United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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.

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them.  I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.

On Tuesday, I was in Corinth.  Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times.  My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  During worship, we read this portion of the letter.  As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo.  The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left.  Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.

In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community.  Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored.  There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events.  Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite?  And have they helped you grow in status?  Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods.  It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good.  It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right.  Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.

This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth.  These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them.  They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together.  And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians.  This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions.  Who was the best Christian?  Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel?  Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough?  It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too.  It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else.  Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community.  But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing.  Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.

And so Paul called for unity.  Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose.  It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity.  Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better.  The Christian life is about following Jesus.  The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together.  The Christian life is about the cross.

Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right.  Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted.  He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear.  Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it.  And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up.  The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death.  The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done.  The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves.  We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is.  There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so.  And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create.  In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor.  God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us.  We don’t save the world—we can’t.  Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.

In a truly Christian community, there is unity.  Now, some people misunderstand what that means.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye.  In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being.  We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.

What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities.  The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world.  All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ.  The cross is who we are.  The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth.  That is where Christian unity comes from.  Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ.  Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second.  Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it.  There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ.  There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized.  There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world.  In him we live, and move, and have our being.  In him is the power of God to transform us and the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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

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

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

This is the sermon I am going to preach at your funeral, but since you won’t be here to hear it, I’ll give you a little foretaste of it now.  Paul writes: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Death is the enemy of all living things.  Death is the last, great enemy of God.  And death will be destroyed.  In his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set in motion the complete, total, and utter destruction of death.  Death is a dead man walking.  Death doesn’t get the last word.  Death is going down.

In the fallen world we live in now, death comes everywhere life does.  And death is constantly fighting to destroy life.  There’s a reason we call it a “battle with cancer”—when you have cancer, you are directly fighting the old enemy, death, which is trying to drag you down into its clutches.  But death comes in many other forms, too.  From hunger to heart attacks, depression to drunk driving, brutality to blood clots, abuse to addiction, death comes in many different forms, some of them obvious and overt and some of them subtle and insidious.  And sometimes death wins!  Each one of us will die in the end, and be laid in the grave.  But when Christ comes again the graves will be opened, and we will rise as our Lord did, and death itself will be destroyed.

Christians talk a lot about sin, but if you ask people—even many Christians!—what sin is, or what makes something a sin, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  And many of those answers will be incomplete, and some of them will even be wrong.  For example, a lot of the time people will say something along the lines of “sin is stuff that God doesn’t like.”  But the obvious question, then, is why God doesn’t like it.  And the reason that God doesn’t like some behaviors, the thing that makes them sinful, is that they hurt people.  They add to the destruction and death in the world.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that the wages of sin is death.  Sin leads to death.  And people assume sin leads to death because God doesn’t like those thoughts and behaviors and so he punishes them.  No!  It’s the other way around!  God doesn’t like them because they lead to death!  God loves all his children, all living creatures, and God wants us all to be happy and healthy.  But there are some things we do, as individuals and as groups, that hurt people.  Those behaviors add to the destruction in the world.  And it may be our actions leading to our own death, but all too often it’s our actions leading to other peoples’ death.  Our sin hurting ourselves and others.

A specific action or thought may not cause a death right then and there.  But sinful thoughts and actions add to the unpleasantness of the world.  Lies, jealousy, theft even on the pettiest level, abuse, neglect—they all add to the general harshness and evil in the world.  They make violence and neglect seem more normal.  They make the world a worse place.  They make it harder to live in.  They make people more likely to lash out at others, they make people more likely to kill, or just shrug and stand aside while others kill.  And so we get shocking crimes committed at a few people’s initiative, lots of people’s blessings, and everyone’s passive acquiescence.  All these sins, large and small, they add up.  They create conditions that make death more likely—the death of hope, the death of love, the death of the soul, the death of the body.  And death is the enemy, our enemy and God’s enemy.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been constantly adding to the death in the world.  And sometimes we do it obviously, by directly killing people.  Sometimes we do it indirectly, by causing or allowing the conditions that lead to death.  Sometimes we do it by creating a world and society where exploitation and violence and strife and oppression and greed and all the worst parts of ourselves are seen as normal, and sometimes even explained away as good.  We have been digging our own graves ever deeper.

But through the grace of God, those graves will not swallow us up forever.  Death is not the end of the story.  You see, God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to destroy death.  God sent Jesus into the world to shake things up and overturn the whole system that leads to death.  By dying for us and then rising from the grave, Jesus gave a knockout punch to death that will destroy it forever so that it can’t ever enter the ring again.

Now, we still die.  Because the destruction of death will not be complete until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  You know how sometimes someone gets hit on the head but they think they’re fine until a few hours later, when they collapse and it turns out that blow to the head caused a fatal aneurism, but it just didn’t rupture right away?  That’s death, right now.  Death is walking around this world thinking it’s the king of the hill, but its time is numbered.  Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus has dealt death the fatal blow.  Death is a goner, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And yeah, death can rage.  Yeah, death can do a lot of damage in the here-and-now.  Yeah, death can make life here on earth really nasty for a while.  But when Christ comes again, death is gonna be toast.

Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.  Christ’s resurrection is not a one-off event, it’s the first sprout in the field, poking up above the earth.  The rest, all those who have died, will rise when Christ comes again.  All those who now sleep in the earth, and all those who will die and be laid to rest between now and the second coming?  They will rise again from the grave just as Christ did that first Easter.  We will rise again.  The tomb will open for us just as it did for Jesus.  And on that day all people, living and dead, will be judged, and God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, and we will all be changed.  All of the chaff in our souls will be sifted out and burned, leaving only the good wheat.  Evil will be gone.  Death, the last great enemy, will be destroyed.  A new heaven and a new earth will be created, where all the things that led to death—all the sins that caused pain and suffering—will be gone.  There will be no more mourning or weeping, only joy and laughter and delight.  There will be no hurting or destruction.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox.  There will be only life, no more death, because Christ will have destroyed death forever.

That’s what Easter means.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.  We don’t celebrate the resurrection just because Christ rose from the grave.  I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but by itself that would still leave us mired in a world of death.  We celebrate Easter because of what it means for us.  We celebrate Easter because it has fundamentally reshaped the world, and so death does not get the last word.  We celebrate because we know that Christ is only the first fruits of the dead, that we ourselves will be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, along with all our loved ones and every human who has ever died.  And then, at that point, death will be no more, and pain will be no more, and all the things that make our lives miserable in the here and now will be destroyed.  Utterly, completely, and totally destroyed by God, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  No more death, only life.  A life better than you and I can imagine.

We are children of the Resurrection.  We know that no matter how much death rages around us in the here and now, we don’t have to fear it because it will be destroyed and we will be raised with Christ.  All the fears and pains of the world, they’re only temporary.  We don’t have to be afraid of all the things the world tells us to be afraid of.  We are free, free to spread love in a world drowning in death.  Free to spread hope in a world drowning in fear and cynicism.  Free to live, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

When Love is Most Needed

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 31st, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:21-30

 

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.

This passage from First Corinthians is one of the favorite and most famous passages of the Bible—and rightly so! Not only is it the heart of Paul’s message in this letter—and in many other letters—it also sums up the theme of much of Jesus’ teachings and several other New Testament writers. Jesus’ last commandment to us, for example, is to love one another. And in the letters of John we are told, repeatedly, that God is love, that God’s very core is love, that love is the center of who God is and who we are called to be as God’s people. So this passage, as Paul talks about what love is and what love looks like, is extremely important theologically. But that’s not all! It’s also beautifully written so that it is easy to understand and beautiful to listen to. It sounds like poetry. It’s important, and it’s gorgeous.

We use it in a lot of different contexts, and that’s a good thing! Most commonly these days, it’s used at weddings. I’ve preached on it at weddings myself! It’s such a rich text for a wedding sermon. The problem though, is that we tend to pull this text out only on happy occasions. At weddings, for example, we can normally assume that there’s a lot of love going around, and that everyone is happy. The couple is coming together in love for their spouse, and the community is coming together in love for the couple getting married. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s joyful, and it’s really easy to love. But what happens next? Is married love always that easy? Throughout the years you are together, does your heart always overflow with love for your spouse? I’ve never been married, but in even the happiest and most loving of marriages, things aren’t always that easy. Like any relationship, there is conflict. There is disagreement. There are times when you don’t feel the love, and you don’t want to feel the love. And that’s true of marriages, but it’s also true of other kinds of relationships—parent and child, friendships, congregations, community relationships. There are times when it is easy to love, and there are times when it is not.

And this passage was not written for the easy times. It was written for the hard times. The congregation in Corinth that Paul was writing to was terrible. They had all kinds of factions. They fought like cats and dogs. They had incredible spiritual gifts, and they wasted them. They played power games. They played status games. They played holier-than-thou. They used the language of the Gospel to advance their own selfish agenda. They let the richer and more powerful members dominate the poorer and less-well-connected members. And they had genuine theological disagreements, and disagreements about worship, that threatened to tear their congregation apart. They were a mess. There were a lot of gifts, but there was also a lot of selfishness, a lot of manipulation, a lot of fear, a lot of anger, a lot of things that shouldn’t ever happen in the body of Christ. I don’t know why they treated one another that way. Maybe it was selfishness; maybe it was fear lashing out; maybe it was some other reason. They did not love one another, and they had a lot of reasons why not. Some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were petty and selfish—hurt feelings and the like—but some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were actually pretty good reasons. Because let’s face it, most of them weren’t very lovable. I’ve seen congregations fight—I could tell you stories about congregations I’ve known and some I’ve worked at that would curl your hair—but I’ve never seen a congregation as screwed up and un-loving as the congregation at Corinth apparently was. And for that I thank God.

