Kosher, change, and community

Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

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.

Our first reading, from Acts, is the second part of a story.  In the first part of the story, Peter received a vision from God telling him that it was okay to break the kosher rules, the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws.  (At this point, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish.)  Peter got this vision, and then God sent some Gentiles to him, asking about Jesus.  He went to them and realized they had the Holy Spirit, and he lived in their house for a while and baptized them.  Then he went back home to all the other followers of Jesus, and instead of going “oh, yay, more followers of Jesus!” they went ” … you lived with Gentiles?  You ate non-kosher food?  What is wrong with you?”

There are two things that we Christians really don’t get about the Jewish rules of keeping kosher.  Well, there’s a lot more than two things we don’t get about kosher, but for the purposes of understanding today’s reading from Acts, there’s two things we need to appreciate.  First, when Jewish people call food “unclean” they sometimes mean it literally.  Kosher rules were way ahead of their times when it comes to food safety and washing your hands and your dishes and making sure you’re not contaminating your food with whatever dirt or germs might be nearby.  Jewish kitchens were so much cleaner than the kitchens of their neighbors.  If I travelled back in time to 35 AD and had a choice, I would much rather eat kosher food than non-kosher food just for sanitary reasons.  Non-Jewish kitchens of the time were pretty gross.

And hygiene wasn’t the only reason Jewish people were disgusted by their gentile neighbors’ eating habits.  When your culture doesn’t eat something, a lot of the times the thought of eating that thing is pretty gross.  You or I might not get why someone could ever object to bacon, but when I learn about foods in other cultures—like chicken feet, monkey brains, various edible insects or weird deep-sea creatures, and stuff like haggis—I often grimace in distaste.  It may be perfectly digestible and even good for you, and some people may love it, but it’s gross to me.  If Jewish people in Peter’s day felt the same way about things like bacon that I do about monkey brains, and then you add in the lack of cleanliness in the average gentile kitchen, I can certainly see why no Jewish person ever wanted to break kosher and eat with their neighbors.  And why they would give a pretty hard time to any of their fellow Jews who did.  It wouldn’t just be a matter of keeping a religious law; it would be a matter of visceral distaste.  You ate what?  That was prepared in a kitchen with how many health code violations?  Blech.

And then there’s the other part of the kosher rules.  Christians may regard them as extraneous and unnecessary, but the fact remains, they were commands given by God to the Jewish people and recorded in Scripture.  This isn’t just a case of “we’ve always done it that way.”  It isn’t just a case of blind traditionalism or human custom.  By keeping kosher, they were keeping commands given by God!  And however much certain modern Jewish denominations might have decided that strict adherence to kosher is unnecessary, there was no debate over the matter in ancient times.  If you were one of God’s people, you circumcised your sons and kept kosher.  Period.  End of story.  If you did not do either of those things, you were not one of God’s people.  You might love God … but you were not part of God’s people or part of God’s covenant.  You were an outsider, an apostate, unfaithful.  Eating unclean food was both viscerally disgusting and breaking God’s commands and putting yourself outside God’s covenant with God’s people.

So, given those two factors, you can see why the rest of Jesus’ followers were pretty upset when they heard that Peter was eating Gentile food prepared in a Gentile home.  This is not just a matter of personal preference.  It’s not just a matter of hospitality.  It’s a question of whether or not Peter is one of God’s people, and what it looks like to be one of God’s people, and what basic principles should God’s people uphold.  And it’s also a matter of Peter having done something that the rest of his community thought was absolutely disgusting.  We, today, hear this story and think the answer is simple.  Of course God wants us to go out into the world and convert people, and of course kosher laws are silly and unimportant!  But Peter’s community of faith, all of those who had followed Jesus in life and remained faithful even after his death and resurrection, they would also have thought the answer was simple.  Of course God doesn’t want us to mix with Gentiles, and of course kosher laws are much more important than reaching out to outsiders!  And they had the weight of all of scripture and thousands of years of tradition on their side guiding them to that conclusion.

