Marriage and Hard Hearts

Lectionary 27B, October 7, 2018

Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

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


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

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

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  The thing about this verse is that there are at least two things that don’t translate very well into English, or are misleading.  First is the word “helper.”  In English, that word gives us the impression that the helper is a subordinate.  Think of children helping their parents, or an aide helping their superior.  But in Hebrew, the word doesn’t have that connotation.  In the Bible, “helper” is most often used to describe God.  God is our helper.  The word implies that the one who helps is a powerful person, not an underling or a subordinate.

Second is the word “partner.”  Partner, in English, is a word that is very businesslike and limited.  A business partnership is a contract between two or more people to accomplish a specific goal, like running a law firm together.  Outside of that one goal, the partners may not have anything to do with one another or care about one another.  But the Hebrew phrase implies a much deeper relationship, one that goes beyond than contracts and obligations.  If you’ve ever had a friend or loved one whom you just clicked with, who understood you on the deepest level, who would drop anything for you if you needed them and who you would do the same for, that’s what this verse means.  Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?”

One thing the Bible is very clear on, from the beginning to the end, is that being human means being in relationship with others.  When we read this passage, we tend to focus on what it means for gender relations or for marriages, but the first thing we should remember is that it is not good for humans to be alone.  This is still in the garden of Eden, before the fall; sin has not yet entered the world.  Everything so far has been “good.”  The human’s aloneness is the first thing that is not good.  We were created in God’s image, and God is a relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three together.  In the same way, human beings were created to be in relationships.  And that’s why God split that first human being in two and created Adam and Eve.  And by “relationships” I don’t just mean romantic relationships, either.  Parent-child relationships.  Friendships.  Sibling relationships.  Neighborly relationships.  Mentorships.  These are all incredibly important to our spiritual well-being.  Good relationships help us grow and sustain us even in our darkest times.  But when sin intervenes—when our relationships are twisted or bad—they are incredibly damaging and make our lives measurably worse.  The Bible spends more time focusing on our relationships with other human beings, in all their variety, than it does focusing on our relationship with God.  Why?  Because God created us to be in relationship with other people.  And those relationships can do either great harm or great good.

Marriage is one of the most fundamental of those relationships.  It is the foundation, not just for the relationship between spouses but of a life together which may include children and which will affect every other relationship we have.  God wants that marriage to be a partnership in the Biblical sense, one that nourishes both spouses, in which both receive what they need and work together for their common good.  God intends that marriage should be faithful, that both spouses should be committed to one another in not just body but mind and heart, too.  There’s a reason that adultery is the only sexual sin mentioned in the Ten Commandments.  It’s a betrayal of the relationship and of the faith the spouses place in one another.  God intends marriage to be a thing that gives joy and helps both spouses to grow in faith and love, which gives support in time of trouble.

And that’s not an easy thing to maintain!  We don’t live in the garden of Eden anymore.  Even in the best marriage, there are going to be times when things don’t work right.  Times when one or both spouses is selfish or self-centered, times when they do things that hurt their spouse, times when anger or fear or jealousy or indifference lead to words or actions that break down the relationship, or hurt one another.  Or sometimes they take it for granted that the help should only be going one way, and what should be mutual support and partnership turns into one taking advantage of the other.  None of these things are what God intends marriage to be.  And they all hurt.  And it’s a hard thing to recover from; it’s hard to fix the problems and build a good and life-giving relationship back up.  I’ve never been married myself, but I’ve seen it in friends and family and parishioners.  It is hard work, but can be so rewarding if both spouses are willing to honestly do their best to build a better relationship.

But sometimes, one or both spouses isn’t willing to put in the hard work to build a better relationship.  Sometimes they like taking advantage of their spouse.  Sometimes they like hurting their spouse.  Sometimes they don’t like hurting their spouse, but don’t care enough about it to change the things in them that lead them to hurt their spouse.  Sometimes they like using their spouse as an emotional or physical punching bag, someone to blame and attack when things go wrong.  Sometimes they decide that desiring someone else means it’s okay to be unfaithful.  Sometimes they want to trade their spouse in for a younger model.  Sometimes there are other problems.  All these things are caused by a hardness of heart.  And, if they go on long enough, they can cause SERIOUS damage, not just to the relationship, but the people in it.  And when that happens, it is a perversion of God’s good gift of marriage.

