as his own children because he loves us; we respond to that love by loving God, and loving our neighbor.  That’s the way the Christian life is supposed to go.  That’s what all of Scripture boils down to: love God, and love your neighbor.

In Confirmation class we spent almost half of this year talking about the Ten Commandments, what they mean for us and what they might look like in real life.  And one of the things we talk about is that they’re the foundation of Christian ethics, but they are not the sum total of what we are supposed to do.  We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.  If we love God, we’ll keep him first in our lives, we won’t take God’s name in vain, and we’ll take time both to rest and to worship God.  If we love our neighbors, we will not kill them, or cheat on our relationships, or steal, or lie, or be jealous.

But we can follow all those rules and still be mean, petty people.  We can follow all the rules and still hurt people.  We can follow all the rules and still not be the people God called us in baptism to be.  We can follow all the rules and still not live up to the citizenship we have in God’s kingdom.  Because the rules don’t exist for the sake of having rules.  The rules exist to guide us to God, and to provide a framework for the healthy and loving relationships that God desires us to have with each other and with him.  The rules exist to help us make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom, our true home.  The rules exist to give us a little bit of an idea what the world would look like if we really and truly did love one another as God has loved us.  To help us see that there is a better way.  To help us be the people God created us to be, and called us to be in our baptisms.

That’s a big order.  That’s huge and intense.  I don’t know about you, but I find that a lot of the time, following the letter of God’s commandments is a lot easier than following the spirit of them.  Checking off boxes on a list of how a Christian is supposed to live is a lot easier than following Jesus’ command to love.  And if I were to rely solely on my own abilities and strength of will, there is no way that I could live up to that command.  There is no way I could be the person God created me to be.

But God does not leave us to struggle through on our own.  God does not give us a commandment and then stand up in heaven with a clipboard judging us and writing us off when we fail.  God sent us Jesus Christ, to teach us and to save us, and when Jesus returned to heaven after the Resurrection, God sent us the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the comforter, the encourager, the one who inspires us to be the people God created us to be, who lights a fire in our hearts, who gives us the strength and wisdom to put God’s love into action.

May we live each day remembering that we are baptized children of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, loving God and our neighbor.

Amen.

The Process of Being Born

Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

 

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

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

 

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

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

I was there in the room when both of my brothers were born.  I don’t remember much about Nels’ birth; I was only four and a half.  But I was sixteen when Lars was born, and I remember it very well.  And one of the things that I remember is how long it took, and how much was involved.  It seemed to take forever.  Mom was at the center of things, with Dad supporting her, and nurses and doctors coming in and out as things ebbed and flowed.  There were moments when things got very intense, and then everyone would relax for a bit.  Then another pang would come, and things would rev up again.  It seemed to take forever, and there was a lot of yelling and mess and gross stuff, but at the end, there was a new life: my baby brother Lars.

I think that may be one of the reasons I’m so comfortable with the Lutheran understanding of what it means to be “born again.”  In those traditions which emphasize being “born again,” it’s usually talked about as a relatively simple event.  You hear a call and come to Jesus.  You see the light and become a Christian.  You feel God’s presence in your life and get baptized.  Over and done, boom.  I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the point is that a born-again Christian can usually give you a time and date for the moment they believe they were born again, born from above.  In theory, that moment of being born again changes you forever.  In theory, once you have been born again, the Christian life is simply a matter of continuing on in holiness and growing in a straight line towards God.  You shouldn’t still struggle with your faith, or sin, or fall back into un-Christian behavior.  It happens, of course, but it’s not supposed to happen.

I can’t name a date and time when I was saved or born again, but that isn’t because I haven’t experienced that second birth Christ talks about in our Gospel.  I can’t give you a specific moment partly because I’m pretty sure it’s still happening.  We are all, every one of us, in the middle of being born from above.  We are still in the middle of all the pain and mess of our second birth.  It’s an ongoing process.  No Christian, in this life, is perfect in faith; no Christian, in this life, follows God’s call completely.  None of us are free from sin; none of us are free from temptation; none of us is free from doubt.  There are times when we feel close to God, and times when we feel separated.  We are forgiven, and then we fall back into sin, and then we confess and are forgiven anew.  Faith is not a simple one-and-done thing; it’s a complex reality to be lived through.

Martin Luther put it this way: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.  The process is not yet finished, but it is going on.  This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”  In other words, the life of a Christian isn’t about already being a perfect faithful Christian, but about growing in faith.  It’s not a one-great-moment and then everything’s settled and fine forever.  There are highs and lows, peaks and valleys.  There are pains, setbacks, trouble; there are times of rest to catch your breath.  Just like in a birth.  There are a lot of people who have a part to play in our growth in faith; some of them are there for the whole long process, and some are just there for one part of it.  Just like in a birth.  It’s a long, drawn-out process, just like a birth.  And, at the end, there is new life … just like in a birth.  Except that this birth takes our whole lives, and the new life is the life we have in Christ.  This birth is not about blood and biology; this birth is about faith and the family of God.

This birth comes through water and Spirit.  That should sound familiar to you.  There is a sacrament we have—shared by all Christians—of water and the Holy Spirit.  Baptism.  When we are showered with the waters of baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  We become part of a new family, the family of God—just as we become part of our birth family when we are born.  The water washes away the old, sinful self; our sins are drowned in the waters of baptism.  And yet, we still sin.  But that doesn’t mean that baptism isn’t effective, and it doesn’t mean that the transforming power of water and the Spirit isn’t still at work in us: that just means that the Spirit’s work in us is not yet done.  Although we only are baptized once, the reality of baptism lasts our whole life long.  Every day, we are drowned in the waters of baptism, and every day we rise to new life in Christ.  As our faith ebbs and flows, as our commitment to Christ grows (and sometimes shrinks), the Holy Spirit works in us continually.  We are in the process of being re-born as children of God.

We don’t get to choose what the Spirit does in us.  We don’t get to choose where it sends us.  Just like the infant in the birth canal, we go where we are pushed.  We don’t know what’s coming; the future is beyond our understanding.  But we know that we are on the way; we know that something wonderful is coming.  We know that something new is coming, and that we will be new in it.  We trust the Spirit to lead us to God.  We trust the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to work in us and around us, and to work in and around the whole of creation.  We trust that love will win, and that love will be active in faith.  The whole purpose of God’s work in the world is that his love will overflow in us.  For God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but live God’s abundant life now and in the world to come.  God didn’t send Jesus into condemn the world, but to save it.

That salvation works through faith.  Faith is not just a static thing that we have, it is something we do.  It’s something we are.  It’s something we grow into.  Belief isn’t just about memorizing the right answers.  In Greek, the word for faith—pistis—can be both a noun and a verb.  In other words, it can be an idea, but it can also be an action.  But in English, faith is a noun, and a noun only.  There is no verb form; “faithing” is not a word.  When faith is used as a verb in Greek, it’s translated as “having faith” or “believe.”  Which still makes it sound like faith is an object you possess and carry around with you, instead of something you do.  When Jesus talks about “having faith” or “believing” in our English translations, he’s not saying that we need to memorize the right beliefs and be able to recite them on cue.  He’s talking about trusting God.  He’s talking about living faithfully, and trusting God to bring us through the labor pangs.  Jesus is talking about putting our belief into action, living with the reality of God’s salvation as the motivating force in our lives.  Jesus is talking about letting the Spirit work God’s will in us, opening us up to the power of God.

We can’t see the Spirit directly.  We don’t see where it comes from or where it goes.  We can feel it working in us; we can see it in the love of God poured out for all the world.  We can experience it in the new life that brings God’s love more clearly to all the world.

Amen.

An epiphany in the wilderness

Baptism of our Lord, Year B, January 11, 2014

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-11

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’s a movie in theaters right now called “Into The Woods.” It’s based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim that throws several well-known fairytales—Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rapunzel—together and intertwines them. It’s called “Into the Woods” because that’s where all the action takes place, where the characters meet and collide and scheme and cheat and help one another and learn and grow. In the woods—far away from their ordinary daily lives, from the patterns and social expectations that guide their normal behavior and perspectives—change is possible. Growth is possible. Learning is possible. Magic happens, and ordinary things become extraordinary, in the woods.

In the Bible, the wilderness functions kind of the same way. It’s the place where change happens. It’s a place that God is most likely to be able to take someone and turn them around, break into their life and make them new. In the wilderness—whether a physical or a spiritual kind of wilderness—you can’t hide behind anything anymore. You don’t have your normal job or what the neighbors will think or anything else to distract you. God often appears in the wilderness. God spoke to Moses through the burning bush in the wilderness, and it was during a forty-year stay in the wilderness that the Hebrew people learned to trust God and follow him again after generations of slavery in Egypt. It was in the wilderness that God renewed the faith of a despairing Elijah. And it is in the wilderness that John the Baptizer appears, the messenger preparing the way for Jesus.

And it is in the wilderness that John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Repentance literally means “turning around.” You go out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist, and that’s what’s going to happen. You will be turned around. You will be re-oriented. Your priorities will change. But the baptism of John was just water—water, and the wilderness. John knew that something was coming, something new, something extraordinary, beyond human understanding. John knew that God was coming. “I have baptized you with water,” John said. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” An ordinary repentance—even one in the wilderness—may not last long. When you go back to your normal life, it is all too easy to slip back around into the way you’ve always been. But it’s not quite so easy to slide back when God is the one to turn you around, when you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus came to the Jordan River, he was one of many. At this point, Jesus looked like a fairly normal guy—nobody looking at him would see anything special. Yes, he was the Son of God, but he hadn’t really done much to show it. His time to teach and preach and heal and feed people and die had not yet come. His baptism was the turning point. Jesus, being fully God as well as being fully human, didn’t need any sins forgiven—he’d never sinned in the first place. But this was the turning point, when people begin to see how incredible this ordinary-looking person really is. This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. This is when things are set in motion. This is when God manifests—not just the Son by himself but all three together, Father, Son, and Spirit.

When Jesus went down into the water in the wilderness, he said good-bye to his normal, ordinary life. When he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit came down to him and the Father said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It’s like a family reunion, a big group hug before Jesus begins his ministry, before he puts himself on a collision course with the powers of this world which will eventually result in his own death. I love you, the Father says. I will always be with you even as you walk towards death, the Spirit says. And if you think I’m putting too much weight on Jesus’ death here, at the beginning of the story, think about this: the word Mark uses to describe the heavens tearing apart? That word is only used one other time in Mark: when Jesus dies, and the curtain of the Temple that separates ordinary people from the Holy of Holies is torn in two. Jesus’ whole ministry is bookended by this tearing: the things that separate us from God—whether the curtain of the temple, or the heavens themselves—get ripped in two. And it’s not just a simple slice, easily mended. This is a rip, a shredding. There’s no putting it back together again. God is coming into the world—God is coming to be with us.

This is the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is about revelations, about God appearing, and as we move through this season, I want you to listen to the readings each week I want you to listen for the epiphanies, the revelations, in each one. In our reading today, it’s obvious—God tears the heavens open and speaks directly, and the Holy Spirit takes visible form like a dove, coming down. But although this epiphany seems to be mostly for Jesus—we’re told he heard the voice of God and saw the Spirit, we don’t know whether anyone else did—baptism is not just for Jesus, it’s for us. Because John’s baptism is only with water, but after this, every baptism done in Jesus’ name involves the Holy Spirit and the voice of God. That baptism with the Holy Spirit that John talked about that was coming? That’s the baptism we experience every time we bring a child or adult to the font and splash them with water. It’s not just our words. It’s not just our water. God is present.

