Growing in the Word

Augustana’s 100th Anniversary, June 29, 2013

 Isaiah 40:6-11, Psalm 100, 1 Corinthians 3:5-11, Matthew 28:16-20,

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

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

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

It is a privilege and an honor to preach today, at Augustana’s 100th Anniversary worship service.  Welcome, again, to all of you who have come from out of town to join us this morning.  I hope you all had a good time last night at the dinner, and will be joining us for lunch after worship.  For those of you who haven’t been here in a while, things look a little different, don’t they?  In the hundred years since the first church was built, there have been a lot of changes.  The addition of Sunday School classrooms; the building of this new sanctuary and the fellowship hall beneath.  Most recently, the new kitchenette upstairs.  And those are just the big changes—the little ones like new paint, more electrical outlets, new furniture, and new art have made this place look different.

But the differences in the building just scratch the surface of the changes.  Some of the same families are here now that were there at the very beginning, but some have left and new ones have come in.  And many of those first families probably spoke Swedish at home, and remembered the Old Country well, but we here today are all English speakers whose roots have gone deep in the soil of this country. We even look different—we dress more casually, and women’s style of dress has changed dramatically.  You certainly wouldn’t have seen pink and purple streaks in the hair of today’s youth a hundred years ago!  Nor would you have had a woman up here in the pulpit.  Even the Bible we read has changed a little—we use a more modern translation that is generally more faithful to the original languages.  All of these things have changed.  And yet, God is still here, and we are still here together.  The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the word of our God endures forever.

The word of God—what a rich phrase, with so many meanings!  The simplest meaning is, of course, Scripture.  The Scriptures tell the stories of God’s work in the world, from the creation through to the New Jerusalem.  There is such a richness in the scriptures—God’s words to us; our words of praise for God; the rules that people of different times followed to help them live as God’s people; the stories of people of faith who can inspire and teach us.  Together, all these many strands form God’s word.

But in a time where so many things are changing, including how we read and interpret the Bible, it sometimes doesn’t feel like the Scriptures are enduring.  How we interpret the Bible’s teachings on so many issues have changed in the last few decades—gender, race, sexuality, in so many ways we are rethinking how we are interpreting such things.  The words themselves may not have changed, but our understanding of them has changed.  In many cases, this is because the questions we ask God have changed.  It can be confusing and sometimes even a little frightening to hear all the many different ways of hearing and understanding God’s word.  Yet there have been many periods of change in the history of the Christian faith; many times when new eyes and new insights have affected our understanding of what it means to be God’s people.  Our understanding of God’s plans may change, but God does not, and neither does God’s love; through everything, God remains gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Bible so frequently reminds us.

That love is manifest most clearly in the person of Jesus Christ the living Word of God.  While the Bible contains many of God’s words, Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh.  Christ came to us and shared our life on this planet.  He lived, cried, loved, and laughed, sharing everything that it means to be human, and he was baptized in the Jordan River.  He taught people about God, about what God’s love means for each and every one of us.  He taught people about what grace and mercy and forgiveness mean, he healed people and brought wholeness to everyone he met.  And then he died on the cross to save us from our sins.  In our baptisms we are tied to Christ’s death and resurrected.  Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, the center of our faith, now and always.  Although we change, Christ does not.  And through all the changes in our lives, Christ is with us, helping us to grow in faith and love.

I know the farmers and the gardeners in the congregation know about tending growing things.  To help something grow, there are a lot of things that need to be done.  Tilling, planting, watering, fertilizing, harvesting, keeping the equipment maintained and in good condition—all of these things need to be done to ensure a good crop.  They take time, and effort, and attention.  You can’t just do everything all at once and be done with it.  You can’t just do the same thing every time by rote.  You have to think, and pay attention, and adjust your plans as you go to respond to changing conditions like how much rain there’s been, and you have to be willing to work hard.  Yet, for all that time and effort and expertise, the farmer or gardener isn’t the one who created the plants, or made them grow.  God created the plants, God gave them life.  We may plant them in the ground, and work to give them the best conditions possible, but it is God who causes them to grow.

