An Easter People

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8th, 2016

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

If you’ve taken a moment to glance through your Bibles at the Gospel of John in the last few weeks, you may have noticed something a bit … odd in the Gospel readings.  Not in the readings themselves, but in the fact that these particular texts are assigned to be read now, in Easter.  Easter is a time of resurrection.  We celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the time when he will come again in glory and all those who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead, as well.  That’s why we read from Revelation in Easter—we’re celebrating Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to the general Resurrection, which Revelation gives us a vision of.

And that’s what’s so peculiar about the readings from John that we’ve been reading.  Because they’re taken from before Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And not just any time throughout his ministry.  No, they come from what is called the Farewell Discourse, the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after their last meal together, before he was handed over to the guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is Jesus praying and teaching the very night before his crucifixion.  Jesus knows he is about to die, and is preparing for it by preparing his disciples for it.  The disciples don’t know Jesus is about to die, because they’ve been willfully blind to what Jesus’ teachings mean … but even so, they know just how tense the situation is, how much the authorities in the city would like to silence Jesus and his followers.  It’s a time of fear, a time of pain, a time of death, a time when nobody but God could see any hope… and even that hope could not come without suffering.  So why, out of all the times during the year, do we read this discourse during Easter?  The time of great joy and hope?  The time of healing and resurrection and new life?  On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense.

But the thing is, even as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection—even as we look forward to the general resurrection of the dead that is to come—we still have to live in a world filled with death.  Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste of the feast to come … but before we sit down to the full feast that is heaven, we’ve got to get through life today, first.  We know there is healing to come, but we live in a world of sickness.  We know there is life to come, but we live in a world of death.  We know there is hope and love to come, but we live in a world of fear and hate, where sin and brokenness run rampant and abuse is all too normal.  Like the disciples, we want to know God, and to live in God’s kingdom—but like the disciples, we are still caught up in a world of fear and death.  We are a resurrection people.  We celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and we look forward to our own resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead … but we live in a world of death, and will until Christ comes again.  And I think that’s why these readings from the Farewell Discourse are read in Easter.

The question—the great question, that most of the New Testament revolves around—is how do we live as children of the resurrection in a world broken by sin and death?  How do we keep the faith, how do we maintain our hope, how do we live and speak and act, in a world that is determined to sell itself out to power and greed and hate and lust and fear and all the sin and brokenness there is?

Revelation has two answers.  Revelation is a dream, a vision, not meant to be taken as a literal history of the future but rather as a reassurance of two great truths.  First, that no matter how bleak things get, no matter what horrible things happen—in our own lives, and in the larger world—God is at work.  God is present, God is active, no matter how bad things look.  Just as the disciples couldn’t see God’s hand in Jesus’ death until afterwards, in the light of the resurrection, so too God is present and at work even when we can’t see him, even in the darkest moments there are.

And the second answer that Revelation gives is that we don’t have to worry about the end of the story.  We don’t have to worry about how things are going to turn out.  We already know.  God wins.  Sin and death are defeated.  Heaven comes to earth, and this world truly becomes God’s kingdom as it was always meant to be.  There is resurrection, and healing, and life, and joy, and love, and hope, and all pain and sorrow and evil will be gone.  No matter what happens, no matter what trials we have to live through in this life, we know how the story ends.  Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, suffering and evil and brokenness, even though it kills us—and this world will kill us, each and every one of us—we don’t have to be afraid, because we know how the story ends.  And it’s a good ending, the best ending possible.

We don’t have to worry about the end, just the middle.  Just the here-and-now.  Just getting through each day.  And that’s what Jesus was talking about in the Farewell Discourse, as he said goodbye to his disciples and tried to prepare them for what was to come.  How to get through each day, because knowing how the story ends gives hope but that may not be enough by itself when the going gets rough.  And Jesus’ answer is love.  In these three chapters, Jesus talks about a lot of things, but the common thread is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another.  That’s how we get through the middle times.

