Living In God’s Word

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2019

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 146, 2 Timothy 3:14–4:5, John 8:31-36

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.

When Martin Luther set out to reform Christianity and fix the things that he saw were broken in the church, one of the problems that was most important to him was how little ordinary Christians knew about the Bible.  At the time, it was a crime to translate the Bible into the language people actually spoke in their day-to-day lives.  When the Bible was read, it was usually read in a Latin translation called the Vulgate.  Only scholars and the wealthy elites were fluent in Latin; not even all parish priests could read it.  And the church liked it that way: if ordinary people couldn’t read the Bible, then they couldn’t form opinions of their own.  They would have to believe Scripture said and meant whatever the church hierarchy said it did.

You see, Peter was neither the first nor the last person to notice that human beings often have itchy ears and turn to teachers who suit their own desires.  We human beings are masters at manipulating the truth to make it say what we want to hear.  We are very, very good at finding ways to interpret Scripture, the law, and reality itself so that it fits whatever we want to believe, even if that means twisting ourselves into a pretzel.  We take things out of context.  We make mountains out of molehills.  We flat-out ignore things we don’t like.  And there is no person or group of people immune to the desire to do this.  If you are sitting here thinking self-righteously about all the people you disagree with or dislike who creatively interpret everything from Scripture to science to current events in order to make it fit the way they want it to be, I have bad news for you: you almost certainly do it to.  Knowing this about human nature, the medieval church tried to prevent misinterpretation of God’s Word by restricting it to only a few.  If you couldn’t read Scripture for yourselves, you would have to accept what the church leaders told you it said and what it meant.

That strategy has two major flaws: first, it drastically underestimates how good humans are at creatively misinterpreting things.  The less you know about something, the easier it is to twist it to suit your own ideas, so restricting the reading of Scripture led to more misinterpretation, not less.  And second, this strategy assumed that the church leadership and hierarchy would not themselves fall prey to the temptation to interpret Scripture to their own benefit.  And, as it turned out, when they did fall prey to that temptation, since few people outside their ranks could read Scripture, few people could point out the problems with their teachings.  The more familiar people are with Scripture, the easier it is to see when someone’s interpreting it for their own benefit.

Today we put lots of effort into translating the Bible into the common language.  There are hundreds of translations into English, and there are multiple organizations dedicated to translating the Bible into every language on Earth.  The house I grew up in, like most Christian households, had many Bibles which I could choose to read whenever I wanted to.  Unfortunately, I very rarely chose to do so.  And I’m not alone in that.  For every funeral I do where the deceased had a beloved Bible with creased and dog-eared pages and helpfully underlined or highlighted passages, I do probably ten or twenty where neither the deceased nor anyone else in the family has spent enough time studying Scripture to have any preferences.  I’m not saying this to shame anyone, I’m just saying that this is the reality we live in.  If, as Peter says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” what does it say about us that we so seldom turn to Scripture except on Sunday mornings?

There are many reasons for this, of course, but one of the main ones is that the Bible is a big, complicated story full of lots of smaller stories.  It’s messy.  It contradicts itself.  There are parts of it that are hard to understand, and parts that are boring, and parts that are gross and disturbing.  It’s really easy to open your Bible, find a passage that you either don’t understand or that is really nasty, think “what the heck am I supposed to learn from THIS?” close your Bible again, and go away feeling guilty for not being a good enough Christian.  It’s also really easy to be afraid of reading the Bible and taking away the wrong message, or interpreting it badly, so we don’t even try.

I think part of this problem is that most people—even most Christians—don’t really understand what the Bible is.  It’s not a textbook.  It’s not a history textbook, or a science textbook, or even a religion textbook.  It’s not a list of facts to memorize so that you can pass a test.  It’s not a law book; it’s not a set of rules to follow blindly.  It’s more like sitting in the living room with the family scrapbook, with your grandparents and all your aunts and uncles gathered around, hearing the family stories about where you come from and how you all came to be here, and what happened along the way.  They tell you why things are the way they are.  And some of the stories are funny and some are sad and some you just had to be there for, and sometimes grandma and grandpa argue about how exactly it all happened, but even if the details are fuzzy sometimes, the stories they tell are true and real.  And if you listen to those stories enough, if you ask questions and think about the answers and come back to those stories day after day, you’ll find that they shape how you see the world.  Not just how you see the past, but how you see the present and the future, as well.  Those stories will shape how you see yourself and how you see those around you.  And listening to those stories and responding to them will build your relationship with the people telling them.

The Bible is a little like that.  The Bible is the story of God at work in the world, from creation to the end times.  And the Bible is the story of God at work in the world, working to heal and safe and re-form the world, even in the midst of human sin and brokenness and evil.  These stories tell us truths about who we are and who God is, and about the world, and the more we read Scripture the more we are shaped by it.  The more time we spend reading our Bibles, and praying about what we read, and thinking about it, and talking about it with others, the more likely we are to conform our hearts and minds to God’s Word, instead of twisting it to suit what we want to believe.  And in the process of studying Scripture, we strengthen our relationship with God.

The Bible is big, and messy, and complicated, because life is big, and messy, and complicated.  Sometimes the Bible doesn’t have a clear answer to a particular question; sometimes the Bible has multiple conflicting answers to a particular question.  And that’s because sometimes life doesn’t have one clear answer that is correct and everything else is wrong.  But like I said, the point of reading Scripture isn’t to memorize the right answer to any particular question.  The point is to wrestle with the stories and be shaped by them, and to build our relationship with God in the process.  Even the weirdest, darkest, hardest-to-understand parts of scripture have truths to teach us.  Sometimes that truth is simply that human beings can do terrible things, even when we believe in God and are trying our best to follow him.  Sometimes that truth is that even when human beings screw up, God is still present in us and with us.

I encourage you to set time aside regularly to read your Bible, whether by yourself or with your family, and pray about what you read.  Don’t start from the beginning and try to read everything in order if that’s not working for you; it’s better to stick to things you can make sense of than get bogged down and give up.  But as you’re reading, and praying, ask yourself questions about the story.  What truths might God be trying to teach through the story?  How does that particular story fit with other Bible stories you know?  Is there anything in the story you agree with, or disagree with, and why?  Is the message easy or hard to hear or live out?  Does anything remind you of things in your life or in the world around you?  Don’t be afraid to ask questions you don’t know the answer to, and if things come up you’re not sure of I would be overjoyed to talk about it with you.  If you do this regularly, you will find your faith life getting stronger.  You will find your relationship with God getting deeper, and you will find yourself understanding more and more about Scripture.

Amen.

On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.

Reformation Series 2: The Word of God

Reformation 2: The Word of God, October 1, 2017

Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Psalm 1, John 1:1-5, 10-14

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

 

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

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

When I was on internship, I had dinner with a member of the congregation.  He had a question, and he wanted to know the answer.  More specifically, he wanted to have a cut-and-dried simple answer to what was actually a very complicated question.  And he wanted to know what the Bible said about it.  But the problem was, it was a complicated issue, and the Bible said a lot of things about it, some of which contradicted or argued with other things the Bible said about it.  There was no way to give a simple, cut-and-dried answer to his question without either twisting or ignoring some of the things the Bible had to say on that particular topic.  And because of that, it was one of those issues where faithful, believing Christians can prayerfully read the Bible and come up with different answers—all of which are really and truly based in the word of God.  So, I explained, it came down to interpretation, and point of view, and what weight we give to the different parts of Scripture.  I told him how I interpreted those passages, and why, but I also told him how other Christians interpret it.

Now, I’ve had conversations like this a lot.  The world is a big, complicated, messy place, and the Bible is a big, complicated, messy collection of books, and God is bigger and greater than anything we can imagine, and that means that there are a lot of places where you just can’t boil God’s Word down into a simple slogan or a verse or two to memorize and regurgitate.  Personally, I find this comforting.  No matter what happens, some other person of faith somewhere has had something like it happen to them, and chances are their story is recorded in the Bible.  And no matter how messed-up the situation is, no matter how closely good and evil are intertwined, no matter what is at stake, we as Christians don’t have to try and force the situation into some sort of one-size-fits-all platitude that ignores a lot of the reality of the situation.

I remember this conversation in particular because by the end of it, we were going around in circles.  See, he really wanted the one-size-fits-all platitude.  More than that, he sort of assumed that the Bible was a textbook for life and faith, and that we as Christians would be graded on how well we knew it.  Just like a textbook in school, where you memorize the right answers and then regurgitate them on the test, and if you have enough right answers memorized you pass and if you don’t you fail.  Except that in this case, “passing” means going to heaven and “failing” means going to hell.  So the idea that things were more complicated than just memorizing the right Bible verse was a problem to him.  It yanked the carpet right out from under his feet.

“But how do you know?” he kept asking.  “How do you know if you’re right?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I replied.  “You trust that the God who inspired the people who wrote the Bible, and who inspired the people who collected it and edited it and copied it and translated will still be with us today as we read it and talk about it and figure out what it means for us today.”

“But what if you’re wrong?” he asked.  “What if you get the wrong answer?”

“You trust in the grace and mercy of God,” I said.  “God isn’t standing there with a clipboard looking for reasons to send people to hell.  God is full of grace and mercy and forgiveness, and if you’re genuinely and honestly trying to be faithful, he will be faithful to you, even if you do mess up.  Everybody messes up, sometimes, and God loves us anyway.”

“But how can you be certain?” he said.

“You can’t,” I said.  “You just have to trust in the grace and mercy of God.”  And on, and on, it went.  He could not accept anything other than a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all answer to his question, because he wanted a simple, easy, one-size-fits-all view of the Bible.  And he put his trust in the Bible so deeply that he had trouble trusting in God.  He thought that if he didn’t have the right answer, if he couldn’t figure it out and know for certain what he was supposed to think and believe, he was in danger.

Ironic, isn’t it?  The Bible is the Word of God!  It’s supposed to point us to God, and help our faith grow!  And yet, paradoxically, sometimes when we put our trust in the Bible, that actually prevents us from trusting in God, because what we’re trusting in is our own ability to figure out the right answer.  (Remember how last week I talked about the temptation to put things other than Jesus Christ at the heart of our faith?  This is another one of them.)

The Word of God is important.  It’s the most important thing there is … but what exactly is the Word of God?  Well, according to John 1, Jesus Christ is the living Word of God.  Jesus Christ is God’s Word become flesh, living among us, full of grace and truth.  Jesus Christ is the Word that God spoke in the beginning, separating out light from darkness and ordering the primordial chaos.  That Word is part of God, together with the Father and the Spirit.  Jesus Christ is the Word through which all things were made, and without Jesus there is neither light nor life.  (As Christians, we believe that Jesus is at the heart of everything.)

So if Jesus Christ is the Living Word of God, what does that mean for the Bible?  Well, the Bible is not the living Word of God.  The Bible is a collection of words about God.  God inspired those words when they were being told and re-told by the ancient Jewish people.  God inspired those words when they were first written down, and when they were gathered together, and when they were edited over the centuries, and when they were copied and handed down, and when they were translated.  At each step of the way, God has been inspiring them and using them to speak to people.  And every time we come together to hear these words and preach and teach using them, God is still here, inspiring us and speaking through those words.  The Bible is special because there is no other collection of writings anywhere in the world that God has spoken through as reliably and as often as God has spoken through the Bible.  But we always have to remember that we don’t worship the Bible.  We worship the God who speaks to us through the Bible, and who also speaks to us through many other ways.  We worship Jesus Christ our Lord, the Living Word of God.

In ancient times, after God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and before leading them into the Promised Land, God gave them the first part of what would come to be the Bible—the laws, commandments, and teachings, that, along with stories of their ancestors in the faith, form the first five books of the Bible.  But while God was giving them all of these words to remember, God gave them something very simple, something that they should always remember, no matter what.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  That’s the core of all those teachings.  That’s the center.  That’s what they were to remember every minute of every day, in everything that they did.  If you remember that, then all the rest of the commandments and teachings and stories are meaningful and life-giving, and lead us to God.  If you forget that, they’re just words on a page.

Martin Luther used to put it this way: Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the manger in which the infant Christ is laid.  We worship God.  And where do we find stories about God?  Where do we find a record of what God has done in, with, and through God’s people?  Where do we find stories of our ancestors in the faith?  Where do we find stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord?  We find them in many places, but the Bible is the best.  God speaks to us through many things: through nature, through works of literature and art, through the community of believers, through many other ways—even science, sometimes.  But the Bible is the way that God has most often and consistently spoken to believers.

Jesus Christ is the Word of God that transforms our lives, saves us from sin and death and all the powers of this world, and raises us from the power of the grave.  God’s Word is the means of grace through which God transforms our lives. Jesus himself is the living Word made flesh. The Bible is the living water through which God nourishes us, so that like trees that can withstand crisis and yet bear fruit, we live lives of faithfulness and love.  Scripture itself doesn’t give life, because life can only come from God.  But scripture is a necessary part of the conditions for a life of faith to grow.  It’s like rain.  Rain is not what makes a seed alive.  But without enough of it at the right times, that seed isn’t going to amount to much.

May the living Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, live in our hearts and minds.  And may the

Amen.

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Day, December 25th, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

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.

I think it’s hard for us modern people to understand the miracle of light in the darkness.  Sure, we get that darkness is bad—you’re a lot more likely to hurt yourself when the lights are out, either by tripping over something or walking into something you didn’t see.  And when it’s dark, the animal part of your brain gets a lot jumpier.  Or, at least mine does.  When I get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water by the light of the nightlights, there is always that bit of my brain that is sure there is something lying in wait to get me in the shadows.  I know perfectly well that there isn’t anything there, under the bed or around the corner, but there’s always a little corner of my mind that just won’t listen to reason.  I know the darkness is bad.