In each baptism, the heavens are torn open a little wider and the Holy Spirit comes down, dancing over the water just as the Spirit danced over the waters of creation. In every baptism, God claims the one in the water, saying “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” No matter what else happens, God is there, present in the whole community, welcoming and claiming each child and adult as God’s own. God is working. God is calling us and turning us around. We can still walk away from God—but God will never walk away from us, because God loves us and has chosen us. No matter where we go—no matter where life takes us—whether we are faithful or not, whether we walk by still waters and green pastures or through wilderness and temptation—God is with us. Sometimes, especially when we’re walking through wilderness and temptation. Even when we are blind to him, when our own fears and dreams drown out his voice, God is with us, calling us and guiding us and hoping we will turn to him and follow. Hoping that we will see him all around us.

Because God doesn’t just come to us once. God doesn’t just have one epiphany. God keeps coming to us, all the time, in many ways. In good times in bad, at home and when we wander and stray far away. We don’t always notice God—we’re not very good at seeing God’s presence in our lives. When good things happen, we attribute them all to our own skill or luck or deserving, instead of to God’s gifts. When bad things happen, we ask why God allowed it even while we ignore the ways God supported us and carried us through the wilderness. But even when we don’t see God, God is there.

We don’t always see God, but whether we see him or not, God is there. And when we do see him, when we look up from our distractions and our cares and see him, that’s an epiphany. What have the epiphanies been in your life?

Amen.

The Wedding Robe

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 28), Year A, October 5, 2014

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Have you ever had that dream where you’re going to something important—work or school, usually—and you get up in front of everyone and you realize you’re naked? Yeah. That one. Or a dream when you have something important you’re supposed to do and you realize when you get there that you’ve forgotten the one crucial thing you can’t do without. I think everyone gets those dreams, at least sometimes in their life, and some people get them more often than others. If you get that dream often, this Gospel reading may have struck a chord. Because in it, Jesus tells a parable about a king hosting a huge banquet for the wedding of his son, and the very last detail of the story is that he spots a guest who isn’t dressed properly—who doesn’t have a wedding robe—and throws him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. He wasn’t prepared, he wasn’t dressed right, so out he goes.

Which is kind of weird, because the king has spent most of the parable doing everything he can to get people in the front door in the first place. There are no qualifications to getting invited in. The best people in the land get invitations, and so do the worst people. Rich and poor, good and bad, old and young, healthy and sick, men and women, everyone gets invited. The king makes a huge deal about this: the feast is for everyone. He sends his servants out to bring in everyone they find. Not just those who can afford to dress in the latest fashions, or the ones who are of the right social circle to know what to wear to a wedding, everyone. And then the one guy gets thrown out. But when you think about it, he can’t have been the only one who wasn’t dressed properly—who didn’t have time to change, or who didn’t own a wedding robe—when the king’s servants came to get him. So it just doesn’t make sense that he gets thrown out.

Parables are stories that teach, they’re metaphors, they’re images that invite us in and invite us to put ourselves in the story. To ask questions, and to think about God in a new way. Now, obviously, no story about human beings can contain all that God is and all that God does. Which is why there are so many parables. Together, they add up to a larger story about who God is and what God is doing.

Some things about the parables are obvious. For one thing, many of them are about parties. When you look at all the parables about parties and all the stories about parties and feasts in the Bible and all the visions and dreams about parties and feasts, it’s pretty clear that God loves a celebration. And so many of the parties in those parables and stories and visions are metaphors for the Kingdom of Heaven that whenever you come across a party or a feast, you should be thinking about God’s Kingdom in the back of your head. Similarly, most of the time you come across a parable of a king or landowner or master, God is being compared to the king or landowner or master. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the king or master is God, just that God is like that king in some way.

In this parable, we have a party, and a king. And we have a lot of invitations—God is calling people in, and they’re not listening, but those invitations go out to everyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done. Just like God’s call to salvation goes out to everybody. So far, so good. But then we get to the dude who doesn’t have a wedding robe, and gets thrown out on his ear. And that’s where the Bible commentaries start to have problems.

If the party is like heaven and the king is like God, what the heck does the wedding robe symbolize? There are no other parables about wedding robes, so we can’t look elsewhere for help. What could anyone possibly do—or fail to do—that would get them thrown out of heaven once they were already in? And the outer darkness—does that stand for hell? We today spend a lot more time thinking about hell than people did in the Bible, Christians have spent the last two thousand years imagining ever more horrible hells and trying to figure out who’s going to hell and who isn’t, and then taking those speculations and reading them into the Bible. Is this hell, or is it something else, and is it permanent? What I mean is, could the guy go home and get a wedding robe and be allowed back in, or is he doomed to stay in the outer darkness forever? And is it the guy’s lack of a robe that causes him to be thrown out, or the fact that he didn’t answer the king? And what does it mean that many are called but few are chosen? Does that mean chosen to enter God’s kingdom, or chosen to have a specific role, or what?

This is where all those old nightmares about showing up to school naked start running through peoples’ heads, except worse. Because when you wake up from one of those nightmares, you sigh in relief, get up and go to the closet and you know what to wear and you just have to put it on and go. In the light of day it’s no big deal. But we don’t know what the robe symbolizes. We don’t! So we can’t just go to the closet and pull it out and go about our business, secure in the knowledge that we’ve got it covered and we’re in like Flynn. I mean, people have claimed it means all kinds of things that we should or shouldn’t do, but everyone has a different answer. And like I said, we Christians have spent two thousand years imagining worse and worse hells and more and more reasons why people are going to them, and Americans tend to like neat and simple answers to faith questions, and there isn’t one for this question.

Here are a few things to think about. First, Jesus was talking to the Chief Priests and the Pharisees when he told this parable. They were part of the people of Israel, the first people God had called, and they thought they knew what God wanted of them. They took it for granted that they had all the answers. They were so certain they knew what God wanted that even when God stood in front of them as Jesus, they couldn’t accept that they might not know everything. In the terms of the parable, they thought they were wearing the wedding robe and already in at the feast. They were wrong.

Second, let’s remember God’s history of calling people. God is incredibly persistent. Even when people turn away and reject him, God keeps calling them. Take our first lesson: the people of Israel turning away from God to worship a statue they made. God got angry, but God didn’t abandon them. God was faithful even when they were not. The whole pattern of the Old Testament is people turning away from God, facing the consequences, and being called back and forgiven and welcomed. Any interpretation of this parable has to take that history into account.

Then there’s the matter of the robe. True, there are no other wedding robes in the parables, but remember the parable of the prodigal son. When the prodigal son, who has rejected his father and gone away to live on his own, hits rock bottom and comes back expecting to get thrown out on his ear or, at best, given a job as a servant, his father gives him a new, wonderful outfit and throws him a party to welcome him home. In that parable, the guy was already in the place where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth—the pig-sty, where he was starving. He comes home and his father gives him everything he could ever want, far more than he dared to ask for.

And in Paul’s letters, he talks several times about being “clothed in Christ.” That is, when we are baptized, we are reborn as children of God, and we wear Christ’s love and sacrifice for us as if it were a garment. And that clothing, that “robe,” if you will, is nothing we have or make or do, but it is given to us by God. That’s why people being baptized, from babies to adults, often wear white robes. It’s why Confirmation students wear white robes, too. And it’s why, in some churches, they have a white garment called a pall that is draped over the casket at funerals. It symbolizes Christ, whose love and mercy and forgiveness wraps around us like a warm fuzzy bathrobe, an invisible garment that we wear twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And that love is more important than anything we do or don’t do. So when you hear about this dude with no wedding robe, think about the prodigal son, and about the wonderful garment that is Christ.

I can’t tell you what Jesus meant, for sure, with all the details of this parable. I can’t tell you what the robe means, or why the guy didn’t have an answer for the king, or what the outer darkness is for sure. I can’t give you neat certainties and easy answers, because that’s not how Jesus works and that isn’t what the parables are for. But I can tell you this, for certain and sure: God calls everyone. No matter who, no matter where, God calls everyone. And the love and grace given to us in Jesus Christ is more powerful than anything else in the world, including our own sinfulness. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Vineyard and the Vinegrowers

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 27), Year A, October 5, 2014

Exodus 20, selected verses, Psalm 80:7-15, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

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 metaphors in the Bible. Many images and visions and parables that are used to open our minds, to make us see things in a new way. One of the more common images is that of the vine. Now, there were a lot of vineyards spread throughout the Holy Land in those days; shipping was expensive, so most food and drink was made very close to where it was consumed. So everyone knew what a vineyard was, and many of them had worked in a vineyard at one time or another. Vineyards were expensive, but also very valuable: you needed the right kind of soil, a plot of land on a hillside facing the right direction, good cultivated vines, a wall to protect the vineyard from thieves, and a vat to press the grapes into juice that could be made into wine, and then sold, and experienced workers to tend the vines and make the wine. They were something that was special and valuable, and yet something that ordinary people could feel a connection to. Several times in the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is sometimes compared to a vine that God brought out of Egypt, planted in special soil and cares for. In Isaiah, God complains that Israel has produced wild grapes of bloodshed and violence, instead of the good grapes of justice that he planted. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells people that “I am the vine, and you are the branches”: the branches are the part that bears the fruit, but they can’t survive without the central vine stock to nourish them. Just like we are the people that do God’s work in the world, and rely on Christ to spiritually feed us and be our roots in a changing world.

In today’s Gospel reading, the parable of this vineyard is a pointed reminder of whom we belong to, and what God will do for us. This parable comes from the end of Matthew, in the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. If you’ll recall from last week’s Gospel, Jesus has been making waves in Jerusalem and in the Temple, and the chief priests and the elders and the Pharisees came to him to demand what gave him the right to come in and change things. And he gave them and the people gathered there this parable. A landowner creates a vineyard: plants it, creates all the necessary equipment and buildings, and then hired workers to work in it while he went off to work. Nobody in North Dakota has much experience with vineyards, but you do know about hired hands and renting land. If you hire someone to work your land, you expect them to turn over the produce, right? Now, remember that this is a metaphor: the vineyard is the people of God, and the tenants are the religious and secular leaders who are supposed to rule them and tend to them in God’s place. And the fruit that they bear is supposed to be the fruit of the spirit: love, truth, peace, joy, faithfulness, goodness, self-control. The tenants are supposed to be helping the people to grow in God, to grow in faith, and to produce fruit that will lead to God’s kingdom on Earth.

That’s not what happened. In this parable, the tenants want to keep the produce for themselves. So they kill the landowner’s representatives and try and keep the fruit for themselves. The landowner sends his son, and they say to themselves: “hey, guys, here comes the heir: if we kill him, we’ll get his inheritance.” Now. I ask you. Is that a reasonable thing to think? If you kill someone, are you going to be rewarded by getting all their stuff? If you had a hired hand who killed your oldest child, would that hired hand take the child’s place and own the land? No, he would not. He would face trial for his actions. And it’s pretty stupid to imagine otherwise, but they do.

Now, the chief priest and the elders and the Pharisees, hearing this parable, realized that they were the bad tenants in the parable. But they didn’t realize that Jesus was the son, and even after telling him what the tenants deserve, they continue on a path to be just like them: they plot to kill the one sent by their Master, his only Son. Because they don’t want to listen to him. They don’t want to admit that they aren’t the ones in charge. They want to be in control of their own destiny, and do things their own way, and they had convinced themselves that that was what God wanted them to do. Jesus was threatening that. Jesus was trying to call them back to their responsibilities; Jesus was trying to remind them that God is the one who created them, who planted them and helped them grow, and God was the one in charge and no amount of shenanigans and ignoring that would change things.

So, to recap: We are the vineyard created by God, and we are the ones who are supposed to bear good fruit, and the chief priests and the elders were the ones who were supposed to take care of the vineyard, but they weren’t doing a very good job, and Jesus was trying to point that out. Now, our community of faith—our vineyard—is organized a bit differently. We believe in the priesthood of all believers, which basically means that all are people equal in precious in God’s eyes and that we all have a responsibility to care for God’s vineyard of which they are a part. So we are the vineyard, the branches bearing fruit, but we are also the hired hands whose job it is to care for the vineyard, to weed and prune and cultivate and harvest and make the fruits of the Spirit into wine fit for the great feast of the Kingdom. We are the ones whose rebellion kills the Son, and we are the ones who are saved by the Son’s sacrifice. We are the ones who reject the stone, and we are the ones whose lives are built on that cornerstone. It’s a lot of responsibility.