Every society throughout history has struggled with this problem.  What do you do when human hard-heartedness pervert’s God’s good gift of marriage?  What do you do when a relationship that is supposed to be life-giving and supportive turns destructive?  What do you do when one or both spouses either can’t or won’t put in the work to get the relationship to a healthier state?  If you make divorce hard, you trap people in destructive mockeries of what marriage is supposed to be.  If you make divorce easy, then people in destructive or abusive relationships can escape them … but some people who could heal the problems in their marriage if they put in the effort will decide they simply don’t want to do the hard work, and walk away from their marriage.  Where do you draw the line?  What about relationships where it’s not abusive, but it’s not the mutually supportive relationship God intended?  What about when there are children?  What about when one spouse—usually the wife—has no resources to live on if they divorce?  Human beings, and human relationships, are complicated.  These are not easy calls to make, and there is no hard-and-fast one-size-fits-all rule that everyone can agree on.

Which is why the Pharisees asked about divorce when they were looking to test Jesus.  They don’t like him and they’re looking for a way to discredit him.  So they choose a topic which has lots of debate about it, which has far-reaching implications.  No matter what he says, somebody’s going to be offended.  If he says divorce is legal, they can crow about how he’s not following God’s law.  If he says divorce is illegal, they can crow about how he’s not following Moses’ law, and has no compassion to boot.

Jesus responds by pointing out the flaw in their argument.  If a relationship is to a point where divorce is being thought of, it’s already a violation of God’s good gift.  God gave marriage to be a support and a help and a partnership, a nurturing relationship in which a couple can depend on each other and trust one another to be there for them and help them grow.  If one or both spouses is contemplating divorce … there’s already a problem, whether or not a divorce actually results.  And if they want a divorce not because their relationship is damaging, but simply because the grass is greener on the other side, well, they’re going to leave a lot of damage in their wake.  But whatever the reasons, the ultimate problem is not the divorce itself, but the hard-heartedness that leads to it.  Divorce is one of the things that can happen when human sin and hardness of heart corrupt a marriage.

God gave marriage for a reason.  To be a supporting relationship that will help people grow strong and healthy.  Marriage—a good, healthy, mutually-supporting relationship—can be a great gift from God, one that takes hard work to maintain.  But we humans are hard of heart, and sometimes we turn marriage into something unhealthy, something that is nothing like what God created marriage to be.  We give thanks to God for all good and life-giving relationships.  And where heard-heartedness breaks or corrupts relationships, we pray for the safety, the healing, and the recovery of those who have been hurt by it.

The Soil and the Sower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The majesty of God

Trinity, (Year A), June 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, the psalmist says. I recently watched a science documentary called Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. This documentary covered everything from the smallest part of an atom to the vastness of a universe filled with millions of galaxies, and throughout it all as Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explained the knowledge science gives us, I was struck with a sense of wonder at the world God has made. Although told from a scientific point of view and not a religious one, the show has a sense of awe at the beauty and majesty of all creation, from the tiniest bit if it to the farthest reaches of the universe. As Christians, we know that God our Father is the creator of all that is, seen and unseen. And yet it is sometimes easy to forget how incredible that is, how vast God’s creation truly is, and how small a part of it we are.

“O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the vastness of the universe! When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” We know more about God’s creation than the psalmist did three thousand years ago when this psalm was first written. We know the universe is vaster than that long-ago poet could have imagined. Every star we see in the sky is a sun like our own, many of which have planets like our own; and there are innumerably more stars out there that we can only see from Earth with the aid of telescopes. And past that, there are other galaxies larger than our own, filled with even more stars and planets. There are all the wonders that science has discovered, all the wonders science will discover in the centuries to come, and all the wonders that science could not possibly understand. God guided creation from the beginning of time, creating the stars and planets and galaxies, and then on our own planet life: first plants, and then creatures of the sea, and then creatures on land, and then, finally, humans. Out of all that vastness, God created us. And loves us dearly.

