Come and See

Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 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, O Lord.

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

Throughout the Gospels, there is a common thread, a repeated invitation to come and see.  Come and see Jesus, come and hear his teachings, come and experience his healing, come and be fed.  Come and see.  And the disciples—the twelve, plus Jesus’ other followers—have come, and they have seen.  They have witnessed the saving actions of Jesus, including his death on a cross, and now these two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, have been witnesses to the resurrection.  They have seen what God has done.  They have seen life come out of death, a life that is too powerful to ever return to the grave.  And now there is a new invitation: go and tell.

Go and tell people that Jesus is alive.  Go and tell people that the Lord of Life has broken the powers of sin and death.  Go and tell his disciples that they will see him again, that he is with them.  Go and tell.  Twice in ten verses, the two Marys are told to go and tell.  And our Acts reading is Peter telling the story of Jesus to new believers.  First, we come and see; then, we go and tell.

What makes this story worth telling?  What makes this story important?  What makes this story matter, to us here today?  This story matters because it is not just a story of something that happened a long time ago to people who looked and dressed funny.  This story matters because it is our story, and because it is still ongoing.  This world is broken by sin and death—we are broken by sin and death.  We live in a world where there is evil, where we hurt ourselves and others, where might makes right and innocent people suffer while the ones who hurt them prosper.  We live in a world where people cherish their feuds and enmities, and deny the humanity of anyone who’s not like them.  We live in a world where any amount of pain and suffering can be shrugged off and ignored as long as it happens to people somewhere else who aren’t our kind of people.  We live in a world where too many of those with power abuse those who have none.  We live in a world where people choose to hurt each other, in word and deed, through things we do and things we fail to do.  Things fall apart.  And especially given what we see on the news, it is so, so easy to focus on all the problems.  On all the bad things.  On all the general crumminess and misery in the world.  It is so easy to be afraid.  But that story, the story about how terrible everything is, is not God’s story.

God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, that first Easter morning, and the stone was rolled away from the tomb.  God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, and the aftershocks are still being felt to this very day.  God’s story is this: death does not win.  God’s story is this: God shows no partiality, but loves us, all of us, everyone, rich and poor, the powerful and the vulnerable, of every race and tribe and nation, here and throughout the world.  God loves us all, and God chooses to save us.  God chooses to reach in to the terrible, crummy world, and work in it, to bring light to the darkness and healing where there is brokenness, forgiveness where there is sin, reconciliation where there is estrangement, hope where there is despair, joy and love where there is fear, and life even in the grave.

We don’t follow Jesus because he was a nice guy who said some wise things 2,000 years ago.  We follow Jesus because we have seen the life that he brings, and we want to experience it and share it with all the world.  We follow Jesus because he offers us a better story than doom and gloom and despair and fear, a story that looks at the very worst the world has to offer and acknowledges all the worst parts of it and says, this is not the way the world is supposed to be and God is at work to do something about it.  We follow Jesus because he brings healing and forgiveness and new life.  And some of that new life and healing and forgiveness will have to wait until Christ comes again in glory and heaven comes to Earth.  But some of it?  Some of it happens here, now, among us.  I have seen people be petty and cruel; I have seen people make excuses to heap more pain on those who are already devastated.  I have seen people lash out out of fear.  But I have also seen people be kind and generous, not just to those they already like but to everyone.  I have seen people build bridges instead of walls, and I have seen people stand up to bullies and I have seen people and communities change things for the better.  I have seen people bring love and joy to the places it is most desperately needed.  And in each of these times and places I have seen God at work, Jesus Christ present in the words and deeds of ordinary people.

This is our story.  This is not just the story of one dude who died and got resuscitated a long time ago.  This is the story of how Jesus Christ is still at work in us and around us.  This is the story of change, and hope.  This is the story of God working in us and around us.  Come and see.  Look around you, and see the signs of God’s presence.  Look around you, and see what God is doing.  I guarantee you that in every dark place in the world, if you look closely enough you will see God at work to bring light and healing.  Come and see.  Come and see what Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago in dying for our sins and rising to new life.  Come and see what Jesus Christ is doing in us and around us right now to break the power of sin and death and bring new life to all people.  Come and see the seeds of the kingdom God is planting in us and around us, flowers that spring up even though the world tries to choke them to death.  Come and see.