So it is with faith in God.  We didn’t create it; God reaches out to us, claims us even when we are dead in sin.  We can do things to help prepare the soil in which our faith grows, fertilize and water it: we can worship together, pray, study the Bible, talk about our faith with one another, give generously, feed the hungry and heal the sick.  We can baptize people, and teach them the stories of our faith.  All of these will help God’s saving work in us and in the world around us, and all of these are things God calls us to do.  Yet it is still God who comes to us, who gives us the gift of faith, who leads us to his Word and brings us together as God’s people.

A hundred years ago, God called a group of people together here on the prairie to worship God together, and to support one another in their life as followers of Christ.  Creating a new congregation is an act of faith.  So is participating in a congregation’s continuing ministry.  God calls us together, to study God’s Word, and sends us out into the world to live as God’s people and spread the Gospel in word and deed.  We come together because we have faith that God will be with us as we worship, as we study, and as we work.  We come together because we have faith that God will be present in us and around us, and because we have faith that God will gather us together and make us the body of Christ.  Being a congregation together requires faith not just in ourselves, but in God and in all who gather for worship now and in all times past and future.

No congregation depends on the work of one person, or on the work of one family, or even on one generation.  When we begin things—be it a new service, a new class, a new ministry to the community, a new anything—we can’t see where it will lead.  A farmer can, with modern technology, do everything on his farm that needs to be done.  A gardener can take care of a garden by themselves, without help.  But that’s not the way God’s Word works: God’s Word works in and through many people.  One person plants a seed—a kind word at the right time; a prayer; a visit to someone who is sick; help to someone who needs it; a question that leads to a new idea; a Bible study.  It could be a small thing or a large thing.  Someone else waters it, giving that seed what it needs to grow.  Another person takes out some of the weeds surrounding it, giving it space and freedom.  Another person prunes out some of the parts that aren’t so healthy anymore, so that new growth can take place.  All work together, following God’s call and acting as God’s hands and feet in the world.  It takes faith and trust that God will give the growth, and will guide us together to share the Gospel and support God’s work in the world and in ourselves.  It takes faith that other people will participate, will join in the work.  It takes faith that even people who don’t always agree with you will be able to join together in common cause.

We are the farmers and gardeners, who help God’s people to grow.  And yet, we are also the grass and flowers that are grown.  Each individual blade of grass will turn brown and die.  Each flower will fade and fall.  And yet, the field of grass remains and comes back; new flowers rise to take the place of old ones.  In the same way, individual humans die, yet the community remains.  We change; generations come and go.  The questions we ask of God’s word change, as do the assumptions we bring to it.  Yet the Word of God endures forever, and the Word of God keeps drawing us to God, and sending us out into the world to be God’s hands.

God has been gracious and merciful to us, abounding in steadfast love.  God has brought us together and given us the gift of God’s own Word, which is our rock and cornerstone in a changing world.  God has been with Augustana for the last hundred years, and God will still be with us in the future.  God gives us the faith to help us grow, and leads us to work together as God’s people.  May we follow God’s Word even in the midst of all the changes in ourselves and in our world.

Amen.

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My Ordination: October 27th, 2012

At my ordination
At my ordination
As part of the ordination service, other pastors and diaconal ministers lay hands on the ordinand bless her
As part of the ordination service, other pastors and diaconal ministers lay hands on the ordinand bless her
The newly ordained pastor is presented to the congregation
The newly ordained pastor is presented to the congregation
I'm the one in the middle, with Bishop Brauer-Rieke behind me and the pastors and diaconal minister who participated in my ordination around us.
I’m the one in the middle, with Bishop Brauer-Rieke behind me and the pastors and diaconal minister who participated in my ordination around us.
My family and I after the ordination
My family and I after the ordination
The flowers given by my new congregations, Augustana Lutheran Church and Birka Lutheran Church.
The flowers given by my new congregations, Augustana Lutheran Church and Birka Lutheran Church.
Me in a green quilted stole with the tree of life and trinity symbols.
This stole was made for me by Pam Duren of Philomath, Oregon. It was commissioned by Trinity Lutheran Church of Somerset, PA.
Me in a green quilted stole
This stole was made for me by Kay Mitchell.
Me in a red stole with flames symbolizing the Holy Spirit.
This stole was made for me for my ordination by Donna Wolfe.