Today at Augustana we’re baptizing a baby, Augustus Paul. He is a new branch that is being grafted into the Vine that is Christ Jesus, and he’s young enough that he’s not really producing fruit just yet. At this point, he’s not producing much besides spit-up and messy diapers. He’ll need a lot of tending before he grows big enough to produce the fruits of the spirit. And a lot of that tending will come from his parents, his grandparents, his godparents, the rest of his family, and friends of the family, many of whom gathered this weekend to celebrate his grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. I’m sure they’ll do a great job of taking care of Gus, of helping him grow strong in faith and love.

But they are not alone. They can’t do it alone. Because we are all fellow branches in the same vine, and we are also the hired hands that God has called to care for the branches: to care for all of God’s people, big and small, so that they may bear the fruits of God’s kingdom. And when Gus is baptized, you will promise to support him in his life in Christ and help him grow in faith, just as you do at every baptism. There are a lot of things you can do to fulfill that promise: you can help with Sunday School, you can support him and his family and all the families of our young children, you can provide good examples, you can build good relationships built on honesty and love. You can watch for God’s presence in your lives and live according to God’s Word. You can bear fruit yourself, and participate in all the ways that God helps us use that fruit for God’s kingdom.

But always remember that we’re not the landowner. Our fruit is not our own; it belongs to the one who planted us, who gave us roots, who protects us and cares for us, and who gave his own Son for us. We don’t build and plan and teach for our own benefit; we do all these things so that God’s people might have life, and have it abundantly in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.

Through the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 11, 2014

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41
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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Jesus sure used a lot of metaphors and figures of speech to describe himself. In today’s Gospel lesson, he uses two: he calls himself the gate and the shepherd. We’ve all heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd many times, and seen beautiful pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, so I’m going to talk for a little bit about what it means for Jesus to be a gate.

First of all, a gate means there’s probably a wall or a fence. There’s no point in having a gate in the middle of nowhere, unless you’re at a sheepherding contest, and the goal is to see how well a sheepdog herds the sheep through a series of exercises. Walls and fences keep things out, and keep things in. The walls or fence of a sheepfold keep out wolves and thieves. And in Jesus’ day, both wolves and thieves were a danger to sheep every day. Walls kept them out—they keep out the dangerous things in the world. And the walls of the pen also keep the sheep in, keep them from wandering or straying into dangerous places. When a sheep is in the fold, it’s safe and secure.

But the problem is, sheep can’t stay penned up forever. It’s cruel to keep them locked up. They need to go outside of the pen to get food and exercise. You can bring food to the pen, but they’re not going to get the exercise they need unless they can go to the pasture. So the shepherd would let them out, and take them out to the pasture. The gate wasn’t just so the sheep could get into the pen where it was safe, it was also so that they could get out of it to go to the pasture they needed. It was not a one-way trip. If the sheep stayed in the pen, they would starve. If they stayed out in the pasture, they would be vulnerable to thieves and wolves. They needed both places, and the gate was how they travelled from one to the other every day.

Parents of small children know this dilemma well: sometimes kids need to be kept in a safe place, and sometimes you have to let them out to explore. Sometimes, you need to reign the children in and keep them corralled; sometimes, you need a baby gate to keep them from falling down the stairs. And other times you need to help them explore the world and learn how to climb up and down staircases, how to run and fall down and get back up again. A parent has to judge when to keep their child safe and protected, and when to let them free, because they need both. The same door that lets a child out to the yard to play also lets them back in.

But doors are more than just holes in the wall. Doors and gates don’t let just anybody in and out. If they did, you wouldn’t need a gate at all, just an opening in the wall. In Jesus’ day, there would be a gatekeeper to keep thieves out, a person keeping watch at the gate: that’s why thieves couldn’t just walk in the same as they shepherd. Today we would use a lock and key, but back then they had a watchman. They would make sure that only the shepherd could get in, and that the sheep could only get out when the shepherd was with them to guide them and protect them.

As Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come and go in and out and find pasture.” We come through Jesus to be saved, but it’s not a matter of just going in the door once and staying in a nice happy safe place forever. We still have to go out into the world, to learn and grow, to live our lives. We come back into the safety of God’s sheltering arms, but then we go out into the world again. And no matter whether we’re coming in our going out, we come through Jesus. And when we go out into the world, we don’t go alone. Jesus is the gate through which we come to God, but Jesus is also the shepherd who leads us out to find pasture, who leads us when we are walking beside still waters and green pastures, and protects us when we walk through all the dark places in our lives. Whether we are going out or coming in, whether we are safe in the sheepfold or out in the pasture, whether we are walking beside beautiful, still waters or slogging through the valley of darkness, surrounded by enemies, Jesus is with us, our light and our salvation, guiding and protecting us.

We are connected to Jesus through our baptisms. In our baptisms, God claims us as lambs of his own fold, sinners of his own redeeming. Through the water of the Holy Spirit, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Through the water of our baptism, we learn our Shepherd’s voice, the voice that will lead us in to safe harbor in God’s fold, and out into the world to live and learn and grow. In baptism, we receive the still waters that quench our soul’s thirst. The waters of baptism give us the strength to follow Jesus even through the darkest valleys of our lives, trusting that he will lead us back to the safety of the sheepfold even when that seems impossible. Baptism—being dunked in the water, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit—only happens once. But a baptismal life is something that we live every day, coming to God for safe harbor and rest and then following God back out into the world. Life for a baptized child of God means doing everything through Christ, whether we’re coming in or going out.

Jesus says he is the shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep know. And because they know his voice, they will follow him and not the others who come to hurt them and steal them away. But sheep can’t decide on their own who the shepherd is and who the thief. They have to learn the shepherd’s voice. They have to grow in faith that the shepherd will take care of them, and bring them back safely home. In baptism, Jesus calls us as his own. Baptism is the beginning of life with Jesus; it’s the beginning of learning to listen for his voice.

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Nash and Teagan. I’m sure their parents, Ryan and Christina can tell us how hard it is to get them to listen to their parents’ voices. Children, like sheep, don’t always want to listen to the people who are trying to take care of them. It seems like there’s always something to distract them, some reason they would rather go astray. Teaching them to listen and follow takes patience. And they have to want to hear; they have to be listening for the voices of their mothers and fathers. (And sometimes children can be pretty selective on whether or not they hear their parents.) But whether or not the children are listening, the parents don’t stop calling for them, and teaching them to listen. Sheep have to be taught to listen just like children do: they aren’t born knowing their shepherd. They get to know him as they follow him, as they learn that he is taking care of them and protecting him, as they learn that he will keep coming for them, keep calling them, even when they go astray.

We’re kind of like sheep. We need to learn to hear God’s voice calling us, and it is baptism that gives us the first lesson in hearing God calling us by name. But we’re not always very good at learning that lesson. Sometimes we’re like children who can hear God perfectly well, but don’t want to admit it because something is distracting us, or it sounds like more fun to do our own thing than to listen. But the God who called us by name, who connected us to himself through our baptisms keeps calling, keeps reaching out, keeps shepherding us and guiding us.

Telling the Story

Second Sunday of Easter, (Year A) April 27, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” I’ve always thought Thomas—called “Doubting Thomas” because of this story—gets a bum rap. After all, he was no different than the other disciples, who didn’t believe when the women told them Jesus was raised; he just wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples.

Our readings today are all about belief: who believes, and when, and why. The disciples don’t believe Jesus has been raised until he enters their locked room and shows them his wounds. This is not a hallucination, or a ghost; this is a real, physical person, who truly died and truly was raised from the dead. Then there’s Thomas, who doesn’t believe until he gets the same up-close-and-personal look at the risen Jesus that his fellow disciples got, and Jesus gently chiding him for not believing their words and experiences. Jesus praises those—like us—who have not seen these things up close and personal, and yet believe anyway. And the chapter ends with the narrator telling us that the stories told in the Gospel are only part of what Jesus said and did while on Earth, but these specific stories were told so that we—everyone who reads these stories—might believe in Jesus.

After the events told in the Gospels, the disciples and the rest of Jesus’ followers went out and began sharing the stories of Jesus, the things he had done and the lessons he had taught. They shared those stories with everyone they met. Our first lesson was a short excerpt from a talk Peter gave about Jesus just a few months after the Resurrection, and our second lesson today is a short excerpt from a letter Peter wrote to those who had learned about Jesus and believed in him through those stories.

Those stories were passed on, first through word of mouth, and then eventually written down in the form of the Gospels. And to this day, those stories of Jesus’ words and deeds have been helping people to come to believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who died to save the world from sin and brokenness, and calls all people back to God. We are all here today because of those stories. And today we celebrate the faith of four young people who are here today to make a public statement that they, too, have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that they have life through his name.

Faith in Jesus Christ can’t be transmitted without those stories. But the stories are only part of how the faith is passed on from one generation to another, from one believer to another. The stories are powerful, but without people to tell them, they are just words on a page. God is not confined to the pages of the Bible; God is working through those words, but God is also working through the people who read and share them, through the people in all times and in all places who share the stories of how they have experienced the love of God. That’s one of the reasons why we start every Confirmation class with “God moments,” where we go around the circle and everyone says where they have seen God in the last week. And if I forget, the students remind me! It’s a way of helping ourselves to remember that God is with us, here and now, acting in our lives and loving us just as God was with the disciples two thousand years ago. We have never touched Jesus’ hands and feet, or put our hands in the wound in his side, but we have felt God’s love in our lives in many different ways. And after we’ve shared these moments of where God is working now, we turn to the pages of Scripture to see what God has done in the past, and what promises God has made to us.

Peter and the other disciples did something similar, when they passed on the faith that Jesus had taught them. They told people stories of how they had seen God acting in and through Jesus, and they turned to the Scriptures they had grown up with—the books of the Old Testament—to explain what God had done and the promises God had made to them through Jesus Christ. You see, that was the mission God gave them: he sent them out to tell the stories, to share the faith, to give life to all the world. The word “apostle” means “someone who is sent.” They were men and women on a mission, to share their experiences of Jesus the Christ. To pass on the faith. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, they brought many to God. We are here today because they told people about Jesus, and those people believed their words, and those people passed that faith on to others.

The faith that the Apostles taught—the faith that God sent them to spread—is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Now, here’s a question for the Confirmation students: where in the Bible is the Apostles’ Creed found? That’s a trick question: it isn’t in the Bible. We don’t know exactly where and when the Creed was first used, but it came into being very early on. By the second or third century, Christians were teaching it to those who were about to be baptized, as a handy summary of the faith that had been passed on to them by the Apostles. In those days books were extremely expensive and few could read, but everyone could memorize the Creed. And the Apostles’ Creed would help them remember the basics of the faith. It has been used ever since to teach people about who God is and what God has done. It is a framework of belief and a summary of all the stories of the Bible, shared in common by all Christians.

We may have our differences, but we all believe in God the father, the almighty, who created heaven and earth, and everything that is, seen and unseen. That Creator made us out of the dust of the earth and brought us life, and when we turned away from our heavenly father, he sent his Son, Jesus the Christ, to love us and heal us and bring us back to God.

We all believe in Jesus Christ, the Son, who was truly God and truly human, both at the same time, God in Human flesh, born of Mary, who taught and healed and was willing to die to save us from our sin and brokenness. He was tortured by Pontius Pilate, put to death on a cross, and died. He was buried. He was dead for three days, but the tomb could not hold him. The powers of death could not keep him down. He was raised from the dead on Easter, and because we are his, we too shall be raised from the dead. Jesus returned to heaven, where he is with the father, but he will come again, and bring God’s Kingdom with him.