But at the same time, I have light any time I want it.  I can flip on a switch, or turn on my phone, or grab a flashlight.  There are streetlights outside so that I can talk through town even after dark with enough light to see.  And if the power went out for a long time, I’ve got a lot of candles I could dig out.  The only time I ever have to deal with darkness—truly deal with it—is when I want to.  When I choose not to turn the lights on.  But that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have electric lights.  They did have oil lamps … but those were expensive, and a lot dimmer than any modern electric light.  The oil to provide good light for fifteen minutes of work could cost as much as a day’s wages for a poor laborer.  So poor people generally didn’t use lamps at all.  When the sun went down, the only light available was that of the cookfire.  And, since the Middle East is arid and trees are scarce, even wood was expensive.  You didn’t burn it unless you had to; you might only light the fire when you actually had a meal to cook.  If you were a poor person, you went to bed with the sun.  And while middle-class people could afford lamp oil, it was still an expensive and precious commodity.  There were no streetlights, no lamps on peoples’ front porches.  When night came, the light went away.  You went home, probably to bed, and stayed there until dawn.  The darkness could be pushed back a little by a lamp or a cookfire, but only dimly, only temporarily.

So when our Gospel reading calls Jesus the light of the world, that means something far more significant than we really get.  The light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can’t overcome.  This is not just a dim and feeble lamp that you save for when you absolutely need it.  This is a light that shines, always.  That gives light to everyone, not just those huddled around it.  This is a light that shines deep into the gloomiest corners of the world, the murkiest corners of our hearts.  There is no shadow that can hide from it, no evil that can escape it, no hate or fear or selfishness that can prevent that light from shining.  That light sustains our life, sustains our souls.

That light came into this world in the form of a baby, born in a manger, the Word of God made flesh and blood and bone.  That light is Jesus Christ, and his light still shines in this world.  It does not matter how dark the world gets.  It does not matter how much sin and evil try to hide, it does not matter what shadows they try to cast over all the world.  The light of Jesus Christ will always be there, guiding us to God and showing us the truth.  The light of Christ will always be there to soften the hard-hearted and heal the broken-hearted and judge the cruel-hearted.  The light of Christ will always be there to expose our self-deceptions, to quiet our fears, to help us see the world as it really is.  That light helps us to see the truths deeper than any illusion.

Much as we fear the dark, we sometimes turn to it.  Because, you see, the dark is easier.  It’s easier to let our fears control us than it is to be brave.  When dealing with people who are different, it’s easier to hate than it is to love.  It’s easier to cling to comforting illusions and self-deceptions than it is to face the truth.  It’s easier to puff ourselves up with self-righteousness than it is to follow God’s true path of righteousness.  It’s easier to assume we’re always right and good than it is to face the times when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we are wrong.

But the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The light of Christ helps us see God as he truly is, and turns our hearts and minds to God, so that we may become his children ever more truly.  The light of Christ helps us see ourselves and others more clearly.  Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our light and our life.

Amen.

What Makes a Fool

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, July 31st, 2016

Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-31

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.  Amen.

 

Fair warning: I spent the week out at Camp of the Cross where we had Christmas in July, and so I’ve got Christmas on the brain right now.

This parable is often called the parable of the rich fool.  But what is it that makes him foolish?  Is it because he built silos to store his harvest in?  I don’t think so.  As any farmer knows, you don’t use up your harvest all at once.  Particularly if, as in those days, you weren’t selling it to a company and shipping it off far away, but were going to be eating much of it yourself over the course of the year and selling the rest bit by bit as people need it.  Building silos to hold your harvest is not only good common sense, it’s necessary to prevent spoilage, and to prevent pests from devouring your crops.  And God has no problem with good food storage in case of future bad harvests—remember the story of Joseph in Egypt.  The Pharaoh had bad dreams, which Joseph realized were a warning from God about years of famines to come, and it was through that warning and Joseph’s interpretation that allowed the Egyptians to store up supplies of grain to get them through the lean years, and in the end save Joseph’s family, too.  Building barns big enough to hold the harvest was not what made the rich man a fool.

The rich man had managed his land well.  The Bible tells us that the land produced abundantly—the soil was good, there was enough sun and rain, everything working together to produce a bumper crop.  But as any farmer knows, the farmer’s actions in cultivating the crop make a huge difference.  When to plant, when to harvest, what type of crop—even back in the days before things like pesticides and fertilizer sprayers, there was a lot of work that had to be done the right way to get a good crop, even when the weather and the land were perfect. The land that he had inherited was good, and God gave him good weather, that year; but he would still have had to manage it well to get such a wonderful crop.  So it’s not his land husbandry that makes him a fool, either.

No, what makes him a fool is something subtler.  What makes him a fool is that he relies solely on himself, on his own actions, to safeguard himself.  He doesn’t consider his family and community, he doesn’t consider the larger world, and he doesn’t consider God.  It’s all about him.  Him, him, him.  His skills, his fears, his grain, his barns.  What matters to him?  That he, personally, has “enough” that he doesn’t need to worry.  Whose needs does he consider?  Only his own.  Whose advice does he ask?  Only himself.  This guy is the loneliest guy in the entire Bible.  He’s more alone than prophets fasting in the wilderness, because they at least had God with them.  This guy, not so much.  He kind of reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Like Scrooge, he had all the wealth a man could possibly want.  Like Scrooge, he wanted more.  Like Scrooge, he was utterly, completely alone, and he seemed to like it that way.

Notice that the fool is rich when the story begins, and he gets richer.  He shouldn’t have much, if anything, to worry about financially.  He should already be secure enough to take the time off that he so desires to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  But his existing wealth wasn’t enough, he needed more.  Before he could relax, before he could enjoy the fruits of his labors, before he could take the time off to have some fun, he needed to be more than just rich.  He needed to have AMPLE grain and goods for many years stored up neatly.  He needs to have enough so that no matter what happens, even if there are bad harvests for the next twenty years, he’ll still have more than he needs stored up.  Only then will he be able to relax and stop worrying.

It sounds absurd.  But you know what?  They’ve done studies on this.  If you ask someone “how much money would you need to have before you stop worrying about having enough money?”  And you know what?  It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, the answer is usually about 15% more than you have right now.  And if you track people over the course of their life, and their wealth grows so they reach or surpass the wealth they thought they’d need to feel secure?  They still feel they don’t have enough, and that they would need about 15% more in order to not worry about money.  It doesn’t matter how much we have: when we focus on money, when we focus on our own wealth and earnings to make us financially secure, we will always think we don’t have enough.  We will always be craving more, thinking, “if only I had more, then I would be secure and could relax.”  And when we get that “more,” it still isn’t enough.  Because there will always be things in the world that could happen.  We could lose our home in a fire or flood.  We could get hit by a car.  A close loved-one might get a rare disease and need experimental treatments.  No matter how much money we have, we will never have the resources to handle every possible thing the world might throw at us.  Not if we’re relying on ourselves alone.

We were not created to rely on ourselves alone.  We were created for relationships—with God, and with our fellow human beings, and with all creation.  Love is God’s very nature, not as an abstract thing but as actions.  God created us in love, sustains us in love, forgives us in love, and asks that we love one another as he has loved us.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from God; God loves us, and wishes for us to have abundant lives filled with good things.  And one of the ways that God does this is by human relationships.  The kinds of relationships the fool just doesn’t seem to have.

When we see people in need, God tells us, we are supposed to respond.  Both the Old and New Testaments insist upon this point.  God does not give us blessings so that we can hoard them, but so that we can share them.  So, for example, farmers are supposed to leave some of their crop in the field for poor people to glean and for animals to eat.  Merchants are supposed to be scrupulously fair … but they are also supposed to see to it that no one is left destitute because of their practices.  Debts that are too onerous should be forgiven, and no one should ever be left without the basic necessities of life.  Those in the community without resources are to be taken care of.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains it this way: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”  In other words, when I see someone I can help, I’m supposed to do it—and then, when I need help, they help me.  What goes around, comes around, creating a community in which everyone has enough and no one is left out.  And the reason the rich man is a fool is that he can’t see that.  He thinks he can do everything himself, that his own efforts will give him the security that he craves, and so he considers only his own fears and desires.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or wear.  For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.”  The rich man worried about all of that.  He never had enough.  And he spent so much time trying to get enough that he was completely alone.  He never thought about the needs of others; he never thought about what God might be calling him to do with the abundance he had been given.  He never took the time to rest, to relax, to enjoy his life.  And when he finally stopped to smell the roses, it was too late.  What had all that worrying about money gotten him?  Nothing.  He died before he could enjoy the fruits of his labors.  And he died alone.  It’s as if Scrooge had died that first night when Jacob Marley came to visit him.

Money matters.  Food, clothing, housing, all these things matter.  But there are things that matter more: community, for one.  Faith in God, for another.  Healthy, life-giving relationships with God and with our neighbor.  Love, justice, freedom, and peace.  Those are the things that make life worth living.  Those are the very things the rich fool didn’t have, for all his money.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge, he was a slave to his wealth, turning away from all the good things he might have had if only he had opened himself up to God and to those around him, rich and poor alike.  And all his toil, all his worry, all his abundance of possessions didn’t save him in the end.  They couldn’t.  There is only one who saves, and he can’t be bought with money or posessions.

May we put our trust in Jesus Christ, and live abundant lives full of love and justice as he would have us do.

Amen.

Wars and Rumors of War

25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15th, 2015

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

 

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.

Wars and rumors of war. What a thing to read about the Sunday after 43 people were killed in a bombing in Beirut and 128 died in shootings in Paris and the Iraqi Kurds repelled a massive ISIS attack earlier this month. We have certainly had wars and rumors of war. Then Jesus says that there will be earthquakes and famines, too. I don’t know of any famines that are especially bad right now—that doesn’t mean there aren’t famines, just that famines in some places are so “normal” they don’t make the news—but Japan had an earthquake this week that touched off a tsunami. Fortunately, it was a lot smaller than the one a couple of years ago, and the damage was manageable. Jesus’ predictions were right on the money. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because they’ve been right on the money for the last two-thousand years. There have always been wars. There have always been catastrophes. There have always been famines, persecutions, betrayals. These are not signs of the end of the world, Jesus says—the end is still to come. This is what it means that the world is broken by sin and death. God’s kingdom will break in; God’s kingdom, when it comes, will break all the chains of evil, but we’ve got to live in the meantime. Jesus knew what his disciples would have to face, and he knew what we would have to face. And he wanted to give us comfort, cold though it sometimes is, to face it.

Our Gospel reading takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus was taken away and crucified. Jesus was at the height of his influence; his disciples were sure that any day now, a rebellion would begin and Jesus would sweep out the hated Roman oppressors and their toadies, replacing them with his loyal followers. They were high on life; they thought for sure that with Jesus at their side, nothing could touch them. Everything was going to go perfectly, because, after all, he was the Messiah, right? The great palace and temple in Jerusalem would be theirs for the taking—and that was saying something. In Jesus, day, the Temple was a pretty amazing place. It had been built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built by Ezra and Nehemiah, and greatly expanded by King Herod, making it one of the grandest buildings in the Roman Empire. It was huge, and it was grand, and it was glorious. It wasn’t just a building, it was a whole complex—they’d had to build out the top of Mount Zion so that it would fit. It was designed so that all visitors could see the glory of God. But it wasn’t just a pretty building. It wasn’t just the core of Jerusalem. It wasn’t just a place of worship. It was a symbol.

That Temple was the core of Judaism. It was most obviously the center of Jewish religious practices of the day, but it was also the center of Jewish culture and the center of Jewish politics. God could be anywhere, of course, but he was especially present in the Temple. Nothing too terribly bad could happen to the Jews as long as the Temple stood, because it showed that God was with them and they were faithful to God. Being Jewish meant worshiping at the Temple. Take the church building you love the most—multiply that feeling by ten and add to it the feeling you have for every iconic building in Washington, DC—and you can imagine what they felt like. The Temple had withstood invasions, wars, earthquakes, famines, every catastrophe imaginable, and it stood. It would always stand, they believed. Because God was with them, and the Temple was God’s, and God would not let the Temple fall.

The disciples looked in awe at the great and mighty Temple, and one said to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” You can almost hear them nudging each other and giving each other meaningful looks—what’ll it be like to live in the best houses in Jerusalem and come to the Temple every day? What’ll it be like when all this glory and grandeur is theirs? But Jesus knows that, in this life, the Temple will never be theirs. He’s not going to reign in glory in this life, he’s going to be crucified instead. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Now this, to the disciples, was the greatest catastrophe they could imagine. For some, it might have been more than they could imagine. This isn’t just the end of their hopes and dreams, this is the end of their whole people, their culture, their religion, their everything. The Temple, destroyed? The heart of their faith, gone? The proof of God’s presence, smashed? How? When? Why? They pestered Jesus with questions, anxiously needing answers. Would it be part of his battle with the powers that be, after which the Temple would be re-built even grander? Would it be part of the end judgment of the world? What would happen? They wanted names, dates, a firm timeline.

Jesus didn’t give them one. Because the point wasn’t the Temple itself. The Temple would be destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, in retaliation for a failed rebellion. To this day, only a wall remains—the Wailing Wall, where devout Jews go to pray. There’s a Muslim Mosque where the Temple once stood. But that’s not the point. If they focus on the glory, the grandeur, the ambition, they’re going to be totally caught off guard when trouble strikes. The more they imagine that following Jesus will bring only happy fun times, the more devastating it will be when they realize that’s not the case. And the crucifixion was going to happen in just a few days. They needed to face reality, and they needed to face it fast.

Jesus didn’t give them specifics. He gave them words so generic that pretty much every generation since has tried to claim that they applied specifically to that generation—in every age, there are people who believe these words of Jesus’ mean that the end is coming now, here. Because the point isn’t when these things will happen; the point is not to be surprised by them.