And then go and tell.  Thank the Lord, and sing his praise.  Tell everyone what God has done.  And I don’t just mean tell non-Christians.  I mean, we should tell them, too, but believers are part of “everyone.”  Notice that before Peter got to telling the story to Cornelius and his household in Acts, the women had to go tell the disciples.  Both the angel at the tomb and Jesus himself told them to share what they had seen with the other followers of Jesus.  We need to hear that story, too.  We need to hear about God’s power to destroy death.  We need to hear about the earthquake that is in the process of reshaping the world.  We need to hear about life even in the midst of death.  We need to hear the story of God’s saving actions and let it inspire us, let it help us to see God’s work in us and around us.  We need to hear the story, too, so that it can build our faith and strengthen us to be part of God’s mission in the world.  We need to hear the story so that we can grow in faith and love.  We all need to hear that story, so we all need to be telling it to one another.

We need to hear the story from the time we are very small to the time we are very old.  The world has so many stories to tell, and so many of them are bad ones.  The world tells stories about pain, about despair.  The world tells stories about selfishness, and greed, and hate, and fear.  And the only way to counter those stories is with stories about life: the life that God gives, the life that Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us.  The life that God wants for all of creation.  We need to hear that story, over and over again.  And so we need to keep telling it.

In just a few minutes we’re going to baptize young Axel.  And his parents are going to promise to bring him to church and place in his hands the holy Scriptures—in other words, to teach him the stories of faith and raise him in the community that tells those stories.  We as a congregation are going to promise to tell those stories, to support him in his growth in faith.  And in a few weeks we’re going to confirm some young members of this congregation, and they will affirm the promises made in their baptism and promise to live as part of that community of faith, to hear the story of what God has done in Christ Jesus and is still doing around us today.  Every one of us has made those same promises, either at our own baptisms, or our confirmation, or the baptism of our children, or the baptism of other children in the community.  We promise to tell the stories, to pass them on, to encourage one another, to build one another up in the faith.  We promise to set aside our fear, we promise to reach for the joy and love that Christ brings, we promise to tell the story of Jesus Christ, and we promise to open ourselves to let God’s story shape us and our lives.

Come and hear that story.  And then go and tell it, and may God be with you every step of the way, breathing new life and healing and hope and joy and love into every corner of your soul and your life.

Amen.

Giving Living Water

Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017

 

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

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 there is one question guaranteed to get most good, active Christians to hang their head in shame, it’s this one: how often do you share your faith with others?  You see, we know we’re supposed to be evangelizing, spreading the Good News.  We know there are a lot of people in the world who desperately need the Good News, who long for some deeper meaning to their lives but looking in all the wrong places.  We know that the world is full of parched souls searching for living water, and that Jesus Christ is the living water that will quench that thirst and give them abundant life.  And yet, sharing our faith is scary.  It’s a very personal thing, and what if we don’t know enough to answer all their questions, and what if they laugh, or what if we offend them?  And so we just … don’t.  We have living water in a world dying of thirst, and we don’t share it.

I understand, because I’ve been there.  When I went off to seminary, some of my friends were shocked.  See, they didn’t even know I was a Christian.  I’d never even mentioned my faith, because I knew they weren’t believers and I didn’t want to make things awkward.  And in the Lutheran church, before you get accepted to seminary to become a pastor, you have to write six pages about your faith and how you feel called by God.  It’s not judged on academic standards, but just on how you talk about your faith.  That was the hardest six pages I’ve ever had to write in my life.  I wasn’t used to sharing my faith, and it made me feel so naked.  I know just how hard it can be to share our faith with others, but I also know how vital it is.  Each and every one of us is here because someone—parents, teachers, grandparents—shared their faith with us.

So let’s take a closer look at our Gospel reading, to see what we can learn from it.  The first thing that strikes me is that Jesus knows her.  And it’s that knowledge, not the theology, that gets her to sit up and take notice.  It’s the fact that he knows her that gets her village to listen, too.  Now, we can never have the kind of intimate knowledge of someone that Jesus has, but we can and do get to know the people around us.  And you know what?  One of the key ingredients about whether someone responds positively to the Gospel or not is whether there’s a relationship there.  If they know and trust the person who’s telling them about Jesus, they’re a lot more likely to listen with an open heart and mind than they will to someone randomly coming up to them and asking them if they’re saved or not.  Jesus could build that relationship quickly; for us it takes longer.