Video of my Ordination

On true love

Pentecost 12 (Year A), Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

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

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

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

As some of you know, I have two younger brothers.  The youngest is sixteen years younger than I am: we didn’t really grow up together.  But the middle brother, Nels, is only four and a half years younger than me.  In general, Nels and I had a very good relationship growing up … except for Saturdays.  Saturdays, we didn’t get along.  You see, our parents own their own business.  When we were growing up they worked almost every Saturday during their busy season.  Nels and I would be at home alone together, and since I was the elder, I was in charge.  There were two things we had to do every Saturday: we had to eat a good lunch—not just snacks, but a nutritious meal—and we had to clean the bathrooms.  Dividing the labor was where the trouble began.

The first part was easy.  Cleaning toilets kind of grossed me out, but they didn’t bother Nels.  And Nels could never quite get the mirrors spotless enough to pass Mom’s inspection.  So Nels did the toilets, and I did the countertops, sinks, and mirrors.  So far, so good.  The conflict arose when we got to the bathtubs.  You see, one of the bathtubs was easy to clean.  The other was not.  The other bathtub was stained, and showed dirt and grime, and required a lot of scrubbing to get it acceptably clean.  So that was the battle each week: who would clean which tub?

Being the one left in charge, I was the one who got to decide.  My decree was that the fairest way to do it would be that the one who finished cleaning their assigned part of the bathrooms first got to choose.  It was a fairly safe decision for me, given the differences in how Nels and I approach tasks.  When I start, I tend to work hard and constantly until I’m done, so that I can get on to doing something else.  Nels, on the other hand, is more of a daydreamer.  He worked slowly, with frequent breaks.  Despite the fact that I had more surface to clean, I don’t think Nels ever finished cleaning the toilets before I was done with the counters, sinks and mirrors.  Which meant that I always got to choose, and of course I always chose the easier tub to clean.  You can see how I thought that division of labor was perfectly fair.  After all, I was the harder worker, surely that deserved a reward.  But you can also see why Nels did not agree.

And it didn’t stop there.  We had a deal that we would trade off making lunch every week, but I’m not that fond of cooking.  So I would sometimes try and get Nels to do it, even if it was really my turn.  After spending quite a long time cleaning—remember that Nels was not a fast worker—and having to clean the harder tub, Nels would come out into the living room only to be confronted with his older sister asking him: “Isn’t it your turn to make lunch?”  I’m sure you can imagine the squabbles and hurt feelings between us.  Many Saturdays followed that pattern.  We got along fairly well the rest of the time, but on Saturdays, we fell back into the same unhealthy pattern.  We never tried to fix it, do things differently, to find a way to work together in love.  We just did the same old thing, and fought the same battle over and over again.

I think both Paul and Jesus would have a lot to say about that.  In our reading from Romans today, Paul writes: “The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  The commandments our parents gave us for Saturday mornings were given in love.  We were commanded to eat nutritious meals so that we would grow up healthy and strong.  We were commanded to clean the bathrooms so that we would learn responsibility and so that the whole family would have a clean place to live.  Both commandments were given for our good, and for the good of the whole family.  But we did not follow them in love, and so they only caused turmoil and arguments.  And because the guidelines I developed to tell us how to follow those commandments were based on my own selfish desires rather than love of my brother, they caused trouble and pain.

Have you ever had a similar time in your own life?  A time when commandments and rules that were designed for good were used instead to hurt?  It’s something I’ve noticed humans are particularly prone to.  God’s commandments were given in love.  They are designed to help us live good and faithful lives, abundant lives rich in grace and mercy.  Instead, through our own sinfulness, we make them into burdens.  Instead of helping us to love God and one another, we interpret the laws so that they work to our own advantage, even at the expense of our neighbor.  We use laws and rules as weapons.  We use them to separate ourselves, keep ourselves apart, rather than as ways to help us live together in love and harmony.  We keep the letter of the law and ignore the spirit.  We let division and selfishness rule instead of love.