There will be people claiming God’s authority and using it wrongly, to promote their own ends, and they will lead many people astray. As a student of history, I can tell you that in the two thousand years since Jesus’ day, there have been many people who have used God’s authority to do evil, and some of them have been very popular. We vilify the Muslims who do this, while forgetting the crimes Christians have committed—and are committing right now, across the globe—in the name of God.

Jesus said there will be wars, and rumors of war. But when has there ever been peace on earth? There hasn’t been peace on earth since Cain slew Abel in Genesis chapter 4. This is part of the way sin corrupts human nature. We hate. We fear. We betray one another. We hurt one another—and then we get together in groups to do it on a larger scale. There will be famines—and boy, howdy, have there been famines. Some of them are caused by weather or blight; some of them are caused by political corruption diverting food from those who need it most. Earthquakes and storms—those happen all the time, too. Have you ever seen one of those half-sheet inserts from Lutheran World Relief asking for money for the disaster du jour and felt nothing but a drained since of déjà vu? I know I have. And as if that isn’t enough, Jesus says, brother will turn against brother and parent against child.

Quite a litany. All of that to go through. Are you feeling depressed, yet? But the point of these words isn’t to be depressing or hopeful. The point is to be ready. Where’s the Good News? Where’s the Gospel in Jesus’ words? Here it is: the end of all this misery is coming, and we don’t have to face the in-between times alone, and no matter what happens between now and then, Jesus will reign. You see, all of these terrible, horrible, evil things? That’s what the world’s been like since sin came into things. That’s “normal” for Planet Earth. At least, that’s what “normal” has been up till now. But it’s not going to stay normal. The world isn’t trapped any longer in a round of one damned-thing-after-another. It may seem that way—particularly when the news media gobbles up every tragedy, hungry for the most grotesque pictures that will shock and titillate the viewer—but it’s not. These evils are no longer meaningless, because the birth pangs have begun. This is not God’s plan for the world. There will be justice, and there will be mercy. Our call as Christians is to live out faithful lives in the meantime, responding to a broken world with love and justice and trust that this is not the end. This is the beginning.

And we don’t have to do it alone. Whether we live ordinary lives in relatively quiet parts of the world or in places where there is actual persecution, we are not alone, for the Holy Spirit is with us. We don’t have to worry about having all the answers, or solving all the problems, or being good enough or strong enough or brave enough or faithful enough. Because no matter what happens, the Holy Spirit will be with us.

And it doesn’t matter how powerful the things of this world seem to be. It doesn’t matter how much damage any country or ruler or terrorist or corporation or politician or anyone else does—they can’t change the fact that this world is God’s world, that Jesus redeemed it with his sacrifice, and that God’s kingdom will come.

Amen.

Living in the Story

Reformation Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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

 

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

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

 

Jesus said to those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Today is Reformation Sunday, the day we celebrate the formation of the Lutheran Church—and all other Protestant Christian groups, such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and all the rest. And continuing in God’s Word was one of the big themes of the Reformation. You see, before the Reformation it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local language. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek; European Christians used a Latin translation for study and worship. But by the 1500s, the only people who understood Latin any more were scholars and priests and nobles. Your ordinary Joe or Jane on the street couldn’t read it, so they couldn’t read the Bible. They knew Bible stories—they knew the stories backwards and forwards. The stories got told and re-told, used as the basis of plays and songs and such. But only the church hierarchy read them directly from the Bible, and so only the church hierarchy could interpret God’s Word. Everyone else just had to accept what the priests and bishops told them.

This was to protect people from error, the church said. I’m sure many of you have had times when you are talking with someone about the Bible, and they come up with something that is completely out of left field, something that goes contrary to everything you believe about God’s Word. Well, if only the clergy can read the Bible—if ordinary people can’t read it, much less study it—that can’t happen, because the church is in control. (This assumes, of course, that the church hierarchy will always interpret God’s Word correctly.) This was a matter of theology; it was about saving souls by protecting them from error. But it was also about protecting the church’s power. And so throughout Europe it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local languages of English, German, and all the rest. And by illegal, I mean it was a capital crime. William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible. John Wycliffe died of natural causes, but they dug up his body from its grave, burned it, and scattered his ashes in the river. And the only reason they didn’t kill Luther for translating the Bible into German was because he went into hiding until enough powerful people listened to his message that he would be safe. All for the crime of wanting people to be able to read the Bible. Wanting people to be able to dwell in God’s Word.

We take it for granted these days. We have Bibles everywhere, many different translations, which many of us don’t read as much as we think we should. Imagine what Wycliffe or Tyndale or Luther would have thought of that! I’m sometimes guilty of not reading my Bible as I should myself. But I want to back up, a little bit, and think about what Jesus meant when he said we should continue in his Word. Because even when we read the Bible, I think we sometimes miss the point, a little bit.

The word translated here as “continue” is “menw” which also means remain, dwell, abide. Later in the Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him and he will abide in them? The word he uses, that’s translated “abide”? That’s menw. And in today’s lesson, when he says the slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household but the son has a place forever? The word he uses to talk about remaining in the household is “menw”. It means live, stay, continue, dwell. Literally, it means to pitch a tent. This is the word you use when you want someone to pull up a chair, crack open a nice cold can of soda, and get comfortable. It’s not just about plodding through it, or about carrying something around with you. It’s about staying somewhere, building something.

That’s the way, Jesus says, we should approach his Word. But do we? All too often, when people use the Bible, it’s in a fairly shallow and superficial way. We read it because we’re supposed to, memorize bits of it as lists of rules or quotes to stick on things, and then promptly forget about it, God’s Word lost in the busy-ness of our everyday lives. We pull it out when we can use it to prove we’re right and someone else is wrong. We pull it out on special occasions. But we don’t live in it. We don’t dwell in it. We don’t pitch the tent of our lives in it.

I think back to those medieval peasants who couldn’t read the Bible. They never read it, but they turned out in droves to watch plays based on it, they sang about it, they wrote poems about those stories that they had heard and seen, they let those stories fill their hearts and minds. We have the precious gift of being able to read God’s word directly, yet we seldom take it as seriously.

Scientists tell us that human beings think in stories. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are shape how we think and speak and act. The stories we tell about other people shape how we treat them. The stories we tell about life and the world guide how we live our lives. Think about your favorite TV show, book, or movie: think about how it moves you. Think about how you care about the characters. Think about that sense of rightness you feel when something happens that fits with the world as you understand it—or when something in your real life echoes something you saw or read. When a story affects us powerfully, we will look for things in our life that confirm that story as true. We will see patterns that connect to that story, even if they’re not really there and the story is fiction. If you tell someone a fact, and then tell them a false story that contradicts the fact, they will believe the story even though they know it’s a lie. This is how a lot of politicians operate. If you tell a story often enough, people will believe it even if it’s a lie. You know those stories you hear about people using food stamps to buy iPads and things? Those are lies; you literally cannot use food stamps to buy those, the debit card only works in grocery stores and even then not all departments of the grocery store. But it doesn’t matter how often you point this out, people believe the stories instead of the facts. Because stories, even false stories, are more powerful than facts. If even TV shows, movies, and books can do that—if even the lies politicians tell can do that—imagine what dwelling in God’s Word can do.

We have the truest story of all, the story of how God created the cosmos, and us, how God chose us and called us and saves us, the story of God acting in the lives of God’s people throughout history. We call it the Bible. What would it be like if we let that story be as real to us, as important to us, as the stories we watch on TV? If we spent as much time thinking about those stories as we do thinking about Game of Thrones or The Office or NCIS? How would that shape us as people of God? And how could we even do that?

It’s not about reading, or not just about reading. It’s about opening yourself up to the story. Who are the people in the story, and how are they like us? How are they different from us? What would you have done, if you were there with them?   Even if the only time you read the Bible is when you’re in church, you can do that. Listen actively, and put yourself in the story. Because you are a part of the story—God’s Word didn’t stop when the last words of the Bible were written. God is still speaking to us today, through the Bible but also sometimes through our experiences in the world. Let’s take the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” as an example. Now, you may have heard that Martin Luther based on Psalm 46, which we read today, and if so, you probably were confused, because there are some pretty big differences between the two. First off, there are no “mighty fortresses” in the Psalm; instead, the psalmist talks about God as “our refuge and strength.” And “A Mighty Fortress talks a lot about the Devil and about Jesus, neither of which are mentioned in the Psalm.

But let’s consider Martin Luther’s world. It was a VERY dangerous time. The Ottoman Empire—which ruled Turkey—kept invading up into Europe, getting as far as Hungary and Austria, which are pretty close to Germany, where Luther lived. There was religious violence, civil war—you name it, they had it. What kind of refuge and strength did people need in Luther’s day? A big huge fortress to protect them from rampaging armies. So that’s what Luther wrote about. And Luther really struggled with the devil’s influence—he had dreams and nightmares about Satan all the time. So that’s another thing that God was his refuge from, another thing that God gave him strength to deal with. He read Psalm 46 and saw himself in it, and in “A Mighty Fortress” he wrote about what God was doing there in 16th Century Germany. Luther knew that he was a part of God’s story, the stories of the Bible.

The story isn’t over. The story will never be over, and we are a part of it. The stories in the Bible didn’t just happen to people with funny names in funny clothes a long time ago; the stories in the Bible are our stories, too. We are a part of them, and they are a part of us. Whether you read your Bible a lot or a little, remember that you are a part of the story.

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.

Don’t Panic!

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27, Luke 1:26-28, 46b-55

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.

On the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the words DON’T PANIC are inscribed in large friendly letters. I have often thought that if the angels in the Bible were turned into books, they, too, would have “DON’T PANIC” written on their covers. It is, after all, the first thing most of them say when they greet someone. Gabriel was no exception to this trend. He greeted Mary, and said, “Do not be afraid!” Or, in the slightly more poetic words of the King James Version, “Fear not!” But “Don’t Panic!” is actually also not a bad translation.

Which begs the question, why do angels have to go around telling people this, right off the bat? Part of the reason, I think, is that angels are awesome beings in the old meaning of the term: awe-inspiring and terrible and the sort of thing that makes a person realize just how small they are in the grand scheme of things, and how great the angel is. But the other part of the reason, is that anybody who’s read their Bibles and paid much attention to God’s work around them should be afraid whenever God’s messenger shows up with a mission for them. At the very least, we should be nervous. Because think about it: if God wants us to do something we already want to do or are interested in doing, he wouldn’t need to send an angel or a dream or anything like that. We’d already be doing it! And if it’s something mildly inconvenient, a nudge in the right direction can usually get us pointed in the right direction. We only need angels when we God wants something we would never in a million years choose to do on our own. Something hard, and messy, something that will upset our neighbors or make us look bad, something that will take us in directions we don’t want to go.

Take Mary, for example. We know, looking back on things, just what an important part of God’s work she was. We can see the whole sweep of history. We can see what God was doing in and through her, how God had chosen her to be his mother, to bear the Christ child in her womb and bring him into the world, to raise him and care for him until he was old enough to start his ministry, and set himself on the path to be killed so that the world might live. We know, looking back, that God’s salvation is going to come through her in a very literal way. And we know that she will be honored and admired for two thousand years for her faith and her willingness to follow God’s commands.

And all that can blind us to what she was being asked to do. She was being asked to bear a child out of wedlock. And you all know what life in a small town is like. Even if she told people her baby was God’s child, who would have believed her? No, everyone would gossip about what she did. And that gossip wouldn’t just last for a little while and die down. It would last for years. Decades. Even if she later became a respectable wife and mother, you know that people would still talk about her behind her back. Any time her future children did anything wrong people would shrug and say, “well, you know what their mother did.” And that assumes that any man would have been willing to marry her, a known adultress.

That’s the other thing. Mary was engaged, which in those days was a far more solemn and meaningful thing than it is today. The word ‘betrothed’ captures it much better. There was a legal contract between her and Joseph, and to break that contract—that agreement to marry—they would have needed a divorce. Once she and Joseph became betrothed, for either of them to have sex with someone else was considered adultery. Joseph could have divorced her for it, and then she would have been on her own, trying to support and raise a child by herself in a world that was a lot harder on women than our world today is. Not only that, but if Joseph wanted, he could have charged her with a crime: adultery was punishable by stoning. That is, adulterers who were caught were taken to the center of town and people threw rocks at them until they were killed. Now, Joseph was a nice guy, and Mary had to know that he wouldn’t do it—the Gospel of Matthew tells us that he had already decided to divorce her quietly instead of having her stoned, before God told him what to do—but Joseph could have. He would have been well within his rights.

All this pain and heartache, all this trouble and danger, and for what? A special baby. But how special? Sure, we know that salvation for the world would come through that baby; we know that he would be God made flesh. But did Mary? When the angel told her, “hey, this is really important!” could she have imagined just how important it was going to be? I don’t think so. Nobody at the time understood just what Jesus meant; you can see them, all through the Gospels and the Epistles, figuring things out and missing the point half the time before finally getting it right. Think about the disciples—Jesus told them all about his mission, about why he was doing what he was doing, and he told them about his own death and resurrection, but it wasn’t until after his resurrection that they were able to look back at everything he’d told them and go, “Oh, I get it!” And Mary had even less to go on than the disciples did. A few lines from an angel, that’s all, telling her that God is going to use her to do something big and important that will cost her dearly. How could she possibly have understood it all?

So God was going to do something big through her, that’s great. But the consequences were dire. I mean, if I were her, I would have been saying, “No offense God, I’m really honored that you’ve chosen me to do this, but the timing isn’t very good. How about we put it off a year until after the wedding?” How often does God call us to do something, and we say, “Gee, God, the timing isn’t right—it can’t possibly work that way—how about we do something different instead?” Because Mary isn’t the only person who’s ever gotten a tough job from God. A job they didn’t want. Mary questioned it, but in the end she agreed to do it. She would take the consequences; she would do something the world just wouldn’t understand. Something even she doesn’t really understand. But she trusts God to know what he’s doing. She wants the salvation the angel promises. She wants God’s kingdom to come. So she takes the leap of faith even knowing that it’s going to be hard.