We humans tend to be egocentric. We tend to think the world revolves around us. But look up at the night skies, or look at one of the photographs of Earth taken from the moon, and you will see how insignificant we truly are. Compared to the universe, we are nothing. Compared to God, we are less than nothing. We are tiny. The universe is vast, and God is greater still. There are mysteries to the universe that we will never know, and it is God who created them. God, who is beyond our mortal imagining. Yet God loves us. God cares for us. God created us, but God didn’t just stop there and stand back and abandon us to our own fate. God is with us, teaching us and guiding us and loving us.

God the Father created us, but we went astray. We fell into sin. And when we did, we dragged all of creation with us. God created the world to be good. Did you notice that, in the creation story told in the first lesson? Over and over, God creates something and says that it is good. But we humans are broken by sin and death, and that has marred the world God made.

So God the Son came to earth and was born as a human. God became flesh and dwelt among us. God became Human. The great, infinite one became finite. Jesus Christ was truly God and truly human at the same time. Because God loves us so much, God was willing to become one of us. Jesus Christ, our Savior, the Son, the Word of God made flesh and come to live among us. He broke the chains of sin and death and freed us so that we might live the kind of good, abundant lives the Father created us to live. He didn’t have to, you know. He could have said, “Well, it’s their own fault,” and let us fall. But he didn’t. He loves us, and so he came to save us and all of creation. Jesus Christ came to put right what we have made wrong, to heal all the harm we have done to ourselves and each other and to all of creation.

Once the Son had broken the chains of sin that we had made for ourselves, he went back to the Father. But God is still with us, for the Holy Spirit came and continues to breathe life into us, to empower us and inspire us in God’s way. The Spirit comes to set us on fire with God’s holy love, to give us the living water that helps us grow as God’s children. The Spirit is never still; the Spirit is always in motion, leading us and guiding us.

There’s a lot about God we don’t know or understand. We have one God, but that God comes to us in three ways: as the Father, as the Son, as the Spirit. Christians have been arguing over exactly how that works since the very first followers of Jesus worshipped him. No one has ever been able to really explain it, but that actually gives me comfort. God created the universe, in all its vastness and complexity, the wonders as great as galaxies and as tiny as atoms. Surely, God is greater than anything we could possibly comprehend. Science and human reason are valuable tools that can help us learn a lot. But if science and human reason were the only tools we had to explore the universe, we would know little about God for God is greater than human reason can understand. Yet God reveals Gods own self to us out of love.

As St. John the elder said in his first letter, God is love. In our second lesson, St. Paul said that God is a God of love and peace. That is the core of who and what God is. Father, Son, Spirit, all three together, loving one another. No one of the three is complete without the others. But in mutual love they dance together as they have throughout all time, with a love as vast as the universe. That love is extended to us. As God’s children, we are invited into that relationship, into that love. We are invited to dance with them, to join the holy community, and to give that love to everyone we meet. And in so doing, we are invited to participate in God’s work. God makes us his partners.

The psalmist puts it this way: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” Out of all the greatness of God’s creation, we are given the task of helping to take care of the world God has made. We are created, saved, empowered, and sent out to be God’s hands in the world. We are brought into God’s own love, and given the task of sharing that love with the world, through our words and through our actions.

We are sent out into the world to be God’s hands and feet. We are sent out to love our neighbors, to spread peace where there is destructive conflict, to spread joy where there is despair, to spread healing where there is illness or injury, to spread hope where there is despair, to spread the story of God’s love for all of creation but most especially God’s love for us, God’s own children.

We Have Seen the Empty Tomb

The Resurrection of Our Lord, Year C, March 31st, 2013

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.

A few months ago, after a funeral, I was asked to explain death to two children.  They were confused—why had we put their great-grandmother in a box, and left her out in the snow and ice far from home?  But while children don’t understand death, adults understand it all too well.  It is one of the few facts of life that is the same no matter where you go or what time period you live in.  Everyone and everything dies, eventually.  Some die young, some die old, some die quickly and others slowly.  Every animal, every plant, every fish, every insect, every person, will eventually die.  Even stars die.  Death and decay is part of the natural order of the universe.  We don’t like to remember this, but we know it in our bones.  Benjamin Franklin put it this way: nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.