And it’s to that congregation, that mess, that pile of unloving and unlovable manipulative jerks, that Paul writes this great ode to love. Jesus told us to love one another, John the Elder told us that God is love, but here Paul explains exactly what that love should look like. I suppose it’s because everyone else knew what it meant. The Corinthians didn’t. They needed to hear it more than anyone else.

Here’s a question for you: is love a noun or a verb? I mean, is love a thing—a feeling—or is it an action, something you do, a choice you make? We tend to think of love as a feeling, a noun. But in this passage Paul talks about love like it’s a verb. It’s something you do, not something you are or feel. Love is how you act. It’s how you treat people—even those who don’t necessarily deserve it. Love is choosing to be patient, even when you don’t want to be. Love is choosing to say the kind thing instead of the cutting remark. Love is choosing to be happy for someone rather than envious of their good fortune. Love is choosing to forgive instead of cherishing up every resentment and waiting for an opportunity to strike back. And sometimes you may feel like doing all those things, and it will be easy. But sometimes you won’t, and that’s when love—the action of it—is most important of all.

Because when you get right down to it, nothing else matters. Love was Jesus’ commandment to us, and love is God’s very nature. We can have everything else going for us—all the spiritual gifts (which the Corinthians had, remember!), a huge membership, a beautiful building, huge amounts of charity, and if we don’t treat one another with love, none of the rest of it matters. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but don’t have love, I’m just tooting my own horn. If I have prophetic powers and can speak God’s word and a faith deep enough to move mountains, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything, but don’t have love, that gift is worthless. And I’m sure you know people who are like that. People who have never done anything seriously wrong in their whole lives, who give big amounts of money and time to a lot of good causes, who are smart and do all the things they should, and are still miserable to be around because they’re acting out of self-righteousness or obligation instead of love. I know a man like that, and I am so incredibly glad I now live half a continent away from him, because underneath all those pious good-works, he was one of the most resentful, malevolent people I’ve ever known in my life. He had everything going for him, and he did all the things he should do, and on paper he looked like a great guy.  But he had no love in his heart and he never acted out of love, either, and so he was miserable and made everyone around him miserable, too.

In my time here at Birka Lutheran Church, one of the things I’ve been most impressed by is the community you have formed, the way you love one another and the way love isn’t just a word or a feeling, it’s the way you treat one another. I’ve seen it in the way you choose to be understanding rather than judgmental of one another. I’ve seen it in the way you come together to do things, and help one another out whenever there’s a problem. I’ve seen that love in a hundred different ways, not just from one or two people but from many. It has made worshiping with you and ministering to and with you and participating in your events a joy and a pleasure for me, and I think it’s the reason why visitors often come away feeling like Birka is a special place. It’s not just the beauty of this place, it is the love found in the community of faith here.

Over the last two months, however, that love has been a little scarcer than usual. And I think it’s because of fear; fear of what will happen to Birka, fear of what will happen to this community that we love and this place that we love if we close, fear of what will happen if we don’t. People have said unkind things; they’ve assumed the worst possible motivations—I’ve been guilty of that myself, a time or two—they’ve lashed out at those who think differently; they’ve circled the wagons into a kind of “us vs. them” mentality. Not all the time; there has also been understanding and kindness and patience even in the midst of disagreement. There have been times that love flowed freely, but there have also been times that love was awful thin on the ground. And I understand, because this is a huge thing we’re going to be deciding today, something that will deeply affect each and every one of us no matter what the outcome is. When you’re making such huge decisions with people you don’t agree with, when other peoples’ actions can have such a huge effect on your own life, it’s hard to love them. It’s hard to show that love, it’s hard to be patient, it’s hard to be kind. It’s one of the hardest things I can imagine. And yet, in times of trouble and crisis and division, that’s when Paul’s words are most needed. That’s when love is most needed.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease. People die. Congregations die. Countries die. Communities die. Whether Birka closes next year or fifty years from now or a thousand years into the future, it will die eventually. So will Augustana and every other congregation in the world. The one thing that will never die, the one thing that saves us, that calls us, that brings us together, is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s love will never end. Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you called us by name and made us your own. You called us here to the prairie together for over a century, and you have given us your love in all that time. Your love has flourished in us and among us. As we discuss this and make this decision today, help us to feel your love. Help us to remember that we are all here because we love Birka, and help us to speak and act in love even in the midst of our disagreements. Guide us in your truth and in your love, and abide with us, now and forever.

Amen.

Being a Part of the Body

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 24th, 2016

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

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.