When the angel comes to her Mary starts off confused and afraid: first, what God’s talking about seems impossible. After all, babies don’t spontaneously happen. The angel responds by saying God will take care of the details; God’s power will do what God has said. Okay, fine. She accepts that. I think that may be the most surprising thing of all, because even devout Christians doubt God’s power. They feel God calling them to do something, but instead they listen to the little voice in the back of their head that says “well, that would take a miracle—I just don’t think it’s possible,” and so they don’t do anything. Mary had that voice, that doubt, but she didn’t let it drown out her faith.

Then the angel, who has given her this huge mission that’s going to be pretty rough on her, tells her about Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth, who was also going through an unexpected God-given pregnancy. Elizabeth, who could support Mary and give her love and help that the rest of the community wouldn’t. Mary had a special role, Mary had a hard road ahead of her, but she didn’t have to walk it alone. God gave her helpers along the way. Her cousin Elizabeth, her husband Joseph—both got instructions to help Mary, and both would heed that call from God. They would stand by her even when the rest of the world didn’t. God rarely gives us solitary missions. When God calls us to action, when God gives us a task to do, God often provides helpers, confidants, support systems. They may not be the ones we’d choose on our own, but they’re there.

And that’s when Mary says yes. She’s been given her mission, assured that it’s really important and that God will do the heavy lifting, and that she won’t be alone. She may be ostracized in the community but she’ll still have someone with her who believes her and cares for her. And that’s when Mary says yes. Her doubts and fears may still be there—she still doesn’t understand why this is necessary and what it’s going to mean for the world—but she trusts that God will take care of the details. And you know what? He did!

Like Mary, we, too, are called by God, as individuals and as groups. We are given tasks, missions, things to do—it’s part of being a disciple. Sometimes those tasks are small—giving a hug when someone needs it, for example. Sometimes they’re pretty big. Sometimes, we do them without realizing we’re doing God’s work, and sometimes God has to nudge or poke us to get us moving. Sometimes, when it’s really big and really hard, people get angels like Mary did. (And sometimes we don’t recognize those angels for what they really are.) But we are all called by God to be his hands and feet in the world. When you realize God is calling you, take a page from Mary’s book. First, don’t panic. Don’t be afraid. It may be hard, but God will not let you do it alone, and God will help. Second, it’s okay to have doubts and questions. It’s okay to wonder how in the world it’s ever going to happen. Mary did, after all. Third, look for the people God has given you to help support you. Then take a deep breath, and say yes.

Amen.

Seeing through God’s eyes

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 20), Year A, August 17, 2014

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

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.

Our Gospel reading for today is a hard one. It goes against everything Jesus says and does elsewhere in the Gospels, and it goes against a lot of things in the Old Testament. For example, in our first lesson from Isaiah, God tells the people that not only will he save the outcasts of Israel—the people who are already part of God’s people but who aren’t allowed to participate for whatever reason—God will also save the foreigners, people outside of Israel. God tells his people that the day of salvation is coming, and in the meantime they should maintain justice and remember that God’s promise was for everyone who believed, not just a chosen few, not just the insiders. That’s God’s goal, God’s mission: to save everyone. As for the New Testament, Jesus spent a lot of his time with the poor, the outcasts, the sinners, the foreigners, the ones outside the boundaries. The sort of people that good Jews were not supposed to hang out with. He healed everyone who came to him for healing, no matter who they were or where they were from or what kind of people they were. Everyone, Jew or Gentile, sinner or saint, male or female, was healed. Jesus welcomed everyone even when it was going to get him in trouble. He did it when it was going to make his mission harder, when it was going to make the rich and powerful among his own people turn their backs on him and attack him. He did welcomed everyone even when his own disciples, his closest friends, were urging him not to. Because he saw through God’s eyes and knew that everyone was a child of God. Jesus opened his arms to everyone, no matter who they were or where they came from, no exceptions. He welcomed everyone. He poured out his life and died for everyone. He rose for everyone.

Except for the story told in this reading. In this reading, a foreign woman—a Canaanite, one of Israel’s ancient enemies—comes to him on her knees to beg healing for her daughter. This is the only time Jesus ever met someone in need of healing and tried to avoid healing them. And Jesus not only says “no,” he calls her a dog. Say what? This does not sound like Jesus at all. Remember, dogs were not considered man’s best friend in the ancient world. Dogs weren’t the family pet that everyone dotes on. Dogs were the dirty unclean things that ate all the disgusting stuff that people threw out. Calling someone a dog was a much worse insult for them than it is for us. This does not sound like God’s mission of salvation and healing and justice and reconciliation as proclaimed in both the Old and New Testaments. This sounds like ordinary, everyday human bigotry, preventing Jesus from spreading God’s healing and God’s Word. If the encounter ended there, with the disciples ignoring her and Jesus calling her a dog, do you think this woman would be very likely to become a follower of God? No. It’s a lot more likely that she would have gone home and told everybody about how horribly that Jesus guy treated her. She came for healing, and he insulted her and sent her away. Instead of spreading faith, that would spread disbelief. That would get in the way of God’s mission of justice and salvation.

To me, the problem with Jesus’ first response to the Canaanite woman is that it’s human. Too human. Humans like to draw nice neat categories—us vs. them. People who matter vs. people who don’t. The disciples do it all the time. When other pious Jews (their own people) challenge them, the disciples want to go along with them even if that goes against what Jesus is trying to teach. But the disciples consistently tried to avoid, discourage, or even attack non-Jews or people of low social status. When a Jewish town rejected Jesus, they just left quietly. When a Samaritan town rejected Jesus, the disciples wanted to call down hellfire and brimstone and destroy the town and everyone in it. Because, you see, the Samaritans weren’t members of the “in” group. They weren’t the children of the house of Israel, even though they claimed to be and worshipped the same God. They were the ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And the Canaanites, too, were ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And, here’s the thing: you and I? We’re not children of the House of Israel, either. Not in the sense that Jesus means here. The children of the House of Israel are the Jews. When Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog because she’s not Jewish, we’re all included in that. We like to think of ourselves as the children, the insiders, but we’re not. We’re the dogs, in this metaphor. The nasty, dirty, smelly animals, rooting around in the garbage.

This is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus shows any kind of ordinary human prejudice. The only time he falls into the “us vs. them” mentality that humans do every day. And I think it’s because of who and what Jesus is. We tend to focus on his divinity: Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is God, the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. We tend to forget the fact that Jesus was also truly human. He was fully God, but he was also fully Human at the same time. He had to be. He could not have saved us if he hadn’t been. Like us, Jesus was human, a person of flesh and blood just like any of us. It was through his humanity, through becoming one of us, that God was able to reach out and join us to himself. It’s through Jesus’ humanity that we are united with him, and through Jesus’ divinity that we are pulled from brokenness and death into life.

Part of being human is being limited. Finite. Not knowing all the answers, and making mistakes because of it. There are only a handful of times in the Gospels that Jesus shows us his limits. Later on in the Gospels, when he speaks of the end times, his disciples will ask him when the Day of the Lord will come, and Jesus says he doesn’t know, that only the Father knows. I think this is another time when Jesus’ humanity shows through. Jesus grew up Jewish, amid the same prejudices that his disciples did. Prejudices against Canaanites, for one. And here he is, face-to-face with a Canaanite for the first time, and the prejudice comes out without thinking about it. But when she challenges him on it, he backs up. He realizes that those prejudices are wrong. He knew he was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but he apparently hadn’t realized that he was sent to all lost sheep, everywhere, of every tribe and nation. He realizes that all people are God’s children, not just the people he is a part of. He praises her great faith—greater than the disciples, whose faith is always pretty low. He gives her what he wants. He stops seeing her through the prejudices of his culture and starts seeing her through God’s eyes. And ever after, he gives his time and healing freely to all people. Not just the children of the house of Israel, but all people, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, clean or unclean, sinner or saint. To people like us, and to people not like us. To insiders, and to those we want to keep out in the cold.

What prejudices do we have that are blinding us to God’s mission for us? What prejudices do we use to divide people into us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders, people worthy of God’s love and God’s message, and people who aren’t? It might almost be easier to list what prejudices we don’t have. Race, color, gender, sex, politics—Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America. We’re like the disciples, who think God’s message is only for the good people like us who deserve it. Who think God’s justice is only for the good people like us who deserve it. When I was thinking about prejudice this week, there were several examples of it happening right now that jumped right out at me.

One is the refugee children on the border. Children are coming to our country, fleeing for their lives. Yet because they are from another country, and they don’t speak our language or look like us, there are a lot of people who want to send them home where they will almost certainly be killed. They’re the dogs who we think don’t even deserve the scraps off of America’s table. Then there’s Ferguson, Missouri. A week ago Saturday, a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenage boy in the back for walking in the wrong place. When the police wouldn’t release any information or even apologize to the boy’s family, the black community protested and held candlelight vigils, demanding justice. The cops—almost all of whom are white—showed up with machine guns, snipers, armored vehicles, and tear gas. As one former member of the 82nd Airborne division put it, “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone.” Pictures coming out of Ferguson look more like the streets of Egypt or Syria than the US, except instead of Islamic fundamentalists vs. ordinary people, it’s white cops against black community members who just want to know why their child was murdered. How much of God’s work do you think is being done in Ferguson right now? Can you hear people asking for help and healing and justice, and being insulted instead?

Here in North Dakota, I most often hear prejudice about Native Americans and oil field workers. People gossip about all the bad things they do, and ignore the good parts. We talk about their flaws, but don’t acknowledge the struggles and hardships they’re dealing with. We don’t reach out to them; we don’t welcome them; and we don’t invite them to church with us. It’s us-vs.-them. The children of God vs. the outsiders. And, like Jesus in the Gospel lesson, our first instinct is to exclude them. We think to ourselves, it’s not fair to take the children’s food—our food—and throw it to the dogs. And so human prejudice prevents the spreading of God’s justice, God’s healing, God’s love, and God’s Word.

May we, like Jesus, learn to see with God’s eyes instead of our own prejudices. And may we learn to give God’s love, God’s healing, and God’s Word to all people.

Amen.

God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18), Year A, August 3, 2014

Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

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

 

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

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

Isaiah writes: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And from our Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus takes two loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds thousands of people with many baskets of food left over. These are just two of many places in the Bible where God provides food and water miraculously, or promises to do so. In the creation stories, the first home of humanity was a garden with abundant food. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and needed water, God created a new stream, gushing from a rock. When the wandering Israelites were hungry, God gave them manna and quails to eat. The prophet Elijah came upon a widow who was starving in a famine, and God provided for them by making her jug of oil and jar of flour never run low. Jesus helped the disciples catch lots of fish. Throughout the Bible, the most common image used to describe the kingdom of God is a feast. You want to know what heaven’s like? According to the Bible, it’s a party with lots of good food.

When you put all of these different passages together, we can safely say that God likes feeding people. God loves feeding people. God spends a lot of time and effort seeing to it that people have enough, and even more than enough. God provides abundantly. God gave his only son to save sinners, to give the world the true Bread of Life. Jesus Christ gave his own body and blood to nourish the world. God gives without counting the cost; God gives extravagantly. When God sees a need, in body or soul, God gives.

So why don’t we live in a world of abundance? If God wants people to be fed, why is there hunger? Why is there starvation? It’s true that God’s good creation is broken by sin and death, and so that there will be problems in the way the world works until Christ comes again, but why, specifically, do people go hungry? Why is it that even in America, one of the richest nations on Earth, there are seven million households where people regularly go hungry because they can’t afford food? Why are there people here in North Dakota—including children—who don’t have enough to eat?

Each of our two readings gives an answer. In Matthew, the disciples see that there is a large crowd, and they’re getting hungry. So they go to Jesus and ask him to send the crowds away so they can find food. Jesus tells them no—there’s no need for the crowd to go away. “You give them something to eat,” he tells his disciples. The disciples protest. “We don’t have enough!” they say “We can’t possibly do that. There’s only five loaves and two fish. It’s not enough.” There isn’t enough. That’s the way human beings tend to think. We believe there isn’t enough to go around. We don’t tend to believe that God can and will provide. God gives abundantly, but we fear scarcity more than we trust God’s bounty. In the case of the disciples, they’ve been watching Jesus heal people and perform miracles all day. But providing food … it doesn’t even occur to them that Jesus could do that, and when they are told to feed people in his name, they balk. We can’t. We don’t have enough.

In the case of the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples’ belief in scarcity caused only a momentary pause before Jesus stepped in and provided the miracle of abundance. But a belief in scarcity can do far more damage than that. When we believe that things are scarce, that there isn’t enough to go around, the natural response is to hoard and keep things for ourselves. We have to be sure that we and those we love will have enough! If there’s only so much to go around, we need to make sure that the right people get it. And as for everyone else, well, life just isn’t fair. When we believe in scarcity, the rich and powerful focus on accumulating more and more even at the expense of others. When we believe in scarcity, ordinary people are less likely to help those who need it. When we believe in scarcity, we are more likely to be guided by fear and selfishness than love.

One of the things we do, when we focus on scarcity, is to try and decide who deserves to be helped and who doesn’t. We’ll put in place elaborate and expensive systems to make sure that only the right people get help. And we tend to be so afraid of people cheating the system that some people will use it as an excuse not to help anyone at all. But notice that the food isn’t only for the worthy people. Everyone in the crowd got fed. I’m sure there were some people who had more than enough money to buy their own food. I’m sure there were others who were lazy or alcoholics or just all around nasty people, who didn’t deserve to receive a miracle, who didn’t deserve a free meal. But Jesus never separated anyone out. Everyone who was there got fed, whether they needed it or not, whether they deserved it or not. That’s what grace is. We talk about the grace of God, but I don’t think we always pay attention to what it means. Grace means love and forgiveness and good things given to people who don’t deserve it. Grace is God reaching out to sinners, Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. Grace is God’s abundant love, overflowing for everyone. Listen again to Isaiah: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! You who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Everyone. All people. This is not just good news for the good people. This is good news for everyone.