Well.  He was half right, anyway.  Because we are here today to testify to the fact that death itself has been defeated.  Death is not the end of the story.  It doesn’t get the last word, and it doesn’t get the most important word.  The “natural” order of things has been turned on its ear.  The things we think we know about life are shown to be wrong in the most dramatic way imaginable.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus is not dead, not any more.  He is risen!

When we hear the Easter story, it’s easy to scoff at the women and the disciples, who didn’t believe Jesus when he told them he would rise from the grave.  As the angel points out, Jesus had told them what was going to happen!  Yet there they are, three days after his death, going to his tomb to embalm his body.  They saw the empty tomb, and didn’t understand.  In fact, their first response to the angels was fear and perplexity.  They didn’t get what had happened until someone explained it to them.  But after they knew, when they realized that Jesus had risen, they were filled with joy and went to tell everyone what they’d seen.  But the other followers of Jesus didn’t believe them at first—they thought those women were crazy.  Why didn’t the disciples believe their witness?  After all, the women were long-standing followers and students of Jesus, too—they’d been there from the beginning, and stayed through the crucifixion.  They’d been there, learning at Jesus’ feet, the whole time.  These are women the disciples knew and trusted, just as they had all known Jesus.  And they had all heard him talk about what was going to happen to him.  But none of them seem to have believed his words, or understood them.  Sitting here in church, knowing the story, it’s easy to roll our eyes at how blind they were.

And yet.  Put yourself in the shoes of those women.  Yes, Jesus had done many great things … but everyone dies.  Yes, they believe in the resurrection … but they haven’t seen it yet.  And after all, Jesus was fond of using parables and metaphors and figures of speech.  He rarely said anything that was intended to be interpreted literally.  So I can see how they might have assumed he meant something metaphorical, something spiritual, something that would be easier to fit into their experience of the world.

If the general Resurrection happened today, would we be as surprised as they were?  Yes, we say we believe in the Resurrection.  But it’s been two thousand years since Jesus rose, and nobody’s risen from the grave since.  Yes, we might sincerely believe it’ll happen someday, but in a vague, general way.  We’ve never seen an empty tomb.  We’ve never seen the dead rise, except maybe in zombie movies.  But we’ve seen death.  We’ve seen friends and loved ones die.  We’ve seen pets die.  We’ve seen in the news and on TV all the horrible things that people can do to one another.  Death is very real to us.  New life, the kind that Jesus has, the kind of life that is so powerful that even death itself can’t keep it down for long, that’s harder to accept.

But all our worldly wisdom is wrong.  Our knowledge of death is wrong.  All the experience that tells us that might makes right is wrong.  All the sayings telling us that it’s a dog eat dog world are wrong.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus Christ is doing a new thing, and through his death and resurrection God is doing a new thing for the entire world.  Listen again to the words God spoke through the prophet: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well.  Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

Imagine that.  A world with no pain, no grief.  A world without bigotry, without fear, without hate, without jealousy, without callousness, without arrogance, without bullying, without grief, without suffering.  A world where everyone chooses to do good, instead of evil.  A world where predators, whether animal or human, don’t prey on those weaker than they are.  A world where there is enough for all.  A world where love and joy are the strongest emotions, the ones that guide people.  That’s the way God created the world to be.  That’s what life was like until sin and death broke in.  That’s the life God wants for us.  And that’s the life that Jesus died to give us, to give the whole universe.

When we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ’s death.  We share in Christ’s death so that we may also share in his life—the life of the Resurrection, the life of joy and peace and love.  In baptism our old sinful self, the self that is trapped by sin and death, is drowned.  The old self that, like Adam, chooses to disobey God, go astray, and then blame others, is killed.  What rises up out of the water is something new, something that has the seeds of God’s new heaven and new earth within it.  When we come up out of the waters of baptism, we are united with Christ in a bond that nothing can ever break.  In our baptisms, we are started on the path towards the new life, towards resurrection and joy.