Love is not always easy.  There’s this idea, in America, that love should be effortless, and if there’s a struggle, that it’s not really love.  I think that’s one reason there are so many divorces, these days.  Couples start out in harmony, but the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.  Eventually there comes a time when things get hard, when they disagree.  Some of them decide that since it isn’t easy—since it requires work to get through whatever the trouble is—that it means they’re not really in love any more.  People do the same with friends.  There’s a disagreement, a problem of some kind.  Someone’s feelings get hurt.  And instead of working through it, the friendship is abandoned.  There’s a saying that love means never having to say you’re sorry.  I think that’s wrong, because even when we love people, we sometimes hurt them through selfishness or carelessness or honest disagreement.  I think that love truly means being willing to admit when you’re wrong, to apologize, and work together to rebuild your relationship.  And love means being willing to forgive even when you’ve been hurt.

We as Christians should know this well.  God loves us so much that he is willing to forgive us no matter how we hurt him.  As Paul said earlier in Romans chapter 5, “ God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  God loves us even when we sin, so much that he gave his only son to die for us, to save us and make us whole.  In return, God asks only that we love one another as God has loved us.  Because as Paul says, all the commandments can be summed up with one word: love.  Even when we hurt one another, even when we go astray, we are still God’s beloved children, brothers and sisters in Christ and members of Christ’s body.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus gives instructions for times when our love for one another has fallen short.  Matthew 18 has a practical step-by-step guide on how to resolve disagreements.  First, go to the person who hurt you, or who has a disagreement with you, and trying to resolve the trouble privately.  Don’t complain to your spouse, your sibling, your parents, your children, your neighbor, your best friend, the church secretary, or the pastor.  If you have a problem with someone, Jesus says, you should talk to them about it directly and see if that solves the problem.  How often do we do that?  Too often, we vent at someone else about our problems and so make the whole thing harder to resolve.  By going to others instead of the one we’re mad at, we start to form factions and further divide the body of Christ which is the church.  We may feel better, more in the right, but that self-righteousness comes at a price.  Nothing is resolved, and the same pattern plays out on a larger scale.  The love that should bring us together is sacrificed on the altar of our resentment.  We repeat our mistakes, we make the hurt grow bigger.  We fail to love one another as God loves us.

If one-on-one discussion of the trouble doesn’t work, Jesus says, bring in two or three witnesses.  Now, he doesn’t mean gang up on someone.  These witnesses should be impartial people to help mediate and settle things and provide an unbiased account.  Only if that doesn’t work should the matter made public.  And it shouldn’t be made public through rumors, innuendo, or gossip.  Instead, there is open communication so that everyone knows the full story and the community of faith can judge rightly.  You see, each of these steps is designed to be fair, so that the truth may be spoken and relationships may be mended.  These steps are designed to help us work through our disputes so that a loving relationship may be restored.  It’s not an easy process, nor is it one that comes naturally to most people.  But if used with love and compassion it is the best way that broken relationships can be made whole.

The problem, of course, is the same one Nels and I had on Saturday mornings.  The command is given in love and designed for our good and wholeness, but we take it and use it in such a way that it brings dissent, instead of love.  We get so focused on what we want, on how we can get our own way, that we don’t even see how we hurt one another.  We use the rules God gives to break people down, instead of build them up in love.  We live by our own way, instead of God’s love.

“The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Sometimes, that kind of love is harder to fulfill than any rule or regulation could be.  All too often, we fall short, and fulfill the letter of the law by breaking its spirit.  All too often, we act out of selfishness or anger instead of love.  Thank God, that Jesus loves us, and forgives us no matter how often we go astray and completely miss the point.  May the love of Christ dwell within us, that we may learn to show that love to one another.

Amen.