There are regular events throughout the year where pastors from our Synod gather for one reason or another, and usually there is a time for us to talk and share what’s going on in our different corners of Western North Dakota. Many of the pastors from the oil field have the same story, and they tell it time after time. You see, we hear of all the money going through the oil patch, but there has also been an increase in poverty. Prices of housing have gone up so much that even people with what used to be good jobs can’t pay the rent. And so many of the newcomers are isolated, alone, desperately in need of human connection. There is so much to be done in Jesus’ name, from giving out food and help with emergencies, to building playgrounds for children so that the new children have safe places to play—all kinds of ministries that those churches are being called to. Each one of those ministries takes money, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. And the members of those congregations have the money! Many of them are making quite a lot of money from oil royalties in addition to their normal salaries. Enough to buy a brand-new RV every year, or go to Europe every year, without counting the cost. Yet when the congregation asks for just a small portion of that money to minister to the desperate needs of the community, they balk. “Why should we have to be the ones to pay? Let someone else do it. It’s not our problem. We’ve earned this money; we’ve had hard times, and now times are good, so we’re going to have fun.”

Or consider the situation down on America’s southern border, where thousands of children have fled from extreme danger, seeking safety. The streets of Columbia and other central American nations are more dangerous today than the streets of Iraq were at the height of the war. Gangs, fueled by drug money, give children as young as ten two choices: join us, or die. In desperation, their parents give them what money they can and send them north, across thousands of miles, because it is their only chance of survival. And how do some Americans respond, when they see these children? They complain about the cost of feeding them, and want to send them back to almost certain death back in their native land. After all, they’re not our children, and feeding and housing them is expensive! And we don’t want other people to think that America might be a safe place to come.

When the disciples saw a need, when they saw that people were hungry, they tried to figure out how to do something about it. They wanted to send people home to buy food. Jesus told his disciples to give them food instead. The disciples didn’t think they had enough, but Jesus proved them wrong. Even a very little, given in Jesus’ name, can give big results. But the more we focus on our own needs, on our fears of not having enough, the more we want to hoard what we have. And so you end up in a situation where there is more than enough resources in the community that nobody should be going hungry, but the people who control the money won’t even acknowledge that there is a need—much less that they should do something about it.

Contrast this with a church up near Bottineau. They studied and prayed about what God was calling them to do, and they decided that God was calling them to step up in the community and provide for the needs that nobody else was. They decided to trust that God would provide enough for them to do this, and sent out a call into the community asking what people needed. The Monday after they decided to go ahead with this project, the pastor got a call. There was a single mother in town whose car had just died. The family was poor; the car couldn’t be fixed and she couldn’t afford to buy even a used car. But without a car, she couldn’t get to work. So she needed a new car. Could the church help? The pastor gulped. A car is a big-ticket item, even a used one. For a little bit, she faltered. Surely, God couldn’t provide that much. But she decided to take it on faith that God could, and she posted the need on the church’s Facebook page. By the end of the day, a reliable used car had been found, and the money raised to purchase it and register it. They trusted in God to provide a miracle of abundance, and God did.

The disciples saw a need. They saw that people were hungry, and they wanted to do something about it. But even when Jesus told them to feed the people, they didn’t think they could. They had seen Jesus working miracles all day but they didn’t trust that he could help them help others. “We don’t have enough,” they said. Yet God provided enough, and more than enough. God provided abundantly for everyone there, rich and poor, good and bad. God provided, and no one went hungry. It makes me wonder: what are the needs in our community? Where are the places in Underwood and Washburn where people have needs that aren’t being met? What things is God calling us to do that we shrug aside because we don’t think we can do anything about it? May the God of abundance, who gives his own body for our bread and his own blood for wine, who gives miracles of abundance, so guide and nourish our hearts and minds that we may, like the disciples, be instruments of his grace.

A little like this, a little like that

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 16), Year A, July 20, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25,  Matthew 13:24-43

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.

If you were travelling, and you met someone who had spent their entire life in a big city and never seen the countryside, never even seen a picture of a farm, had no clue where that steak dinner came from, and they asked you what life on a farm was like, how would you answer? How would you help them understand the total dedication it takes, the days when you work sun-up to sun-down for weeks, to get the crop in? How would you help them to feel the frustration at a broken-down tractor when you’re almost done seeding and the satisfaction of looking out and seeing a field planted? How would you show them what it means to be totally dependent on the weather, the hope and the fear as you watch the skies and listen to the weather report each day? How would you make the isolation real to them, the knowledge that there’s no one around for miles to help if something goes wrong? How would you show them the beauty of standing in a field under the open sky and soaking in the beauty of God’s creation? How would you help them to know the smell of dirt in spring, the heat of the sun in the summer, the crisp bite in the air on a fall day, the endless slog of snow-plowing in winter, and the constant blowing of the wind in all four seasons? How would you convey to them what it means to be rooted in a place, as so many of us are rooted in North Dakota? How could you make it real to them? Would it even be possible?

There’s an old story about some blind people who were taken to feel an elephant, and try to figure out what it was. One of them was standing at the elephant’s backside, and felt the tail. “It’s a snake!” he said. Another was at the elephant’s head, and felt the trunk. “It’s a tree!” she said. “No, you’re both wrong,” said another, feeling the elephant’s side. “It’s a wall!” None of them, by themselves, could figure out what it was, this thing that was a little like a snake and a little like a tree and a little like a wall. But by putting all those together, they were able to figure out what it must be.

That’s what Jesus is trying to do with the parables. No human being has ever seen the Kingdom of heaven. No human being has seen what the reign of God will look like. So, in Matthew chapter 13, Jesus tries to explain it by telling a series of parables. “It’s a little like this, and a little like that,” he says. By painting one picture after another with his words, Jesus was trying to help us to visualize something we haven’t seen. We’re like the city kids with no concept of what farm life is like. Each of the images Jesus uses tells us a little bit of what a part of God’s reign is like. When you put them all together, you get a much fuller, richer picture than any of them by themselves.

So what is the kingdom of God like? Last week, we heard that it’s like seed sown on all different kinds of ground, good and bad alike. This week, we hear several more parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a field where the master sowed good grain and an enemy sowed weeds. But since they’re all mixed together, the weeds can’t be taken out until the harvest time. But the kingdom of heaven is also like yeast—a little bit of yeast gets mixed in with the rest of the dough until all of the dough is leavened and yeasty. And the kingdom of heaven is like a very small seed which grows into a big bush, making a home for birds.

Think of the parable of the yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that gets mixed in with flour and water and oil to make bread. You can’t make regular bread without yeast, but you only need a very little bit of yeast mixed in. Even just a little yeast will have a dramatic effect on the other ingredients. You mix them together until you can’t possibly separate them out, and the yeast turns the dough into a loaf. It transforms the whole thing, all the flour and salt and water and oil and seasonings and any other ingredients. Just a little bit goes a long way. God is like a woman baking bread, putting a little bit of yeast in things to transform them into something new and wonderful. Imagine the smell of fresh-baked bread coming right out of the oven. That’s what the kingdom of God is like. All the parts of us, good and bad, are transformed by the yeast that is the kingdom of God, just like all the ingredients in the bread are transformed by the yeast. All people, good and bad, are transformed by God’s kingdom just as the dough is transformed by the yeast.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed. It starts out small, and gets big. The funny thing about this one is that we kind of expect that a mustard seed would be grown to get the mustard, the spice and seasoning, the thing that benefits humans. It’s why we grow mustard plants, right? Because we like to eat mustard. Yet when Jesus uses it as a parable of the kingdom, his point is not what humans can make of it but what birds can make of it—a home for their nests. The kingdom of heaven grows, and it benefits all of creation, not just humans. It is a shelter and a home for all creation, including the birds. It grows larger than we would have thought. It starts small, but it has a big impact. And that impact affects more things than we could imagine.

Think about the parable of the wheat and the weeds. I would be willing to bet quite a lot that when I read this passage, many of you focused on the fire—that the weeds, the sinners, will be cast out into Hell. And you probably have quite detailed imaginations of what that might be like. After all, Christians throughout the centuries have been focused on Hell, with lots of art and poetry and songs discussing what it’s like and who’s going to go there. I would be willing to bet that some of you are sitting here right now wondering who’s in and who’s out, who’ll go to heaven and who’ll go to hell.

The problem is, that’s not what the parable—any of these parables—is about. They’re about heaven, not hell. In fact, Jesus actually talks very little about hell in the Gospels, and it’s never even mentioned in the Old Testament. We focus on Hell a lot, but the Bible doesn’t. The point of the parables in today’s lesson is to assure the listeners that the evil in the world is not part of God’s plan, and will not be part of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom, which transforms and brings to life and gives good to all of creation. When we see weeds, when we see evil, we don’t need to worry—it will not be allowed into God’s kingdom. It is not part of God’s plan for the world. All the pain and brokenness and problems in the world are not part of God’s plan, and even when we can’t dig them out and get rid of them in this life—even when they’re too firmly rooted in the good parts of life to get rid of them—they are not going to get to stay forever.

We hear this parable and other parables about judgment, and we think of who won’t make it into God’s kingdom. Sometimes that makes us happy, if they’re people we don’t like. Sometimes that makes us sad, if they’re people we love. Christians have spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out. And we like to think of Heaven as an exclusive club with St. Peter as a bouncer. Yet even in the judgment, this parable goes against that view. For one thing, the weeds aren’t just people—Jesus explains that the weeds are, first and foremost, all the causes of sin. In other words, all the things in each one of us that make us hurt people, all the things in us that drag us down and poison our hearts and minds and souls, all those weeds that choke the life out of the good seed that God has planted in us, those will be taken out of us and thrown onto the burn pile. It’s not simply a matter of separating out good people and bad people; it’s a matter of taking the badness out of people. That badness can’t exist in God’s kingdom, so God will take it out. And yeah, there will be some people who, when you take out all the evil in them, there’s nothing left. But the fire isn’t there because God likes hurting people who don’t shape up, and it’s not there to torment people eternally. Think of it like a burn pile on a farm: the farmer doesn’t keep a burn pile to torment the weeds for all eternity, just to get rid of them. The fire is there to dispose of the parts of us that just can’t stay in God’s kingdom. And God plants the good seed of God’s kingdom everywhere, in good soil and bad, and rejoices in even the smallest response.

God’s kingdom is greater than we can imagine. It’s full of hope, and full of surprises. It transforms us, it transforms the world, and makes something new and good. It is stronger than any evil in the world, and it grows into new life for all. Thanks be to God.

The Soil and the Sower

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 15), Year A, July 13, 2014

Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 65, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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.

The Parable of the Sower is one of the great parables, a classic. In the cycle of readings for the church year that Lutherans follow, we hear it in worship once every three years. Most of the sermons I’ve heard on this point go something like this: the good soil, the one without rocks and weeds and thorns, will receive the seed which is God’s Word and God’s Word will grow abundantly in that good soil. So be the good soil!

There’s just one problem with that. I know we have a lot of farmers and gardeners here, so this is my question: have you ever seen soil get rid of rocks and thorns on its own? Raise your hand if you’ve ever seen soil turn itself from bad, rocky soil, to good soil. Yeah, that’s about what I thought. I’ve spent many hours working in my mother’s garden, pulling weeds and killing encroaching blackberry vines and digging out rocks and preparing the soil and tending it, and I have never seen the soil change itself. I’ve seen rocks work their way up from beneath when I didn’t think there were any rocks there, and I’ve seen thorny blackberry vines sprout where I thought I’d gotten them all, but I’ve never seen it go the other way. Not, at least, without a lot of hard work on the gardener’s part. You will notice that while Jesus calls his listeners the soil, he never once says that we should try and make ourselves into better soil.

No, Jesus’ focus is on the action of the sower. And, if you think about it, the actions of the sower are pretty weird. They’re supposed to be. They’re supposed to make you think. We sometimes think parables are easy to understand, because we’ve had them explained to us so many times. But that’s not what parables are. Even when they seem simple on the surface, there’s a lot of depth to them. They’re designed to make us think, to break in to our normal way of looking at the world and show us a different possibility. They’re designed to make us go “wait, what?” so that our understanding of God and God’s kingdom will not be confined to our understanding of the way the world works now.

So think about this sower, for a minute. You farmers, especially. Think about how you put the seed in the ground. This sower is sowing on everything. He’s throwing good seed after bad, putting it in places where he knows it’s not going to flourish. He’s throwing it on the good soil, but also in the thorns, in the rocky places, and even on the road. Now, during spring planting this year I spent a while riding in Gene Wirtz’s tractor watching him seed a field. He has a fancy GPS system with a map of the field, to control where the tractor goes and where the seed is put in the ground. That computer knows exactly where the right place to put seed is. The good soil, where the seed will not be wasted. The expensive computer is worth it because seed and fertilizer are expensive, so a good farmer tries to figure out how to get the best crop with the least amount of seed. Gene would certainly never try to seed the road bed, and I bet none of you other farmers would, either.

I like to imagine that first crowd that heard this parable. “So this guy did what? He tried to seed the road? He threw seed in the rocky areas and among the thorns? Wow, you can tell that Jesus isn’t a farmer!” I bet they grumbled about this town kid—this carpenter’s son—trying to tell them their business. What a waste, to throw seed where you know you’re not going to get a good crop!

That’s part of the point. God is not like a regular farmer. God does not count the cost. God does not do a cost-benefit analysis before figure out the right place to put his Word. God’s gifts are extravagant, abundant, meant for everyone, and given to all people, whether they listen or not. Whether they are good soil or not. God the extravagant sower gives the seed of his Word to the whole world. God’s gifts are not for the chosen few, they’re for everyone. Whether or not we want them, whether or not we value them, whether we respond for a lifetime or even just a moment, the gift is given.