Pastor Mark Nygard, currently serving in Bowman, North Dakota, was a missionary in Africa for many years.  His first assignment, he was the first missionary in the area.  It took him twenty years to gain his first convert, because it took that long to build up the kind of trust and relationship with the community that would inspire them to open up enough to him.  He didn’t start by talking—he stared by listening.  He started by listening to their concerns, hearing what they hoped for, what they feared, what they cared about.  And once they knew he cared about them—not just as souls to be saved, but as people—they were willing to listen to him talk about Jesus.  Just like, in our Gospel reading, it’s Jesus knowing and caring about the woman that gets her to open up to him.  He knows, her he accepts her, he cares about her … and that’s what shocks her.  That’s what sends her out to her friends and family and community to share the Good News.

Second, Jesus took a risk in talking with her.  You see, she was a Samaritan and Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish.  Jews and Samaritans did not get along.  They had never gotten along.  They worshipped the same God, our God, but they disagreed about everything: which books should be considered holy Scripture and which shouldn’t, where one should worship, and many other things.  They did not live in the same towns, they did not drink out of the same wells, they did not eat together, and if they absolutely had to be at the same place, they ignored each other.  Notice that both the Samaritan woman and the disciples are uncomfortable that Jesus is talking with her.  Yet we are not sent to spread the Good News only to people who are already like us, but to everyone.  It’s a lot easier to talk to people we already know than it is to go out and meet new people.  Meeting new people is a risk, especially when they come from different cultures as the Samaritan woman did.  Yet however different they are, they are still children of God, created by him, and they still have a thirst for the living water that Jesus gives.

I can’t tell you how many times in the last few years I’ve heard Underwood natives—the people who grew up here, whose families have been here for generations—note that there are all these people they don’t know in town.  People who came in to work the mine or the power plant, or who work in Bismark or Minot but wanted their kids to grow up in a small town.  Some came from across the state, some came from across the country.  And so often, instead of welcoming them in and getting to know them, we just keep talking to the people we already know.  If Jesus had done that, the Samaritan woman wouldn’t have come to faith, and neither would her community.  And neither would any of our ancestors.  We are called to spread the Gospel to all nations and all peoples … and the first step is getting to know the ones here in our midst.

Third, Jesus didn’t spend a whole lot of time on the nitpicking theological points.  He doesn’t start out by quoting chapter and verse.  He knows what she wants and needs because he knows her, and that’s what they talk about.  Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus does explain the fine points of Scripture, but it’s almost always to his disciples, the inner circle who already follow him.  When he talks to people like the Samaritan woman, he talks about the things in their lives that matter to them.  He talks about how the Good News fits into that.  So, for a woman who spends a lot of her day hauling water for drinking and cooking and cleaning, he talks about living water that nourishes our souls and never runs dry.  And they talk about her life, and where God is in the midst of it.

This is Good News to her, but it should also be good news to us.  You don’t have to know all the Bible by heart to share the living water.  You don’t have to have memorized all the correct theological beliefs or clever arguments to persuade people.  You just have to be able to talk about their life, and where God might be in it, and where you’ve experienced God in your own life.  It doesn’t take professional training in evangelism, although that can help; all you really need is sincerity.

Last, take heart in Jesus’ words to his disciples.  The fields are ripe for harvesting, and we are not the only workers.  Spreading the Gospel does not rest wholly on our shoulders.  It’s not about one heroic witness that wins a soul for Christ.  Rather, like farming, spreading the Gospel is the culmination of a lot of little things.  Someone has to plow the fields, and then someone has to plant the seeds.  Then someone has to fertilize them, and maybe irrigate them.  Then someone has to spray for weeds.  Then comes the harvest.  But all of these roles don’t have to be the same person.  Maybe your job isn’t to convert them.  Maybe your job is just to till the soil, or plant seeds, or water them with living water.  Each one of us is an important part, and each one of us has a role to play.  But none of us is the only part.  We share in this labor with all Christians.  We are sent by Jesus Christ, in the name of the Father, with the Holy Spirit inspiring us and guiding us.  We don’t have to do everything.  We just have to do our part, and trust that God will send others to do theirs.

Jesus met the woman at the well, and talked with her.  He knew her, and cared about her, and built a relationship with her, and she listened because of that relationship.  He built that relationship despite all the social taboos against it, despite the pressure to stick with his own people.  He shared his experiences, and he showed her how God was a part of her life, and the gift of living water that God wanted her to receive.