The problem is, sometimes God does something new.  Sometimes the next step in God’s plan for the world isn’t what humans think is the next logical step.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to things we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have predicted.  Sometimes, it turns common wisdom and tradition on its head.  Sometimes, it leads you to places you really, really don’t like.  That was the case in the days of the first believers, who couldn’t have predicted that God would rescind the kosher laws so that they could bring God’s Word to the Gentiles more easily.  And it’s the case for us today, as we ask the question of what it means to be followers of Christ in a world that is changing so rapidly.  It makes this story important to study as an example of how God’s people faithfully discern what God is calling us to do in times of great change.

So the first thing to remember is that, for all the believers were shocked, and Peter was taking things further than anyone anticipated, God reaching out to Gentiles was not completely unprecedented.  There are a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures where God says that one day, all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God.  And none of those passages say that the nations will then become Jewish, following Jewish dietary laws.  God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to Gentiles, and told Jonah that they were God’s people too.  King David’s grandmother Ruth was a Gentile.  Then, when Jesus came himself, while most of his ministry was among Jewish people, he did several times travel into Gentile areas and preach there.  He healed Gentiles, he cast demons out for them, he taught them.  He never ate with a Gentile, but he did drink water with a Samaritan woman, and he ate with Jewish sinners and tax collectors.  That wasn’t quite as much of a kosher violation as eating with Gentiles, but it was closer than most good Jewish people would want to come.  Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had sent them out to share the Good News, Jesus’ followers had a series of encounters with Gentiles, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized.  So while the disciples would never have thought that God would tell them it was okay to not keep kosher, they could look back at Scripture and their experience of God and see how God kept including Gentiles and sending God’s Word to them and sometimes crossing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile.  They could see how this connected to what they had known.

Second, Peter didn’t just decide this on his own.  He prayed, and he listened to the Holy Spirit, and he didn’t just throw out thousands of years of tradition and Biblical understanding on a whim.  He didn’t let tradition blind him to what the Spirit was calling him to do, but he didn’t throw out tradition willy-nilly.  Human beings have always found it easy to delude themselves about what God wants and what God is calling them to do; Peter was right to be cautious and hesitant at first, and test things to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.

Third, the Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in Peter.  When Peter got to the new place the Spirit was leading him, he found that the Spirit was already there.  Which, of course the Spirit is everywhere.  But if Peter had been mistaken about what God was calling him to do, Peter would not have found the Spirit being poured out so freely.  And Peter was looking for it.  Even after Peter had figured out what he thought God was calling him to do, Peter kept looking, kept praying, kept listening, to confirm he was on the right path.  And having gotten that confirmation, Paul followed that call, even though it led him somewhere he would never have chosen to go himself, and led him to change beliefs and practices he would never have chosen to change on his own.

And then, fourth, he went home and talked with his community about it.  He shared what he had seen and heard with the community, and the community debated it.  The community kept on debating it.  This is not the last time the issue of kosher and Gentile believers would come up; it would come up constantly for the next several decades as Jesus’ followers figured out exactly what the new boundaries would be and what this new thing would look like and how God’s commands to them would or would not apply to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.  It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy.  Some people disagreed; some people stopped being Jesus’ followers entirely over the issue.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple, but they talked about it together.  They prayed about it together.  They looked for what the Holy Spirit was doing together.

This wasn’t just a matter of one person having a vision and then everything is changed.  This is a matter of people coming together in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, and listening to all the many voices of faithful people, and scripture, and experience, and the Spirit, and figuring out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple.  And yet, it laid the foundation of everything that was to come.  If they hadn’t done this hard work, none of us would be here today.

Now, over the centuries there have been times when God called people in new and different ways, and times when people thought God was calling them to do things for very convincing reasons, but they turned out to be wrong.  Sometimes where we think God is calling us is where God is really calling us, and sometimes it isn’t.  And sometimes even if God is calling us in a certain direction, God may not be calling us to do it the way we think it should be done.  God may have a lot of different things in mind, and no one person can ever fully know what God is calling us to do.  But if we listen to God, if we look for the Holy Spirit in us and around us in the world, if we study Scripture, if we listen to one another and talk it out, the Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us as we make these decisions.  When change comes, we should never make changes just because it’s trendy or new, but we shouldn’t reject it just because it’s new, either.  Like Peter and those first followers of Jesus, our goal should be to find out where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is speaking, and listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and to trust that God is leading us as we move forward, even if we disagree.  May we learn to listen to God and to one another.