God’s Word is like that. Given to all without counting the cost. But Jesus wasn’t just talking about the stories of the Bible, when he talks about the gift of God’s Word. He wasn’t just talking about the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that helps us tell stories about what we have seen God do in our lives. He was also talking about himself. Remember that Jesus, too, is sometimes called the living Word of God.

God’s Word is given to all, extravagantly and abundantly, without counting the cost. Jesus poured out his life, first in ministry and then on the cross, a gift for a world that he knew would reject him and ignore him and turn away from him. A gift given not just to the chosen and faithful few, but to all people, everywhere, whether they were willing to listen or not. And where that gift finds good soil it takes root and springs up, yielding a harvest greater than we can imagine or understand. Just like the seed in the poem, that springs up with thirty-fold yields, or sixty, or even a hundred.

We are the soil, not the sower. But God tends us as patiently and as carefully as any farmer could. We can’t make ourselves into good soil, but God can. God can and does come into our lives to pull out the rocks and tear out the thorns. I have seen people’s hearts fill with rocks just as stone works its way up through the soil. I have seen people’s hearts fill with thorns and brambles, just as weeds take over a garden. But I have also seen God grace and love work in peoples’ lives to prepare break up and remove the stones and the thorns, so that the seed can take root in us. And no matter how rocky or thorny we get, no matter how hard we get, God keeps giving us the abundant gift of his Word.

Abundance: that’s not something we see much of. We tend to want things that are efficient, that are cost-effective, that give a lot of bang for the buck. If something doesn’t produce good results, forget about it and try something else. Don’t waste your time and effort and money on it. Don’t waste your love on it, either. Our lives are all about how to do the minimum and get the maximum. Do the numbers and figure out the logical way, and write off anything that doesn’t work. Only invest in something that’s worth it. That’s our way. But that’s not God’s way. God doesn’t care what the cost is; God doesn’t care what the response is. God will keep on giving, and giving, and giving, to all people, good and bad. Any response, any response at all, is worth it to God. And God never writes anyone off. To God, no one is beyond saving; no one is beyond reach; no one is a bad investment. No one is so hard, or rocky, or thorny that God’s Word is a waste. God rejoices when the Word bears abundant fruit in us. But whether it does or not, God will not give up on us.

We are the soil. We don’t get to choose whether we are good soil or bad, but we can love and honor what God does for us. We can appreciate the rocks he removes and the thorns he pulls. And we can see the abundance of the Word, given for all people, whether good soil or bad. God’s love, and God’s Word: given out for all, whether we deserve it or not; whether we’re a good investment or not; whether we’re good soil or not. God keeps on giving everything to us, no matter what. Thanks be to God.

An Easy Yoke

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14), Year A, July 6, 2014

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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

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

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

Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Isn’t it lovely? We take our burdens to Jesus, and he will give us rest. Wonderful. Who wouldn’t want that?

The problem comes when you examine it a little more closely. We lay down our own burdens at Jesus’ feet, and he gives us rest from them: but he also gives us his burden, his yoke. Yes, it’s easy and light, but still. We don’t see yokes often in our daily lives, so it’s easy to romanticize this saying, a lot easier for us than for people who used them in daily lives. Consider this woman. She needs water for her household: for cooking and cleaning. But without indoor plumbing, she has to go and get it and carry it back. So she has two buckets, hung from a yoke. This is so she can carry more weight than if she were just carrying two buckets in her hands. It’s easier to walk with the weight, too, without the buckets banging in to your shins the whole way. But still, water is heavy. And two bucketfuls of water isn’t that much. She’ll probably have to go back and get more. Sure, a yoke makes her task easier, but it’s still a heavy, hard thing. Wouldn’t it be nicer if Jesus had just left out that part?

A historical re-enactor carrying two buckets on a yoke over her shoulders.

When I was a child, I worked for my parents at their photography studio. I started out doing basic janitor chores for $1 an hour—vacuuming, taking out the trash, that sort of thing. It was work that needed to be done, and I was part of the family so I needed to help out with the family business just like farm kids help out with chores around the farm. It teaches responsibility, it helps out the family, it’s good experience later in life. But here’s the thing. I didn’t like doing those chores—in fact, I hated them. I would much rather have been reading or playing with my best friend Chrissy who lived only a block away from the Studio. But those chores needed to get done and I was the one who had to do them. So I’d get to the studio after school each day and hide with my books, trying to get out of doing my chores. Or I’d try and figure out some way so that it would look like I had done my chores without having to actually do them.

There really isn’t a way to do that with the trash; either it’s been taken out or it hasn’t. Vacuuming, however. Vacuuming is harder to tell. I mean, if there’s big dirt or stuff on the carpet, then you can tell, but otherwise, you may not be able to tell until it gets really bad. Particularly on the kinds of carpets that are designed not to show stains and stuff, which the studio had. So I had a bright idea! I’d just pick up the little debris that was visible to the eye, and call it good. I wouldn’t have to vacuum. I could get out of doing my chores. I could fool my parents into thinking I’d done what I was supposed to do. Awesome! Except for the fact that I had to keep looking over my shoulder to keep my parents from seeing what I was doing, and I had this fear of getting caught hanging over my head. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. And also, crawling on the floor to pick up the dirt wasn’t fun, either. But I told myself that, hey, it was better than doing the vacuuming!

Of course, it didn’t take my parents long to figure it out. My dad saw me crawling along the floor, picking up dirt and little bits of garbage. “You know,” he said, “It takes a lot more time and effort to do that than it does to actually vacuum. If you’d just done what you were supposed to do, you would be done by now.” And I was all, but I hate vacuuming, and this way I don’t have to! “Do you like crawling along the floor picking up dirt better?” Dad asked. “Vacuuming is easier, does a better job, and gets done quicker.” And you know what? He was right! When you stop and think about all the stuff I was having to do to get out of doing what needed to be done, I was doing more work, a worse job, and having to spend more time and energy dealing with it than I would be if I just did what I was supposed to do. But I didn’t want to admit that. I didn’t want to do the right thing. I just wanted to get out of a chore I hated, and I didn’t pay any attention to the costs of my actions. I focused on the wrong thing, and it led me to make some stupid choices.

Humans do this all the time, and often on a much bigger scale. We often know what we should be doing, but we don’t want to do it. We find all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t have to. Even when, in our heads, we know what to do and what not to do, all too often we find ways to let our heart overrule us. Or when our hearts burn within us to act, we step back and let our minds come up with all the reasons why we shouldn’t. And when we don’t do the right thing, we hurt ourselves and others, so we feel guilty, so we find reasons why it’s not our fault, reasons why we did the right thing, reasons why it wasn’t really hurting anyone, reasons why other people are so unreasonable for expecting anything different. And it builds and builds and goes round and round chasing its tail, and each sin leads us deeper into the next, and on, and on.

That’s what our second reading is about. Paul is talking about sin, and how it dominates our lives. For Paul, sin is not just an action, something we do or don’t do. Sin is a state of being: it’s how we are. It’s the whole big muddle of how we keep screwing up, even when we know better. We do something wrong, so we feel bad, so we try to justify ourselves, so we dig the hole deeper and do more bad things trying to get out of doing what we know we should, and on, and on. It’s an endless cycle, like a rat in a cage, running in a wheel and getting nowhere. If you listen to the way Paul uses language in this passage, he really evokes that feeling of spinning your wheels. Listen: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Three sentences later: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Two sentences later: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Do you feel how repetitive this is, how he keeps circling around? It’s that feeling of dread and futility you get when you know you’re screwing up and you know you’re not going to change. That’s the burden of sin. That part of ourselves that keeps us running on a hamster wheel to nowhere, hurting ourselves and others in the process, focused on the wrong things and blinding ourselves to the true cost of our actions and inactions.

Woman on a hamster wheel

Finally, Paul stops dead in his tracks. He can’t do this on his own. He can’t break the chains of sin. He can’t pull himself up by his bootstraps. He can’t stop the cycle, and he can no longer pretend that things are okay. The burden is too much. “Wretched man that I am!” he says. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because Paul can’t do it. But he knows, if he gives his burden to Jesus, if he trusts Jesus Christ to help him, he’ll be saved. Jesus can break the pattern. Jesus can stop the cycle that goes nowhere. Jesus can give him rest from the pointless and heartbreaking hamster wheel. Jesus can take his burden, the burden of sin that does nothing but pull Paul down and chain him to futility, and replace it with something lighter. Something that matters. Something good.

Consider the woman with the yoke. She’s a re-enactor, showing what life was like in Colonial Williamsburg. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, and they didn’t have pumps. But people still needed water, so it had to be carried from the well to the house. This is a true and deep need. Water is a source of life. By carrying the water, she is helping herself and others in her household. If you have a hard job to do—a job that needs to be done—you want to do it well and as quickly as possible instead of wasting your time trying to get out of it. The yoke helps. The strain of the water’s weight is transferred to her shoulders, instead of her hands. She won’t bruise her shins with the buckets bouncing off them. She can carry more, and carry it faster, meaning the chore of getting water takes less time, and her body will hurt less than if she’d carried the buckets by hand. She’s doing the right thing and it’s easier because of the yoke.

That’s the kind of yoke Jesus is talking about. The kind of yoke that makes a job go better. As followers of Jesus, there are a lot of things we are called to do that we wouldn’t necessarily want to do. They’re the right thing, but they seem harder. Like forgiving someone we don’t like, or welcoming someone who’s not like us, or helping someone when we’d much rather do nothing. All the things that we know are right, that need to be done, but don’t want to do. Jesus’ yoke helps us to do them. Jesus’ yoke makes them easier. Jesus’ yoke makes the burden lighter. Jesus breaks the burdens and chains that keep us doing pointless stuff that hurts ourselves and others, and Jesus replaces it with a yoke that will help us do the right thing, and do it better than we could without Jesus. He brings rest that truly satisfies, and work that accomplishes good things.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year A, June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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.

This week at Wednesday evening worship, when I read this Gospel and said “The Gospel of the Lord,” the response was kind of weak. This is not the sort of reading that one would naturally say “Thanks be to God!” for. This is the sort of reading that makes people frown and look sideways at their Bibles. The Prince of Peace saying he has not come to bring peace, but a sword? The Son of the one who commanded us to honor our father and mother saying “I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Really?

Let’s back up a bit, and see if some context will help. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends out his disciples to preach his message. And he tells them he’s sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Our Gospel reading is part of the instructions Jesus gives before sending his disciples out for the first time to preach on their own. This is what Jesus wants his followers to know about what they’re getting into when they preach Jesus’ message. This is what awaits those who preach the Gospel. Division and strife.

There’s an old saying that has always particularly struck me: “The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What does this mean? Well, let’s take a look at Jesus’ ministry. What did Jesus do on Earth? Well, first off, he never met a sinner he didn’t forgive and eat with. Whenever Jesus met someone who was outcast, someone whose life was in tatters, someone who was ignored and oppressed by society, he forgave them whatever sins they had committed and he ate with them. When he met someone that everyone knew was a sinner, he didn’t join the chorus of finger-wagging and tsk-tsking. Doesn’t mean he liked what they were doing, but he apparently figured that society had already done more than enough condemning already. He forgave them, loved them, and shared fellowship with them.

I want you to stop and take a moment. Think of someone or some group of people that you believe are sinful. Some person or group of people who have done bad things. Some person or group of people that most of the good people in town look down on. Those people, whoever they are. Think about that person or group. Then imagine Jesus going to visit them in their home, telling them he loves them, and staying for dinner. It’s not a comfortable thought, is it? That right there was enough to get the pillars of the community upset.

And when Jesus saw someone in pain, someone hurting, someone ill or injured or grieving, he healed them. Right then and there. No matter what else was going on. He didn’t care if it was the “right way” or the “right time,” he didn’t care whether the person was an insider or an outsider, he didn’t care about the rules of society. If he saw someone hurting, he healed them. And in so doing, he stepped on a lot of toes.

Even worse, he was not shy about calling out the sins and failings of the pillars of the community. All the “little” things they swept under the table, all the things they had convinced themselves weren’t sins at all. The things nobody would dare point out. He called them out on their greed, their hypocrisy, their selfishness, their callousness, their blindness. He pointed out the ways they interpreted the Scriptures so that their own culture was justified and other peoples’ was dismissed. He went out in public and pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. And the pillars of the community really didn’t like that.

Jesus spent his life seeking out the people whose lives were in ruins, who had been shoved aside by the community, and loving them. And then turning around and telling the leaders that they were just as sinful as any of the ones they looked down on, and they needed to shape up. This is not, to put it mildly, a way to become popular. The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. People who are afflicted, whether through the whims of fate or their own bad choices, don’t need any more afflictions, they need comfort. And people who are comfortable and have everything going their way don’t need more affirmation; they get enough of it from everybody else. What they need is a good kick when they get too complacent. And that’s what the Gospel does: it reminds the sinners and the sufferers of God’s love and mercy, and it reminds the self-righteous ones who coast on their laurels that they, too, fall short of the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel Jesus preached, it’s the Gospel Jesus lived, and it’s the Gospel that eventually got him killed. Because, of course, nobody likes being told they need to shape up. Nobody likes being told they’re a sinner. The pillars of the community have resources to shut up people who point out the Emperor has no clothes, and in first century Palestine, those resources included crucifixion. Jesus’ death on a cross was a direct result of the message he preached. Every time he ate with and forgave sinners, the leaders of the community grumbled against him. Every time he pointed out the sins of the good people, they grumbled against him. And began to lay traps for him, first to discredit him and finally to kill him.

So why, if that’s the case, would anybody want to preach the Gospel? What makes it worth it? Freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from having to pretend things are just fine when they’re not. Freedom from the idea that might makes right. Freedom to seek justice even when it’s not popular. Freedom from pettiness and cynicism and apathy; freedom to be the best we can be. Freedom to acknowledge when society is messed up and the freedom to live lives of joy and hope even in the midst of a broken world.