Amen.

Faith across cultures

Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24th, 2016

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

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.  Amen.

The disciples and believers in Judea heard that Peter was converting the Gentiles, and they had a problem with him.  A BIG problem.  Not with the conversion itself.  No, they thought it only right and good that everyone of every tribe and nation should worship God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  So Peter preaching to the Gentiles, that was good, and them responding was even better.  It was exactly what the risen Jesus had commanded them to do—go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That part was great!

It was how he did it that was the problem.  You see, the Gentiles were … different.  They spoke different languages, they sang different songs, they ate different foods, they had different customs, and in every way imaginable they were … different.  And when Peter went to live among them and preach, God commanded him in a dream to just kinda go with the flow.  To accept their hospitality and speak their language and eat their food and, basically, live like a Gentile while he was among them.  And the Jewish Christians were shocked and horrified.  Worship with them, yes, good!  Share the Gospel with them, wonderful, awesome!  Eat with them?  Their food?  In their home?  Ew, gross, that’s a step too far.

And this is a tendency that Christians have struggled with ever since.  Actually, most times since, we haven’t even been as flexible and open-minded as those early Jewish disciples.  We tend to mix up our culture and the Gospel way too much.  Take 19th Century missionaries as an example: they went across the globe with the best of intentions to bring the Gospel to people who had never heard it … and they hamstrung themselves by insisting that in order to be Christian you had to swallow European culture lock, stock, and barrel.  European names, European-style-houses and family arrangements, European language in worship, European-style hymns, European-style art, European-style clothing.  Consequently, most of those 19th-Century missionaries weren’t very successful at all.  Sure, they got a few converts, and more people who would come to church if it was a requirement for getting some kind of help but not really convert in their hearts.

It wasn’t until the 20th Century and missionaries started working within local culture that missionaries started relaxing and working within the local culture, using local music styles and art and names.  Even lifestyles and family arrangements and other things like that.  Instead of assuming that obviously European/American ways of doing everything were better and more Christian, they evaluated each part of the local culture for whether or not it was compatible with a Christian faith.  And some things weren’t—but a lot was, or could be adapted.  And along the way, many of the missionaries found their own lives and culture changed, too.  They saw the Spirit moving in new and different ways.  And it was at that point—when people could keep their own culture and adapt it to the Christian life, when long-term Christians and new converts could change and grow together—that Christianity took off in Africa and parts of Asia.  Christianity is booming and growing in large parts of Africa, Asia, and India.  It’s flourishing and spreading, because the missionaries learned to listen and be part of the local culture, instead of just preaching and lecturing about all the ways they were wrong.

It makes sense.  Put yourself in their shoes—you’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea.  Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down.  But they turn their nose up at everything you do—they don’t like your food, or the way you talk, or how you dress, or anything about you.  And sometimes they have a point, but sometimes they’re wrong.  Sure, they’ve got this great message … but what they seem to want most is to turn you into a carbon copy of themselves.  Would you listen, or would you write them off as arrogant jerks and go on about your business?  You’d probably ignore them.  Most people would.

But change the scenario a bit.  You’re in 19th Century Africa or 1st Century Caesarea.  Someone comes to town with a great message that they say is good news, something that can change your life and free you from whatever is holding you down.  And they listen to what you think is holding you down.  They listen to what your fears and hopes and dreams are, and they sit at your table and eat with you and are great friends—not just somebody nice to talk to or shoot the breeze with, but there when you need help.  Not because they have an agenda, but because they respect you and care about you.  And sometimes, they point out when something you take for granted is wrong … but they’re also willing to listen when you point out something that they do is wrong.  Would you be willing to listen then?  Would you be willing to open your heart and your mind to the message of good news that they brought?  Probably you would!  And so the Gospel spreads.

That was what was at stake in our reading from Acts.  When you’re spreading the Gospel as Jesus commanded, how are you going to go about it?  Are you going to assume that your own culture, you own ways of doing things, are as important as the Gospel?  Are you going to insist that everything goes your own way from the get-go, or are you going to meet people where they are?  Are you going to insist everyone does things your way, or are you willing to adapt and learn from the people you are bringing the Gospel to?  It’s not just a question of whether or not you’ll welcome them when they show up at your church, though that’s important too—it’s a question of whether or not you’ll allow them to welcome you.  Will you eat with them, even if it’s something you would never eat otherwise?  Will you open yourself to them just as you ask them to open themselves up to the Gospel?  Will you respect them as you want them to respect you?