Now, when I talk about love I don’t just mean a kind of wishy-washy platitude, and when I talk about sin and brokenness and evil I don’t just mean on a cosmic scale.  I know you’ve all experienced it.  For example, I know you have all seen and experienced how feuds, rivalries, jealousies, and prejudices can build up in a small town, how they can hurt and twist people over and over again.  I know you’ve seen how people turn to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems and hurt themselves and their families and friends in the process.  I know you’ve seen how petty and nasty and mean people can be to one another, even when they smile and hide it behind a nice façade, and the damage that does to people.  And there are members of this parish who have been abused; there are members of this parish who have been raped.  If you have been lucky enough never to have suffered that way, you know people who have—even if they’ve never told you about it.  We have a nice community, a good community, but even in our own homes and hearts and minds there is sin and brokenness, there are victims and aggressors, and oftentimes people who are both.  And the love of God—the love that Jesus asks us to have for one another—is right there in the midst of it.  Not just in platitudes and sayings, but in action.

That love is the love that leads us to be there for people when they need help—when they’re sick, or in pain, or hurt.  That love is the love that leads us to work for a just peace and reconciliation, even when choosing a side and striking back would be easier.  Striking back and lashing out are the easiest things in the world when pain and fear come.  Building walls and closing out problems is simple, too—just go with the flow, follow the world’s advice, contribute to the pain in the world—but that’s not what God calls us to do.  We are called to love.  To open our hearts and our hands and our lives.  To witness to the abundant life and love that God brings.  We are called to heal the world, not add to the hurt.  We are called to be kind when it is easier to be mean, to be forgiving when it is easier to be resentful.  We are called to love in tangible ways, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and brokenhearted, and in all things be Christ to our neighbors.  And when we, together, put God’s love into action, that is when we are most truly a resurrection people.  When love is not just a word but a way of life, that is when we see a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.  Love is how we live as an Easter people in a world still full of sin and death.  May God teach us truly how to love one another in thought, word, and deed.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

Amen.

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.

Through the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 11, 2014

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

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

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

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

Jesus sure used a lot of metaphors and figures of speech to describe himself. In today’s Gospel lesson, he uses two: he calls himself the gate and the shepherd. We’ve all heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd many times, and seen beautiful pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, so I’m going to talk for a little bit about what it means for Jesus to be a gate.

First of all, a gate means there’s probably a wall or a fence. There’s no point in having a gate in the middle of nowhere, unless you’re at a sheepherding contest, and the goal is to see how well a sheepdog herds the sheep through a series of exercises. Walls and fences keep things out, and keep things in. The walls or fence of a sheepfold keep out wolves and thieves. And in Jesus’ day, both wolves and thieves were a danger to sheep every day. Walls kept them out—they keep out the dangerous things in the world. And the walls of the pen also keep the sheep in, keep them from wandering or straying into dangerous places. When a sheep is in the fold, it’s safe and secure.

But the problem is, sheep can’t stay penned up forever. It’s cruel to keep them locked up. They need to go outside of the pen to get food and exercise. You can bring food to the pen, but they’re not going to get the exercise they need unless they can go to the pasture. So the shepherd would let them out, and take them out to the pasture. The gate wasn’t just so the sheep could get into the pen where it was safe, it was also so that they could get out of it to go to the pasture they needed. It was not a one-way trip. If the sheep stayed in the pen, they would starve. If they stayed out in the pasture, they would be vulnerable to thieves and wolves. They needed both places, and the gate was how they travelled from one to the other every day.

Parents of small children know this dilemma well: sometimes kids need to be kept in a safe place, and sometimes you have to let them out to explore. Sometimes, you need to reign the children in and keep them corralled; sometimes, you need a baby gate to keep them from falling down the stairs. And other times you need to help them explore the world and learn how to climb up and down staircases, how to run and fall down and get back up again. A parent has to judge when to keep their child safe and protected, and when to let them free, because they need both. The same door that lets a child out to the yard to play also lets them back in.

But doors are more than just holes in the wall. Doors and gates don’t let just anybody in and out. If they did, you wouldn’t need a gate at all, just an opening in the wall. In Jesus’ day, there would be a gatekeeper to keep thieves out, a person keeping watch at the gate: that’s why thieves couldn’t just walk in the same as they shepherd. Today we would use a lock and key, but back then they had a watchman. They would make sure that only the shepherd could get in, and that the sheep could only get out when the shepherd was with them to guide them and protect them.

As Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come and go in and out and find pasture.” We come through Jesus to be saved, but it’s not a matter of just going in the door once and staying in a nice happy safe place forever. We still have to go out into the world, to learn and grow, to live our lives. We come back into the safety of God’s sheltering arms, but then we go out into the world again. And no matter whether we’re coming in our going out, we come through Jesus. And when we go out into the world, we don’t go alone. Jesus is the gate through which we come to God, but Jesus is also the shepherd who leads us out to find pasture, who leads us when we are walking beside still waters and green pastures, and protects us when we walk through all the dark places in our lives. Whether we are going out or coming in, whether we are safe in the sheepfold or out in the pasture, whether we are walking beside beautiful, still waters or slogging through the valley of darkness, surrounded by enemies, Jesus is with us, our light and our salvation, guiding and protecting us.