But in order to be free, you have to first acknowledge all the things that are holding you down. And that’s not always easy or fun. To be resurrected in Jesus Christ, you first have to die. And nobody likes dying. Even in a community where most people are Christian, the heart of the Gospel is no more popular than it was in Jesus’ day. There are some sinners we don’t want to forgive; some outcasts we don’t want to bring back in to the community. And there are certainly truths about ourselves and our sins that we don’t want to face! Comforting the afflicted can make you pretty unpopular. Afflicting the comfortable is even worse. If we’re really serious about following Jesus, we’re not going to be winning any popularity contests. If we’re really serious about following Jesus’ commands to forgive sinners and heal the broken and call out sin where we see it even when we see it in the leaders of the community, we’re going to face resistance. There will be conflict; there will be division. Not because God wants there to be conflict or division, but because that’s how people react when you call them on their bad behavior.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be blindsided by this, and he doesn’t want us to be, either. He’s quite clear: following the Gospel means taking up the cross. It means that people will be upset with you for telling them what they don’t want to hear. If you water the Gospel down so that people who are comfortable in their sins stay comfortable, and those who are afflicted and cast out and unforgiven stay afflicted and cast out and unforgiven, you are denying Jesus. You are denying the message he was willing to die to give us. And Jesus has a warning: if we deny Jesus, he will also deny us.

But in the midst of all this, there’s good news. We don’t get sent out alone, and we don’t get sent out without help. Yes, there will be conflict, and division. And in some places and times, there will even be physical danger. After all, most of the twelve disciples were eventually killed for their belief in Jesus Christ and their spreading of his message. Today there are still places in the world where being Christian can get you killed. But God is with us whenever the Gospel is truly preached. When we preach Christ, when we live the Gospel, Jesus lives in us. God knows each sparrow’s fall; God knows all of what happens to us. God knows each hair on our head and God is with us always, even when things get dark. We may lose a bit of life in this world; we may find ourselves deep in conflict even with those we love. But we are not alone in our conflict. And the Good News, the word of freedom and hope and love, is worth it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Where the Spirit blows

Pentecost, June 8, 2014

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, John 20:19-23

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.

I have a confession to make. I have never seen the Holy Spirit manifest as tongues of fire, and I have never heard anyone speak in tongues. Nor have I ever participated in the kind of mass spiritual experience described in our lesson from Acts, in which thousands of people come to the faith. When I hear of miracles, my first reaction is often skepticism, and when I go to a worship service full of people waving their arms and jumping and dancing and shouting “Amen!” as they feel moved during the service, I feel uncomfortable. And since this is a common attitude for Lutherans and other mainline Christians, I bet there are many of you out there who would agree with me.

This may be why we don’t pay as much attention to the Holy Spirit as we do to the Father and to the Son. Today is Pentecost, which in some Christian traditions is the third holiest day of the Christian year, behind Easter and Christmas. We do celebrate this day more than ordinary Sundays—We dress up! But we certainly don’t plan the service as carefully as we do Christmas and Easter, and people don’t tend to plan big family celebrations for Pentecost Sunday. We don’t expect it to be a big day, just like we don’t expect the Holy Spirit to be a major factor in our lives.

That’s okay, though, because the first followers of Jesus weren’t expecting the Holy Spirit, either, and it came just the same. Imagine the disciples. Jesus had died and was risen again, but they were quite comfortable in their meeting rooms behind closed doors. They were a small group: twelve men, about that many women, a few other miscellaneous people. Outside their doors were the people who had killed Jesus and would be quite willing to kill them, too, if they started making waves. Since Jesus had showed up after the Resurrection, they weren’t quivering in fear, but they weren’t going out and shouting their story to the rooftops, either. They were comfortable. Secure. Happy. They’d been praying, and they’d been talking and retelling the stories about Jesus. But they didn’t know what was coming.

And what came was the Holy Spirit. It dragged them out into the square, and it inspired them to speak, to tell the story of Jesus. Because what God needed then was for the story to spread beyond their walls, beyond their small group. God needed them to spread the word, and so he sent the Holy Spirit to empower them. Empower—it sounds like such a “new-age” word, a word of psychologists and social theorists. Yet that is literally what the Spirit does: it puts power into people. Power to do God’s will—and the skills needed to do it.

I would bet anything you want to name that, had the full planning of the missionary work been left up to those first followers, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. “Well, we can only talk to the other Jews, because we all know Hebrew and Aramaic. A couple of us know Greek, they can speak to any God-fearing Greeks we find. But there’s no point in seeking out the foreign Jews who don’t speak Hebrew anymore, because we won’t be able to speak with them. We just don’t have the gifts.” That’s what they would have said. “Who can we put in charge?” they would have asked. “Who’ll be the spokesman?” If anyone had suggested Peter, they would probably have laughed. Let’s remember that Peter wasn’t his real name; his parents had named him Simon. Peter was a nickname, and it meant “Rocky.” Peter was a real rock, all right; solid, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth type who would not win any contest of smarts or charisma. Peter’s most common contribution to the disciples was to get things spectacularly wrong so that everybody else had an example of what not to do. He got several things right … and always followed up his good ideas with something boneheaded. Peter, good ol’ Rocky, as the public face of the organization? Rocky as a preacher? Naaaah. He just didn’t have what it takes.

Many churches, if you give them an idea of something they could do, some new ministry they could try or people they could help, will respond with reasons why they can’t. “We couldn’t possibly do it! We don’t know enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have anybody who could or would do that …” And I bet you the early church would have been no different. After all, what happened on Pentecost is a lot bigger than starting up a food pantry or sending people out to build handicap ramps or do a mission trip.

And yet, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered them. The Holy Spirit swept into their lives like a rushing wind, and they listened to it. They might not have chosen the things the Spirit empowered them to do, but they listened when it came to them. They followed where it led them, and they all—particularly Peter, good ol’ Rocky—used the gifts it gave them to do the ministry it called them to do. I bet it was scary. I bet it was nerve-wracking, to get out there and trust that the Holy Spirit was going to give them the ability to speak in new languages. They could have said no, but they didn’t. They could have said, “My it’s windy today! Better close the windows tight!” and kept on praying, in their back rooms. But they didn’t. They realized it was the Holy Spirit, and they followed it. And the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to do what needed to be done.

I’ve never seen tongues of flames; I’ve never seen people speaking in tongues. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen other gifts of the Spirit. Because even though we don’t pay much attention to the Spirit, it is here among us, blowing. It is here among us, empowering. It is here among us, equipping us for the ministry that God is calling us to. Which may not be the ministry we’re expecting. But whatever God is calling us to, God is also giving us gifts to handle.

The Spirit gives many gifts. Saint Paul lifts up a few of them in his letter to the Corinthians. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing both spiritual and physical, prophecy, discernment of spirits, interpretation, miracles … these are all gifts of the Spirit. But do we notice them? Do we acknowledge them as such, or do we dismiss them? A lot of times we take the gifts of the Spirit for granted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with Christians over the years where someone pointed out a gift they or their church had, only to hear them dismiss it in the next breath, find some reason why it wasn’t enough, wasn’t what they needed, wasn’t useful for the ministry of the church. Unless there are bolts of lighting and literal tongues of fire, we don’t tend to notice these gifts of the Spirit for what they are. At the Synod Assembly last weekend, I heard several pastors get up and talk about great things happening in their congregations. And although they were all good pastors whom I respect and admire, it wasn’t the pastors’ actions that were making things happen. It was the congregations, who were willing to respond when someone pointed out what gifts the Holy Spirit had given them. They noticed the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they listened to where the Spirit was calling them, and it has led them to do some amazing things.

Something else to notice from Paul’s account in Corinthians is that nobody gets all the gifts. Everyone has different gifts, and quite often they go together: someone gets knowledge, and someone else gets the wisdom to know how to use that knowledge. Someone gets the gift of tongues, and someone else gets the gift of how to interpret it. It’s only when you start putting those gifts together—when people come together to form the body of Christ—that things start to happen. It can’t be just one or two people—no matter how talented and dedicated. It has to be the body, together, using the gifts the Spirit has given for the common gift of ministry.

When the Spirit came to them, those first Christians were ready. They went where it sent them, they realized the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they used those gifts as the Spirit called them to. And because they did, the Spirit did great things through them. May we, too, learn to hear the Spirit’s call and follow where it leads.

Where’s Jesus?

Seventh Sunday of Easter & Ascension, (Year A), June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

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.

Have you ever listened to the Creed that we say each week and thought, “Huh. Jesus ‘ascended into Heaven’? What’s that?” The other events the Creed mentions are all really big ones: Jesus’ birth, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and burial, his resurrection, and the fact that he will come again. We talk about them all the time. But Jesus’ ascension into Heaven doesn’t. Here’s the short version: to “ascend” means to “go up.” As we heard in today’s first lesson from Acts, forty days after he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to heaven. Now, one would think that was the end of the Jesus story, at least until he comes again. Born, taught, died, raised, taught a little more, went back to heaven where, as the Creed says, he is with the father. Jesus isn’t on Earth, so that should be the end of things, right? But you’ll notice that here we are, in chapter one of Acts. The beginning of the book! And Jesus is present throughout the rest of the book, appearing or being mentioned more than a hundred times. Jesus wasn’t physically present with the disciples anymore. They couldn’t touch his hands and side. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

Here are some of the ways Jesus was present. Most obviously, several times people had dreams and visions of Jesus at various points throughout the book of Acts. Paul’s dramatic conversion when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and turned him from a persecutor to a believer is described in Acts, for example. Then there are all the times people preach about Jesus, his life and death, and his ministry. There’s a lot of preaching in Acts, and all of it centered around Jesus’ words and actions. But most often, we know Jesus was present because the community saw him. They knew that even if Jesus wasn’t physically sitting next to them, Jesus was with them, guiding them and helping them along their path, through awesome highs and terrible lows, as they struggled with what it all meant, what impact Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had on their lives.

And it was a struggle. Our text sums up what happens next in just two verses: All the disciples were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, along with others including many women. If you read through the book of Acts, though, it doesn’t take long to learn that things weren’t always so nice and simple as that makes it sound. There were disagreements and fights—huge ones! Disagreements over just about everything. Money, food, worship, how to deal with outsiders, how to reach out to the community, how best to teach new believers about Jesus, which rules were important to keep exactly as-is and which ones should bend to changing circumstances, how to react in times of trouble and persecution, who should be leaders in the Christian community and what to do when some clique holds all the power in the congregation. It’s easy to read and focus on the miracles, the crowds—thousands of converts at a time, wow! Wish we could do that, fill every pew! But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it didn’t always come easily.

Jesus was there, with them, throughout it. The reason he gets mentioned so many times is because Jesus was at the very center of their life together as a community of faith, and they never forgot it. Whenever there was a conflict, no matter how huge or how trivial, they always stepped back and asked where Jesus was in the issue. Which course of action, which idea, showed Christ to the world most clearly? Jesus said that his followers were one and united, but that didn’t mean that they always agreed on everything; it didn’t mean that they were always in perfect lockstep. What it meant was that they were one in mission, in their goals. They shared the same ultimate vision of what the world and the community should look like. The community should always, always be focused on Jesus and the love he showed to the world. If a beloved tradition and way of living got in the way of showing Christ to their neighbors, it should be discarded or modified. If sharing Christ’s love meant welcoming people they didn’t like, people who weren’t like them—and not just welcoming them, but giving them a place at the table and a true voice in the discussion—then they would do it, no matter how uncomfortable it made them at first. If sharing Christ’s love meant putting their own life on the line, they did it. If sharing Christ’s love meant some people in their community turned their back on them, they didn’t let that turn them away from the path. It was not easy, and it was not smooth. But they did it.

Being a follower in the Way of Jesus Christ meant letting Christ be in the center of everything. We tend to put our own desires first, as if we don’t trust God to know what’s best for us. I know too many Christians who only ask what God might want if they’re pretty sure he would agree with what they want—God’s will is good for justifying their own will, and not much else. Or, worse, have you ever noticed that sometimes people assume that God wants the same things they do? The reasoning goes like this: “I’m a good Christian, therefore God must want the same things I do, and want me to live the way I do, and anyone who’s different from me must not be a Christian.” It’s a comfortable system. You never have to ask the hard questions; you never have to take the risk of God leading you in a direction you wouldn’t choose to go yourself. You never have to truly give your life over to Christ, because you can tell yourself that you already have. It’s easy. Daring to truly ask the question, “What does Jesus want me to be and do? How can I show Jesus’ love to the world?” takes courage. It takes a willingness to be open to change. It takes a willingness to let go and let God take the reins.

So how did the early church do this? How is it that they were able to see and follow Jesus even though he was no longer physically present with them? Remember, our reading from Acts tells the story of Jesus leaving this world and going to be with the Father in heaven. Two things: Jesus sent them the Holy Spirit. He promised he would several times before he left. He would no longer be physically present, but God’s Spirit would still be with his people. We will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost.

Second, they were listening. When the Holy Spirit moved them, when Jesus sent dreams and visions, when God was working in their lives, they paid attention. They prayed all the time. About everything. As Acts says, “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” They were asking God what God wanted them to do. And when they got an answer, they did it, even if it wasn’t the answer they were expecting or hoping for. Prayer was not just a two-minute rote thing tacked on to the beginning and end of their day. It was a conversation which lifted up their needs and hopes and fears, and asked for guidance. They prayed about everything, even when they thought they already knew what God wanted—and they found out that sometimes, their ideas had been wrong!