Amen.

It’s About Change

Transfiguration, Year C, March 3, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43

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 you hear the word “transfiguration,” how many of you think of Harry Potter?  I know I do.  For those of you who are not fans, transfiguration is one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  It is taught by Professor McGonigal, who is capable of changing herself into a cat whenever she wants to.  And on a daily basis, she teaches young wizards and witches how to transfigure things: to turn needles into matchsticks, and rats into teacups, and any object into any other object.  Transfiguration, you see, literally means to change shape.  Leaving aside the world of fantasy, to transfigure something is about making one thing into something else.  And not in little ways, either.  To transfigure something is to completely and radically alter it.  It’s about conversion.  It’s about transformation.

Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration.  It is one of the minor festivals of the church year that we celebrate every year on the last Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.  On this day, we remember the transfiguration of Jesus, when he went up on a hilltop with some of his disciples, and changed before their eyes into something heavenly, something glorious.  For a few brief minutes they saw him not only as their friend and a fellow human being, but also as the Son of God.  Two of the ancient Jewish heroes of the faith, Moses and Elijah, appeared with him and spoke with him.  And a voice from heaven repeated the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him!”  And then, things went back to normal, and Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain, and Jesus began walking to Jerusalem to be crucified.

Jesus was transfigured before his disciples’ very eyes.  He lit up like a superhero in a movie.  It was the first time that the glory of God was revealed, not just in Jesus’ actions, but in his appearance.  Jesus’ nature did not change—he had always been God’s Son, fully human and fully divine—but that nature had been hidden.  There, on that mountain, for just a few brief moments, he was revealed for all to see.  The power of God wasn’t just something he could call on to heal people or feed people, it was a part of him.  What changed was that the disciples could see that, even if only for a short time.

But Jesus’ appearance wasn’t the only thing about him that had been transfigured.  His mission was transfigured, too.  This is the hinge point of Jesus’ story.  Before this, Jesus had been wandering around the area teaching and healing and feeding people and eating with them and welcoming them and, generally, doing ordinary ministry.  After this, Jesus’ face was set towards Jerusalem.  After this, Jesus started teaching his disciples about his coming sacrifice, suffering, and death.  Jesus didn’t stop teaching and healing and loving people along the way, but there was an urgency to it.  A sharper edge.  Jesus was getting ready to die to save the world: Jesus was getting ready to use his own suffering, death, and resurrection to begin the transfiguration of the whole world into the kingdom of God.

When you get right down to it, God’s work in the world is all about change.  It’s about bringing life to places where there is death.  It’s about bringing healing where there is woundedness.  It’s about bringing salvation to places where there is sin.  It’s about turning this world into God’s kingdom.  And none of that happens quickly or easily, and none of that will be complete until Christ comes again, but that is what we’re here for.  The church is not a social club.  The church is not here so that we have a place to have coffee and chat with our friends once a week.  It’s certainly not here just because we’ve always done it that way.  No.  The church is here so that we can worship God, and here God’s word, and be transformed by God’s presence in our lives, and sent out into the world as God’s people.  The church is the place where ordinary, sinful, conflicted and conflicting human beings are gathered into one and formed into the body of Christ.  God does not call us to remain mired in all the things that have shaped us—our society, our fears, our sins, and the words and actions of others.  God does not call us to conform to the ways of the world.  God calls us to be made new in Christ.  God calls us to be transfigured.

The problem is, most people … don’t really want to be transfigured.  We don’t want to be changed.  Even if we’re not happy with who we are, we’re used to it.  How many times have you seen someone stay in a bad situation or repeatedly make the same bad choices over and over again?  This is something that humans do a lot of.  We cling to what we’re used to even if it’s terrible, because then we know what to expect.  We want life to be predictable.  We want to feel that we have control.  Acknowledging that there are things outside our control—even God!—is scary.  Letting God start us on a journey we can’t see or imagine the end of is pretty dang unnerving.  Which is why we tend to respond in fear, or denial.  We pray for God to do the things we want, but we very rarely pray that God will change us according to God’s will.

