Easter 3, Year B, April 15, 2018

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

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

 

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

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

When I read our first lesson for today, my first thought was: “Really, Peter?  You, of all people, are criticizing what others did during the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution?  Does the word hypocrisy mean nothing to you?”  Peter criticizes the crowd of Jerusalem residents for what they did: for first praising Jesus, and then turning on him when he didn’t do what they expected, and listening to the religious and political leaders who saw Jesus as a threat.  And then, when Pilate offered to release a criminal, they chose the one who’d been imprisoned for leading a rebellion against the hated Roman conquerors, instead of Jesus, who taught about peace and healing and love.  None of this is good.  But let’s look at what Peter was doing, during that time.  First, in the days leading up to Jesus’ death, he consistently misunderstood what Jesus meant and tried to stop him talking about the upcoming crucifixion.  Then he repeatedly fell asleep when Jesus asked him to keep watch in the garden.  Then, after Jesus’ arrest, he watched the trial but not only did he fail to come to Jesus’ defense and point out the lies the witnesses were telling, he denied that he even KNEW Jesus!  There is no point in this sequence of events where Peter does the right thing.  Not one.  He didn’t call for Jesus’ death, but he did not say a word to prevent it.  And here he is, criticizing what OTHER people did?  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

And when you get right down to it, all human beings live in glass houses where sin is concerned.  Christ Jesus died because of the world’s sins, and that includes our sin, here and now.  And, unfortunately, a lot of that sin is the exact same sin of that crowd who first welcomed Jesus and then turned against him.  They wanted to be saved, but on their own terms, in ways that were familiar to them.  And then they listened to the voices of anger and fear telling them that Jesus was a way of threat to their faith and their way of life.  And they swallowed all the lies about Jesus that anybody could come up with.  When Jesus seemed like a winner, they were on his side.  When Jesus seemed like a loser, they abandoned him and even cheered for his death and destruction.  And given a choice between Jesus, whose promise of peace and salvation required them to change their hearts and minds, and Barabbas, whose promise of salvation was a bloody crusade against their enemies, they chose the violent one.

If you look around our society today, you will see exactly those same types of sin today, committed by good, Christian people.  We get this idea in our heads that we already know what life in God’s kingdom is going to look like, and it’s going to look like things we’re familiar and comfortable with.  Better than what we’ve got now, of course, but still pretty similar.  After all, we’re already God’s chosen people, right?  So we might still need God’s salvation, but we think it’ll fit neatly into our lives and society the way it is, just like those people of Jerusalem who called for Jesus to save them on Palm Sunday.  Which means we may not recognize God’s salvation, God’s call, when it’s right here among us.

And there are a lot of voices speaking and shouting in anger and fear, right now.  Fear about Americans of different races.  Fear of Americans of different political parties.  Fear of foreigners.  Fear of anyone who is different.  And while we are quick to see the flaws of people we count our enemies, we blindly follow the nastiest voices on our own side.  We follow people who seem like winners, and attack those who seem like losers, with little regard for what is right or wrong.  And we look for violent solutions, assuming that peace, security, and a just world can be created through violence and destruction.  Even when we know this is wrong, we fail to speak out against it, or even deny what we know to be true.  Every sin and flaw that led the crowds to call for Jesus’ death, and to Peter’s denial, is still within us here today.  And that desire to blame others while hiding our own sins, as Peter did in our first lesson?  That’s also still a part of us today.  In the words of one of my favorite Lenten hymns, “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.  ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.  I crucified thee.”  You and I and every person living today are just as guilty of Jesus’ death as the people who stood in the crowd shouting “Crucify!”

So the question is, if we’re still plagued by all the sins and flaws that have plagued the world since the very beginning of the world, what does Jesus’ death and resurrection matter?  What difference does it make, to you and I and our world, that Jesus died for us, and rose from the grave?  Is it just pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by?  Sure, we keep screwing up and hurting ourselves and others now, but when we die it will be okay because we’ll go to heaven?  I mean, that’s true, but it’s also a little limited.  Yes, Jesus’ resurrection means we will go to heaven, but Jesus also promised us new life in the here-and-now.  Jesus repeatedly said that God’s kingdom was all around us, if we only knew how to see it.

We are full of sin, but we are also full of the Holy Spirit, and full of God’s love.  For all that the world around us is calling for cynicism, hate, fear, and violence, God is working in us and around us to soften our hard hearts and purify us.  God keeps calling us to see that there is a different way, a better way, a way of reconciliation that leads to mercy and justice and peace.  Every time a bully stops hurting people, God is there.  Every time people stand up to a bully and protect the victim, God is there.  Every time people stop their knee-jerk reactions and choose to be kind and generous, God is there.  Every time people stop a cycle of violence and destruction, God is there.  Every time we give so that the hungry may be fed, the sick healed, homeless housed, refugees saved, God is there at work.  God is working towards a day when love and peace will be everywhere and sin will be defeated for good.