We all believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which moved over the waters of creation, which was given to Jesus’ followers through tongues of flame at Pentecost, which is given to every one of us through the waters of baptism. Christians have splintered into so many different factions, but we believe that even when we fight and squabble among ourselves that there is still a unity among all who believe that makes us into one holy universal church in the eyes of God. We believe that God forgives us and calls us to forgive others. And we all believe that God’s kingdom will come, and the dead will be raised, and we will be with God forever.

This is the faith in which we baptize, the faith taught by the Apostles and passed on by all those who have come before us. It is the faith that we are called to share with the world, and it is the faith that these four young people are about to claim as their own. It is the faith that we live out every day.

God has done so many things in this world, in and among God’s people, for those who believe and those who don’t. There is no way that all of the stories of the things God has done could be collected in a single book; no book can hold it all. But we learn the stories of what God has done best through hearing people share the stories of what God has done for them and in them and through them. Thanks be to God.

The Spirit blowing through

Lent 2, (Year A), March 16, 2014

 Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-15, 13-17, John 3:1-17

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

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

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

In some ways, Nicodemus is a very 21st Century guy.  We in the 21st Century tend to take things literally—being literal, fact-based, provable with objective scientific accuracy, is a big thing for us.  Have you noticed how often people say “literally”?  Any time you want to say something is absolutely true, you say “literally.”  Even when something isn’t literally true, we try and claim that it is.  We look for rational answers.  We want everything cut and dried and easily explainable.  All laid out in black and white.

That’s kind of how Nicodemus thinks, too.  He knows Jesus comes from God because of the miracles that Jesus does.  And he wants to know more.  He wants to learn about God.  He wants to know more.  All very admirable!  Except, if you notice, he goes away with less certainty than he came with.  He wants to figure things out, and Jesus doesn’t exactly help him out.

The first thing Jesus says to him is “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Notice that Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus time to ask his question; Jesus wades right in.  Now, Nicodemus is a very logical fellow.  He takes people at their word.  It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically or spiritually or anything; he takes Jesus literally.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  I ask you.  Was Jesus speaking literally?  No, he was not.  Does Nicodemus even seem to consider that Jesus might not mean literally re-entering one’s mother’s womb and being squeezed out a second time?  No.  Nicodemus thinks in nice, neat categories: babies are babies and adults are adults and once you’re born, that’s it.  He’s come to seek God, but he wants answers that he can easily understand.  Answers that make sense.  Answers that fit Nicodemus’ own ideas of the way the world works.

Jesus tries to expand on what he meant a little bit.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  He’s still speaking metaphorically, which isn’t much help to poor old Nicodemus.  Jesus doesn’t give up on the metaphors and start giving a polished spiel that neatly explains what he’s talking about.  He doesn’t give a step-by-step answer with bullet points and examples and detailed explanation.  He continues to speak in symbols, which is something Jesus did a lot of.  Jesus almost never spoke on a literal level; he spoke in parables and stories and imagery and metaphor.  I think it’s because the reality of God is too big for our mortal, finite brains to handle.  I think that the Kingdom of God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine.  How would you explain the color purple to someone born blind?  How would you explain a symphony to someone born deaf?  Human beings like things to be neat and tidy and easily understandable.  But God isn’t neat and tidy, and God certainly isn’t small enough to fit into our mental boxes.

So there’s poor Nicodemus, listening to Jesus talk about being born again and wondering what the heck he means.  What does it mean to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’?  Well, one thing about the Word of God is that it’s all connected.  What that means is that all the stories resonate with one another.  So when we hear Jesus talking about water, we should start thinking of all the places where the Bible talks about water: the Holy Spirit moving over the waters of creation.  Noah and his family being saved through the waters of the Flood.  The Israelites being led to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, and later being given water in the desert, and finally being led through the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Psalm 51, where the psalmist prays for God to wash him and make him clean.  Isaiah, calling everyone to come to the water.  John in the Jordan, calling all to repent.  Jesus, coming to the Jordan to be baptized.  All of these images and words should be going through our minds when we hear Jesus talking about ‘being born of water and Spirit.’  And the connections don’t stop there: think of our baptisms, where God’s promises come to us through the water, and we are marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

All of those stories talk about change, about something new, something different.  The old is gone, wiped away.  Slavery becomes freedom, becomes a new life in a new community.  Sin is washed away and we become clean.  We are tied through the waters of baptism to all of those stories; we are tied to Jesus Christ through his baptism.  Something happens in us.  Something new.  Something that doesn’t fit into nice, neat categories.  When we come out of our mothers’ wombs, we are born children of a fallen humanity.  When we come out of the water, we are re-born children of God.  We are re-born as children of a God who loves us so much that he was willing to send his only son to die for our sake, to break the powers of sin and death that enslave the entire world.

In the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to us and inspires us and sends us out into the world.  And the Holy Spirit absolutely, positively, can’t be shoved into our nice neat categories.  It’s like the wind.  We all know about wind, right?  It can be powerful.  It can change directions quickly, or it can blow strongly and consistently.  Nothing can control it; nothing can stop it.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The spirit blows us about, turns us around.  Whenever I think I have everything figured out, whenever I think I have God’s plans for me pinned down and explained, the Holy Spirit blows through my life.  And I think that’s true for a lot of people.  Have you ever had the Holy Spirit blow through your life and turn things upside down?

How do you boil all this down to nice, neat, logical, literal categories?  Nicodemus couldn’t, and—at least at that point—he couldn’t take that leap of faith to let go of his literal-mindedness and live in the ambiguity of God’s Word.  He leaves, without saying another word.  He came under cover of darkness, not really knowing what he was looking for, and he leaves Jesus more confused than he was when he showed up.  But this isn’t the only time Nicodemus appears in the Gospel of John, and for those of you reading through the New Testament this Lent I encourage you to look for him when he shows up.  Because this encounter with Jesus will not be Nicodemus’ last.  At this point in the story, Nicodemus can’t open his heart and his mind to Jesus.  But that will change.  Nicodemus might not understand the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is still working in him.

So what about us?  Today, in the twenty-first century, we tend to take things more literally than they did in Jesus’ day.  Like Nicodemus, we tend to want to put things in nice neat categories, and we want easy, logical answers to our questions.  But God defies our expectations, giving us a Word that is messier and more complicated and bigger than we can understand.  We’re not left alone to muddle through it, though.  We have been born anew in the waters of baptism.  We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; it blows through us and through our world just as it did in Jesus’ day.  The Holy Spirit breathes new life into us, breaks up our mistaken certainties, opens us up to the greatness of God’s work in the world.  But are we paying attention?  Are we watching for the wind that blows where it will, or do we focus on the things we can understand and pin down?  Are we going to go away like Nicodemus, with more questions than answers, or are we going to follow God’s Word?

Amen.

God’s Spirit Dwells in You All

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

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

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

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

Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  Normally, when someone talks about being God’s temple, they’re talking about moral issues: since our bodies are God’s temple, we should keep them “pure.”  But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here.  And Paul isn’t speaking to individuals, he’s speaking to the whole community of faith.  You see, in Greek, the word for saying “you” is different when you’re talking to a group than to just one person.  It’s kind of like how in the South, some people use “y’all” or “all y’all” when talking to a group, but “you” when talking to just one person.  Paul is addressing the whole church in this section of the letter.  His words could also be translated like this: “Don’t you know that all of you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in all of you?”

So what difference does it make?  What’s the difference between Paul talking to one person versus talking to the whole group?  Christians in America tend to focus on our individual relationship with God—our personal relationship with our Lord and Savior.  And that’s important … but the Bible focuses more on the community’s relationship with God.  In Matthew 18, Jesus says “where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.”  In other words, God is most fully present when a group of Christians gather together to study, to pray, and to worship.  Paul is talking about the entire congregation being the Temple together.  He’s talking about the Holy Spirit dwelling within the whole congregation.  When they come together, as baptized children of God, the Spirit is there in their midst.  When the congregation comes together, Christ is working in them and through them.

Paul says it like it’s an obvious thing, something they should already know.  But anybody who’s ever spent much time inside churches knows that it sure doesn’t always seem like that.  Churches, you see, are full of people.  Being committed to Christ doesn’t always stop people from being petty and sinful.  There are hypocrites in church.  There’s gossiping in church.  There are people who are just plain mean.  And sometimes even well-intentioned people who are genuinely trying to do their best have no idea the hurt they can cause others.  When I talk to people who don’t go to church, often their number one complaint is the people in church: they just don’t seem like they’re following Christ.  When you see people, warts and all, it’s hard to look at them and think that the Holy Spirit is dwelling in their midst.  It’s hard to imagine that God is working even there.

And yet, the Holy Spirit is present.  Even in the midst of human problems and doubts and conflicts, the Holy Spirit is there, whenever we gather together, helping to guide us and inspire us to be the people that God created us to be.  The Holy Spirit inspires us to be the people Christ died to save, the people God claimed and chose as his own.

Today, we see the Holy Spirit at work in the baptism of Tanner David Jacobson.  We will see Christ reaching out to claim Tanner as his own through the water of baptism, and we will see Tanner be marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  In this sacrament, the Holy Spirit’s work becomes tangible: we can see the water through which God is working, and touch it, and taste it.

But the Holy Spirit’s work in Tanner’s life doesn’t stop at baptism, and it’s not confined just to Tanner himself.  It’s not even confined to Tanner and his family and godparents.  No, what the Holy Spirit is doing in Tanner today involves the whole congregation.  We, too, are baptized children of God.  In the waters of baptism God claimed us just as God is claiming Tanner today.  We, too, have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit works through this congregation today and always to support Tanner and all the children of this congregation, young and old.  The Holy Spirit works through us to minister to one another and to the world.  The Holy Spirit inspires us to love one another even when we’re not very loveable, because the Spirit teaches us how to love as Christ loves us.  The Holy Spirit brings us together and inspires us to do God’s work in the world, spreading God’s love to all people.

Which brings me to another place the Spirit will be at work in Tanner’s baptism.  Before the water is poured over Tanner, I’ll be asking questions.  I’ll ask Tanner’s parents if they promise to live faithful lives with Tanner, bringing him to worship and teaching him the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, placing in his hands the Holy Scriptures, and teaching him to proclaim Christ through word and deed.  I’ll ask Tanner’s godparents if they will promise to nurture Tanner in the Christian faith and help him live in the covenant of baptism.  And I’ll ask you, the congregation, if you promise to support Tanner in his new life in Christ.

The Holy Spirit is working in and through those promises, just as the Holy Spirit works in and through all promises made in all baptisms—Tanner’s baptism today, and your own baptisms however many years ago they were.  At every baptism, those promises are made.  You made those promises as a congregation for every baptized person here.  As God’s temple, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and calls and inspires you to support one another in life in Christ.

What does it look like, to support someone in their new life in Christ?  Some things are easy to spot: teaching Sunday School is one way of supporting a baptized child’s life in Christ.  Giving to Camp of the Cross so that child can experience God’s love and grow in faith amid the beauty of God’s creation is another way to support their life in Christ.  When you strike up a conversation with a young person and hear their story, encouraging them to speak of their struggles and joys and sharing your own in return, you are supporting them in their life of faith by helping that young person see what a faithful life is like.  No one individual can do all of that—it takes a whole community of faith to provide the support children need to grow in Christ.  We are the temple of God, all of us together.  Christ is the foundation, the cornerstone of our life together.  And the Holy Spirit helps us build one another up in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.