Sing to the Lord a New Song: hymns from around the world

Why is music so important to us?  Why is it that the introduction of a new hymn or liturgy can create such a dramatic battle within a church?  One reason is that music speaks to our heart; the songs we grow up singing are the songs that we remember throughout our lives.  Long after a sermon or a scripture reading has been forgotten, we remember melodies and lyrics.  They help us learn and they shape our faith in deep and sometimes unacknowledged ways.  Music for worship should always be carefully chosen.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently produced a new hymnal, “Evangelical Lutheran Worship,” replacing the old Lutheran Book of Worship.  Now, this is a fairly common happening; Lutheran hymnals seem to have a shelf life of between twenty and thirty years, before they need to be updated.  Lyrics are “modernized,” new liturgies written to match new styles of worship, new hymns added and old rarely-used ones removed.  It’s always a controversial process.

In this new book, however, there’s a far greater percentage of what might be called “multi-cultural hymns,” that is, hymns written around the world by a wide variety of Christians.  Hymns from Africa, from Asia, from Latin America, hymns written by Native Americans, by African Americans, old Gospel favorites–a far cry from previous hymnbooks, in which only hymns from the Lutheran heartlands (i.e. northern Europe and certain parts of North America) were included.  Now, there are still plenty of those classics in the new book; the editors of the ELW have taken the stance that it’s more important to have everything–a smorgasbord of worship and praise–than it is to have a manageable number of liturgies and hymns.  Each congregation can then pick and choose which hymns and liturgies that suit it.  And from what I’ve seen, churches are mainly sticking to the old favorites they already knew, or ones similar in style and theme to old classics.

So why bother with all the “multicultural” hymns?  Why include them in a hymnal that’s already overstuffed?  The most common answer that I’ve heard is that if we want to be a multicultural church–one that is welcoming of people from different cultural backgrounds–we need to have music that they recognize, that makes them feel welcomed.  But however practical an answer that might be, it misses a deeper theological point: music is a powerful tool for shaping our theology and our relationship with God and our community.  So, theologically, why include those hymns?

It’s important to include those hymns–and to use them!–because God is great, not only greater than we know but greater than we can know.  God is wonderful beyond the limits of our knowledge or imagination.  God is a god of all places and times, not just those which are most familiar to us.  We have seen and experienced how God works in our own lives, and the lives of our forefathers and foremothers; the hymns and songs and liturgies we regularly use reflect that.  But just as God works in Europe and North America, so too God works in Africa and Asia and South America.  Christians in those places have lives that are very different from ours, and see the world differently than we do.  Yet the one God who created all things and all people, who redeems us, who draws us together into one body in Christ, is with them just as he is with us.  And they put their experience of God into their songs and hymns just as we do into ours.

If we only sing the hymns we are familiar with and comfortable with, we limit our understanding and experience of the ways God works in the world.  It becomes easier to forget that God speaks in many languages.

By singing these “multicultural” hymns, by adding them to our rich musical heritage, we become more connected to the Body of Christ around the world.

Essential Grace

There is a huge debate in the ELCA today about issues of sexuality.  There are several different views on the matter, many of which are in bitter opposition to one another.  Some congregations are leaving the church.  Some people are leaving their congregations.  Some, despite opposition on both theological and social grounds, are staying.  But how can we stay together in one church with such differences?  With such heated debate over whose interpretation of the Word of God is right?

We are not the first to have a major conflict within the church.  There have been times before when serious differences of practice and belief have challenged our ability to be a unified church.  This has happened many, many times over the history of the church, over issues that continue to be major and over issues that to us today seem to be largely irrelevant.  What can we learn from our forbears in the faith?  For the reformers in the 16th century, who were trying to create a new identity as Christians after having left the Roman Catholic church that had defined Christianity in the West since the very beginning, the solution was to divide things into essentials–those things that could not be compromised–and adiaphora–those things that were largely peripheral.  Adiaphora might be (and often was) comprised of issues that were at the heart of everyday life and practice of religion.  It was often bitterly fought over.  But those on differing sides of the issues could still come together as the body of Christ.  If we apply that question today, what are the essentials, to us?  What things are adiaphora?