We are connected to Jesus through our baptisms. In our baptisms, God claims us as lambs of his own fold, sinners of his own redeeming. Through the water of the Holy Spirit, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Through the water of our baptism, we learn our Shepherd’s voice, the voice that will lead us in to safe harbor in God’s fold, and out into the world to live and learn and grow. In baptism, we receive the still waters that quench our soul’s thirst. The waters of baptism give us the strength to follow Jesus even through the darkest valleys of our lives, trusting that he will lead us back to the safety of the sheepfold even when that seems impossible. Baptism—being dunked in the water, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit—only happens once. But a baptismal life is something that we live every day, coming to God for safe harbor and rest and then following God back out into the world. Life for a baptized child of God means doing everything through Christ, whether we’re coming in or going out.

Jesus says he is the shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep know. And because they know his voice, they will follow him and not the others who come to hurt them and steal them away. But sheep can’t decide on their own who the shepherd is and who the thief. They have to learn the shepherd’s voice. They have to grow in faith that the shepherd will take care of them, and bring them back safely home. In baptism, Jesus calls us as his own. Baptism is the beginning of life with Jesus; it’s the beginning of learning to listen for his voice.

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Nash and Teagan. I’m sure their parents, Ryan and Christina can tell us how hard it is to get them to listen to their parents’ voices. Children, like sheep, don’t always want to listen to the people who are trying to take care of them. It seems like there’s always something to distract them, some reason they would rather go astray. Teaching them to listen and follow takes patience. And they have to want to hear; they have to be listening for the voices of their mothers and fathers. (And sometimes children can be pretty selective on whether or not they hear their parents.) But whether or not the children are listening, the parents don’t stop calling for them, and teaching them to listen. Sheep have to be taught to listen just like children do: they aren’t born knowing their shepherd. They get to know him as they follow him, as they learn that he is taking care of them and protecting him, as they learn that he will keep coming for them, keep calling them, even when they go astray.

We’re kind of like sheep. We need to learn to hear God’s voice calling us, and it is baptism that gives us the first lesson in hearing God calling us by name. But we’re not always very good at learning that lesson. Sometimes we’re like children who can hear God perfectly well, but don’t want to admit it because something is distracting us, or it sounds like more fun to do our own thing than to listen. But the God who called us by name, who connected us to himself through our baptisms keeps calling, keeps reaching out, keeps shepherding us and guiding us.

In the Breaking of the Bread

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling the Story

Second Sunday of Easter, (Year A) April 27, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” I’ve always thought Thomas—called “Doubting Thomas” because of this story—gets a bum rap. After all, he was no different than the other disciples, who didn’t believe when the women told them Jesus was raised; he just wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples.

Our readings today are all about belief: who believes, and when, and why. The disciples don’t believe Jesus has been raised until he enters their locked room and shows them his wounds. This is not a hallucination, or a ghost; this is a real, physical person, who truly died and truly was raised from the dead. Then there’s Thomas, who doesn’t believe until he gets the same up-close-and-personal look at the risen Jesus that his fellow disciples got, and Jesus gently chiding him for not believing their words and experiences. Jesus praises those—like us—who have not seen these things up close and personal, and yet believe anyway. And the chapter ends with the narrator telling us that the stories told in the Gospel are only part of what Jesus said and did while on Earth, but these specific stories were told so that we—everyone who reads these stories—might believe in Jesus.

After the events told in the Gospels, the disciples and the rest of Jesus’ followers went out and began sharing the stories of Jesus, the things he had done and the lessons he had taught. They shared those stories with everyone they met. Our first lesson was a short excerpt from a talk Peter gave about Jesus just a few months after the Resurrection, and our second lesson today is a short excerpt from a letter Peter wrote to those who had learned about Jesus and believed in him through those stories.

Those stories were passed on, first through word of mouth, and then eventually written down in the form of the Gospels. And to this day, those stories of Jesus’ words and deeds have been helping people to come to believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who died to save the world from sin and brokenness, and calls all people back to God. We are all here today because of those stories. And today we celebrate the faith of four young people who are here today to make a public statement that they, too, have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that they have life through his name.