We have not yet seen the fullness of that life.  Christ is the first fruit of the dead, in Paul’s words, but the harvest has not yet come.  We have not yet seen all of creation transformed into the new heaven and the new earth that God has promised is coming.  And yet we have felt it.  We have heard God’s promises.  We can see a glimmer, in Christ, of what that life will be like.  We have experienced the love of God through our baptisms, through every moment of grace and goodness in our lives.  It’s true, the forces of sin and death are fighting a desperate rear-guard action to keep us mired in darkness, but we have seen the light.  We have seen life come out of things that look dead and barren.  We have seen the empty tomb.

We have seen the empty tomb.  We stand outside it with Jesus’ first followers and hear the words of God’s messenger: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”  The old certainties of the world—that death is final, that decay is simply the way things go, that pain and grief and hate and fear and selfishness win—those old certainties are turned upside down.  Jesus is not dead; he has risen, and we will rise with him.

Yes, there is still pain in the world.  Yes, sin and death still drag people down.  But not forever.  Their power is broken.  New life is here.  Resurrection is here.  Joy is here.  Christ is here.

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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.

In Christ

Second Sunday after Christmas (Year C)

Sunday, January 3

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

Preached by Anna C. Haugen

St. Mark Lutheran Church, Salem, OR

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 I worked on this sermon, Friday afternoon, Dad watched the Rose Bowl and Mom took down the Christmas decorations.  First to go was the train around the bottom of the tree—Lars sent it around the track one last time before it was packed up.  Then the ornaments were taken down from the tree and put in their places, the homemade ones in layers of tissue paper in shoeboxes, the store-bought ones in the boxes they came in.  After the ornaments came the garlands, and then the colored lights, carefully coiled up so that they will hopefully be free of tangles when the time comes to take them out again.  After the tree was taken care of it was time to tackle the smaller tasks of the stockings and knick-knacks on the mantel, my brother’s nutcracker collection, and the Christmas art on the walls.  Last of all went the crèche, and the baby Jesus and his world were carefully wrapped up in tissue paper, to sit in a box in a closet for the next eleven months.  And yet, here I am, to preach a Christmas sermon.

In our world, we’ve grown very used to putting Christmas in a box.  Throughout the months leading up to the holiday, we spend enormous amounts of time and effort (and sometimes money) on presents to give to our friends and loved ones.  We fuss over decorations, parties, what we’re going to wear, what food we’re going to have, who we’re going to visit, who we’ll invite to visit us.  We stop, every so often, to remind ourselves that Christmas is not about the material things, it’s about love, and then go right back to our usual flurry of preparations.  On Christmas Eve we come to church to hear the story of the baby born in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, with angels and shepherds in attendance, and sing beloved carols.  We open our presents, thank everyone, and then put the Christmas decorations away and go back to our regular lives while the radio stations and TV channels go back to their regularly scheduled programming.  And yet, the God who came to Earth to become fully human, fully with us, who created the world and broke the bonds of sin and death, will not be kept in a box on a shelf.

One of the first things they teach you in seminary, when analyzing a passage of scripture, is to look for things that are repeated.  Obviously, if the writer of the passage wanted to stress something, it must be important.  Look at today’s second lesson, from Ephesians: it’s only twelve verses long (and in the original Greek, is all a single sentence!).  Yet in those twelve verses, Paul repeats the phrase “in Christ” eight times.  English has to use different prepositions to express all the nuances of Paul’s words, but still the thundering repetition comes through: in Christ, we are blessed.  In Christ, we are chosen.  In Christ, we are adopted.  In Christ, we are redeemed.  In Christ, we are forgiven.  In Christ, we are shown the mystery of God’s will, and in Christ, we are marked by the seal of the Holy Spirit.  In Christ.

Christ is the Word of God through which the world was created.  Everything in heaven and Earth, everything that has ever been and ever will be, came into being through Christ.  Do we see this, when we look at the world?  There’s a song I sing with just about every group of children I work with, called the Hippo Song, about how God created everything, and how “God’s finger-prints are everywhere, just to show how much he cares.”  Do we look for God’s finger-prints, or do we only see the darkness in the world, the broken things, the pain and suffering and problems?  Can we see Christ, the light of the world, the light shining in the darkness, the light no darkness can overcome?  Can we see the true light, the light for all people, that Word incarnate, truly God and truly human, flesh and blood and bone and yet divine?