When Moses spoke with God directly, God’s glory shone on and around him, and the people of Israel were afraid.  He had to cover his face so that they couldn’t see the visible manifestation of God’s power.  The people had promised to follow God’s commands and be God’s people.  They had promised to worship God and put God first; and yet they were still afraid of God’s power manifest in their midst.  And no matter how much the promised to love and serve God, they kept going astray.  They kept returning to old ways.  They kept hollowing out God’s words until they were following the letter but not the spirit.  They set up society the way they thought it should be, and told themselves they were following God’s will.  They kept turning away.  They did not want to be changed into the people God kept calling them to be.

But don’t be too harsh on them.  After all, the disciples were no better.  They heard Jesus’ teaching, and they saw his glory manifest on that mountain, and they did not understand.  They chose not to understand.  They wanted God’s power to fit neatly into their expectations.  They wanted God’s power to be something they could control.  They wanted God to turn the world into what they imagined, with themselves in positions of power.  And when Jesus tried to talk about his death, when he tried to talk about sacrifice and resurrection, they didn’t listen.  They told him to be quiet.  Peter and John and James saw Jesus transfigured before them, but they didn’t allow themselves to be changed by that awesome sight.  And, when at last Jesus was arrested and put on trial, they fled.  Peter denied Jesus altogether.  It took both the Resurrection and Pentecost to get them to truly follow Jesus out of what they were used to; and even then, they sometimes fell back into old habits instead of following where the Spirit led them.  There have been times in Christian history where a group of people, large or small, truly opened themselves up to whatever God might ask of them, and each time they accomplished amazing things.  They were transformed, and so was their community.  But it never lasts for long, before we slip back into our old, bad habits.

And think about us, here, today.  How many of us come to Christ to be transformed?  How many of us truly conform our hearts, minds, and lives to Christ?  All too often, even devout Christians come to church hoping for their opinions to be confirmed, rather than opening themselves up to the possibility of something new.  And this is true regardless of ethnicity, age, political ideology, gender, economics, or nationality.  We want Jesus in our lives as long as he has the same opinions we do and doesn’t ask us to do anything we don’t already want to do.

But what if we were willing to change?  What if we opened our hearts and minds to Christ and allowed him to transform us according to his will?  I don’t know what that would look like, but I bet it would lead to awesome, amazing, wonderful things.  May we be open to the transforming love of God, now and always.

Amen.

Our Refuge and Strength

Reformation Sunday, October 30th, 2016

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.

When I was a kid and I first heard that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46, I was pretty skeptical.  Because there are, on the surface, a lot of differences and not a lot of similarities between the two lyrics.  A Mighty Fortress is all about, well, God as a fortress.  By contrast, there is not one mention of fortresses in Psalm 46.  The closest it gets is describing God as a “refuge.”  And I don’t know about you, but when I think “refuge” I don’t think “fortress.”  I think of wildlife refuges, where strict management of the local ecology gives a safe space for animals, plants, birds, and fishes, where they can grow and thrive in harmony.  And “refuge” also makes me think of “refugee,” of victims of violence and oppression forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live.  A Mighty Fortress also spends quite a lot of time talking about the devil, who is nowhere to be found in Psalm 46.  The greatest similarity between the two lyrics is the part about the dangers of the world, the nations raging and kingdoms shaking, and God responding by destroying the weapons of warfare.

But A Mighty Fortress was never meant to be a direct paraphrase of Psalm 46.  A Mighty Fortress was Luther’s attempt at taking the feeling of the psalm—the sort of thoughts and emotions it evokes in its listeners—and expressing those through the vernacular of his day.  Psalm 46 is all about reassuring frightened people.  It faces head-on that there is evil and violence in the world, that there is destruction, that there are very scary things going on all around us: war! Natural disaster!  Nations crumbling!  There is no attempt to whitewash things or put on a Pollyanna-ish positive spin.  There’s some terrible thins happening.  But even in the middle of that, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how dark the day, no matter how many disasters shake the foundations of our world, we don’t have to be afraid because God is always with us.  The God who has been with our ancestors back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was with us through times of slavery and freedom, exile and homecoming, crop failure and bountiful harvests, and everything that life can throw at us, that God is our God who is with us and will always be with us.  Even though there is some terrifying stuff in the world, when we take the time to stop and breathe and clear our heads, we know that God is God, and he is going to be with us no matter what.