Americans prize rugged individualism. Think about TV shows and movies you watched, as a kid and recently. How often is it all about the One Great Hero? Whether that’s the Lone Ranger or Superman or John Wayne or James Bond or Harry Potter or a cowboy standing up to cattle rustlers or a cop who cleans up a neighborhood or a teacher who changes the lives of her students or a lost hiker surviving against all odds, there’s usually one person it all comes down to. One person whose life we follow. One person who does it all, saves the day, fixes the problem, and rides off into the sunset. And it’s not just our entertainment. We like to think of ourselves as strong, capable, independent—capable of doing it all on our own and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We idolize self-made men, the strong, silent type, who don’t seem to need anyone’s help. We tend to prioritize individual needs over group needs, individual dreams over group dreams. Individual accomplishments over group ones.

This carries over into our spirituality, too. How many times have you been asked about your personal relationship with our Lord and Savior? How often do we focus on individual spiritual needs and development? Think of all those inspirational pictures you see of one person walking through a forest or down a street, with a Bible quote on them. All the hymns and Christian songs about how Jesus has touched the singer’s life. And up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with this! A certain amount of individualism is healthy, helps us achieve goals and develop our potential to the fullest.

But the problem is, the Christian life is not supposed to be an individual one. The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” may be common in modern American Christianity, but there’s nothing even close to that phrase in the Bible. It first appeared in America at the beginning of the 20th Century. Instead of individualism, the Bible is all about community, as we hear in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

The Corinthians gave Paul more trouble than any other church he planted, in a lot of different ways. They fought over stupid stuff. They misunderstood the Gospel. They’d get really enthusiastic about all kinds of weird things that pulled them away from Christ. They had all these different spiritual gifts, but used them as an excuse to lord it over one another and play status games rather than to do God’s work. They praised the more visible and noticeable gifts, and ignored or derided the less impressive ones. And that’s what Paul was addressing in this section of his letter. They had lots of potential—the Holy Spirit was with them!—but they were missing the point of what the Spirit was giving them. Because the Spirit wasn’t giving them all these gifts so that individuals would be glorified, but so that the whole Christian community could benefit. And there were a lot of the Spirit’s gifts that were being wasted because they didn’t think they were important.

Being Christian is about being part of a community. Large or small doesn’t matter; there are small Christian communities that do great work, and large ones that fall apart or can even be harmful. To be a Christian is to be a part of the body of Christ, a metaphor Paul used in many different letters. It’s not just about me and Jesus, it’s about all of us together in Christ. We all have a part to play, and we all depend on one another, because nobody can do it all. When we were baptized, we were made a part of the body of Christ.

Let’s explore that metaphor for a bit. A body has lots of different parts. Paul names some of them—eyes, ears, hands, feet. And there are lots of other parts of the body, that you can’t see. Hearts, lungs, kidneys, thyroids, livers, nerves, all have their part to play. Most of those, you don’t notice! It’s easy to take them for granted, as long as they all work together and do their job. But when things get out of whack, when they don’t work together, you’re in serious trouble. I couldn’t tell you exactly what a thyroid does, but I’ve had friends and parishioners have thyroids that stopped working—or that worked too much!—and boy, did that cause problems. When all the parts of the body are working together, every part gets what it needs, and together they can do things that none of them could do by themselves. It doesn’t matter if the heart pumps blood if there aren’t any lungs to put oxygen in the blood and intestines to put nutrients in the blood and kidneys to filter waste out of the blood. And if you don’t have nerves that react to pain, you wouldn’t know to take your hand off the hot stove. You need all of them. Just like you need eyes and ears and hands and feet. Some of the parts of the body are more visible and noticeable than others, but all have their role to play. Some of the parts are more glamorous or beautiful or respectable, but all of them are important.

Being a Christian is like that. We are all parts of the body of Christ which is our congregation . No one person—no five people!—can do everything. We depend on each other. We all have different gifts and different strengths and different weaknesses, and some of them are pretty obvious. Some people are really good at music. Some people are really good at decorating. Some people are really good at reading. Some people are really good at ushering. Some people are really good at teaching. Others aren’t so obvious, or at any rate, we don’t value them as much as we should. Some people are really good at praying. Some people are really good at spreading good cheer. Some people are really good at doing the behind-the-scenes work that makes an event successful. Some people are really good at helping us connect as a community. Some people are really good at cleaning. And there are so many other gifts that people have! And each and every one of them is a gift of the Spirit, and each and every one of them is necessary to the functioning of the body of Christ.

That’s true of any congregation on a congregational level. But it’s true of congregations and denominations, as well. Each congregation is different, and each one is a part of the body of Christ, and each one has gifts of the Spirit that are real and important. It’s why you can’t judge a congregation based on the numbers. It’s why small congregations are just as important as little ones. There are a lot of awesome things that the big congregations in Bismarck and Minot can do that we can’t. But there are also awesome things that we can do that the big congregations can’t. We all, large and small, are members of the body of Christ. We all, large and small, drink from the same Spirit. We all, large and small, old and young, serve the same Lord, who calls us by name, claims us as his own in baptism, gifts us with his Spirit, directs our ministry, gathers us in his arms when we die, and will raise us to new life when his kingdom comes.