Faith in Jesus Christ can’t be transmitted without those stories. But the stories are only part of how the faith is passed on from one generation to another, from one believer to another. The stories are powerful, but without people to tell them, they are just words on a page. God is not confined to the pages of the Bible; God is working through those words, but God is also working through the people who read and share them, through the people in all times and in all places who share the stories of how they have experienced the love of God. That’s one of the reasons why we start every Confirmation class with “God moments,” where we go around the circle and everyone says where they have seen God in the last week. And if I forget, the students remind me! It’s a way of helping ourselves to remember that God is with us, here and now, acting in our lives and loving us just as God was with the disciples two thousand years ago. We have never touched Jesus’ hands and feet, or put our hands in the wound in his side, but we have felt God’s love in our lives in many different ways. And after we’ve shared these moments of where God is working now, we turn to the pages of Scripture to see what God has done in the past, and what promises God has made to us.

Peter and the other disciples did something similar, when they passed on the faith that Jesus had taught them. They told people stories of how they had seen God acting in and through Jesus, and they turned to the Scriptures they had grown up with—the books of the Old Testament—to explain what God had done and the promises God had made to them through Jesus Christ. You see, that was the mission God gave them: he sent them out to tell the stories, to share the faith, to give life to all the world. The word “apostle” means “someone who is sent.” They were men and women on a mission, to share their experiences of Jesus the Christ. To pass on the faith. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, they brought many to God. We are here today because they told people about Jesus, and those people believed their words, and those people passed that faith on to others.

The faith that the Apostles taught—the faith that God sent them to spread—is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Now, here’s a question for the Confirmation students: where in the Bible is the Apostles’ Creed found? That’s a trick question: it isn’t in the Bible. We don’t know exactly where and when the Creed was first used, but it came into being very early on. By the second or third century, Christians were teaching it to those who were about to be baptized, as a handy summary of the faith that had been passed on to them by the Apostles. In those days books were extremely expensive and few could read, but everyone could memorize the Creed. And the Apostles’ Creed would help them remember the basics of the faith. It has been used ever since to teach people about who God is and what God has done. It is a framework of belief and a summary of all the stories of the Bible, shared in common by all Christians.

We may have our differences, but we all believe in God the father, the almighty, who created heaven and earth, and everything that is, seen and unseen. That Creator made us out of the dust of the earth and brought us life, and when we turned away from our heavenly father, he sent his Son, Jesus the Christ, to love us and heal us and bring us back to God.

We all believe in Jesus Christ, the Son, who was truly God and truly human, both at the same time, God in Human flesh, born of Mary, who taught and healed and was willing to die to save us from our sin and brokenness. He was tortured by Pontius Pilate, put to death on a cross, and died. He was buried. He was dead for three days, but the tomb could not hold him. The powers of death could not keep him down. He was raised from the dead on Easter, and because we are his, we too shall be raised from the dead. Jesus returned to heaven, where he is with the father, but he will come again, and bring God’s Kingdom with him.

We all believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which moved over the waters of creation, which was given to Jesus’ followers through tongues of flame at Pentecost, which is given to every one of us through the waters of baptism. Christians have splintered into so many different factions, but we believe that even when we fight and squabble among ourselves that there is still a unity among all who believe that makes us into one holy universal church in the eyes of God. We believe that God forgives us and calls us to forgive others. And we all believe that God’s kingdom will come, and the dead will be raised, and we will be with God forever.

This is the faith in which we baptize, the faith taught by the Apostles and passed on by all those who have come before us. It is the faith that we are called to share with the world, and it is the faith that these four young people are about to claim as their own. It is the faith that we live out every day.

God has done so many things in this world, in and among God’s people, for those who believe and those who don’t. There is no way that all of the stories of the things God has done could be collected in a single book; no book can hold it all. But we learn the stories of what God has done best through hearing people share the stories of what God has done for them and in them and through them. Thanks be to God.

The Day Everything Changed

Easter, (Year A), April 20, 2014

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:12-14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

 

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

 

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

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

There are some events that change everything. Some events that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. For my grandparents’ generation, the question was: what were you doing when you heard Pearl Harbor was bombed? For my parents’ generation, the question was: what were you doing when you heard that Kennedy was shot? For my generation, the question is: what were you doing on September 11th? (If you’re curious, I was in college, in Greek class, when we got the news.) If you notice, those events have a lot in common. They all involved a huge shock. They all were hard to believe at first. They all involved death. And they all involved a loss of innocence, a time of fear and pain. Something broke, and nothing was ever quite the same. The rules were different, afterwards. Life was different afterwards.