That is a very powerful message.  No matter what happens, we do not need to fear, because God is with us and will never abandon us.  It was a message that people desperately needed to hear in Luther’s day.  After all, there was a lot to be afraid of in the 1500s.  The economy was shifting, enriching some and impoverishing others.  This brought about civil unrest, rebellions and uprisings as poor people tried to strike back at those who were oppressing them.  And I’m not talking about protests and the occasional riot, here, I’m talking about full-scale pitched battles between armies numbering in the thousands.  As if that weren’t enough, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly sent armies up through the Baltic and into Austria.  While there was little chance they could ever set foot on Luther’s own native country, they were still a threat to his neighbors, and there was a widespread fear of them throughout Europe.  And as if that weren’t enough, social change was spreading quickly.  The very ideas of what a family was and how it functioned were changing.  The place of women in society, how people thought about sex, the role of family in the community, everything was changing.  Sound familiar?

All of this was spread and encouraged by new technologies like the printing press that made it easier for people to communicate and spread ideas quickly across great distances.  People were becoming more literate, and as they spent more time thinking and studying, old certainties on which their whole world was based seemed to crumble.  Morality was changing.  Some things that they had thought wrong and evil were being declared good, and vice versa.  People were changing what they thought about sex and intimate relationships.  Nothing could be taken for granted any more, not religion, not the family, not morality, not the economy, not the way society worked.  Everything that people had thought was a firm foundation was crumbling.  Sound familiar?

People were afraid.  People grasped at straws, they hopped on fads and bandwagons that promised to give them certainty in a world that seemed to be disintegrating.  They covered up their fear with anger and hate, blaming their enemies for everything they thought was wrong with the world.  In this world, where the nations were raging and the kingdoms were shaking and cities and countries were tearing themselves apart, Luther read Psalm 46.  And he asked himself, what image—what metaphor—could he use to help people see the strength and hope in God even in the midst of their world shaking and changing beyond all recognition?

For 16th Century Germany, that image was the fortress.  Every city had a wall to protect itself from bandits, civil wars, and foreign invaders, so that even when armies did come marching up to their gates, their people would be protected and kept safe.  All the local people from all the towns and villages around could go to the city, where the walls and the local fortress would serve as a refuge from violence and destruction.  Everyone knew how that worked; they’d lived with those protecting walls all their lives.  God, Luther said, was like the greatest and best fortress ever, which can never be destroyed or damaged by any enemy, no matter how cunning or brutal.  So it doesn’t matter how much your world is shaken, it doesn’t matter who’s prowling outside your door—God is the fortress that keeps you safe, God is your refuge and strength, God is with us.  Always.

It seems to me that we’re in a time of change at least as great as in the Reformation.  Our economic system is in a time of chaos, as the old industrial system is breaking down and we’re not sure what will replace it.  We don’t need to fear an army invading, but there is plenty of violence in the world you can see any time you turn on your tv.  There is civil unrest, protests, and deep disagreements on how the country should be run and how justice should be administered.  There is deep social change.  Families are structured differently than they were a generation ago, and that change doesn’t seem to be stopping.  The way we think about morality is changing.  Some things we declared evil even ten years ago are being re-thought by huge numbers of people.  The role of women in society is changing.  Everything about the way we think about the world and ourselves seems to be up for grabs, and this is spread more quickly and easily by new technologies such as smartphones and the internet.

And people are afraid.  People are grasping at straws, grasping at anything that will give them back that feeling of certainty.  Sometimes they cling to old ways of thinking and acting; sometimes they cling to new fads and social bandwagons.  We feel threatened by a world that seems to have no sure foundations, and so we lash out at one another.  We don’t want to feel scared, so we get angry instead.  We feel threatened, so instead of talking and working out our differences or even just agreeing to disagree, we attack.  We don’t want to take the time to let our fears and anxieties out from the corners of our minds we’ve shoved them to, and so we don’t take the time to be still and listen to God, either.

In Luther’s day, the symbol of safety was the fortress.  What is our symbol of safety?  What do we count on to protect us and help make us secure?  Bike and motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, Kevlar flak jackets, blank vaults?  What else can you think of?  If you were going to put the message of Psalm 46 into a modern metaphor, what would you use?  What imagery best symbolizes God’s protection and security to you?