Paul lists many kinds of gifts, and there are many others he doesn’t name. Just as there are many different kinds of ministry. I guarantee you that God has a mission and ministry for us, and that God has given us the gifts of the Spirit necessary to accomplish that ministry. (Although I do warn you, God doesn’t always call us to the ministry that we want to be called to, or that we think we’d like.) The problem the Corinthians had was that they valued some gifts and scoffed at others. I think in a lot of modern American churches the problem is that we’re not seriously looking for those gifts, because we’re comfortable the way things are and just want things to continue. And at other times, we focus on the problems—we focus on what we lack—instead of on the gifts God has given us. But whatever the issue, the Spirit is with all of us, and will continue to be with us no matter what happens in the future.

This passage raises two questions, for me. First, what are the gifts of the Spirit that we have that we don’t know we have? What are the gifts that we don’t value enough? What part of our congregational body isn’t being honored the way it should be, and how do we fix that? And while I have some thoughts about this, recognizing gifts isn’t just for the pastor. It’s something we should all be looking out for. We should all be striving for the gifts of the Spirit, just as Paul recommends. The second question is, what part does our congregation have to play in the larger body of Christ that is the local community and our denomination? What spiritual gifts has God given us as a group to share with the world? May God help us recognize the gifts he has given us, and the ministry he has called us to do with them.

Amen.

The kingdom of God has come near

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year B, January 25, 2014

Jonah 3:1-5, 10, Psalm 62:5-12, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:1-14-20

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.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news—that is, the gospel—of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” And in our reading from First Corinthians, Paul writes: the appointed time has grown short … the present form of this world is passing away.” Two thousand years later, it’s kinda hard to believe that the time has grown short, or been fulfilled. And a week after having two funerals in the congregation, with another member in his last weeks and months, Paul’s instructions not to mourn seem … off, if not cruel. If the kingdom of God has come near, where is it? If the time between this world and God’s kingdom to come is short, when is it going to get here? And just what is the good news, anyway?

This is one of those places where our modern, high-quality, literalistic educations get in the way of reading the Bible. We are trained as children to take things literally. 2+2=4, history is about a provable series of names and dates, time is measured precisely down to millionths of a second, poetry can be logically analyzed. If something can be proved in a science lab or a court of law, we’re good. We understand it. But when you start talking about intangible things, about the things that don’t fit into nice, neat, logical categories, that can’t be proven—or disproved—in a science lab or court of law, the deeper mystery at the heart of existence … that’s when we trip up. That’s when we get confused. That’s when we try and force that mystery into nice, neat, logically-provable categories that are easily understandable to modern people with fact-based educations. And, all too often, we try to do that with the Bible. And that’s a problem.

You see, in Jesus’ day, they looked at the world almost exactly opposite to the way we do. We see the provable facts as the most important thing. They saw the intangible mysteries of the universe as far more important. Sometimes, when they’re talking about those deep mysteries, we try to interpret their words as if they’re talking about literal, easy-to-prove things. So when they start talking about the time being fulfilled, about the time being near, we expect that in a few hours or days or weeks (sometimes even a few years), the time will arrive. And it should be obvious from an objective, fact-based point of view. So when we read passages like this, it’s not that we doubt it—obviously, if Jesus said it, it must be true—but we sort of gloss over it. Because any ‘time’ that was near two thousand years ago can’t possibly also be near to us. And the Kingdom has not obviously shown up in the last two thousand years and the present form of the world hasn’t passed away, well, we start to wonder where it is. And since we can’t see it, we stop looking for it, and continue on about our daily lives. Business as usual.

And yet, Jesus says, the Kingdom of God has come near. What does it mean for the Kingdom to be near? What does it mean for the time to be at hand? Obviously, he didn’t mean that God’s kingdom was going to visibly take over the world in the next few years, because that didn’t happen. Yet all throughout his ministry, Jesus kept talking about the kingdom of God being near, and the time being close at hand. So what does he mean?

Well, first and most obviously, the kingdom is near because Jesus is near. Jesus is, after all, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Prince of Peace. And his kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world, so we shouldn’t be surprised if it doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world. And you know what? Jesus may not be physically present any more, but Jesus is still with us, in our hearts and minds, in our community and in communities across the globe. I mean, this is basic stuff, what we teach to our children. Jesus is always with us even if we can’t see him. So if the king is always with us, even when we can’t see him, does that mean the kingdom is, too? Does that mean the Kingdom of God is, right here and right now, one of those deeper mysteries that we can’t see or touch but can experience through the love of God? Does that mean that even when the kingdoms of this world overwhelm us and break us down and lead us away from our Lord, God’s kingdom is surrounding us, too, building us up and healing us and calling us back to faithfulness?

When Paul says that the present form of the world is passing away, is that what he means? When we participate in God’s kingdom, when we treat others according to God’s will instead of the world’s power, are we helping God’s kingdom to poke through into our everyday reality? When we live a God-filled life, are we helping God to replace the kingdoms of this world with his own? When we see people act according to the love of God even in the midst of hate and fear and conflict, are we seeing the present form of the world pass away, to be replaced by the world God is calling us to?