And God is calling us, you and me, to be a part of that work.  God is calling us to repent, to acknowledge the sin and brokenness in ourselves and turn to God for healing and forgiveness.  The world is full of sin but we don’t have to let it rule us anymore.  We can open our hearts and minds to Jesus, and let him change us.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it is hard, even when it will not win us friends or popularity.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it costs us.  May we always confess our sins, and strive to act in love as God calls us to do.

Amen.

Can you blame Thomas?

Third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, 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, O Lord.

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

If I didn’t know today’s Gospel story, and I had to pick which disciple was going to not believe that Jesus was risen, I would not have figured Thomas as the one.  Peter, maybe; Peter was always getting things wrong and not understanding what Jesus was doing.  But Thomas?  In John chapter 11, Thomas was the only disciple who seemed to get that going nearer to Jerusalem seriously meant risking death, and wanted to go anyway.  True, that was partly out of grief over Lazarus’ death, but at least it was something.  And then later, at Jesus’ Last Supper, Thomas asked a very good question, which Jesus used as the foundation for one of the great statements of who he is.  Thomas, in other words, gets closer to understanding Jesus than the other disciples before Jesus died.  And, unlike Peter, he’s never had a major mistake.  He’s never said or done anything so bone-headed that you just have to sit there shaking your head at it.  So why is it that Thomas, out of all the Disciples, is the one who doesn’t believe Jesus has risen from the dead until Jesus comes back to actually show him?

Let’s consider the larger picture.  Jesus died, and on the third day he rose again.  The disciples spent that time terrified that the authorities were going to come and arrest them, too.  They stay inside a locked room, where it’s safe.  Or at least, it feels safer than being out on the streets, among the people who so recently cheered Jesus’ crucifixion.  Let’s get real, if either the chief priests or the Roman governor decided to get rid of the rest of the group and sent troops?  A locked door would not keep the centurions and Temple guards out.  If all their fears come true, there is absolutely NOTHING the disciples could do about it.  They are absolutely helpless in the face of the powers that want Jesus’ movement crushed.  Nothing they say or do could possibly save them if the powers of the world truly decided to crush them.  But I’m sure that locked door made them feel safer.  It was absolutely, completely, and totally useless for any practical defense.  The lock on that door has one purpose, and one purpose only: to make the disciples feel better.

I’m sure it was very comfortable inside that locked room.  They could sit there and talk about how awesome Jesus was to their hearts’ content.  They could sing songs, and share stories about Jesus, and what he had done in their lives, and feel safe and secure and warm and happy.  They never had to take the risk of someone not understanding them.  They never had to take the risk of anyone looking at them and going, why do you care so much about a dead guy?  Or worse, wow, you guys sure are stupid for following him for that long.  And they never had to worry about putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.  Jesus asks hard things of his followers.  Jesus told us to forgive those who sin against us, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, love our enemies and people who are unloveable, and a lot of other hard things.  It’s a lot easier to talk about how we should feed the hungry than it is to actually do it.  It’s a lot easier to say, of course we should love our enemies, when we don’t have to actually put that love into action.  And if you’re hiding away in a locked room with only the people who agree with you, you never have to worry about any of that.  It’s very comfortable.

Which may be why, after Jesus appeared to them on that first Easter Sunday, and breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and sent them out to spread God’s peace and forgive sins, they … just keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I mean, this was a dramatic moment!  Jesus appeared in a locked room!  Jesus, who had been DEAD, was ALIVE.  And although he could apparently walk through walls when he wanted to, he was no ghost, no spirit.  His body was as living as the rest of him.  And then he gave them the Holy Spirit.  Now, when the Spirit comes, things are supposed to happen, right?  The Spirit is life!  The Spirit is fire and water and the breath of God and inspiration and it takes people, shakes them up, gives them faith, and sends them out into the world!  Look at what happened when the Spirit came into the disciples fifty days later, at Pentecost—they went out and spread the Gospel and baptized thousands!  Our first reading, Peter’s preaching to the crowd and three thousand people were baptized?  That’s from Pentecost!  That’s what happens when the Spirit moves people!  And here, the disciples have just seen the risen Lord, and he has personally breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and what do they do?

Nothing.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada, not one thing.  They keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I think we can all agree that this was not the fault of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that Jesus was not at work in their lives!  Jesus was really, physically present!  Jesus had personally and tangibly given them the Holy Spirit!  Jesus had told them to get out into the world and start spreading his peace!  And the disciples responded by going, well, that’s awesome, we’re really happy Jesus, but the world is a big and scary place and this locked room is pretty comfy, so we’re going to stay right where we are, instead.  But we’ll make sure to tell Thomas all about it!  I can just imagine Jesus standing there face-palming.

And where was Thomas when all this was happening?  Well, that’s the interesting thing.  Thomas was the only one of the disciples who WASN’T cowering in a locked room.  He was out and about in Jerusalem somewhere, and that’s why he didn’t see Jesus when the rest of the disciples did.  Maybe he was doing the grocery shopping.  Maybe he was visiting friends and family.  Maybe he was doing what Jesus had told them to do all along—feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, forgive the sinner, spread God’s peace.  I don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t say.  But whatever he was doing that first Easter Sunday morning, he was braver without even knowing Jesus was risen than the other disciples were after a personal appearance by Jesus and a personal, tangible gift of the Spirit.