And that support in the life of faith doesn’t stop when people grow up.  When you build a relationship with a fellow Christian, when you are there for them in their time of need, you are supporting them in their life in Christ.  When we pray together, sing together, read the Bible together, we are being built up in the faith.  And we receive over and over again the gift of the Holy Spirit in so many ways.  Yes, as sinful human beings we fall short of God’s plan for us.  Yes, sometimes we follow our own sinful ways rather than the Holy Spirit’s call for us—even when in church.  But even when we fall short, God sends the Holy Spirit to rebuild us into his temple.  A temple not built with stone and brick and wood and sheetrock, but with love and faithfulness.  We are built up with God’s love and faithfulness and light, and we are called to share that light and love and faithfulness with one another and with the whole world.

We are God’s house of living stones, built for his own habitation.  We are built up together on the rock that is Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.  But no one stone can make up a building by itself.  You need a lot of different building materials to make even the simplest building.  You need bricks and mortar and wood and nails and screws and glass and shingles and wiring and pipes and insulation and a hundred other things.  And they all have to work together to make a good building, or things will fall apart.  In the same way, we as God’s people need one another.  Each of us has a different role to play, a different thing to contribute to the whole, and our roles change at different points in our lives.  Each of us is called by the Holy Spirit in different ways to give our gifts for the good of all.  In order to be God’s temple, in order for God’s work to be done, we all have to participate as the Holy Spirit calls us.  We have to support one another through good times and times when we struggle with our faith and even in times when it’s hard to remember that we are all children of God.

Today we welcome Tanner into that house.  He’s just a small part of God’s temple, today, but that will change as he grows.  And we are the ones called to guide and guard him on his path, to support and encourage him, as we are called to support all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, young and old alike.  I pray that as Tanner grows, the Spirit will grow in him and in all of us.  I pray that wherever Tanner goes on his faith journey, he will find faithful communities filled with the Holy Spirit to support him.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Guided by the light of Christ, who has been made known to the nations, we offer our prayers for the church, the world, and all people in need.

Holy and perfect God, you call us to share your word of love even when it seems like foolishness to the world. Make your church bold to proclaim our hope in Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

You make the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all. Feed rich and poor, land and animals, with your abundance. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

You call us to the ways of justice. Lead all who govern in the path of justice, so that those in need will not be forgotten. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

All in need belong to you through Christ. Strengthen weary caregivers. Comfort those who are sick and in pain (especially). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Help this congregation trust that your Spirit dwells in us. Show us the way to be your holy people. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Sustain us, O God, until we gather with all your saints from every time and place (especially Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and martyr) in your eternal protection. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Radiant God, hear the prayers of your people, spoken or silent, for the sake of the one who has made his dwelling among us, your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

The Righteousness of God

Baptism of Our Lord, (Year A), January 12, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

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

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

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

You know, there’s a word in the Gospel of Matthew that repeats over and over and over again.  Since most of our Gospel readings for the next year come from Matthew, it’s something to listen for.  Righteous.  The Gospel of Matthew spends a lot of time talking about righteousness.  Fair enough, that’s a common religious word; Christians use it a lot, although less than we did, say, fifty years ago.  The thing is, though, that a lot of times when Matthew talks about “righteousness,” he’s not always using it the way we would expect.

According to the dictionary, “righteous” means “acting in accord with divine or moral law:  free from guilt or sin.”  So far so good; that’s what Matthew means, too.  But it’s when you put the word into use that things get tricky.  For example, we tend to make sharp distinctions between people who are “righteous” and people who are not.  Righteous people are good, moral, go to church and read their Bible.  They are pillars of their community.  And we often see a sharp divide between the righteous and the sinners, even when we don’t actually use those words to describe them.  The righteous people are good, God-fearing people; sinners are not.  If someone we consider righteous stumbles or has a problem, we rally around them.  If someone we consider a sinner has a problem, we are quicker to condemn than to help.  The righteous are always welcome at church.  The sinners often face gossip just for showing up.

John the Baptist was well aware of this distinction.  He called for sinners to repent and be baptized: to turn away from their sin, go into the water, and get a fresh slate to become righteous.  He knew that even people who looked righteous on the outside, like the Pharisees, were really sinners, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge them.  John wanted God’s kingdom to come, and he wanted people to live their lives in accordance with God’s law.  He’d baptized many people before Jesus showed up, and when Jesus came to be baptized, John tried to prevent him.  Matthew knew that Jesus was not a sinner.  Jesus, alone out of the entire world, had no need of a baptism for his own forgiveness.

When you think about it, John is right.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus is not a sinner.  Jesus is the son of God, God made flesh and blood like you and me!  Jesus doesn’t need to be washed clean from anything.  Jesus doesn’t need to get a clean slate.  Jesus is the one person in the history of the world who has been totally and completely righteous his entire life.  So why did Jesus want to be baptized?  More than that!  Jesus told John: “Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

There’s that word: righteousness.  But Jesus was already righteous, so what did he need to be baptized for?  Just for form’s sake?  No.  Jesus needed to be baptized because it was God’s will.  God was doing something, with that baptism.  And what God was doing was reaching out to the unrighteous.  The sinners.  The ones who fall short of God’s law, the ones who’re drowning in guilt and sin.  Everyone who has ever been baptized is tied to Jesus’ baptism.  And through Jesus’ baptism, we are tied to God.  Because Jesus was baptized, our baptisms are not just a temporary thing, getting a little cleaner.  Because of Jesus’ baptism, our baptisms mean we are saved.  We are set free from our bondage to sin.  Not just for a little while, but forever and ever.  In our baptisms, we are reborn children of God.  In our baptisms, we are claimed by God.  In our baptisms, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Remember the words the Father spoke when Jesus came up out of the water?  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism.  So those words that the Father spoke to his Son, those aren’t just for Jesus.  Those are for us, too, for everyone who has ever been baptized.  When you were baptized, God spoke those words to you, too: “You are my beloved child.”  And that is a bond that nothing can ever break.  God has claimed us, washed us clean, forgiven us, and adopted us as his own children.

It doesn’t stop there.  Do you remember in the reading, where the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus?  That happens to us, too.  When we are baptized, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit comes to us in and through the waters of baptism.  God lives in us, because of our baptisms.  Because through our baptisms, we are tied to Christ’s baptism.

No matter how righteous we think we are, we don’t deserve that gift.  No matter how righteous we are, we could never earn God’s love and forgiveness.  We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.  Some of our sins are more obvious than others; some people’s sins are large and public, while the sins of others are more private, or pettier, and are largely ignored.  We may think we’re righteous, but we still sin.  We still go astray from God’s law and the path God has laid out for us.  And all too often we find justifications, reasons to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing even as we turn our back on God.  We are not righteous.

We’re not righteous, but through Jesus’ baptism and our own baptism, we are given the gift of Jesus’ righteousness.  Jesus is pure and sinless.  Jesus always follows God’s will.  And through Jesus, we are given the gift of the salvation that comes through that faithfulness.

We aren’t saved from our sin and brokenness and lostness because we are righteous.  We are saved because God wants to save us.  We aren’t righteous on our own; we could never be good enough to earn that title.  But God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit anyway!

And that’s the difference between the way we use the word “righteousness” and the way God uses the word “righteousness.”  We use it to exclude, to break people up into categories, “good” people and “bad” people, “righteous” and “sinners,” “worthy” and “unworthy.”  God looks at us, sees the depths of our sinfulness, our brokenness, our lostness, and loves us anyway.  God sees all the bad things we have done, our pettiness, our thoughtlessness, our selfishness, and instead of rejecting us for it, God sends his only Son to save us.  God looks at all the ways we have turned away from him, and reaches out to adopt as his children.  God’s righteousness is that he reaches out to us even though we are not worthy.

John the Baptist protested when Jesus came to him to be baptized.  He knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for his own sake.  But that wasn’t why Jesus went to the Jordan River.  Jesus wasn’t baptized for his own sake, but for ours.  Jesus was baptized because it is God’s will that sinners should be saved, and we are saved through the waters of baptism which connects us with Jesus.

We’ll be hearing the word “righteous” a lot as we read the Gospel of Matthew together in church this year.  We’ll hear it from Pharisees who think they know what God’s will is.  We’ll hear it used to describe Jesus.  Whenever you hear it, remember that the ultimate act of righteousness is the cross.  Righteousness means Jesus’ obedience even to the point of death on a cross so that sinners might be saved.  Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his baptism; Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his death, and resurrection.  And it is through that baptism, through that death and resurrection, that we are washed clean and forgiven.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Preparations of the Heart

Advent 2A, December 8, 2013

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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.

Advent, the season of waiting.  We have been waiting almost two thousand years for Christ to come again.  But we were not the first to wait.  By the time Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God’s people had been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come.  There had been prophecies and stories, speculation and wondering.  Our first lesson today, from the book of Isaiah, is one of the passages where God tells them what the Messiah will be like and what God’s kingdom will be like when the Messiah comes.  It’s a beautiful picture with words that have resonated through the centuries—a vision of peace and security, justice and righteousness, of people and all of creation living in harmony together.  God’s people had been waiting for a long time for that vision to come true by the time Jesus began his ministry.

We, too, are waiting; we are waiting for Christmas and the celebration of the Messiah’s birth, but we are also waiting for the Messiah to come again in glory and establish the kingdom that Isaiah foretold.  We are waiting for that kingdom of new growth; we are waiting for the glory of Jesus to shine forth throughout the world.  We yearn for peace and justice; we tell stories of generosity and the “spirit of Christmas” filling hearts across the world.  We gather together with loved ones, and try to get along better.  We try to be nicer.

And then we hear today’s Gospel reading, about John the Baptist preaching fire and damnation.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Merry Christmas!  Not.

John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin.  He was only a few months older than Jesus, but he was already a well-established religious leader by the time Jesus started his public ministry.  He was a bit of a spectacle; he dressed like a wild man, or like the prophets of old.  Many people came to see him; they came to hear his message, but I wonder if some came just for the spectacle.  To stare at the weird crazy person.  But whether they came to gawk or to listen, John had a message for them.  John the Baptist’s whole mission was to get people ready for the Messiah to come.  Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!  Get ready for the Lord’s coming!  Don’t just ready your homes, prepare your hearts and minds and lives!  John the Baptist did not care if people liked him.  He wasn’t in it for popularity or riches or anything else.

In my experience, people don’t like to be told that they are sinners who need to repent.  In fact, it’s one of the fastest ways to get people to shut you out.  Particularly religious people—religious people are often quick to see the ways other people are sinners, but have all kinds of justifications for why their own sins aren’t really sins at all.  But at the same time … we all know that the world is a sinful, broken place.  We’ve all seen it, experienced it.  And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know that we are sinful, and sometimes broken, too.  There’s a relief that comes with admitting it; there’s a relief that comes with the honesty of saying “I have sinned, forgive me.”  There’s a relief that comes from turning away from the sinkholes of our guilt and shame and fear, and towards a new way, a better way of living and thinking.

That’s what repentance means, you know.  Literally, “to repent” means “to turn around.”  Turn away from the darkness; turn towards the light.  Turn away from your fear; turn towards hope.  Turn away from your anger and hate; turn towards love.  Turn away from your sin; turn towards God.  Change is possible; a better way of life is possible.  But only if you turn from the way of sin and death and brokenness, and turn toward the healing and life that only God can bring.

Yes, the kingdom of God is near, John the Baptist said.  That kingdom where the wolf lives with the lamb, and children are safe even in the midst of wild animals and poisonous snakes, that kingdom is near.  The kingdom where the poor and the meek get a fair and right chance, where God’s spirit of wisdom and understanding comes with the Messiah, that kingdom is near.