For the first followers of Jesus, the question was: where were you when Jesus rose? This was the game-changer. And life is different afterwards! But it’s a different kind of game-changer. This game changer doesn’t lead to a loss of innocence; it doesn’t lead to fear and pain. Quite the opposite. This event wipes away the fear and pain. This event restores an innocence and faith that had been lost. This event healed the world, and those who lived through it.

We take it for granted, today; after all, we know that Jesus rose! He died on Good Friday, and he rose on Easter. We celebrate it every year, regular as clockwork. We have the rituals and the traditions all laid out to help guide us through what to do and what it means. It’s not a shock, and it’s not hard to believe. We take it for granted. But put yourselves back in their shoes. If you hadn’t heard the story every year, would you have believed it possible before seeing it yourself? And when angels came and rolled the stone away, how would you have reacted? If I’d been there, not knowing the story, I probably would have fainted just like the guards did. And I definitely would have been as freaked out as the two Marys were.

Someone rose from the dead. The Son of God rose from the dead. The gates of hell have been broken. Sin and death have been defeated. These are all huge things! But for Jesus’ first followers, this is something more. This is, after all, their friend. Their friend whom they love. Their friend that they have eaten and drank with, their friend they’ve shared stories with, their friend who was with them in good times and bad. He was dead, and now he is alive. Notice that the women took hold of his feet. Mary Magdalene once washed his feet and anointed them with oil: these are feet she knows. I wonder if she touched his feet to reassure herself that this was truly Jesus, not a ghost or a hallucination or a case of mistaken identity, but the real man she had known and followed throughout Judea.

Jesus told them to tell his followers to go to Galilee, and they went. Jesus met them there, and they worshipped him, and he gave them the great commission: to pass on what they have learned, making disciples and baptizing them and living the kind of life that Jesus had taught them. And they did! They started telling people about Jesus; they started living differently. All of those first followers put their trust in God, and followed where he led them. Jesus promised to be with them always, and he was. Life wasn’t always smooth, and it wasn’t always easy. But their lives had been changed by meeting the resurrected Jesus, and they never looked back. They experienced Jesus’ death and resurrection; their old lives were dead, and their new lives were in Christ.

How have our lives been changed by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Have they been changed? For a lot of people, Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t really affect their every-day lives. For them, the salvation that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection means that they’ll go to heaven when they die. And that’s true! And it’s good that we know that! It’s a great comfort, particularly when a loved one dies, to know that we will see them again in the kingdom of heaven.

But Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just about what happens to us after we die. It’s about how we live in this life, too. In the words of our reading from Colossians, we have died, and our new life is with Christ in God. Our life, the life we live now, is in God. That’s why Jesus’ resurrection is immediately followed by a call to action. The two Marys meet Jesus in the garden, and they are overjoyed! They worship him! And they are sent to tell the rest of Jesus’ followers where to meet him. They don’t just hang around in the garden rehashing old times and celebrating. They get sent out into the world. And when Jesus’ followers get to the mountain in Galilee where he sent them, Jesus was there, and they worshipped him again. But, again, they didn’t have time to rest on their laurels. They weren’t given the chance to just stay there hanging out with Jesus; Jesus would be with them always, but they were supposed to go out in the world and be in the world, sharing the light of Christ. They weren’t given the chance to go back to their old lives as if nothing had happened. Yes, some of Jesus’ followers did go back to their old jobs; they all worked, they all had homes and most had families. But the way they lived their lives was different than it had been. They had a story to tell, and love to share.

Have you ever felt alone? Have you ever felt like nobody cared about you at all? Have you ever felt that if people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you? Have you ever felt that you had to hide parts of yourself to keep your friends? How much would it have meant to you, when you felt abandoned by the world, to know that God loved you no matter what? Would it have affected how you felt and thought? Would it have affected the choices you made? It’s true! God loves you no matter what. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that God loves each and every one of us—you, me, the entire world—with a love greater than anything we can imagine. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. So no matter what happens to us, no matter what hard knocks life gives us, no matter how far we go astray, God loves us and calls us. And that’s huge. We aren’t alone; we’re never alone. Fear and loneliness can make people do terrible things, but we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to be alone. We don’t have to hide ourselves. God sees the worst in us and loves us anyway. Knowing and accepting God’s love can give us the courage to open ourselves up to God’s Holy Spirit, to spread that love to all the world.