So Thomas was out and about in Jerusalem while the rest of the disciples barricaded themselves in a locked room.  Then he gets back and they tell him awesome news!  Jesus is risen!  He gave us the Holy Spirit and told us to spread peace!  Isn’t that wonderful!  And if I were Thomas, I would have said something along the lines of, okay, great, what happens next?  Because whether you believe Jesus was risen or not, nobody can stay in a locked room forever, right?  So where are we going, what are we going to do, how are we going to start spreading that peace and forgiveness like Jesus commanded?

This is where the disciples start hemming and hawing and coming up with excuses for why they can’t actually go out and start sharing the good news, spreading God’s peace, forgiving sins, or doing any of the other things Jesus has taught them and commanded them to do.  Well, you know, it’s too late to start today, we better wait until tomorrow, when we can get a good head start on it.  And, you know, people don’t want to listen to messages of peace, the city’s pretty tense right now and everybody is busy with cleaning up after Passover and getting back to their normal lives, so they probably wouldn’t listen right now.  And we can’t possibly do anything until we’ve got a good plan, and we’ve never done this before so we don’t know what would be best.  And people might get mad if we tell them that Jesus, the same guy they crucified, is God’s Son and rose from the grave!  And what if the Romans hear about it, they’d get mad.  What if the high priests hear about it, they’d get even more angry, and so we can just stay here sharing peace with each other and forgiving each other when we make mistakes, okay?  Any excuse that will justify staying up there in that comfortable locked room.

I can just imagine Thomas standing there staring at them, listening to all their excuses for staying where it’s comfy and cozy and they never have to actually put their faith into action.  Do you blame him for not believing them that Jesus rose from the grave?  Do you blame him for not believing that the Holy Spirit had come into them?  They’re not acting like Jesus is risen!  They’re not acting like they’ve been given the Holy Spirit!  They’re just sitting there like bumps on a log!  Why should Thomas believe them?

Why should anyone believe us?  Because we do the same!  We have been given the Holy Spirit!  Many times!  We were given the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptisms, and again at Confirmation, and again throughout our lives whenever God wishes to inspire us.  But how often do we act like it?  How often do we let that Spirit, that relationship with the risen Christ, drive us out into the world to start spreading God’s peace and love?  We come for Easter services and say He is risen, alleluia! And then we go back to our homes and have a nice family dinner and an Easter Egg hunt.  And then we go right on about our business like nothing has changed.  We stay firmly in our comfort zone, in our safe and ordinary lives, coming up with all the reasons why we can’t open up to what the Spirit calls us to do.  Just like the disciples stayed up in that locked room.  And then we wonder why no one listens to the Good News we have to share.

The disciples don’t look like Jesus is risen.  Sometimes, neither do we.  Jesus says that those who have not seen and believed anyway are blessed, but most people are like Thomas.  We need to see something.  If not Jesus risen with our own eyes, then at least the Holy Spirit sending us out into the world.  May we follow the Spirit wherever it sends us.

Amen.

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!

Unexpected Calls

The Third Sunday After Easter, Year C, April 7, 2013

Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

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.

In today’s readings, we have three “call” stories.  Now, a call story is a story about God calling you to do something.  The most obvious people in a community with a call from God are pastors.  After all, like most churches, the ELCA will not ordain anyone a pastor unless they genuinely believe that you have been called by God to the ordained ministry.  But pastors aren’t the only ones God calls.  In fact, God calls all kinds of people to all kinds of work.  And sometimes that work is something that lasts a lifetime, and sometimes that call is just for one thing, right then, right now.  It’s often something we wouldn’t have chosen, and from the outside it can look kind of strange.  God works in ways we don’t understand, ways we would never have chosen, and sometimes God calls us to do things we would never have imagined.

Our first lesson tells the story of the conversion of Saul.  You’re probably more familiar with him under a different name: Paul.  You see, “Paul” is a more Greek-sounding name, so it’s what Saul called himself when dealing with Gentiles.  So, since we are the spiritual descendants of the Gentiles that Paul brought to the faith—and because most of our knowledge of Paul comes from the letters he wrote to those Gentiles, which have been included in the New Testament—we call him St. Paul.  It’s easy to think of Paul as a wise church leader, an apostle sent by God to preach the faith and guide new believers.  It’s not so easy to remember that before he was a believer in Jesus Christ, Paul persecuted the church.  He was a devout Jew who believed that the teachings of Jesus were leading his people astray from the true word of God, and so he sought out followers of Jesus and prosecuted them.  At least one of those trials, that of a deacon named Stephen, resulted in an execution.  And after Stephen’s death, Paul travelled to Damascus to seek out other followers of Christ to bring to trial.  Paul was a devout man who genuinely, honestly believed that he was a righteous man following God’s will … except what he was doing was directly against God’s will!