It sounds so simple.  Yet it’s really hard!  And it’s particularly important in our world today, because there is a big cultural gap between practicing Christians and the rest of America.  The gap is smaller in North Dakota than it is elsewhere, but it’s growing every year.  We can’t assume that the people outside our doors—the people we are called to bring the love of God to—share the same assumptions and habits that we do.  Often, they don’t … and often, it’s those things that keep them away.  Because here, as in most churches, we don’t like change.  We’d love to have all those unchurched people out there come in and join us … as long as they looked, acted, thought, dressed, and ate just like us.  As long as they just fit nicely into all the things we have going here already.  As long as any change was all on their part.  As long as everything happens in our way and on our terms.

God sent Peter to the Gentiles in Caesaria, to preach the Gospel to them, and the Holy Spirit was at work in them, and so they became Christian.  But it wasn’t enough for Peter to preach; he had to listen, too, and he had to accept them as the Gentiles they were and eat with them.  This horrified his fellow Jewish Christians, because they thought the Gentiles should give up their own culture and become Jewish in order to be a follower of Jesus.  Yet the Spirit was at work in the Gentiles, and God himself gave Peter a vision to tell him to accept the Gentiles’ hospitality.  It took courage to follow that vision, because Peter knew how his fellows would react.  And it took courage for the rest of the disciples to recognize the work of the Spirit, and set in motion the actions that would begin the conversion of the Gentiles.  It took courage because change is hard, even when it helps us grow.  They had to have faith that God would lead them, that God would help them keep the core of their faith strong even as parts of how they lived it out changed.

So what about us?  How do we treat the people outside our doors?  How do we respond to the people who are different, who are not like us?  Do we open ourselves up to building relationships with them?  Do we accept their hospitality and meet them where we are?  Do we open doors that may lead to ministry and a sharing of God’s love?  Or do we close those doors, and welcome them only if they fill the roles we have pre-selected for them?  May God send us the courage and vision of Peter, so that God’s love and God’s Spirit may be poured out on all people.

Amen.

Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year A, June 22, 2014

Genesis 21:8-21, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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 week at Wednesday evening worship, when I read this Gospel and said “The Gospel of the Lord,” the response was kind of weak. This is not the sort of reading that one would naturally say “Thanks be to God!” for. This is the sort of reading that makes people frown and look sideways at their Bibles. The Prince of Peace saying he has not come to bring peace, but a sword? The Son of the one who commanded us to honor our father and mother saying “I have come to set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother? Really?

Let’s back up a bit, and see if some context will help. In the tenth chapter of Matthew, Jesus sends out his disciples to preach his message. And he tells them he’s sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” Our Gospel reading is part of the instructions Jesus gives before sending his disciples out for the first time to preach on their own. This is what Jesus wants his followers to know about what they’re getting into when they preach Jesus’ message. This is what awaits those who preach the Gospel. Division and strife.

There’s an old saying that has always particularly struck me: “The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. What does this mean? Well, let’s take a look at Jesus’ ministry. What did Jesus do on Earth? Well, first off, he never met a sinner he didn’t forgive and eat with. Whenever Jesus met someone who was outcast, someone whose life was in tatters, someone who was ignored and oppressed by society, he forgave them whatever sins they had committed and he ate with them. When he met someone that everyone knew was a sinner, he didn’t join the chorus of finger-wagging and tsk-tsking. Doesn’t mean he liked what they were doing, but he apparently figured that society had already done more than enough condemning already. He forgave them, loved them, and shared fellowship with them.

I want you to stop and take a moment. Think of someone or some group of people that you believe are sinful. Some person or group of people who have done bad things. Some person or group of people that most of the good people in town look down on. Those people, whoever they are. Think about that person or group. Then imagine Jesus going to visit them in their home, telling them he loves them, and staying for dinner. It’s not a comfortable thought, is it? That right there was enough to get the pillars of the community upset.

And when Jesus saw someone in pain, someone hurting, someone ill or injured or grieving, he healed them. Right then and there. No matter what else was going on. He didn’t care if it was the “right way” or the “right time,” he didn’t care whether the person was an insider or an outsider, he didn’t care about the rules of society. If he saw someone hurting, he healed them. And in so doing, he stepped on a lot of toes.