And the time has come near, Jesus said that and Paul affirmed it. Does that mean that the time has come for us to live kingdom centered lives? Does that mean that the time has come for us to stop listening to all the cares of the world that drag us down and keep us tied up in ordinary pettiness and pain, and let God open us up to the joy of the kingdom? When Paul says not to mourn or rejoice, is he talking about the kind of mourning and rejoicing the world shows us: shallow, selfish, and brief, and not at all the kind of deep abiding joy the kingdom brings? Because Paul mourned with his congregations and he rejoiced with them, we know that from his other letters. Grief is natural and right, and so is joy … but there’s a difference between the kind of hopeless, carefully stage-managed and abbreviated sorrow you see in the world today, and the kind of grief that knows however much we miss those we have lost, we will see them again, and God will be with us in the midst of our sorrow. And there’s a difference between the kind of manufactured artificial happiness you see on television with smiles pasted on, and the deep and abiding joy that God’s love can bring.

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says—the time is now! God is here, with us, now, today. God’s kingdom is here, with us, now, today! Get off your hind ends and live like it! God’s kingdom is deeper and more real than the kingdoms of this world—they will pass away and God’s kingdom will remain. That’s the good news! That’s the Gospel! All the problems of this world, all the things that drag us down, all the injustices large and small, all the pain, all the hatred, all the evil, all the banal mundane awfulness, that’s all temporary. And you don’t have to live your life as if this world is the most important thing. You don’t have to struggle alone in a sea of worldly concerns disguised as ultimate truths. You can follow Jesus instead, into a life filled with God’s love and joy, a life that sees and celebrates the kingdom of God that is poking through in so many different ways in so many different places.

“Follow me,” Jesus says to the fishermen beside the sea. “I’ll make you fish for people.” This isn’t about ordinary life being swept away, this is about ordinary life being changed into something better. They were fishermen before Jesus’ call, and they were fishermen after it—but their ultimate goals changed. They left their nets by the sea to follow Jesus’ call, but they came back to those nets regularly. Think of how often in the Gospels we hear about the disciples fishing or being out in boats. And really, the area that Jesus preached and taught in wasn’t that large. It’s about the equivalent of calling local Underwood farmers to go out and farm for people and mostly spending time in the communities between Wilton and Max, with occasional trips to Minot and Bismarck. They’d still see their family and friends a lot. They’d have time to participate in the ordinary life. They could still help out some on the family farm.

And yet, in and among those ordinary days of work and family and friends, in and among those ordinary communities they grew up in and knew well, something extraordinary was happening. God was there! God was with them, in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s kingdom was breaking in, little by little, and they were learning to live according to God’s time, not the world’s time. They were learning to live according to God’s kingdom, not the kingdoms of this world. They were learning to follow Jesus, and learning that in the darkest times imaginable—with the world against them and all hope lost—God was still with them. God was there, in their darkest days of grief and happiest days of joy, in their confusion and doubt and faith, the kingdom of God was near, working in them and through them and around them. All they had to do was learn to see it. And to see it, all they had to do was follow Jesus, and keep following, no matter what.

May we, too, learn to follow Jesus and see his kingdom.

Amen.

Third Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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.

When we read the letters of Paul in the Bible, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they are letters.  They’re full of weighty theological matters about the nature of God, the nature of community, and what it means to be a Christian.  But they’re also letters about specific people and circumstances.  Paul was an itinerant preacher who traveled around preaching the Gospel and planting churches.  He made his living by making tents and awnings, and spent his evenings preaching and teaching.  When he had a church established in a town, he would pack up his belongings and move on to another city to set up his business and his ministry all over again.  Even though the churches he started were pretty self-sufficient by the time he moved on, they would still write to him for advice.  We don’t have copies of the letters they wrote to him, but the letters Paul wrote back were preserved and circulated to other churches, and eventually ended up in the New Testament.  First Corinthians is one of two letters Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth.

The Christians in Corinth were divided by a lot of issues, which should sound pretty familiar to us today.  They were divided over theology, over how to handle church meals, over where people sat in worship, and over matters of sexual morality.  How many churches today are fighting over what they believe, or about how to interpret the Bible, or about potlucks and soup suppers?  And there are certainly a lot of churches divided today over disagreements about sex and morality!  The Corinthians were also divided along gender lines and class lines and ethnic lines.  And how many churches today are divided between men and women, or rich and poor, or by ethnicity?  How many churches are there where only a certain type of people are welcome?  We have a lot in common with the first Christians who gathered in Corinth, and looked to Paul for guidance.