Now, if it was you or me, we would not say that this guy would make a good follower of Christ.  If it was you or me, we’d look at this man who was responsible for the death of a faithful Christian and was seeking others to persecute, and we’d say “this guy deserves what he gets—he doesn’t deserve salvation!  He doesn’t deserve God’s love!  Get rid of him.  But that’s not what God did.  God did not attack Paul.  God did not think Paul was beyond redemption—God knew better.  God came to Paul and showed him the error of his ways.  God called Paul to a better and truer and deeper understanding of God’s Word.  Imagine what it must have been like for Paul: God turned his entire world upside down.  Everything Paul thought he knew was wrong.  God did have work for Paul, but it wasn’t what Paul was expecting.  When he started out for Damascus, neither Paul nor anyone else could have imagined where that journey would lead him.  God called him out of his comfortable certainties, his narrow righteousness, into a fuller understanding of God’s love that demanded to be shared with the world.  The call that God gave Paul, which began on that road to Damascus, would last Paul’s whole life long and transform the fledgling movement known then only as “the Way”, which would eventually be called the Christian Church.

The second call story in today’s lessons is that of Ananias.  Unlike Paul, we don’t know much about Ananias.  He seems to have been an ordinary follower of Jesus Christ, nothing special about him that anybody can see.  The only other time he’s mentioned in the Bible is later in Acts when Paul tells the story of his roadside experience, referring to Ananias as a “devout follower” of God.  There was nothing special about Ananias … except that when God called him to do something, he did it.  Put yourself in Ananias’ shoes.  He knew darn good and well who this Saul of Tarsus that God was sending him to was.  He knew that Paul had been persecuting the followers of Jesus.  He knew that Paul was responsible for the death of Stephen, and had come specifically to attack followers of Jesus—like Ananias himself!  Paul was a clear and present threat to his continued life and livelihood.  If you were him, would you have wanted to go heal Paul?  No!  If it were me, there’s a good chance that I’d look upon Paul’s blinding as the least of what he deserved, and take pleasure in his misfortune.  So it’s no wonder that, when God called Ananias to heal Paul’s blindness, Ananias questioned God.

And yet, when it came down to it … Ananias went.  He followed God’s call to heal and teach Paul, and in so doing he participated in something he could never have imagined.  By healing Paul and teaching him the basics of the Christian faith, Ananias helped start Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.  Without Ananias’ healing and witness, Paul could not have learned about Jesus, he could not have travelled throughout Greece and Turkey spreading the Gospel, and he could not have written the letters that have added so much depth and richness to our understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Ananias’ call to heal and teach Paul lasted only for a short time, and yet it enabled a spread of the Gospel beyond anything anybody had seen yet.

Then, in the Gospel, we have a call for Simon, who was nicknamed Peter.  Peter, by the way, means “Rock,” and I’ve always wondered if that was a reference to how hard his head was.  Peter was not the brightest of the disciples.  If there was a way to misunderstand, Peter would do it.  If there was a way to screw up, Peter would find it.  Peter had some of the best moments of any of the disciples, where he “got” who Jesus was better than anyone else … and each time he immediately followed it up by proving he was still missing the boat.  You may have noticed, in today’s reading, the funny thing he does: he’d taken off his clothes to fish, presumably so as not to get fish guts and stuff on them.  Seeing Jesus on the shore, he is overwhelmed with joy!  He’s going to swim ashore to meet Jesus because he can’t even wait for the boat to get there!  And before he jumps in the water and gets soaking wet, he put all his clothes on.  Usually, people take their clothes off before they go swimming, but not our Rock.  Not the brightest crayon in the box, our Peter.  If I were interviewing for a church leadership position and someone like Peter was one of the applicants, I would hesitate.  If I were to pick a disciple to be the backbone of the early church, without knowing Peter’s later role, I would have picked a different one.  Yet Jesus singled Peter out, calling him to “feed Jesus’ sheep,” to care for all of God’s children, and telling him that this call would end with Peter suffering for Jesus’ sake.

And Peter answered Jesus’ call, knowing it would lead him into danger and hard times.  He didn’t miraculously become a different person, he didn’t miraculously become suave and sophisticated.  He never stopped being a bit dense.  Yet God used him to bring many others to the faith.  Peter never managed the sophisticated theological arguments that Paul did, but that was okay.  That wasn’t what Peter was called to do.  Peter was called by God to tell the story, to tell how he had experienced the love of God in Christ Jesus, to tell the story simply and honestly.  And, when disputes among the followers of Christ came up, Peter was called to give common-sense answers and pass on what God told him.  Nothing fancy, nothing complicated.  Through his honesty, his openness, his willingness to follow God even when he didn’t understand what God wanted him to do, Peter had a profound impact on the early Christians.  He helped them see God’s work in their midst, even when it went against what they expected God would want.  Peter fed God’s sheep with simple, wholesome Good News.