All too often, the answer is no.  We are not alone in this, of course; the story of humanity is the story of people who reject God, who are given the true light in one form or another and yet do not know it, do not accept it.  From time immemorial we humans have been so absorbed in our own sin that we cannot see the grace that is given to us.  And so we turn away from God even as God reaches out to us.  From Adam and Eve on down, the Bible is full of such stories, which are echoed in all of human history.

When I read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, I am frequently struck by how grateful I am that I don’t have to face the things many people in the Bible did.  Jeremiah, the author of today’s first lesson, is one of the people I am most grateful not to be.  He was a prophet of the Lord in the days leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  Despite the attempts of King Josiah to reform Judah, despite the words of the prophets, the country and its people remained corrupt, and refused to listen to the Word of God.  Jeremiah tried to show them their sin, tried to tell them that their destruction was coming, tried to get them to hear God’s word, that they might be saved.  For his troubles, he was threatened, imprisoned, tortured, and almost killed.  When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and conquered all of Judah, Jeremiah went into exile in Egypt.  He died without ever seeing the promised redemption of his people.  And yet, even in the midst of some of the darkest days the people of Judah ever faced, Jeremiah could see God’s light.  No matter how bad things got, God was with them, and God would save them.  Even if Jeremiah himself never saw it, he trusted God’s Word and knew that it was coming.

The world is a pretty dark place these days, as well.  America’s economic problems have left people from all walks of life jobless, homeless, hopeless.  Around the world, things are even worse.  The global hunger crisis deepens every month.  We are engaged in a war on Terror with no end in sight.  Every year, there seem to be more diseases and viruses to be afraid of.  It’s no surprise that a national poll recently found that Americans are significantly less hopeful than they were ten years ago.

And yet, in this world of darkness, Christ is still here.  Our shepherd calls us by name, to lead us back home, to walk in straight paths and not stumble, to redeem us out of our captivity to sin and death, to give us every good thing.  Christ comes to us to be our light and our life, our salvation and our joy.  Christ comes among us, the only son of the Father, full of grace and truth, to bring that grace and truth into our lives and make God known to us.  Christ breaks into our fallen world to make us new, to make everything new, to make us children of God and forgive us for our sins, to mark us with his cross and seal us with his Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

In the Flesh

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus appears to people after the Resurrection, there’s usually a fleshy part of his visitation?  His followers touch Jesus  (Matthew 28:9, Luke 24:37-40, John 20:20, 27-28) or Jesus eats with his followers (Luke 24:30, 24:41-43, John21:12-13).  Almost every time he appears, there’s some proof that this is not just a “ghost” or “spirit”–this is a real, flesh-and-blood person coming among them.

What does this mean?  Why does it matter?

Well, first, it means that resurrection isn’t just about the soul–the body gets resurrected, too.  The whole package deal, body and soul, is redeemed and re-created and resurrected.  We don’t leave our bodies behind.  Instead, our whole being is taken by God and made holy and pure.  We like to think of the world as dualistic, flesh=bad and spirit=good.  We like to think of the physical world as evil, corrupted, temporary, something that will be destroyed when Christ comes again, while the spirit is pure and holy and eternal, merely waiting to be freed from the evils of the material world.  This is not the case, as Jesus showed us in his appearances after the Resurrection.  The body is just as involved as the spirit.

Remember that in Genesis, when God creates the world he calls it good, repeatedly.  It has been corrupted by sin, yes, but was created good, and ultimately belongs to God.  Our souls, as well, were created good but were corrupted by sin.  Both are alike, that way.  Both need to be cleansed of sin and death.  Both depend on the mercy and grace of God.

Again, what does this mean?  What effect does it have on our daily life?  It means we can’t just ignore the world around us.  Too often, Christians try to withdraw from the world and concern themselves only with “spiritual” matters.  Or we separate “spiritual” concerns from “worldly” concerns, as if they have nothing to do with one another, as if God has no use in the everyday world.  But God is the Creator of all, God is the Redeemer of all, God is the Sanctifyer of all.  We are called to live as God’s people in the world, to spread the light of God, to spread God’s Word, to work for God’s kingdom.  And we can’t do that if we try to separate the physical from the spiritual.