As Lutherans, we hold that the core of the Gospel is justification.  All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; we are all sinners.  But we are also all saints, called and redeemed by God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God.  We are saved by the grace of God, by his steadfast love.  No action or inaction of ours can change God’s saving will.  This is the core of the Gospel.  While other theological interpretations may change, this stands firm.  No one on any side of the issue is challenging this.

The sexuality question is not one of Gospel, but of morals.  How does God want us to live in this fallen world?  And while the Gospel does not change, morals can do.  A century and a half ago, there were Lutherans in America who believed that slavery was morally acceptable.  A little over half a century ago, there were Lutherans in Germany who believed that Hitler’s treatment of Jews was not only morally acceptable, but even praiseworthy in some cases.  There is a great deal of material in the Bible that can be taken to support either position (much of the Old Testament in the former case, though most emphatically not Exodus, and the virulent anti-semitism of the Gospel of John, in the latter).  Despite their claim to Biblical support, today we believe them to have been horribly, tragically wrong.

I believe both slavery and anti-Semitism to be of much greater concern to Christianity, much closer to issues concerning the heart of the Gospel, than issues relating to homosexuality.  There are only five references to homosexual behavior in the Bible.  Paul’s letters and the holiness codes of Leviticus each contain two one-verse references to homosexual behavior included in a laundry list of forbidden behaviors.  Then there is the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in chapters eighteen and nineteen of Genesis, which in the text is an issue primarily of inhospitality, violence, and xenophobia in which homosexuality is a manifestation of the depravity of those two cities, not the main problem.  (Compare with the parallel story of the Levite’s Wife in the nineteenth chapter of Judges; compare also with Jesus’ reference to Sodom in Luke 10:12 or Matthew 10:15.)  Commentators did not begin to cite homosexuality as the main problem of Sodom and Gomorrah until several centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection.

The Bible is saturated with stories about the grace and mercy and love of God, and with commands to love one another and protect the vulnerable.  And yet we are tearing our churches apart–tearing the Body of Christ apart–over four verses and one dubiously-interpreted story.

For further study, here are a collection of responses to the sexuality issue collected by the faculty of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.

One in Christ: meditations in the week following Martin Luther King Day

This last Monday was MLK day, the day our government sets aside each year to honor the life and work of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.  Some congregations remembered him in their prayers on Sunday; some held small prayer services or sang a gospel hymn in his honor; some did nothing at all.  As with all secular holidays that may be observed in church, I think it’s important to think about why we as a church care about this observance decreed by our political leaders.

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

–Genesis 1:27

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

–Galatians 3:28

For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

–Romans 12:4-10

There are many divisions in this world, divisions that we see as fundamental, that so deeply permeate our society and our ways of thinking that we don’t even recognize them.  This was true in St. Paul’s day; this is equally true today, though the categories that divide us have changed.  And yet, as in Paul’s day, we have all been made one in Christ.  But  more fundamentally even than that, every human being on this planet was created in the image of God.  Christian or not, we are made in the image of God.  That’s an amazing thing!  Every time you see a person, you see God!  That image may be twisted or broken, that image may be hidden beneath layers of differences you can’t understand and perhaps don’t want to.  But it cannot be denied.  Think about that for a bit.

Do we treat one another as if that is the case?  Really?  It’s fairly easy to do when we are dealing with people like ourselves–skin color, gender identity, orientation, class, ethnicity, etc., etc.  It’s a lot harder when dealing with people who don’t look like us and share our cultural backgrounds.  We see the differences and the divisions, and let them blind us to the image of God, created by God’s loving care.  The tragedy comes when people know they should do that and yet,  ingrained in their mind deep down, are the prejudices that are created by and thrive on the divisions that separate us.  It’s so much easier to ignore those darker voices within us, to allow them free reign while believing they don’t exist, than it is to face them.  It’s always difficult to face the ways in which we ourselves are broken by sin, both as groups and as individuals.  And yet unless we can, unless you and I can acknowledge our sin, our failure to treat all of God’s children as God wants them to be treated, we not only allow sin to flourish, we hurt other people through what we do and what we leave undone.