Even worse, he was not shy about calling out the sins and failings of the pillars of the community. All the “little” things they swept under the table, all the things they had convinced themselves weren’t sins at all. The things nobody would dare point out. He called them out on their greed, their hypocrisy, their selfishness, their callousness, their blindness. He pointed out the ways they interpreted the Scriptures so that their own culture was justified and other peoples’ was dismissed. He went out in public and pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. And the pillars of the community really didn’t like that.

Jesus spent his life seeking out the people whose lives were in ruins, who had been shoved aside by the community, and loving them. And then turning around and telling the leaders that they were just as sinful as any of the ones they looked down on, and they needed to shape up. This is not, to put it mildly, a way to become popular. The purpose of the Gospel is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. People who are afflicted, whether through the whims of fate or their own bad choices, don’t need any more afflictions, they need comfort. And people who are comfortable and have everything going their way don’t need more affirmation; they get enough of it from everybody else. What they need is a good kick when they get too complacent. And that’s what the Gospel does: it reminds the sinners and the sufferers of God’s love and mercy, and it reminds the self-righteous ones who coast on their laurels that they, too, fall short of the glory of God.

That’s the Gospel Jesus preached, it’s the Gospel Jesus lived, and it’s the Gospel that eventually got him killed. Because, of course, nobody likes being told they need to shape up. Nobody likes being told they’re a sinner. The pillars of the community have resources to shut up people who point out the Emperor has no clothes, and in first century Palestine, those resources included crucifixion. Jesus’ death on a cross was a direct result of the message he preached. Every time he ate with and forgave sinners, the leaders of the community grumbled against him. Every time he pointed out the sins of the good people, they grumbled against him. And began to lay traps for him, first to discredit him and finally to kill him.

So why, if that’s the case, would anybody want to preach the Gospel? What makes it worth it? Freedom. Freedom from sin. Freedom from having to pretend things are just fine when they’re not. Freedom from the idea that might makes right. Freedom to seek justice even when it’s not popular. Freedom from pettiness and cynicism and apathy; freedom to be the best we can be. Freedom to acknowledge when society is messed up and the freedom to live lives of joy and hope even in the midst of a broken world.

But in order to be free, you have to first acknowledge all the things that are holding you down. And that’s not always easy or fun. To be resurrected in Jesus Christ, you first have to die. And nobody likes dying. Even in a community where most people are Christian, the heart of the Gospel is no more popular than it was in Jesus’ day. There are some sinners we don’t want to forgive; some outcasts we don’t want to bring back in to the community. And there are certainly truths about ourselves and our sins that we don’t want to face! Comforting the afflicted can make you pretty unpopular. Afflicting the comfortable is even worse. If we’re really serious about following Jesus, we’re not going to be winning any popularity contests. If we’re really serious about following Jesus’ commands to forgive sinners and heal the broken and call out sin where we see it even when we see it in the leaders of the community, we’re going to face resistance. There will be conflict; there will be division. Not because God wants there to be conflict or division, but because that’s how people react when you call them on their bad behavior.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be blindsided by this, and he doesn’t want us to be, either. He’s quite clear: following the Gospel means taking up the cross. It means that people will be upset with you for telling them what they don’t want to hear. If you water the Gospel down so that people who are comfortable in their sins stay comfortable, and those who are afflicted and cast out and unforgiven stay afflicted and cast out and unforgiven, you are denying Jesus. You are denying the message he was willing to die to give us. And Jesus has a warning: if we deny Jesus, he will also deny us.

But in the midst of all this, there’s good news. We don’t get sent out alone, and we don’t get sent out without help. Yes, there will be conflict, and division. And in some places and times, there will even be physical danger. After all, most of the twelve disciples were eventually killed for their belief in Jesus Christ and their spreading of his message. Today there are still places in the world where being Christian can get you killed. But God is with us whenever the Gospel is truly preached. When we preach Christ, when we live the Gospel, Jesus lives in us. God knows each sparrow’s fall; God knows all of what happens to us. God knows each hair on our head and God is with us always, even when things get dark. We may lose a bit of life in this world; we may find ourselves deep in conflict even with those we love. But we are not alone in our conflict. And the Good News, the word of freedom and hope and love, is worth it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

A different kind of “success” story

The Sixth Sunday After Easter, Year C, May 5, 2013

Acts 16:6-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:6, John 14:23-31

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.  Amen.