Christ came to his disciples, and ate with them.  He let them feel his flesh.  He was truly among them.  Let us, as his disciples, follow his example.

Truth, not facts: how to read the Bible

The saying goes like this: “The difference between fundamentalists and Lutherans is that fundamentalists read their Bibles but don’t think about it, and Lutherans think about their Bibles but don’t read them.” It’s actually pretty accurate in my experience, and a crying shame, because both groups miss out on a vital part of their faith life. So I’m going to talk a little bit about the Bible today, and how to read it and think at the same time. God gave us brains for a reason, and God also gave us the Bible for a reason.

First, let’s talk about what the Bible is and is not. The Bible is a testament to the faith life of the people of God; a collection of stories about the actions of God in the world; God’s self-revelation to the world. The Bible is not and was never intended to be a science textbook, nor a history textbook. Nor is the Bible the Living Word of God. Jesus Christ is the Word; the Bible is a collection of words about that Word. The Bible speaks to us and to our lives today; but it was written for and by people who lived thousands of years ago in a specific place and time, and that has shaped it in pretty profound ways. The Bible is extremely important to our faith, and can shape and guide our faith lives and our understanding of God, and for that reason everyone should read it. But please, by all means, keep your brain turned on while you do so.

Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between “truth” and “facts.” “Truth” is about the deeper reality, about (hopefully) profound insight into the way things are. “Facts” are the surface things, the things you can see, hear, touch, measure, and prove beyond the shadow of a doubt. For most of human history, truth has been far more important than facts, so much so that the accuracy of facts was sometimes unimportant, as long as the deeper truth was preserved. It is only in the Western world since the seventeenth century and the beginning of the Enlightenment that facts have become more important than truth. Because of this, we look at the world very differently than the ancient Hebrews or the Jews of Jesus’ day did. We think that facts can reveal the truth. They thought that truth determined facts, and only facts which supported the truth mattered.

All Western people of the last several centuries have been trained to think in a literal, fact-based manner. Given that mindset, people often read portions of the Bible and find it too incredible, too unrealistic, too unlikely to ever be true. If they are faithful, they tend to either find “natural, realistic” explanations for miracles, or ignore their incredulity and insist that everything in the bible must be literally fact. If they are not faithful, they dismiss it as too fantastic to have any factual basis—and if there is no fact, there cannot be any truth either. The ironic thing is that people on all sides of the issue—the ones who doubt, the ones who cling to literal interpretations, and the ones who try to find natural explanations—all have a tacit agreement that the facts are what is most important. And there are only two ways to argue the Bible as a faithful record of God’s word and actions in history based solely on factuality: to turn off our God-given brains and ignore everything that science tells us about the world God has given us, or try and force pseudo-scientific explanations on the miracles God has given us. Both attempts ignore the richness and vitality of God’s creative and redeeming work.

How does this affect our reading of the Bible? It means that when we read a Bible story, our focus should not be on the facts but on the deeper truths they reveal. For example, take the creation story. Whatever your beliefs on the theory of evolution, the most important thing about the account of Creation in Genesis is not whether or not it took exactly six twenty-four hour periods to accomplish. Here are some of the important things, the deeper truths, that we learn in the story of Creation:

  • That God did create the world, and God created it to be good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
  • That humankind, male and female, is created in the image of God, and that the world was given to us to tend and care for.
  • That God worked through a process in Creation, doing one thing at a time, always building and continuing on what had come before.
  • That everything was perfect until it was broken by sin.

When we focus on facts like the amount of time it took and the exact order everything happened in—whichever side of the evolution debate we are on—we lose track of the truly important truths.

Here’s an exercise to help you focus on truth instead of facts when you read your Bible. Ask yourself these questions: What does this passage say about God? What does it say about the way God works? What does it say about God’s relationship with the world and with people? What does it say about humankind? What does it say about the world? What does it say about my life and relationship with God?