In all three of these call stories, God called people we wouldn’t expect to do things we wouldn’t expect.  He picked the enemy of the faith, the ordinary follower of Jesus, the dimmest of the disciples.  And he didn’t call them to do what they expected God would want them to do.  Paul never imagined that he would join the very group he had been persecuting in God’s name.  Ananias never expected he would heal and mentor a man who had been the enemy of his people.  Peter never expected he would be the heart of the followers of Jesus, one of their great leaders.  Yet through their actions, faith in Jesus Christ was spread throughout the world.  We would not be here today without them.

And we shouldn’t be surprised that God calls unusual people to do unusual things.  After all, God is one who does the unexpected.  God is the one who chose to save the world through his own death.  God is the one who came to earth not in a palace, but in a humble stable.  God is the one who came to challenge the forces of evil not like a lion, but like a tiny lamb.  Our God is always turning the world upside down and right side up.  We worship the lamb that was slain, who loved the whole world so much that he could not bear to see any part of it suffer.  We worship a God who calls all of creation to himself, not just the big and might and good but the small, and stupid, and wrong, and bad as well, every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, calls them to new life with the risen Christ.

God calls all of creation to rejoice in the Resurrection, and to participate in Christ’s saving work in the world.  God calls us, too, every single one of us.  We all have our part in the choir of all creation.  We all have our part to play in the Good News.  It may be big, it may be small, but in everything we say and do we are called to proclaim the good news that comes through Jesus Christ.  The question is, will we answer God’s call?  Will we follow where God leads us, even if it’s not what we would have chosen or anticipated?  Will we let the love of God shine through our words and our deeds?

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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!

Listening to the Spirit

Easter 6, Year B, Sunday, May 13, 2012

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 115:9-17

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

Download an audio recording of this sermon.

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

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

The Psalmist writes: “Sing a new song to the LORD, who has done marvelous things.”  I don’t know much about worship music in Biblical times—no one does—but in America, most people who go to church don’t like to sing a new song.  Anyone who’s done any worship planning could tell you that.  No matter what denomination, region, or era, the complaint is the same whenever a new song is introduced.  “What’s wrong with the old songs we know and love?” people say.  “They were much better than this new stuff!”  I had a professor in seminary who had a list of hymns, some new and some that are for us old familiar classics.  Below that list was another list of actual complaints made about the songs when they first came out, and the game was to match which complaint belonged to an old classic and which belonged to a new hymn.  It was surprisingly hard, because people made the exact same types of complaints a hundred years ago as they do today.  It was a good reminder that every old thing was once new.  Every bit of beloved tradition started out as a change from the way things used to be done, and was probably grumbled at when it was introduced.  I don’t think it was that different in ancient Israel.  People like familiar things.  It’s human nature.  Change is messy, and unpredictable, and always has unintended consequences.  So unless things are going terribly wrong, most people like things to stay the same, and assume that the way things are is the way things should be.  It’s just human nature.

In our first lesson, Saint Peter and his followers shared that appreciation for the status quo.  Even though Jesus had come to them, had lived and died and turned the whole world inside out with his teachings and his sacrifice, they assumed that things would go on and be business as usual.  The Jews were the people of God, so those who wanted to follow Jesus would become Jewish, and would follow Jewish customs and be circumcised.  After all, circumcision was the mark of being God’s people.  That’s why they were amazed that the Holy Spirit came to these gentiles.  They weren’t Jewish, weren’t circumcised.  How could God be with those outside of the community that had been worshipping him for centuries?  As the book of Acts says, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

This story could happen in any church in America today.  In fact, it could happen in any congregation in the history of the Christian church.  It’s an old pattern.  We meet someone new—someone who’s different than we are.  Maybe they come from another country, or another state, or another ethnic group.  Maybe they come from another religion.  Maybe they have a different political ideology.  Maybe they’re from another economic group.  Maybe their orientation is different.  The specifics don’t really matter, in any one of a million different ways, the newcomers are not like us.  They are, in the words of today’s reading from Acts, gentiles.  People from outside the traditional community of faith.  And then we see that God is at work in them, and we are astonished to find that God can send God’s Spirit even to those who are different from us.

After all, we know that we are God’s chosen people.  Peter and the circumcised believers in the Acts story knew it too.  God had come to their ancestors long ago, and made a covenant with them, a promise that he would be their God and they would be his people.  God had chosen them, given them the gift of his love, taught them how to live good and fruitful lives.  God had been with them through many dangers, toils, and snares.  Every male of their community had physical proof of their relationship with God in the circumcision that was part of the covenant.  Jesus Christ had come, God’s Anointed One, and given them an even deeper understanding of God’s love.  Jesus had shown them that all the commandments God gave could be summed up in one word: love.  Love for neighbor and love for God.  Instead of focusing on the rules and regulations, they should focus on the intentions behind the rules, and love one another in deed and in truth, and love God—abide in God—with all their heart, soul, and mind.  They were doing everything that God had called them to do!  They were God’s chosen people.