We don’t know exactly what questions they asked, but I wonder if they were surprised by how Paul responded.  Because, you see, he didn’t start by addressing any of the issues that divided the Corinthians.  He didn’t start in by talking about who should sit where during worship, and he didn’t start in by talking about sexual morality.  He didn’t start out by addressing the role of women, or the economic and ethnic issues that divided them, or even how to interpret the teachings he had handed on to them.  Instead, he started by reminding them of the most basic foundation of their faith, the one point on which all the Gospel rests: the cross of Christ.  He’d address all the other issues over the course of the letter, to be sure, but he starts with the cross of Christ.  Because the cross is why they’re there; the cross is what brings all these people together.

It’s what brings us together, too.  The love of God, poured out for us on the cross through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No matter what we disagree on; no matter what disputes and disagreements arise, the cross is the core of our faith and our community.  Now, there are a lot of people who don’t like thinking or talking about the cross, even among Christians.  It’s pretty gory, and it can be depressing to think about Jesus death and the reason Jesus died.  To remember that we are sinners.  Have you ever noticed that there are a lot more people in church on Easter Sunday than on Good Friday?

And for people who don’t believe, well, the whole idea of the cross just doesn’t make sense.  There are a lot of people who believe that Jesus was a moral teacher with a lot of good ideas, but the idea that salvation can come through something as barbaric as a crucifixion, well, that they just can’t swallow.  It sounds like foolishness to them.  I remember one Christmas day when I was in seminary, a couple of my cousins sat down with me after dinner and tried to convince me not to become a pastor.  “After all,” they said.  “It’s not like faith and religion make a difference to anybody.  If you want to help people, become a social worker.  If you like Jesus’ teachings, you can still share them.  Why would you want to become a pastor?”  The very idea of God being born in human flesh, and then dying to save a sinful, broken world, was unbelievable to them.  Foolishness.

And yet, in that act of weakness and surrender, when Jesus gave up his life for the very people who rejected and tormented him, God’s power shone forth.  In that act of darkness, in that murder of an innocent, the light shone forth.  In the cross, the gates of Hell were shattered and the chains that bound us were destroyed.  In the cross, God saved the world.  In the cross, the kingdom of heaven comes near to us and the seeds of that kingdom are planted in us and in the world around us.  Paul explained it this way in another letter he wrote: “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Christ chose to die for us even though we are sinners, even though we are broken, even though we could never deserve it.  Christ chose to die for us out of the greatest love there is, and that love was powerful enough to remake the world.  That love, poured out on the cross, broke the chains of sin and death and made us free in Christ.

We are here today because of the love shown on that cross.  We are here because experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ turned his disciples from timid followers who scattered at the first sign of trouble into faithful and courageous men and women who were open to the Spirit’s presence and spread God’s Word.  We are here because throughout the two millennia since then, countless billions of people have heard and been changed by the story of God’s love that comes through the cross, and have known the power of that cross to guide and save them through good times and through the deepest persecution.  We are here because we, too, have seen God’s power in our lives, the power of the one who came to save us by offering his life as a ransom for ours, who calls us by name and asks us to follow.

Paul knew that that power—the Word made flesh, the Love that conquered death and hell—is the ultimate reality for Christians.  It’s the center.  It’s the heart.  Everything we do and everything that we are should flow from that reality.  Every other issue we as Christians face must be guided by the light of the cross.  Everything, from morality to social justice, from theology to worship, from how we handle the problems with the roof to how we handle church potlucks to how we treat people, everything begins and ends with the cross on which Christ died.

It’s easy to forget that, as we go about our busy lives.  Even in church, sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted by the business and politics of running the church and forget about why we’re here.  It’s easy to get distracted by important issues like morality (or the lack of it), or by church attendance, or by our own internal disputes.  And those things are all important!  But more important still is our faith in Jesus Christ, who loves us and calls us to follow him, who died for us on the cross, who transformed us and saved us.  We may disagree on many issues—Christians have been disagreeing for two millennia, since the very beginning!—but we must never forget what brings us together.

Amen.

The Gifts of the Spirit

2nd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 21st, 2013

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

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, O Lord.

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

The Christians in Corinth had a problem.  Well, actually, they had lots of problems.  All the time.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, to misinterpret its meaning for the life of the community and the individual, Corinth found it.  Consistently.  Repeatedly.  Corinth was Paul’s problem child, always trying and failing, consistently missing the point.  Paul’s pattern was to found a church and then move on, keeping in touch with his congregations through letters, some of which now make up part of the New Testament.  We know Paul wrote at least four letters to Corinth, though our Bibles contain only two.  Four letters.  To the best of our knowledge, that’s more letters than he wrote to any other congregation.  And these weren’t short letters, either.  No, each letter had many, many issues to deal with as Paul tried to keep the Corinthians on track.

There were divisions in the church in Corinth, caused by theology and gender and money and sex and eating habits and anything else you can think of.  They cheated and sued one another at the drop of a hat.  From what we can tell, they used the Gospel as an excuse for doing anything they wanted, no matter how destructive of themselves or others.  They doubted the resurrection.  They held grudges.  They boasted in their own wisdom.  They gave lip-service to God without following through.  Their divisions and rivalries twisted their worship of God into a way for the powerful to have fun and exclude the powerless.