This was not a smooth process. They did not always agree with one another. They sometimes hurt one another. There were factions and cliques, and different groups interpreted Jesus’ teachings in different ways. The unity that Jesus had prayed for, the unity that Jesus had given them, didn’t mean there was no disagreement. Being one in Christ Jesus meant that they would respect one another even when they disagreed. Being one in Christ meant that they would do the hard work necessary to reconcile their differences, to forgive one another for hurts and injuries, to come together and love one another even when love was the last thing they wanted to do.

And you know what? People saw that. People saw that they were living a better way. People saw the love of God poured out in and through them. People saw that they weren’t just talking the talk, they were walking the walk. People saw Jesus through their words and actions. The early Christians were great at sending people out to talk about Jesus, and bring people to the faith that way. But they were also great about showing people what Jesus was like in their actions, the way they treated one another, the way they treated others outside their group. Being a witness for Christ wasn’t just something they did once in a while: their whole life was a witness for Christ, a witness to each other and to the world. They loved God, and they loved one another, and they loved the world as Jesus had taught them to do. In good times and bad, in harmony and conflict, in times of change and times of hope and times of fear and doubt, they followed Jesus’ example and showed him to the world in their love. May we, too, be such witnesses for Christ.

Responding to Prayer

Fifth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 18, 2014

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

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

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

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

When I was a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college, someone told me this joke: God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” That last answer, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” by the way, is the answer you’ll probably get if you decide not to study for a test and just pray that the answers will magically appear, as I found out once or twice in college.

Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And in another place, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are words Christians quote a lot, when talking about prayer. If you just ask God, God will give it to you.

It’s an interesting lesson to be paired up with the martyrdom of Stephen, which was our first lesson. Stephen, you see, was one of the first Greek converts to Christianity. He was a deacon; he preached and he did social ministry work, giving food to the poor and making sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. But the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy. They had thought that when they had Jesus killed that they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. They thought that Jesus’ death would mean that things would go back to normal. And here the Christians are, telling everyone they meet that Jesus was raised from the dead and helping people in Jesus’ name, bringing more people to the faith. The authorities tried to stamp this “Jesus movement” out again by arresting Stephen and putting him on trial. But they couldn’t get him to deny Jesus; in fact, he used the trial to try and spread the Gospel even to his accusers. And so they killed him. They took him out and threw rocks at him until he was dead.

“If in my name you ask me for anything,” Jesus says, “I will do it.” Then what about Stephen? If I were in his shoes, I certainly would have prayed to be set free. And what about the other Christians, the ones who worshipped with Stephen and worked with him and studied God’s word with him? What about all of the poor people whose lives had been touched by Stephen’s gifts? What about all the widows and orphans who needed Stephen’s help? Surely they must have prayed for him! Prayed to the God he worshipped to save him! And yet Stephen was killed in a brutal execution.

Our prayer list has several people on it who have been on it for quite some time. One of them is Grace, who is related to Julie from Birka. Grace is only a little girl, I think she’s about three, but she’s spent most of her life in the hospital. She has cancer in her brain. She’s had many surgeries, and although sometimes things seem to be going well inevitably there is some new problem, some new challenge, some new heart-wrenching procedure for her to endure. Her whole family are devoted Christians, and they have been praying her entire life. We have been praying for her for a long time. Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask in his name. And yet Grace still suffers.

When I pray with someone who is seriously ill, I always include this petition: “Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you are a healer. We know that you heal every ill, whether in this life or in the life to come. We pray that healing will come in this life, and soon. But we trust in the healing that will come in your kingdom.” Sometimes, when I’m praying with someone who is old and frail and at the end of their life, that is a comfort. Yes, things won’t get better in this life; but this life is not the end. But when I pray for someone like Grace, who would have her whole life ahead of her—her life in this world—if only she could be healed now, it is cold comfort. We know that God has a place for little Grace all ready, a place where she can play and laugh and run. But her parents would much rather be able to see her play and laugh and run now, here, in this world.

So how do we deal with times like this? Times when we pray and pray and pray and bad things happen anyway? How do we reconcile it with Jesus’ words? I’m not talking about when people pray for stupid things, things that they think they want but will only hurt themselves or others in the long run. I’m not talking about when people pray selfishly or only out of habit. I’m talking about heartfelt prayers that stream from deep needs. What happens when we ask Jesus for something, and it doesn’t happen?

There’s two responses that people generally fall into. One is to lose faith. “Nothing happened, so God must not care. Or maybe God doesn’t exist.” The other is almost worse: it’s to blame the one who prays. “Well, Jesus says he answers prayer, so if their prayer wasn’t answered, they must not have prayed the right way. Or maybe they just didn’t have enough faith. If they’d been better Christians, God would have listened.” What a horrible, hurtful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one!

I am reminded of Stephen. He prayed. And I am certain he prayed to be set free; I am certain he prayed that he would not be killed for his faith. Stephen’s faith was as deep as it is possible to be: he would literally rather die than keep silent about it. And we know God heard his prayers; Stephen saw Jesus with him. He did not die alone. But he did die. It wasn’t because God didn’t care, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good enough Christian. So what do we make of that?

I notice a lot that when we talk about answers to prayer, we talk about specific things. We don’t tend to talk about prayer as a conversation with God; it’s a laundry list of things we want and things we want to apologize for. Yet when Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to start with the relationship: “Our father in heaven.” But even that is too distant a relationship: we say “father,” but what Jesus actually said was something closer to “Dad” or “Papa.” This is a close and loving relationship. That’s where we start from, with prayer. God is not a vending machine in the sky. God is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one we can call at three in the morning when we hit rock bottom.

Then, Jesus’ prayer goes on: Pray for God’s kingdom to come. Pray for God’s Will to be done here on Earth, just like God’s Will is done in heaven. God’s Will—Jesus has told us what God’s will is. God’s will is for wholeness, and healing. God’s will is for all the things that have been broken by sin and death, by injury and illness, by malice and carelessness, to be healed. God’s will is for the entire cosmos to be saved. God’s will is for love to win. Bad things happen, in the here-and-now: good people die. Children get sick. People say and do things that hurt one another. People go hungry and can’t find work. But this is not God’s plan for the world, and this is not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come. God’s Will will be done here on Earth as it is in heaven. We don’t know the timeline for that; we don’t know when. But it will happen, and we pray for it.

Jesus’ prayer continues. Pray for your daily bread. Not for steak dinners and caviar, not for a year’s supply, just what you need to get through the day. Don’t worry about the future; let God take care of it. Pray for the courage and strength to get through today. And while you’re at it, pray for forgiveness, for yourself and for others. Pray for the grace you need to get through the day, along with the strength. Grace given by God, and grace shared with the world around you. Pray that you won’t have to go through dark places in your life, and pray that God will lead you safely through those dark places you can’t avoid. But always remember that the dark places are temporary. The kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God, now and forever. The dark places don’t win, in the end; the evils of this world don’t last forever. God’s kingdom is real, and God’s kingdom is coming, and thanks be to God for that.

God answers all prayers. But the answers aren’t always the ones we expect, or the ones we hope for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and then we rejoice. But sometimes God acts in ways we didn’t expect, to do things we didn’t even know to pray for. Sometimes the answer is no—sometimes we pray for things we shouldn’t be praying for. Sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” But sometimes, sometimes the answer is, “Wait.” Sometimes the answer is, “My dear, precious child, what you ask can’t be done in this world as it is now. But my Father’s house is large, and there’s room for all. I’ve prepared a special place just for you. It will be waiting for you, no matter how long it takes to get here. But in the meantime, let me help. Let me support you and guide you and comfort you. You are not alone; I love you.”

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.

In the Breaking of the Bread

Third Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

The thing that gets me, in all these post-Resurrection appearances, is that nobody recognizes Jesus. The women at the tomb don’t; they mistake Jesus for a gardener, or a guard. The eleven don’t, until they see his wounds. In our Gospel reading today, the two disciples walking to Emmaus don’t recognize him, either. They spend several hours in his company—walking the seven miles to Emmaus through mountainous terrain, talking about his life and death the whole time, then inviting him in to sit down and take a meal with them. Yet they don’t recognize their own beloved friend and teacher. He’s right there the whole time, and they don’t see him. They’re mourning his death, they are trying to figure out what it all means, and the whole time, he’s walking beside them. It wasn’t until later, after it’s all over, that they realize what happened, who was with them on the road.

Have you ever had times like that? Times when you thought you had been abandoned by God, only to look back later and realize, wow, God was helping me that whole time and I didn’t even recognize him? I have. Usually when I’m going through a really rough time. I’m hurt, upset, and I feel lost. I feel like I’m alone. And it’s hard to pray, because it feels like no one is listening. I look around me, and ask where God is, because I can’t see him. It’s only later, when I’m looking back on it, that I can see all the ways in which God was with me even when I couldn’t see him—the people he sent to comfort or help me, the coincidences that weren’t coincidences at all, times when I found courage or rest when I hadn’t been looking for them. I look back, and I go, “Man, that was really obvious. Why couldn’t I see it at the time, when I most needed to know God was with me?” And then I feel stupid, for missing the obvious. I feel like Cleopas and his friend must have felt when they finally realized that the guy they’d been talking to was Jesus, and their hearts had been burning within them the whole time. Like, duh, obviously, what the heck was keeping me from seeing the things that were right in front of my nose? Have you ever felt like that?

I wonder what it is that keeps us from recognizing God when he’s right in front of us. I wonder if, for Cleopas and his friend, it was because they weren’t looking. You’ve heard the old phrase, “seeing is believing,” right? But for Cleopas and the other disciple, it was the other way around. Believing was seeing. They saw Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him, at first. They’d been told about the resurrection; they’d been told that Jesus was alive again, and had appeared to the women. But they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe that Jesus was God’s chosen one, the Messiah, the Christ. They had been looking for God to send a political leader to fix Israel’s problems, a king like David had been. Instead, they got a teacher who challenged many of their interpretations of Scripture and then was executed because of it. And then they got a wild story about that teacher, their friend on whom they’d pinned their hopes, rising from the dead. And they couldn’t believe it. That wasn’t the way God was supposed to save the world. That wasn’t the way things were supposed to work. So they saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead, and they didn’t believe. He was right in front of them—they saw him, they spent hours in his company talking with him, they ate with him—and they didn’t recognize him because they didn’t believe it was possible.

But Jesus doesn’t get angry at them. He doesn’t just write them off and go talk to somebody who would be easier to get through to. He spent time with them, even though they didn’t recognize him. He talked with them. He listened to their hopes and fears—and you know, as important as those hopes and fears seemed to them, they were actually pretty silly, when you get right down to it. Not their grief for their dead friend, but what they’d hoped Jesus was going to do. They were so wrapped up in what they thought he should be doing that they hadn’t been able to see what he’d actually been doing. And their fears—they’d been told Jesus was alive, but they hadn’t believed. He was right there, and they couldn’t see him. But as off-base as they are, as wrong and stupid as their hopes and fears are, Jesus listens to them. He asks questions, and lets them pour out their hearts to him. Then he begins to teach them, asking questions and bringing up things they hadn’t thought of, helping them to open up their hearts and minds to see what God was actually doing. He helped them to look beyond their assumptions about God and what was happening around them to see the truth.

And then he ate with them. He shared a meal. He blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to them to eat. If the phrasing here sounds familiar, it should, because we say something similar every time we take Communion. “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and gave it for all to eat.” In Emmaus, Jesus gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to them to eat, just like he had a week earlier in the last supper he shared with them. And it isn’t until that moment that they recognize him. They hadn’t been looking for Jesus; they didn’t think it was possible that he could be with them in their grief and confusion. But he found them anyway. He sought them out. He supported them, and he fed them, and he reminded them that he fed them with his own body and blood. And that’s when they realized who Jesus was. He gave them the bread, and their eyes were opened.

Jesus was with them in the breaking of the bread. That’s when they started to see who he was, really and truly. That’s when they looked back at their day and realized that he’d been there all along, even if they hadn’t recognized him at the time, even if they hadn’t been looking for him, even if they’d been wrong about what all Jesus was doing his entire time they’d known him. He was there. And this was huge! It rearranged their whole way of thinking! Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive! He was raised from the dead, and God had been working in and through him the whole time, even when they hadn’t been able to see it. They were so excited, they got up and walked the seven miles back to Jerusalem that evening to tell everyone that Jesus was there, and they had known him in the breaking of the bread.

We are more like Cleopas and his friend than we would like to admit. Like them, we have preconceived notions about God that get in the way of seeing what God is actually doing. Like them, we get so caught up in our grief and fear and problems that we sometimes miss the fact that God is walking beside us. Like them, our eyes and hearts are too often closed to the mystery and wonder of God who loves us and will never let us suffer alone. So even when we’re looking for God, we may not always see him, even when he’s right there beside us. But, like Cleopas and his friend, there’s one place that we do see God. A place where we can see Jesus, feel him, smell him, taste him. A place where Jesus is made known to us: the breaking of the bread.

In the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread and told his disciples quite plainly: “This is my body, broken for you and for all people.” And he took the wine and told his disciples quite plainly: “This is my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” The bread and wine aren’t just a memorial of Jesus’ last supper; they are a sacrament in which Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine. He’s here, in the breaking of the bread. If you go to a Catholic church, sometimes they’ll ring a little bell after the priest give thanks and says the words about Jesus’ body and blood. That little bell is a sign, a symbol, to remind people to pay attention. God is here! Yes, he’s always here. But in this bread and wine, he’s physically present. This is the body and blood that were shed to save us. This is Jesus, who feeds us with his own body and blood. This is the Christ, the Messiah, who calls us by name, who came to earth and became truly human, who lived and taught and healed and died to save us, who keeps on coming to us no matter how often we turn away, whether or not we can see or feel him. He’s here, now, with us. He is the host who invites us to the table and he is the meal that nourishes our souls.

Whether our eyes are closed or open, whether our hearts are happy or sad or burning within us or still, Jesus meets us hear in this feast. He calls us by name, he reminds us of his love for us and what he has done for us. He gives his life that we, too, may live. Thanks be to God.