That’s why they were shocked to find that these gentiles were God’s chosen people, too.  These gentiles did not share their history.  These gentiles were not part of the covenant God made with the Jewish people.  These gentiles didn’t share their language, their worship traditions, their culture, their values, their perspective on the world.  These people were different.  And yet, God had chosen them!  Those first circumcised believers had thought that because they were God’s chosen people, God would only choose people who were like them, or were willing to become like them.  But God had a different plan.  The gentiles didn’t have to give up their identity and become Jewish in order to receive the Holy Spirit.  God gave it to them as they were.  God’s love was given to everyone, not just those who were already part of the community of faith.  Jesus’ commandment to base our lives on love for God and one another was given for everyone.  God chose these Gentiles, guiding them in new ways to be God’s people.  God was gathering in all peoples together.  God was doing a new thing, a marvelous thing.

And it is that new thing, God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to those gentiles, which brings us here today.  You see, those gentiles are our ancestors in the faith.  If the first circumcised believers hadn’t recognized and followed God’s will to baptize them and teach them God’s Word, and do the same for all the Gentiles who came after them, we would not be here today.  We owe our faith, our relationship with Jesus, to their willingness to follow God even when God was doing something surprising, something new, something that changed and challenged their assumptions.  Thank God for Saint Peter, who saw God’s Spirit working and followed where it led even through his astonishment.  Thank God that he was willing to baptize and teach people who were different from him.  Thank God that Peter later support Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

The question for us here is, what new, surprising, marvelous things is God doing today?  What new songs is God calling us to sing?  How is God pouring out the Holy Spirit in today’s world?  Are we willing to recognize the work of the Spirit if it comes in forms—and people—that don’t look like what we’re used to?  No matter how much we like things to stay the same, our world is changing.  Our culture is changing.  Young people today act and think very differently than their grandparents did.  And thanks the ease of modern travel and communications, many people of all ages have friends who come from different cultures, countries, and faiths.  Church attendance is decreasing all over America, and we hear a lot of doom and gloom about that.  But I think the pessimists are wrong.  I think we have extraordinary opportunities to do ministry.  We have the opportunity to be like Peter and his band of circumcised believers, going out to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the gentiles.

But that depends on us being willing to see the Holy Spirit in unexpected places, and recognizing that God sometimes comes in places and people we don’t expect.  People who aren’t like us.  And that’s harder than it sounds.  The story of Pentecost is coming up in a few weeks.  At Pentecost, God sent the Spirit to a large group of believers.  But some of those who were there, and saw this miracle, dismissed it out of hand.  They saw the Holy Spirit working, and assumed people were just drunk.  God was there, and they didn’t see him because they didn’t want to see him.  If we are not careful, we can miss the Spirit’s presence and see only what we expect to see.

God was with Peter, and God was with those first gentile believers, and God is still with us today.  God is still gathering all peoples to himself.  God is still doing new things.  May God open our eyes to see the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, even in places and people that astonish us.

Amen.

Living in the Light of the Empty Tomb

Easter 2, Year B, Sunday, April 15, 2012

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1-2:2, John 20:19-31

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

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

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

Our first lesson has been the center of some political and economic controversy, over the last hundred and fifty years.  And it seems fitting, on April 15th, Tax Day, to mention political and economic controversy.  The Acts reading is the story of a community, the first Christian community, in Jerusalem, in which the first apostles lived and taught in the months and years after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.  For the first 1800 or so years of Christianity, this story was seen as an ideal, a pleasant but unrealistic look at what the Christian life would ideally be.  It was the model for many monasteries, and other intentional Christian communities.

Then came political and economic models that we call socialism and communism, and their direct opponent capitalism, and this story was reduced to a political rallying cry.  For liberals, it is “proof” that the earliest Christians were socialists.  For conservatives, it is quietly ignored and other texts are searched out to “prove” that Jesus supported capitalism.  And for both groups, this text becomes merely a club to beat their political opponents over the head with.  Have you noticed, in today’s political climate, how many people spend more time using the Bible to attack those they don’t like, than they do studying the Bible to discern God’s Word for themselves and their community?  Have you noticed how many Christians spend most of their time being afraid—afraid of the future, afraid of people they don’t agree with, afraid of losing what they have?  Too many Christians spend more time and energy on their fears than on their faith and love.  Have you noticed how many people today reduce Christianity to slogans, and Jesus to a bumper sticker?

But our faith is more than slogans, and Jesus is more than a bumper sticker.  Jesus Christ did not live, teach, die, and rise again for the sake of our political parties and economic ideologies.  Jesus Christ came to bring light to those who walk in darkness, salvation to the sinner, healing to the blind, and an abundant, joyful life for all.  With that in mind, how should we read the story of the first Christian community?