Paul addressed all these issues, and more.  But while Paul sometimes gave practical advice of what to do and what not to do, what actions should and shouldn’t be taken, Paul realized that there was a deeper spiritual dimension to the Corinthians’ problems.  They acted as they did because, on a fundamental level, they didn’t get what the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus meant.  They didn’t understand what was important about the gifts the Holy Spirit had given to them.

1 Corinthians chapter twelve starts off Paul’s explanation of the deeper things they’re missing.  Chapter eleven ends with instructions on how to celebrate Communion the right way, with love and unity for the whole congregation.  In chapter twelve, Paul starts talking more generally, about gifts the Spirit gives; in the second half of the chapter Paul will speak about how even with our different gifts we are all members of the body of Christ together.  Chapter 13 is the climax of this section of the letter, the great love passage that we hear so often at weddings, in which Paul overflows with emotion in describing what love—the kind of love that will allow them to overcome their differences—truly is.  Only the love of God and one another that will allow them to make right use of the gifts of the Spirit.  Only the love of God and one another brings any meaning to their existence.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the section we read today.  It’s about gifts, and unity.  First off, Paul assures us that there is a clear way to tell if people are working with the Holy Spirit.  The only way anyone can say that Jesus is Lord is through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Faith is a gift of the Spirit, in the midst of doubts and divisions.  You can’t reason your way to a belief in Christ.  And no matter how much you disagree with someone, if they believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, God is working within them.  In other words, no matter if you disagree with them—even if they’re wrong on major issues like the ones that divided the church in Corinth—you can’t exclude them or ignore them.  You can’t just wrap yourself in a comforting certainty that you’re right and they’re wrong so you can ignore or attack them.

I know there have been times when I have listened to a Christian I didn’t agree with and wanted to completely shut them up so no one could be led astray by how wrong they are.  And they may have been wrong—but they still had the Holy Spirit in them.  You can’t say: “I like that person, and I like how they think and what they do, so they must be real Christians working with the Spirit.  But that person over there, I really think he’s a jerk and he’s wrong about everything and so therefore he must not really be a Christian.”  No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  And if they have the Holy Spirit, they are members of the body of Christ and of the community.  They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We may not like them, but we do have to love them, and treat them always as the children of God they are.

Next, Paul turns to the gifts given by the Spirit.  And they’re all different!  Nobody gets exactly the same gift as anybody else, but they’re all important.  Paul only describes general categories; the Spirits gifts are far more wide-ranging than the few examples that Paul gives.  The ability to preach is a gift of the Spirit; so is the ability to teach.  Healing, faith, wisdom and knowledge, all of these and more are gifts of the Spirit.  In some people they’re easy to spot: the people who lead worship, who teach Sunday School and lead the women’s group and the youth group, it’s easy to see and value the gifts the Spirit has given them.  But those aren’t the only gifts in the congregation, and the ones who are already in leadership aren’t the only ones with the gifts of the Spirit.

Every single person here today has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit.  Every single person here, no exceptions.  If you believe that Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit dwells within you, and the Spirit never comes empty-handed.  But here in American churches, we don’t tend to be very good at identifying the gifts the Spirit gives.  We think as if the pastors, the teachers, the leaders are the only people who have gifts.  Often times, we don’t even look to see what gifts are in our congregation and our community, or in ourselves.  If there’s a hole that needs to be filled, a job that needs to be done, we take any warm body we can guilt into filling it and shove them into it.  Instead of trusting that the Spirit will give the gifts needed for ministry, we focus on plugging holes.

Sometimes we acknowledge the gifts, but don’t use them.  We think we’re too busy.  We fill our lives with all kinds of activities and entertainment, and use that as an excuse to ignore the gifts God has given us.  Now, these things we choose to focus on, our activities and our entertainments, aren’t bad in and of themselves.  Many times they are a blessing for us.  But they become harmful if we treat them as if they’re more important than our calling as Christians.  They can be corrosive to ourselves and our community if we let them draw us away from God.  We are not given gifts to let them sit on the shelf.  We are given gifts so that we can use them.

One last thing.  These gifts the Spirit gives are not primarily for the blessing of any one individual.  Paul says that the Spirit is given to each for the common good.  Everyone comes to the table with different gifts in different strengths—no one person can do it all, and no one person should do it all.  Each and every person has something to contribute, something that God is calling them to do in our life and ministry together.  We minister to one another for the sake of the Gospel, not for the glorification of any individual.

It’s almost time for the annual meeting.  As we look back on the year that has just passed, and look towards the year to come, ask yourself what gifts God has given you for ministry.  How can you share those gifts with the congregation and the community?  May we be inspired to share our gifts, this year and always, so that together we can be the Body of Christ in the world, full of love for God and each other.

Amen.