This is the duty all humans owe to God who created us in his image, to ourselves, and to our neighbors throughout the world.  As Christians we owe still more, for we know that our fellow Christians–no matter how different from us they may look or seem–are truly members of the same body, the body of Christ.  We are called not only to respect them, but truly love them as our brothers and sisters, to accept and cherish both the similarities that bind us together and the differences that could tear us apart if we’re not careful.

It’s a tall order, and we could not do it alone.  Thank God for our lord and savior Jesus Christ, into whose life, death, and resurrection we were baptized and whose body and blood we are given in the Eucharist, even as we are formed into Christ’s body in this world.  Thank God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, the empowering and renewing wind that blows through our lives and sends us out into the world to do God’s work.  Thank God for forgiving us when we fall short of his commands.

And thank God for the life of our brother Martin, who lived and died for the work of God to unite us all as brothers and sisters in one holy family.

Practical resources for dealing with issues of race, ethnicity, and other kinds of prejudice:

Talking Together as Christians Cross-Culturally (A good Lutheran resource)

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (A classic essay that has shaped discussions of racism, feminism, prejudice, and equality for the last twenty years)

Check my what? On Privilege and what we can do about it: some tips on going from pro-equality in theory to pro-equality in deed. A clear, concise explanation for what to do and what not to do, and why, complete with helpful links to more in-depth essays on a wide variety of issues and sub-issues.

The Light of Christ

Hello all!  It’s been a while since I posted, for which I apologize; personal struggles have gotten between me and my blog.

Last Saturday night, I participated in an Easter Vigil service at my home congregation.  For those of you who don’t know, the Easter Vigil is a worship service that takes place the night before Easter, celebrating all of God’s creative and redeeming activity from the creation of the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Since it takes place after dark, by the Jewish calendar which Christ and the early disciples used it’s already Easter.  Although it will not be announced to the world until morning, Jesus Christ is risen and the tomb is  empty.

Easter Vigil starts off with a fire, outside.  The Paschal/Christ Candle for the coming year is lit from the flame and the pastor holds it up, chanting “The Light of Christ!”  The congregation responds “The Light of Christ!”  Each holds a candle.  The Christ Candle lights a few, and those light the flames of others in turn.  As the flame is passed from person to person, the one giving the flame says “The light of Christ!” and the one receiving the flame says “Thanks be to God!”

The congregation then processes to the church and inside.  Now, this year there was a bit of a wind that night, and so peoples’ candles kept blowing out.  But every time a candle blew out, the person next to them gave them a new flame.  “The Light of Christ!”  “Thanks be to God!”

It struck me that this is a metaphor for the Christian life.  We don’t create our own fire, our own light, our own faith.  It is given as a gift from God, often through the care and attention of those around us–parents, friends, mentors.  Christian means “little Christ.”  As part of our Christian lives we are called to be “little Christs” to our neighbors.  As we have been given light, so we are to share that light with all around us.  So far, everything seems great, right?  But as wonderful as it is to have the light of Christ in us, to be light for the world, we can’t sustain that light on our own.  The trials of life sometimes blow it out.  But through God’s grace, those around us can share their light with us, and help rekindle the flame of faith within us.  As we are called to be “little Christs” to them, so they are called to be “little Christs” to us.  This is most certainly true within the community of faith, but also outside of it.  Many times, it is the ones outside our communities of faith that are most in need of Christ’s light.  And many times, the light of Christ comes to us from people and places that we least expect.

Now, I realize that the world is a broken, sinful place, and because of that sin Christ’s light doesn’t always seem to work like that.  Sometimes, there isn’t anyone around when we need help the most.  (Sometimes, the ones around us who should be the ones to help kindle that flame are the very ones causing the winds that blow it out.)  But for the most part, it works pretty well.  It’s one of the reasons that we have congregations and other communities of faith, why participating in the faith life of a group of fellow believers is so important.  So that when you feel the light of Christ in you and around you is dimming or has gone out, you already know who you can go to for spiritual renewal and support.  We form communities so that you can be renewed by Christ working through those around us, and when others need help we can be a “little Christ” to our neighbors in turn.