There have been times of great upheaval before.  Morals, economies, political systems, countries, technology, family structures—all of these have changed radically more than once in the 2,000 years since Christ, and probably will again.  If we put our trust in them, if we make them our foundation, we are left with nothing but broken pieces when times of transition hit.    There is only one foundation we can count on that will be stable and strong no matter what happens in this world.  There is only one refuge that will keep us safe from the storms of life, from the chaos and destruction that accompanies upheaval and change.  And that foundation—that refuge—is Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born to break the cycle of violence and death, to set us free from all the things that bind us—even the chains that we don’t realize are there.  That foundation is Christ, who suffered and died so that we might be forgiven and healed and restored.  That foundation is Christ, who is with us even as the earth shakes under our feet and the nations rage.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  God is our mighty fortress, our foundation, our stable rock in an unstable world.  May we learn to truly put our trust in him.

Amen.

Our Cause is With the Lord

Second Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 19, 2014

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:111, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

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.

Those of you who came to Bible study last winter may remember that parts of Isaiah were written while the Jews were in exile in Babylon.  Their tiny country had been gobbled up by the Babylonian empire.  Many had been killed, and a large portion of the survivors had been taken to Babylon in chains.  You can read about what that was like in the book of Daniel.  The nations of Judah and Israel had been flattened.  The Temple, the heart of Jewish worship, was destroyed.  The land God had given to their ancestors was taken away from them, and they had to live in a foreign land, surrounded by pagans who mocked their faith, eating food unlike anything they knew.  And they were slaves, owned by Babylonian lords and subject to whatever their masters wanted to do to them.  The people of faith—God’s people—had been utterly flattened.  Nothing was left to them.  Imagine what that would be like.  Imagine how afraid they must have been, how lost, how homesick, how hopeless.

Imagine how incredulous they must have been when they heard the words of the prophet that we just heard.  “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”  First of all, they were the servants of Babylon, now.  They were slaves!  They weren’t free to serve God.  And even if they had been free, they were pretty pathetic.  Even before the Babylonians came, Judah had been a pretty small country.  Now they had nothing.  Not even themselves!  They were worthless slaves.  How could God possibly be glorified in them?

So they said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”  Have you ever felt like that?  Have you ever felt that all your hard work was for nothing?  Have you ever felt useless, like everything you could possibly try would go wrong?  Think about what that felt like, and then imagine what you would think if God told you that you were still his, and he was going to do something great through you that would glorify his name.  Pretty unbelievable, huh?  How much faith, how much courage, would it take to say yes, to open yourself up to God?  How hard would it be to say, as they did, “Surely my cause is with the LORD, and my reward with my God.”?

The people of Judah had every reason to believe that God had abandoned them.  They had every reason to believe that it was the end of the road for them.  But God said otherwise.  They weren’t abandoned; even in slavery and exile, God was with them.  God knew them, and claimed them.  The same God who called them and named them before they were even born was with them in Babylon; he was giving them strength when they thought all hope was lost.  And more than that, he had a mission for them, a call.  The promises God had made to their ancestors would be fulfilled.  They would have a land of their own, and that God would always be their God.  Their nation and their home would be restored.

But that wasn’t all.  God wasn’t just going to restore what had been before, God was going to do something even greater through them.  The Jews, the people of Israel and Judah, that despised and broken people, would become a light to the whole world.  They would spread God’s salvation throughout the nations, to all the ends of the earth.  They were slaves, they had nothing and nobody cared about them; as far as the world could see, they were on the trash heap of history.  But God saw differently; God still cared for them and claimed them as his own; God had a mission for them.  The LORD, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, had chosen them.

That was the comfort and promise that God spoke through the words of the prophet Isaiah.  And it came true: after about sixty years in exile, the captives were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild their nation.  And around five centuries later, a young Jewish woman named Mary, a descendant of the ones who had been in exile, gave birth to a son, named him Jesus, wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.  That Jesus was God’s son, the Lamb of God, who came to earth that the whole world might be saved.