But that kingdom can’t come while things stay the way they are.  The sin and brokenness of this world has no place in God’s kingdom.  And much as we’d rather not admit it, a lot of the brokenness of the world comes from our own hearts and actions and words, things we do and things we fail to do.  Sin isn’t just something bad people do; everyone sins.  All of the hurt we cause ourselves and one another through our sin, that just isn’t compatible with God’s kingdom.  When the Messiah comes, the sins will be sorted out and excluded from the kingdom.  If you choose to stay with your sins, if you aren’t willing to turn away from them towards the Messiah who is coming … you’re going be in trouble.  Getting ready for the coming of the Messiah doesn’t just mean making things look nice for a party; you have to be willing to confess the ways you have hurt yourself and others.  You have to be willing to turn away from your sins to the only thing that will save you, the only thing that will heal your brokenness: the Messiah, God’s only Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

That sounds like a big thing to ask, and it is.  We can’t heal our own brokenness, and sin has its claws deep into our souls.  We can’t save ourselves; and all too often our repentance is short lived.  We fall back into bad habits.  We sin again.  We hurt ourselves and others over and over again.  We repent, but we do not bear fruit worthy of repentance.

The good news is, it’s not up to us and our efforts.  Christ came so that we might be saved; God’s only Son, the Messiah, died so that we might live.  In baptism we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrection; in baptism, we are washed clean; in baptism, our sins are forgiven and our brokenness is healed.  We sin, and sin again, and we and all of creation will remain broken and sinful until that day when Christ comes again.  But through it all, Christ reaches out to us, again and again, calling us to turn towards him.  All we have to do is respond.  All we have to do is turn to him and take his hand.  And when we stumble and fall again—as we will—Christ is there to help us up again, if we let him.  If we turn to him.  If we repent.  If we open our hearts and our minds to his coming, and welcome him in.

In this season of waiting for Christmas, we do a lot to prepare our homes.  We clean, we decorate, we plan parties and dinners.  We think a lot about Christmas coming, do we think enough about Christ’s coming?  How well do we prepare ourselves?  We talk about the “spirit of Christmas” and loving one another; we toss money in Salvation Army kettles and watch heart-warming movies.  We spend a lot of time trying to be nice.  Being nice can be a good thing, and being generous and loving is certainly something we as Christians should be doing all year round.  But are we going deep enough?

John the Baptist reminds us that Christ’s coming is not just a matter of a cute baby in a manger with angel choirs singing familiar carols.  Christ’s coming means the coming of the kingdom of God.  Christ’s coming means that things will change—that we will be changed—and that we are called to turn away from our sin and turn towards Christ.  May we be ready for the coming of the kingdom.

Amen.

Putting On Christ

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year C, June 23, 2013

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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.

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Galatians.  Next week, we’re going to take a break for Augustana’s 100th anniversary before finishing up this sermon series.  To recap what’s happened so far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: The Galatians had started to value human traditions as the way to prove themselves followers of God, and Paul tries to set them straight.  He reminds them that no human tradition, no matter how good, can take the place of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  No amount of following the rules and toeing the line will save us; only Christ can save us through his life, death, and resurrection.  Paul reminds us that the true Gospel, the Good News that Jesus came to give us, can change our lives as it changed his; the Good News that Christ called Paul to preach is the same Good News that we hear today.  Even in the midst of a world that is broken by sin and death, Christ is with us.  The faithfulness of Christ transforms us, gives us hope in the midst of all our brokenness, gives us faith in God and in one another.

Paul expands on that idea in today’s reading.  First he goes back to the law.  Now, when Paul talks about the law, he’s not just talking about the rules and regulations the government sets up to manage everything from traffic lights to taxes to elementary education to international treaties.  Paul is talking about religious laws—or, perhaps teachings would be a better translation—that govern everyday life.  He’s talking about everything from the Ten Commandments on down, all the things that faithful followers of God are supposed to do.  That’s the law he’s talking about, the law that he says imprisoned us and was our disciplinarian until faith came.

Disciplinarian, imprisoned—those aren’t very nice terms.  But the Law that Paul was talking about, that was part of ordinary religious observance!  We still teach and hold up some of those laws today as good and beneficial.  I just got through teaching the 7th Grade Confirmation students about the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone on which the rest of the Law is built.  I think we can all agree that following the Ten Commandments and other such religious teachings is a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have such a moral code.  So why is Paul so hard on the Law?  Why doesn’t he seem to like it?

I think an analogy with secular law is in order here.  You see, the legal system can’t make anyone good.  All it can do is punish you for being bad.  If you step out of line, you are punished.  And fear of punishment may stop people from doing evil or immoral things, but it won’t make them a good person.  I mean, it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.  All it means is that you’re not a criminal.  There are a lot of people out there who have never broken a law in their lives who are still thoroughly nasty people and miserable excuses for human beings.  I could name some, and I bet you could too.  And while the law tries to promote good behavior, all the incentives in the world can’t change a person’s nature.  You can donate to charity in order to get the tax write-off, and it still won’t make you a generous person, if all you’re doing is the minimum needed to reduce your tax obligations.  Don’t get me wrong, having laws is a good thing.  Restraining evil is a good thing.  Working together for the common good in the form of roads and schools and other necessities is a good thing.  But it can’t save anyone, and it can’t make people better.  And, sometimes, bad laws get made, laws that hurt people; sometimes good laws get interpreted in bad ways, to hurt people.

Religious law is the same way.  It can restrain evil, and it can regulate our life together for the common good.  But following all the traditions and teachings and rules can’t heal anyone’s brokenness or save anyone’s soul.  It can’t transform us; it can’t make us children of God; it can’t make us brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when we start focusing too much on our laws, when we make our traditions the arbiter and central point of our Christian faith, it’s all too easy to forget about the one thing that really can save and transform us: Jesus Christ.  It’s easy to get so focused on what we’re doing, that we can’t see what God has done and is doing for us.  And from there it’s a short step to interpreting God’s law through our own prejudices.  That was the Galatians’ problem: it wasn’t that the laws they were following were bad in themselves, but they were starting to put more trust in those laws than in Christ.

When we were baptized, we became children of God.  When we were baptized, we became united with Christ’s death and resurrection.  When we were baptized, we were washed clean.  When we were baptized, we were transformed.  That’s the core of the Gospel; that’s the core of what it means to be a Christian.  All the laws and traditions in the history of the world are less important than that simple fact.  Laws and traditions can’t save us; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t transform us into children of God; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t heal our brokenness; Christ can.

We have put on Christ.  We still live in a world broken by sin and death.  We ourselves are broken by sin and death, and will be until Christ comes again.  That brokenness divides us, separates us from one another and from God.  And yet we are clothed in Christ’s love, forgiveness, and righteousness.  And that makes a difference.  We are called to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to see one another through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to act out of love, not out of fear of punishment. We live in a world that is and always has been fragmented by tribe and race and creed and gender and class and sexuality and age and politics and a thousand other things.  We live in a world where people pay attention to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it.  And we often fall short of our calling and fall prey to those divisions and temptations.

In Paul’s day, the most fundamental divisions were cultural divisions between Jews and Greeks, economic and class differences between slaves and free people, and gender divisions between men and women.  Those divisions were codified and reinforced by secular laws and customs, and also by the way religious laws and customs were interpreted.  And those divisions were getting in the way of spreading the Gospel, because people were paying more attention to those divisions, to the rules that kept people separate, than they were to the Good News that frees us and unites us all as children of God.  But as Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, Christ brings all people together—and our baptism in Christ is more important than anything that separates us, more important than any tradition or rule that holds us apart.

It’s easy to be blinded by all of society’s rules and prejudices.  It’s easy to use those rules as the basis for our actions, rather than our faith in Christ.  And it’s easy to let our understanding of God’s law be twisted and shaped by our prejudices and divisions, rather than by the light of Christ.  But the truth is, what we share in Christ is more important than any human division could ever be.  When you look at another human being, you see someone for whom Christ died.  Even if it’s someone you don’t like; even if it’s someone you think you have nothing in common with.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the basis of our relationships with all people.

Through our baptisms we have been saved, redeemed, made children of God and united in Christ.  That is who we are.  That is more important than any human division.  That is more important than any rule or tradition.  It is Christ who saves us, all of us, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what group we belong to.  It is Christ, not our ability to follow the laws, not our traditions, not our ability to interpret the teachings.  It is Christ who makes us children of God, who forgives us and saves us no matter how many times we fall short of God’s glory.  That is the Good News, and it is Good News for all people.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Wherever the Spirit blows

Pentecost, Year C, May 18, 2013

Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-35, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

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.

Boy, we had a lot of wind this week!  A lot of wind.  I was down in Bismarck on Tuesday, and I could see the stop signs and street lights waving in the wind.  It was a novel sight for me—back home in Oregon, I would never have seen metal poles anchored in concrete move.  But here in North Dakota, when the wind gets whipping around, it happens.  Wind here is such a dramatic metaphor for the Spirit.  You see, the Holy Spirit and wind are alike in a way.  You can’t see wind, just as you can’t see the Holy Spirit.  But you can sure see what it’s doing.

Before Jesus was crucified, he told his followers what was coming.  He would leave them, and he would send them the Holy Spirit.  Now, the disciples were very worried.  They didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them; they couldn’t imagine that anything which resulted in Jesus dying might work out.  They were afraid of being without Jesus.  They were afraid of what might happen when they no longer had Jesus there to tell them what God wanted and guide them in God’s way.  So Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus responded by saying they’d seen the Father—because after all, the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit are all one.  So, since they know Jesus, they know the Father as well, and the Holy Spirit.  And once Jesus was gone, he would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them always, so that God would still be with them even if Jesus was no longer physically present for them to see and touch.

This made the disciples nervous, and I can understand why.  When Jesus was right there with them, it was easy to feel the presence of God.  They could see him, touch him, sit down and have a meal with him and talk about who God was, what it meant to be God’s people, and what God was calling them to do.  This “advocate” Jesus told them of, this “Spirit,” that’s a lot more difficult to see and feel.  And it’s a lot easier to misunderstand.  Just like with the wind, you see the Spirit’s effects, and not the Spirit itself.  If you’re looking out a window and see a stop sign shaking, it could be the wind—or it could be an earthquake.  Or there could be construction guys using heavy equipment nearby.  You have to make a judgment call—which is it?  And for me, at least, I haven’t lived in North Dakota long enough for “wind” to be the first thing I think of.

The Spirit’s effects can be more difficult to discern than the effects of wind.  You have to be watching for it, and open to the possibility of God working among us.  Just look at the lesson from Acts.  The Holy Spirit filled the disciples, sending them out from the rooms they’d been hiding away in.  They went out into the community and began to tell people about their experiences with Jesus.  Even more than that, they spoke in many different languages, so that everyone could understand them.  And some people heard them and believed, but others heard them and thought they must be drunk.  To us who know Jesus, who hear this story with the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that they could miss God’s actions in this story.  This was a great miracle, and yet they couldn’t see it!  They looked for reasons to doubt, for other explanations.  They were faithful people—they were all in Jerusalem to celebrate a major Jewish religious festival at the Temple—and yet, when God intervened directly in their midst, they couldn’t see it.  They weren’t expecting it, and so they found other explanations that made more sense to them.

Sometimes, we do the same thing.  Be honest: how often do you actually look for God’s presence in your life?  How often do you see something happening around you and wonder if it might be the Holy Spirit?  Too often, we simply don’t see the Spirit because we’re not looking for it.  We shrug and explain things as coincidence, or as the result of a whole host of reasons.  And that may very well be true—but that doesn’t mean the Spirit can’t be working through those things!  Throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, God has done amazing things that the people at the time would never have thought of.  Without the Holy Spirit, Peter and the rest of the disciples would never have gone out there to preach to the crowds, and, later, it would never have occurred to them to spread the message of Jesus to non-Jews.  And without the Holy Spirit, the crowds who heard the disciples’ story on that first Pentecost would never have believed.  Without the Spirit, those crowds would have remained divided by race and language.  Without the Spirit, nothing is possible; but with the Spirit, all sorts of things are possible.  But if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t looking for the way the Spirit is moving, we can miss seeing it just like some of those who saw the first Pentecost did.