Let’s back up a bit, and start with the Gospel reading.  The 20th chapter of John is the story of the Christian community in the first week after the Resurrection, before the events told in Acts.  Although the women who had gone to the tomb had told the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the disciples didn’t really believe it.  They gathered in secret, hiding away in a locked room, afraid of the authorities who had so recently killed their friend and leader.  They were afraid of death, they were afraid of outsiders, they were afraid of a lot of things.  They were so afraid, they could not believe that God could or would raise Jesus from the dead.  It was Easter, but in their hearts it was still the day of crucifixion.  All the doubts, and fears, and pain of that day still dominated their souls.  The walls of their grief and terror pressed in around them.

And in the midst of all this fear, Jesus appeared.  Jesus came through the locks and bars, not just the physical ones but the locks and bars that fear put in their hearts.  Jesus shared with them his peace, and breathed on them to give them the Holy Spirit.  He showed them his wounds, to prove that he was truly their friend, not just a vision or a ghost.  Yes, the crucifixion still happened, and Jesus still bore the marks of it on his body.  But God’s love was stronger than the hate death and sin which had crucified Jesus.  God’s love was stronger than death, stronger than Hell itself.  And Jesus came back to tell his friends to live in that love.  Leave behind the bonds of fear and loss and pain.  Walk in the light and freedom of God’s love, and the peace that only God can give.

The disciples believed Jesus.  But notice where they were when he came back the next week: they had gathered in that same room.  This time the doors weren’t locked, but they were still afraid to go out and live in the light of the promises God made to them.  They were still living as if the Resurrection hadn’t happened.  They were still afraid of the big, scary world outside their doors.  And again, Jesus came.  And again, Jesus showed them his wounds, showed them that he wasn’t some kind of mass hallucination.  The cross was real, but so was the empty tomb.  And all of Jesus’ teaching, all of his preaching and healing, was to prepare his followers to live their lives in the light of that empty tomb.  To live lives walking in the light of Christ, who shattered all the locks and barriers that keep us trapped in our fear and pain.  Christ came that we may have life, abundant, joyful life, walking in light.  And this time, the disciples believed.  They took it to heart.  They left that room and went out among the people.  They started living their lives, again.  They started living as Christ’s people.  They started telling people about the great joy Jesus had given them.  They create a community based on love, not fear.

And that’s the community we read about in the book of Acts.  It’s not a call for government to impose an economic system.  It’s not a proof-text to be trotted out to advance a political position.  It’s about living together in love.  When you love someone, and they need help that you can give, don’t you give it?  If your child, or your parent, or your sibling has a problem they can’t solve on their own, don’t you try to help?  Not because it’s required, not because anyone says you have to, not because you feel guilty, but because you want to.

That’s the kind of love the early Christian community had.  That’s the kind of love Jesus taught.  That’s the kind of love we can live when we are no longer locked up in our petty disputes, our petty power-struggles, when all the fears and sin and brokenness no longer control us.  That’s the kind of life we can live together when our trust in God’s abundant love, the love that was shown us in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord, is the reality we live.  It’s the kind of love rooted in joy.  The Psalmist writes of the love of a community together, the abundant love and goodness that overflows “like fine oil upon the head, flowing down upon the beard of Aaron, flowing down upon the collar of his robe.”  And it’s that abundance, that overflowing goodness, that joy, that the first Christians lived out together.  It’s that kind of joy that led them to tell people about what Jesus Christ had done for them, for all people, through his resurrection.

Did you notice the way the Acts passage sandwiched the message the Apostles preached between descriptions of how they lived?  It’s as if, for the writer of Acts, their words and their actions were so intertwined, they were almost the same thing.  They proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ’s love poured out for the world, and they lived that reality in the way they treated one another and the way they loved one another.

Jesus said, “This is my commandment that you love one another, that your joy may be complete.”  Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Paul says in Romans that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us, the same Holy Spirit that Jesus gave to the disciples in the Gospel lesson.  And Paul says that we owe nothing to anyone except to love them, and that everything we do should be done in love.  The great love passage in 1 Corinthians 13 is a model for all human relationships.  The question is not about politics.  The question is not about factions.  The question is, are we going to live the lives of faith and love to which our Lord Jesus Christ has called us?  Are we going to stay in that locked room, trembling in fear and misery, or are we going to let Jesus’ love break us out of the tomb?

We love because God first loved us, because God’s love is stronger than fear, stronger than death, stronger than Hell itself.  We love because we are an Easter people.  We love because we walk in the light of Christ, the light of the empty tomb.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Being Called

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A), Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

“You will receive the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Today is Confirmation Day here at Saint Luke’s.  In just a few minutes we’re going to call forward the youth being confirmed, and pray that the Holy Spirit strengthen them as it did those early Christians in our first lesson.  Confirmation is sometimes called “Affirmation of Baptism.”  It’s a longer term, but it’s pretty descriptive of what Confirmation actually is.  You see, “affirmation” means “to say yes.”  The Confirmation students are here today to say Yes to their baptisms, to say Yes to God’s call.  When the confirmands come up before the congregation, they repeat the promises their parents and godparents made at their baptism.  Confirmation is when a young person says that yes, I am a Christian, and this is what I believe.  From this point on, these young people choose to be Christians.  They’re not just here because their parents say so.  When they come forward, we will be repeating parts of the liturgy of baptism, except this time they will be making the responses, not their parents.  It’s an important milestone, and I hope and pray that they will have the courage and faithfulness to follow through with it all the days of their life, even in a culture that is increasingly secular-oriented.