But here’s the thing.  God’s promise didn’t mean that everything would magically change overnight.  It didn’t mean that the problems would vanish.  The people who heard God’s word spoken through the prophet still had to wait in slavery for their exile to be over.  Some of them died while they were waiting, and never saw the end of the exile.  And when they were allowed to go home, they found their cities in ruins and foreign people living there.  It took time and effort to rebuild their nation, faith lived out through hard times and hard work.  And the nation they rebuilt wasn’t the same as the one that had been destroyed; they couldn’t turn back the clock.  The world had changed, and they had to change to deal with it.  It wasn’t smooth, and it wasn’t easy; there were lots of arguments and disagreements and setbacks.  Yet even in the midst of all that turmoil, God was working in them and through them.

None of the ones who heard the prophet speak would live to see the final fulfillment of his words.  But through all the struggle, the waiting and the work, they kept the faith.  They did the work God called them to, they adapted to their new situation, and they passed on their faith to those who came after.  They remembered that their cause was with the LORD, and their reward was for God.  Their success or failure wasn’t measured in the way the world measures things.  Their success or failure wasn’t determined by the lavishness of the Temple they built, or the power of their new nation.  Their success was in God; their reward was with God.  God’s judgment was the only one they had to worry about, and in God’s eyes they were holy and beloved.

As I first read this text, it seemed to speak to Birka’s situation.  Particularly verse 4: ‘But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.”’  There’s hopelessness in those words, a sense of the inevitability of failure.  Birka’s members are getting older and fewer, and that is glaringly obvious at every worship service, every church event, every time someone tells a story of what things used to be like in the good old days.  If nothing changes, Birka will eventually have to close.

And yet, if God was with the people of Israel in exile when all hope seemed lost, surely God is with Birka now.  If God can work through exiled slaves, surely God can work through us, too.  And we, too, were called and named while we were still in our mother’s womb; we, too, are precious and beloved.  Our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with God.

I am not a prophet.  I know that God could turn this congregation around and give us new life, as he did to the Jews in exile, but I don’t know if that’s what God has planned for us.  I have a feeling that if God were to do so, it would mean hard work and change on our part as it did to the people who returned home from exile.  But even if God doesn’t have Birka’s re-growth in his plans, that doesn’t mean that Birka is a failure.  Our success or failure is not determined by the size of our budget or the number of people sitting in our pews.  Our success is in God, and in the ministry we carry out in God’s name.

Ministry like our caroling trip to Bismarck in December.  Those of you who were able to come along saw the joy of those we visited, the tears of thankfulness.  We do ministry together when we worship, and when we invite friends and loved ones to worship with us.  We do ministry together when we come together to Bible study, and we do ministry when we pray.  And our generosity to organizations like the Food Pantry and Camp of the Cross and Lutheran World Relief enables those ministries to do great work in the community and throughout the world.

Birka has been here for over a century, and done a lot of ministry in that time.  None of it was in vain.  If we were to close our doors tomorrow, the things that we have done would still cast ripples of God’s light throughout the community, and the resources of our congregation would go to the larger church to support a new generation of ministry in God’s name.  But I don’t believe Birka will be closing tomorrow, or the day after, or any time soon.  I believe God still has ministry for Birka to do.

After worship today we’ll gather for an annual meeting.  We’ll discuss the budget, the roof, and other issues.  Some of it may be hard to think about, and some important decisions will need to be made about what kind of ministry God is calling us to.  But never doubt that our cause is with the LORD, and our reward with our God.

Amen.

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013

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.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times.  The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing.  The Scientific Revolution was just getting started.  The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up.  The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East.  During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna.  And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in.  The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change.  In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.

It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength.  In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil.  What a comfort!  No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us.  No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us.  We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.

But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same.  It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same.  God is always the same, but we are not.  Martin Luther found that out.  You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before.  One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins.  They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven.  They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it.  But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.

This was a big deal!  This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear!  And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places.  It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray.  We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.

Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened!  They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word.  Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives.  They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another.  And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out.  They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It had an impact on their lives.  Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived.  It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained.  It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith.  But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too.  It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level.  It changed how families lived together.  It changed the position of women in the community.  It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society.  Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before.  Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.

That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before.  We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out.  And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian.  This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before.  In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation.  They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing.  We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners.  We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed.  As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit.  We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.

It’s hard.  It’s hard, because the world is changing.  It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God.  Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble.  Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation.  Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness.  Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.

But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.