We look back at what the Holy Spirit did in the Bible, at stories like Pentecost, and it’s easy to think that nothing like that could happen now.  That was a long time ago, and I haven’t seen any tongues of flame, have you?  Yet we know the Holy Spirit is with us, because Jesus promised to give it to us.  We may not always recognize its work in our lives and in our world, but it is with us always.  And it can do amazing things, whether we recognize it or not.  The Spirit comforts us in our sorrows, inspires us, connects us to God, and guides us in our journey through life.  The Spirit leads us to do things we would never have believed we could do, to places we would never have believed we would be.  The Spirit brings us together as God’s people and forms us into the body of Christ.  And, when this broken, sinful world brings sorrows and griefs, the Spirit comforts us and shows us God’s love.

We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptisms, and that is an awesome gift.  In baptism, we are washed clean.  Our old sinful self is drowned and we rise to new life in Christ.  And the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  We are, in the words of the baptismal rite, “sealed by the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit dwells within each one of us.  No matter what happens, no matter what we do or where we go, the seal of the Holy Spirit goes with us.  Even when we can’t see the Spirit moving, we know it is with us.  Even when we can’t feel its effects, we know it is with us.

Rylan and Roslin will be receiving that gift of the Spirit here today.  It’s an awesome gift!  It’s not the end of their journey towards God; it is the beginning of their journey with God.  We here are all making that journey.  It’s not a journey to take alone.  Christianity is not, at heart, about being alone with God.  Christianity is about coming together in the community of faith, to support and encourage one another and to be the Body of Christ in the world.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings us together despite our differences.  It is the Holy Spirit that guides us along that journey and helps us to be faithful to God.  It is the Holy Spirit that helps us to share God’s story with all people, and it is the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world.

When people are baptized, we promise to support them in their life as Christians.  We welcome them into the family of faith.  In the case of children, we promise that we will help their parents and godparents raise them in the Christian faith.  It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we received at our own baptisms, that allows us to do this.  We have been chosen and called by God, here in this place, to share the Good News with all people through our words and our actions.  Rylan and Roslin, who will be baptized today, are entering into that relationship.  We will support and encourage them to grow in God, just as they in their turn will support and encourage others.  We will tell them the stories of God’s work in the world just as those stories were told to us, just as the disciples told the crowds at that first Pentecost, so many years ago.

Two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit sent the disciples out to tell the story of Jesus.  It sent them out into a world that didn’t like them much, a world in which many people wouldn’t hear or understand their message, wouldn’t see God’s presence in their midst.  The Spirit acted through them, and we call Pentecost the church’s birthday because the conversions that started that day were the beginnings of what came to be the church.  By hearing and responding to the good news, those people became part of the family of God, and they, too, received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The story of Pentecost is not over.  The story of Pentecost continues wherever the Holy Spirit blows.  Pentecost is happening right here in our church today, as we celebrate the work of God in our young people, from those who have grown in faith until they are ready to graduate from high school and become adults, to those who will be baptized here today.  We see the Spirit at work in them, and it reminds us that the Spirit is at work in all of us.  Wherever the Spirit is at work, it is Pentecost, and the Spirit is at work here.  It led the disciples out of their comfortable rooms and into the world to preach God’s Word.  It led crowds of people to be given the gift of faith.  I wonder what the Spirit will do in and through us?  May we all feel the Spirit’s work in our lives.  Thanks be to God for that gift.

Amen.

The Gifts of Baptism

Baptism of Our Lord, Year C, Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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

Those of you who have read a lot of the Bible or paid a lot of attention in church and Sunday School may have noticed how many of the major Bible stories have to do with water.  The first chapter of Genesis speaks of God moving over the waters during the creation.  Noah was saved in the midst of the flood which destroyed civilization.  Moses was hidden in safety in a basket on the river and later led the people of Israel to freedom through the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s army drowned.  In the wilderness, water was one of the basic necessities God provided the wandering Israelites.  All of that water, in just the first two books of the Bible!  And it doesn’t stop there.  God uses water in many ways throughout the Bible.

One of the reasons for that, of course, is that water is one of the most basic needs of all human beings.  Thirst will kill you quicker than hunger; and it’s really hard to keep anything clean without water.  On the other hand, water is also very dangerous: even a moment’s inattention by any open water, and you can drown.  We love to swim in it and go boating over the top of it on hot summer days, but we can’t ever take it for granted.  And in the desert, where the people of Israel lived, the search for water is a daily necessity.  People walk miles every day to the nearest well or river to get the water they and their animals need to survive.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that water is everywhere in the Bible.

The most important use of water in the Bible and in our churches today is, of course, baptism.  In the Gospel we read today the story of Jesus’ baptism, and from Acts we heard the story of the baptism of some Samaritan Christians.  After his resurrection Jesus commanded his followers to go out into the world, baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we are gathered here today to baptize young Weston.  So what is baptism, and why is it so important?

Baptism is a sacrament, one of two.  The other sacrament is, of course, Communion.  A sacrament is a rite commanded by God in which God’s promises are given form in a physical element.  Intangible words and tangible things are united as one.  In Baptism, the sign is water.  Although we can’t see or touch God, we can see and feel the water God uses to seal his promises.  And the promise is God’s love and grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, God comes to us to claim us as his own.  Did you hear the words God the Father spoke at Jesus’ baptism?  “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  That sounds a lot like what God said in the reading from Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  And again: “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  God speaks these words to us at our own baptisms.  As the water is poured over us, God claims us.  At each baptism, God says to each person being baptized “You are my beloved child.”  That love is unconditional: there is nothing we can do that will ever make God stop loving us and calling us.  In baptism, we become God’s children, and nothing can ever change that.

In Baptism, we die to sin and are born holy and righteous before God.  We are broken, sinful people who live in a broken, sinful world.  But through Baptism, we put on Christ’s righteousness.  Instead of seeing our sins, God chooses to see Christ’s sinlessness.  Although we are still sinners, we have been redeemed by God through our baptism.  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism, and to his death and resurrection.  We are marked with the cross of Christ.  As Christ died, so we too will die.  But as Christ rose from the grave, so we too will rise when Christ comes again.

In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  As the Spirit descended out of heaven like a dove to Jesus, and came to the people of Samaria after their baptism and the prayers of the apostles, so too the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  During Weston’s baptism, you will see me anoint him with oil and say that he has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will be with him all the days of his life, through good times and bad, even when he can’t see or feel the Spirit’s presence within him.  God will always be with you, even when your own doubts and fears and the cares of the world blind you to God’s presence.  Baptism doesn’t mean that your life will be all smooth sailing, but it does mean that you never have to face trouble alone.

In Baptism, we become part of the Christian community, which is the body of Christ in the world.  As we become children of God, that means that all of God’s other children are our brothers and sisters.  At the end of the baptism today, you will all join me in welcoming Weston into the family of God.  We don’t often take that as seriously as we should, but it’s true.  We are all brothers and sisters, through our baptisms, and we should be better at loving and helping one another than we are.  Being a child of God means participating in the community, and sharing in the life of faith with all of God’s children.  Being a child of God means following God’s call and listening to the Holy Spirit.  So during the baptism, you will all be asked to make promises.  Weston’s parents and godparents will promise to raise Weston in the faith, bringing him to worship and helping him learn the scriptures.  But the congregation as a whole will promise to support Weston in his Christian life.  We make this promise at each and every baptism, that we will help and support our new brother or sister in Christ, and it is the basis of the Christian community.

All of these things happen in baptism.  God claims us as his beloved children, we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God and members of the Christian community.  That’s a lot!  Each and every one of these things can have a profound impact on our lives, if we let it.  And yet, all too often we forget.  We forget that we are children of God, we forget that God loves us, we don’t pay attention to the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and we ignore the promises we make to one another to support each other in faith.  We forget that our need for God is as fundamental as our need for water to drink.  We forget that without Christ, our souls shrivel up in thirst for the living water that comes from God alone.

So what can we do?  How can we respond to the great gifts God has given us in our baptism?  The first step is obvious enough: remember your baptism.  Remember always those words God spoke over you: “You are my beloved child.”  Remember that all your sins are forgiven.  Remember that the Holy Spirit always dwells within you, and listen for its guidance.  It sounds easy.  But these are all intangible things.  We can’t see these promises God has made to us; we can’t touch them or taste them or smell them.  And sometimes it is hard to believe that they are real, in the midst of this solid world.  That’s why God has given us another gift in baptism: the water.

We can’t touch God’s promises, but we can touch the water.  We can bathe in it, swim in it, drink it, hear it splash, feel it soak into our dry skin, feel it run down our throat.  So each time you use water, remember your baptism.  Each glass of water you drink, remember that God loves you.  Each time you take a bath or a shower, make the sign of the cross and remember that you have been washed clean and your sins are forgiven.  Each time you jump in a pool, remember that you have been made a member of the body of Christ, part of the community of faith.  And thank God for the promises made in your baptism.

Amen.

Called to the Waters

Advent 2, Year C,nSunday, December 2nd, 2012

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

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

In my first year of seminary, I participated in a Bible study run by laypeople at a local church.  In one session, the subject of the worship service came up, and why we do what we do every Sunday.  One woman started complaining about the confession at the beginning of every worship service.  “Why do we do it so often?” she asked.  “I don’t have any sins to confess!  I’m not a sinner!”

I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say.  How to answer that?  She thought she was perfect, that she didn’t sin?  She thought she never did anything wrong?  I wondered if her husband and children would have agreed with her.  I wondered if her boss would have agreed with her.  I wondered if her co-workers and neighbors would have agreed with her.  I wondered if the people in her life less fortunate than her would have agreed with her.  Reading today’s Gospel lesson, I wonder if John the Baptizer would have agreed with her.

John was the son of a priestly family.  His father, Zechariah, served at the Temple in Jerusalem.  He was from the biggest city in Judea, the center of Jewish life.  He undoubtedly was connected in some way to all the important people in the land—the priestly caste, after all, had a good bit of power.  Being a priest was a good job, a comfortable job, and since it was hereditary John had it made.  He could have had a very nice life, a much more comfortable life than the vast majority of the people in Judea.  And yet, John tossed it all away to go live in the wilderness on what he could scrounge.  John followed the word of God, away from everything that people expected of him.

God called John to tell the world that they were sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, and to offer that forgiveness to all through the waters of baptism.  God called John to prepare the way for Jesus.  God called John, and John went.

Given his family’s position, John would have been in a good position to see the excesses and the injustices of everyone from the Romans to the Temple leadership to the ordinary people on the street.  If he wandered outside the Temple complex through Jerusalem, he could have seen just about every walk of life.  And if he stayed in the temple, he could have seen the infighting, the petty bickering, the power plays common to powerful people.  I bet he heard a lot of justifications, too.  “It’s not that bad, everyone does it.  It’s a necessary evil, it’s for a good cause.”  Or how about this one?  “It’s not my fault, it’s just the way the system works.”  Or “It’s not my fault, they made me do it.”  Sound familiar?  Nobody likes to admit it when we do things wrong, when we make mistakes.  It’s easier to tell ourselves that we haven’t done anything wrong than it is to own up to our failings.  And it’s easier still to point fingers at other people.  You’ll notice that John doesn’t make distinctions.  John doesn’t say: you people who don’t go to Temple are sinners who need to repent.  John doesn’t say: you Roman invaders are sinners who need to repent.  John doesn’t say: you religious leaders are sinners who need to repent.  He doesn’t go after the non-Jews, or the Jews from different factions, or the people everyone knew were sinners.  No, filled with the word of God, John called everyone to repentance and forgiveness.  He wasn’t just concerned with the big public sins that everyone shakes their head at and points fingers at.  John was concerned with all the things, big and small, that turn us away from God and away from other people.  And John was concerned with all people, calling them to the water.