Those of you who were at Maundy Thursday services this week will remember Jesus’ last command to his disciples before his death was to love one another as he had loved them. In fact, Jesus said that love was the mark of a disciple. And here Jesus is, telling them to go and make disciples of all nations. You can’t be a disciple without loving one another as Jesus has loved us. So you can’t make a disciple without loving one another. Making disciples is not about making sure they know the right things or can say the right words. It’s not about separating good people from bad people. It’s about sharing Jesus’ love with the world, the love that he has given us. Discipleship is about letting God’s love transform us, and sharing that love with the world through our words and our actions.

And note that Jesus doesn’t just say “go and make disciples of your friends.” He doesn’t say “go and make disciples of nice people you like.” He doesn’t say “go and make disciples of people who are like you.” He says that we should go and make disciples of all nations. Everyone. As Peter says in our first lesson, God shows no partiality. God’s love is big enough for the whole world. It’s not something to be rationed out by the cupful, it overflows abundantly for everyone. We’ve been given the greatest gift imaginable—the love of God. We have more than we need, and we’ll never run out of it. We don’t have to hoard God’s love, because he gives it freely. Shouldn’t we share this wonderful thing with the world?

Jesus Christ died and rose again. He died for us, because he loves us, because he loves the whole world. This is not just a story of something that happened two thousand years ago, this is something that is happening here, now, for us. We have died with Christ, and been raised with him. Our lives are with Christ. God’s love has been poured out on us, and in us, and through us. And we have that gift to share with all the world. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Pain in the Light of Resurrection

Just realized I never posted last week’s sermon!

The Fourth Sunday After Easter, Year C, April 21, 2013

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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.

It’s been quite a week, hasn’t it?  The Boston Marathon was bombed, triggering a city-wide manhunt.  Someone tried to poison the President.  A factory in Texas exploded.  High tempers and harsh rhetoric over a gun-control.  Floodwaters rising in the Mississippi River.  And America is not the only place in the world having a tough time.  Yesterday there was a deadly earthquake in China.  This last week, there was a coup in the Central African Republic, and so the people of our companion synod there are endangered.  A child was viciously raped and held captive in India, and police tried to bribe her parents into not filing charges, triggering massive protests.

Of course, horrible things have happened before, but they don’t usually come this close together.  And we’ve never been as instantly connected as we are now.  When the Twin Towers were attacked, I spent most of the day wondering what had happened, knowing only bits and pieces.  Even turning on the news gave little information, compared to today.  A few clips of the towers collapsing, the same speculation repeated over and over.  And if those few images got to be too much, it was easy to escape them: just turn off the television.  Today, you don’t have to seek out pictures and information on such tragedies.  Today, you have to work hard to escape, because they’re everywhere.  Not just on television, but online, on Facebook and Twitter and spread by email.  The computer age has given us many, many more ways to communicate, but that comes at a cost.  And one of the costs is that when evil things happen, they are shoved in our faces in ways they never were before.

How do you deal with the problem of evil?  Why does God let such horrible things happen?  Why do the innocent suffer?  What happens to people to cause them to do such things, and how can we prevent it?  Why are things so bad these days?  Are things worse than they used to be, or is it just that we are more aware of suffering in the world, and that victims of horrors are more likely to speak up and demand justice?

We are not alone in asking such questions.  People have been trying to figure out how to deal with evil since the world began.  People have suffered from injustice and natural disasters since the first human beings.  And people have suffered from all manner of physical and mental and emotional problems since there have been human beings on this Earth.  I don’t think people treat one another worse today than they did two thousand years ago, though I do think we are more likely to see and be haunted by the evils that happen to other people in the world.  But all these questions, important as they are, are not the most important ones to ask.  The question we as Christians must ask is this: what does God have to say in response to such horrors?

First of all, we are not alone.  We are not abandoned to muddle through in a world falling to pieces.  God came to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who lived a human life and who suffered just as we have suffered.  Jesus was no stranger to pain or grief.  He wept when his friend Lazarus died, and he himself ministered to those in grief.  Jesus spent his time with those who were sick, injured, dying, outcasts, sinners—all who suffered.  He brought hope and healing to all he met.