Yet, in a larger sense, what we are celebrating today is not our ability to follow Jesus, but our Lord’s ability to call us to him.  You see, whenever we reach out to God what we always find is that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  God created us, and even when we were dead in sin, God loved us and promised us that he would always be with us.  God came to us as Jesus Christ, our Messiah, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life.  God loves us still, even when we go astray.  God loves us when we convince ourselves we already know what God wants, even without bothering to listen to him.  God is with us still, calling us and all people to him, helping us hear his word and respond to it.

That’s what happened in today’s first lesson, when Peter was preaching to the crowds after Easter, telling them about Jesus and what his death and resurrection meant.  The crowd heard the message, and the Holy Spirit was working—they felt it in their hearts.  Peter was there because the Holy Spirit led him to be there, and he could preach such a stirring sermon because the Holy Spirit filled him.  After all, Peter spent pretty much the entirety of Jesus’ time on Earth getting things wrong and messing up.  But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter found the voice and the wisdom he needed to preach God’s word.  The crowd received his preaching and were moved by it because God was working within them, too, because the Holy Spirit was calling them.  God was working there.  God had already reached out to them and called them through the promise of Jesus, and they responded to that call and were baptized.  Their sins were forgiven, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They learned what it meant that Jesus, crucified and risen, was Lord and Messiah.  They learned to hear God’s call and respond to it through lives of faith.

Whenever we reach out to God we always find that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  That’s what happened in today’s Gospel reading, too.  On Easter Sunday morning, two disciples were travelling to a village called Emmaus.  We don’t know why.  In fact, we don’t even know where Emmaus is—there are several different villages near Jerusalem that might be it.  What we do know is what happened on the way.  Jesus came to those two disciples, and they didn’t recognize him.  They were too caught up in what they thought they knew about what had happened to see what had actually happened.

Has that ever happened to you?  Have you ever been too sure of something to see the truth, even when it’s staring you in the face?  As Cleopas and his friend found out, it can be easy to get trapped by what you think you know.  We are told that they were already disciples—they had walked with Jesus, they had heard him preach, they had heard him tell them about what was coming, and then when it actually happened, they still didn’t understand.  Jesus Christ is Lord of All, the Messiah, God’s Son sent to forgive our sins, reconcile us to God, and teach us how to follow God’s Word.  They saw it, but they didn’t understand it.  On their own, even as first-hand witnesses they couldn’t figure out what it meant for them or anyone that Jesus had died and rose again.  But God had called them, and God had promised them, and God was helping them learn how to see him even through their confusion and doubt.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus walked with them, kept them company, taught them, and ate with them.  When at last they were ready, when they had heard him and he’d explained to them everything that had happened so that they finally knew the truth, that’s when they realized it was Jesus.  That’s when they realized that he had been with him all along, that their hearts had been burning within them.  They were trying to understand what God had done and was doing, and when they finally saw God, they realized that God had been with them the whole time and they just hadn’t realized it.  They had been reaching out to God, and found that God was the one helping them do it because God was already with them.

Do you know what else is really cool about the story of the walk to Emmaus?  It’s a story about Communion!  Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to eat.  And it’s through that meal that those disciples see Jesus.  In the same way we gather around a table today for communion, and find that Jesus is present through bread and wine, which he makes into his body and blood.  In this story, the pattern of Christian worship is established that we still follow today: the disciples come together, they hear God’s word, they share a meal in which Jesus is present, and they go out to spread the Good News.  Our worship service works in the same way.  God gathers us in, teaches us his word, shares a meal with us, and then sends us out into the world to live as faithful Christians and to share the Good News of God’s love in word and deed.  And when we come seeking God, we find that God has already sought us out, helping us to hear his word and live as his people.

It’s that process of learning to see God reaching out to us that brings us here, today, for confirmation.  God reaches out to us in the same way through our baptisms.  That’s why we baptize babies as well as adults: in baptism, God is reaching out to claim us as his own, so it’s not dependent on our ability to choose.  We have already been chosen, each one of us.  We have already been called.  The question is, will we respond to that call?  Will we live lives conformed to Christ, in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism?  Will we live among God’s faithful people, listen to God’s Word, share his supper?  Will we proclaim the Gospel through word and deed, and follow Jesus’ example of service, justice, peace, and love?  Will we respond to all the many ways God reaches out to us and calls us to follow?

The young people who come forward for Confirmation today are here to say yes, they will.  They’re here to promise God and this congregation that they will listen to God’s call, that they will follow in the way of Jesus.  In return, we need to help them—and each other, and everyone we meet—along that path.  God is calling us, all of us, to follow him, and God gives us his Holy Spirit to give us strength, and wisdom, and understanding, and most of all, to give us joy in God’s presence, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Let us pray that all people will hear that call and respond.

Amen.