We, today, are still being called to the water.  John the Baptist’s words echoes through the centuries.  All who are brought to God, whether as infants or as adults, come to the water and are baptized.  In that water, the old, sinful self is drowned and we rise up forgiven and renewed children of God.  There is repentance, a turning away from sin.  But it is God who calls us, and God whose Spirit is given to us in baptism, God who washes away the stains left by our own actions, thoughts, and hesitations, God who forgives us.  It is God who calls us to turn away from our sins, God who calls us to live lives worthy of the kingdom he will bring.  John quotes Isaiah: prepare the royal highway, for God is coming, and everyone will see the salvation he brings.  In that salvation we will be washed clean of our sins, all the broken, petty, selfish, nasty little bits will be wiped away.  One of the images of baptism is drowning: we are drowned in the water, our sinful self is killed, and we are reborn as children of God.  Martin Luther liked to say that the reality of a baptized Christian is that we die every day to sin and rise to new life in Christ.

Drowning is violent, scary, dangerous, something we’re not in control of.  People like to think of the Christian life as being all about our choice: we choose to come to Jesus (or not), we choose to repent, we choose to believe.  And, certainly, we can choose to turn away from God.  But it is God who calls us and claims us, who gives us life and light, God who is coming to bring salvation to all people.  We are not the ones in control; God is.  And that’s good news because our sin and brokenness are far greater than anything we could ever fix on our own.  Every day, in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and by what we fail to do, we show our impurities, our imperfections, our brokenness, and our sin, no matter how hard we try to hide it or deny it.  It is only through God’s grace and mercy that we are renewed, made pure, and our sins are forgiven.

The prophet Malachi understood this, when he used the image of a refinery to describe God’s actions.  In an old-style refinery, crude, unrefined ores are heated in a vat until they melt, and the impurities rise to the surface.  The refiner stands beside the vat of molten metal, skimming all the bad stuff off the top.  The refiner keeps skimming until the metal is pure—and knows the metal is pure when he can see his face in it.  We are the crude ore being melted and skimmed of impurity, and God is the one doing the scraping.  We can’t do it ourselves—we don’t even realize what the impurities are, half the time!

We live in a culture that prizes self-reliance and self-righteousness.  We idolize those who can take care of themselves, and we hate admitting we need someone—anyone—else.  We like to have things all planned out, to know where we’re going and why.  And yet, there are some things we can’t do.  We can’t cleanse ourselves of our sins, we can’t heal the broken places in our souls, we can’t make the bad things we say and do disappear.  All we can do, on our own, is paper over the cracks and pretend they aren’t there.

It takes courage to admit we aren’t perfect.  It takes courage to admit that we need help, that we can’t do everything by ourselves.  And it takes courage to follow God’s call, whether that call leads us out into the wilderness or just leads us to do new things here at home.  The Christian life is not an easy one, because it strips us of our illusions and shows us just how much darkness there is around us and inside us, how much brokenness there is.  It shows us all the things we should have done but didn’t, all the things we did do that we shouldn’t have.

And yet, there is hope, even in our darkness, because Christ is coming.  We can’t fix ourselves, but God calls us to the waters of baptism.  God calls all of us, from all walks of life, no matter what we have done or failed to do, and washes us in the water.  Our sins are drowned, we are purified, the crooked places inside us are made straight.  We are made ready for our Lord, who comes to bring salvation to all

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

Baptism of Our …

Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B), Sunday, January 8, 2012

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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.

As you may know, I went home for the week after Christmas.  On December 30th, my mother and I went shopping in the mall near my home, and they already had the Valentines candy and Easter outfits on display.  The tinsel and lights and presents of the December holiday season were already packed away in their boxes to await next year’s sales.  And yet, we here in this church are still in a season of gifts.

No, it’s not still Christmas, even here—the twelfth and last day of Christmas was January 5th—but now we are in the season of Epiphany.  The festival of Epiphany is January 6th and celebrates Jesus Christ as the light of the world.  It also celebrates the coming of the Magi following the light of a star to lead them to Christ.  And what do the magi bring?  Presents!  So it’s no surprise that the readings of the season of Epiphany usually focus on either light, or gifts.  And today is a day of celebrating gifts—in this case, the gifts God has given us.

Specifically, we are remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through water and God’s Word, in baptism.  If ever there was a gift that kept on giving, there it is.  We start off the readings with the breath of God—the Spirit—sweeping over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation.  You see, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  God created it out of nothingness.  Everything in this world, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, from the smallest microbe to you and me, was and is created by God.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from the creative work of God.  Our existence and every good thing in our lives is a gift from God.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit was there, moving through it and working with the Father.  One thing I notice is that whenever I come across references to the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s always moving, or doing something.  The Spirit never stands still.  The Spirit is never stagnant.  And it was moving in Creation, as the world was called into being.  The Spirit was moving in the primordial chaos of the formless void, and the Spirit was part of the Father’s creative work.

The Holy Spirit is still moving in the world.  But the Holy Spirit is also moving in us, specifically and uniquely.  That gift was given to us in our baptisms, as we are united with Christ in his baptism, and the Father claims us as his beloved children.  What greater gift can there be than for God to claim us as God’s own?

John the Baptist knew that.  “I baptize with water,” he said, “but there is one coming after me who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  You see, John’s baptism was a form of ritual bathing common in Jewish religious life.  When you committed a sin, one of the ways to purify yourself and make yourself right with God was to symbolically wash the sin away.  It was a public statement that you understood that you had done wrong, and a promise to do better next time, to turn away from the thing that made you unclean and separated you from God and from other people.  But it wasn’t permanent.  Everyone sins, and so then you would have to go back and be cleansed again.  It was a never-ending cycle.

Jesus’ baptism is not like that.  Jesus’ baptism is not about our commitment to do the right thing, and it’s not something we can fail at and redo.  When Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down on him.  And God said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus baptism is God’s public declaration of love and relationship.  And that’s the baptism that we are baptized with.

When we are baptized, we are claimed by God.  The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins moving in us.  And God our creator speaks those same words he spoke to Jesus in the Jordan River: “you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  There is nothing we can do to break that relationship; God will love us no matter what.  The Holy Spirit will move in us no matter what.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how much we mess up, God is with us, claiming us as God’s own and leading us back to wholeness and goodness.  Think about that, for a second.  God is with us no matter what.  God loves us no matter what.  And through us, God is doing amazing things.  What greater gift could we possibly receive?

As everyone knows, some gifts are better than others.  And I’m not talking about how expensive they are.  When I was a child, there were some gifts that I loved and played with for years, and others that I thanked the giver politely for and promptly put on a shelf and forgot about.  Probably the single best gift I ever got was my oboe, a very high quality instrument.  My grandparents gave it to me in High School, and if you were here for the second service on Christmas Eve you heard probably heard me play it in the prelude.  Fifteen years after they gave it to me, it is still a cherished possession that I regularly use.  Most of the other gifts I received then have long since been outgrown or worn out.  But the Holy Spirit is a gift that doesn’t just gather dust on a shelf, and it can never be outgrown or worn out.

Remember earlier I mentioned that whenever the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, it’s doing something.  The Spirit moves, it dances, it inspires people to participate in God’s saving work in the world.  The problem is, so often we don’t listen.  We get so caught up in our busy lives and our daily worries that we ignore the movement of the Spirit in us and around us.  We get so used to our ordinary world that we miss the extraordinary presence of God in our midst.  The Spirit invites us to join in God’s work in the world, to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of the time we don’t even realize it.  When we do hear the Spirit’s call, all too often we find reasons to ignore it: I’m too busy, it’ll never work, I’ve never done it before, what will the neighbors think, let someone else do it.  We treat the Holy Spirit as if it were an ill-fitting sweater given us by some well-meaning relative, that we can exchange for something we like better.

And yet, the Spirit will not be silenced, and the Spirit will not be still.  God has done marvelous things, from the creation of the world to the present day, and God is still doing marvelous things.  God has given us our very lives, everything that we have and are, and God has given us the gift of God’s own presence.  I wonder, what would the world be like if we let the Spirit stir us?  What would Somerset be like, if we let the Spirit call us into wholehearted and joyful participation in God’s work?  What would this congregation be like if we opened ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in us and around us?

As we come forward for communion, you will notice that there is a box, wrapped up as a gift, sitting at the font.  In that box we are asked to place our commitments of time, talent, and treasure.  In this way we give back just a small portion of the many blessings God has given us.  This is not just about money.  This is not just about keeping the lights on and paying salaries.  Through our gifts of our time, our abilities, and our treasures, we participate in God’s work.  We come together to minister to one another, to our community, and to our world.  We share the Word of God and all the gifts God has given us with all creation.  I hope that you have been praying about how God is calling you to participate in this congregation’s ministry, and I pray that you have reflected that call in your commitments.

But these commitments are not the end of our participation in God’s work.  Answering the call of the Holy Spirit is not just something we do once a year and then put it back on the shelf and forget about.  Following the Spirit’s call is the lifelong vocation of a Christian.  As the Spirit is always moving, always calling, we should always be listening and responding.  As you go through the year to come (and all the years to come), don’t let yourself forget that God is with you.  Keep praying for the Spirit’s guidance, keep responding to God’s word.  May God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit’s call.

Amen.

Treasure in clay jars: Baptism and Communion

I talked last week about the fellowship of believers and the body of Christ. Important as it is, however, this fellowship is not the only reason for attending worship services.

God is present in many things every day, great and small. Some we may find easy to attribute to God—the beauty of forest, the grandeur of a mountain, the love of those around us. Some escape our notice—the little grace notes that lighten our day. A stranger’s smile, a break in the clouds, a chance remark that sparks an idea. All are examples of God present in our lives, in both good times and bad. It’s important to notice these things, but so often we get caught up in our busy lives and forget to pay attention, or credit them instead to our own skill and luck. God’s presence can be so intangible, so easily ignored, that we need something concrete and physical to demonstrate it, something we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and know God is present in it.

In the Lutheran understanding, a “sacrament” is the combination of the Word of God with a visible sign (something we can see and touch), as ordered by Christ. We recognize two sacraments, Baptism and Communion. Jesus commanded us to do both of the sacraments as signs of his presence with us. God takes every-day, ordinary things (water, oil, wine, bread) and makes them into extraordinary signs of God’s love and grace.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20.)

In our baptisms we are initiated into the Christian life as disciples and members of the fellowship of believers. We are “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” This is not fire insurance for Christians; it is not a “get out of Hell free card.” Baptism is God reaching out to us and promising us that God will always be there for us, claiming and reclaiming God’s identity as Emmanuel. There’s a reason baptism is traditionally done during the worship service, and there’s a reason that the congregation makes promises of support and solidarity with the person being baptized. God’s presence sometimes manifests itself through the companionship of our fellow members of the body of Christ, so it’s important that our fellow members are there when God promises to be with us. But beyond that, the baptism of each new member, child or adult, is a reminder that God has claimed us as God’s own through our own baptisms. It’s a reminder that baptism is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the beginning of an ongoing life of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s also a reminder that Christ is present with us, not in theory but in fact. God’s presence is as real and tangible as the water and the oil.

“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28).

There’s been a lot of debate over these words over the centuries. Some say they’re meant to be symbolic, some have argued for arcane philosophical justifications for the turning of bread into flesh and wine into blood, some have other ideas. But the important thing is that Christ is promising to be truly present in the bread and the wine. Whatever you think it is, Christ is present in it. In this bread and wine, God’s covenant—God’s promised relationship with us—is made into a form we can feel and taste. God’s promise to forgive our sins, renew us, and make us whole is real even when we’re so overwhelmed with life that we can’t see it any other way.

This is why going to church is important. God is present in many ways every day, whether we go to church or not. But it’s only in worship with our fellow believers that we receive these two sacraments, these two physical assurances of God’s grace.

If you have any questions about this or any questions you would like interested in next week’s entry, please comment.