And we are not alone because we are called to minister to one another in pain and grief.  We see an example of this in our first lesson.  A woman named Tabitha died.  We aren’t told how or why, but medical care was almost non-existent at the time, and what little there was probably wouldn’t have been used for a woman.  She seems to have been of no particular merit or value in society—except to her friends and those she helped.  And when she died, her friends grieved, but the town probably didn’t pay much attention.  Unlike today’s world, where social media shoves tragedy in our face and there are funds and campaigns to send help to those who need it, Tabitha’s life and death were not something the larger society cared much about.

But the family of faith cared.  The family of faith cared even about this woman that society said wasn’t worth worrying about.  Tabitha’s friends cared, and so did Peter, and so did God.  Tabitha’s friends, both those who were within the Christian community and those who weren’t gathered to mourn her.  They let their grief at her passing come out and be seen and heard.  They told stories about her.  They told of the people she had helped, the things she had made.  They cried together.  And when Peter heard that someone had died, he went.  He joined them in their grief.

Now, Peter had a power I don’t have, and neither does anyone here that I’m aware of: God worked through Peter to raise Tabitha from the dead.  Such things have only happened a bare handful of times, and we can’t pin our hopes on an apostle like Peter happening by at the right time.  The victims of the bombs in Boston probably aren’t going to sit up out of their coffins at the funeral.

But Peter points to something greater than just one faithful woman being raised: Peter points to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  You see, Jesus Christ lived and died in a world just as messed up, as violent, and as unjust as the one we live in.  Jesus Christ lived in a world of casual brutality and callous disregard for people outside one’s own group that we can’t even begin to imagine.  And Jesus Christ stood up to that brutality, that violence, and that evil and said NO.  No, evil does not get the final say.  No, Jesus says, you can’t just ignore people you don’t like because even the greatest sinner is one of my flock.  No, you can’t use “they’re not like me” as justification for hatred and violence, for discrimination and abuse.  No, Jesus says, you can’t just shove aside those weaker than you, because they are mine, all of them.  No, Jesus says, the pain you have suffered is not an excuse to go out and inflict suffering on others.  But most importantly, Jesus says no—death doesn’t get the final victory.  Jesus’ NO was so loud that it scared people.  Jesus’ refusal to go along with a corrupt and callous society threatened those in power, and so they reacted as scared, callous people do in a violent world: they killed him.  And they thought they’d won.

But Jesus was not done.  Jesus was greater than that, and when Jesus said “no” to the evils of the world, that “no” was stronger than anyone could possibly imagine.  And when Jesus rose from the grave, he broke the powers of darkness.  He burst the gates of Hell so that it could not keep anyone imprisoned.  From that second on to this very day, evil and violence and brutality and callousness and abuse and injustice are on the defensive, fighting a losing battle.  They may seem as powerful as ever—and God knows that this week, they’ve seemed to loom over everything—but we are people of the Resurrection, and we know that in the end, they will be destroyed.  In the end, the Risen Christ will come again and all people will be raised from the dead.  Not just a faithful few like Tabitha, but everyone, from every time and every place.  Evil will be purged, and in its place will be only goodness and love.  In place of hunger and thirst, there will be good food and drink.  In place of hatred, there will be love.  In place of mourning, there will be joy.  God himself will wipe away every tear from every eye.

And while we wait for Christ to come again, while we wait for the general Resurrection, while we wait for the world to be made new, Christ calls us to join him in ministry.  Christ calls us to grieve for the dead, and for what has been lost.  They rest secure in Jesus’ care, but we will miss them and we are less because they are not with us.  Christ calls us to support those who grieve, just as the faithful in Joppa did, telling stories and crying together and simply being there.

Jesus Christ calls us to stand up in a world full of death and destruction, and proclaim the Good News.  Jesus Christ calls us to stand up in a world of violence and proclaim the coming of the Prince of Peace.  Jesus Christ calls us to stand up in a world of injustice and hatred and proclaim the coming of the Lord of Love.  And we are called to do that not just in word, but in deed.  We are called to live out our faith in the light of the Resurrection, to let every action, however small, and every word, however insignificant it may seem, proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We are called to let God’s love flow through us and in us and around us.  We are called to bring healing and hope to those who walk in darkness, whether that is the darkness of what has been done to them or the darkness of their own hate and fear.  We are called to tell the whole world what it means for all people that Jesus Christ is risen.

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!