We have this picture in our heads of what a successful life following Jesus will look like.  We have this picture in our heads of what a faithful ministry looks like.  And it goes something like this: because we are faithful to Jesus, and Jesus blesses us, everything should go right.  All ministries undertaken in Jesus’ name should prosper, and prosper immediately, or else something is wrong.  If we are unsuccessful, either in our ministry to others, or in our ordinary life, something must be badly wrong.  If there are arguments within the congregation, something is badly wrong.  Either Jesus is not with us, or we are not being truly faithful.  And if something is that badly wrong, well, you might as well give up.  We often think that the opposite is true, too: if a church has lots of members and lots of money, then they must be truly good followers of Christ.

And then we come to today’s reading from Acts.  Now, most of Acts tells the kinds of stories one might expect: awesome preaching, crowds of thousands converted to Christianity at a time, heroic saints suffering trials and persecution for their faith and being vindicated by God.  The sort of grand, larger than life things that we don’t often see in our daily life, the kind of thing we feel should always be the result of good ministry and the preaching of the Gospel.  Today’s reading, however, tells a different story.  In the midst of all this success, in the midst of grand deeds and epic stories, Paul and Timothy have a few setbacks.

Just before today’s reading, Paul had been at Jerusalem with Barnabus, pleading with the elders of the faith to allow Gentiles to become Christians.  Up to that point, Gentiles—that is, non-Jews—had only been allowed to be followers of Christ if they converted to Judaism and adhered to the entire Jewish law in addition to the teachings of Christ.  This made sense to the first Christians; after all, Jesus and all his early followers had been Jewish, and followed those laws, so surely Jesus would want all his followers to do the same?  But those laws included a requirement that all males be circumcised, and also included stringent laws about what you could and couldn’t eat, and how your meat had to be slaughtered and how all your food had to be cooked.  For people who didn’t grow up with such laws, who lived in places where there weren’t many Jewish butchers and stores, such requirements were a burden that prevented them from following Jesus.  Paul had gone to Jerusalem to request that those who weren’t Jewish be spared such a burden, that they might find it easier to come to Christ.  The Council of Jerusalem had, with the help of the Holy Spirit, agreed to Paul’s reasoning.  So he travelled around to Gentile Christian communities to let them know the good news.

But things weren’t all rosy.  Paul had a sharp disagreement with one of his fellow missionaries, Barnabus, which resulted in the two of them parting ways.  They’d been together for some time at that point; Barnabus and Paul had been through a lot together, and had been very successful.  But they had an argument, a big enough one that the two went their separate ways.  Paul chose two other companions, Silas and Timothy, and tried to continue on with his missionary work.  But almost immediately, they faced setbacks.

They were in the Syrian region and travelled through what is now Turkey, but the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the word in Asia.  We don’t know how the Spirit did that; maybe they tried and failed.  Maybe they couldn’t muster up anything to say.  Maybe they had a bad feeling about it.  We do know that prohibition from speaking the Word in Asia wasn’t permanent, because several of the churches that Paul founded and wrote to were in that region of Asia—including the Ephesians, the Colossians, the Galatians.  In fact, Paul had planted some congregations there before heading to Jerusalem for the Council meeting.  Asia had proved to be a fertile mission ground in the past, but it just wasn’t working now.  So they tried to go north to Bythinia, on the northern edge of what is now Turkey, and again God prevented them.  Having crossed Turkey from South to North, they head West, hoping that something will change and they can achieve the same successes Paul had had on previous missionary journeys.

When we look at it on a map, it doesn’t look like much.  By modern standards, Turkey is not that big a country.  A few hour’s drive in a car will get you pretty much anywhere you want to go.  But they didn’t have cars, back then.  They didn’t have police to keep the roads safe.  If you wanted to get anywhere, either you rode a horse or a donkey or you walked.  And Paul would not have been able to afford a horse or a donkey, and there wasn’t really a central church body that could have bought him one.  So Paul and Timothy and Silas would have been walking with everything they owned on their backs.  What takes us hours of relative comfort would have taken them days.  And unlike modern missionaries, Paul was not a professional church leader.  He did not get paid any kind of money to spread the Gospel; he was a tent-maker, who supported himself by his work.  He’d set up shop in a town, working and talking about Jesus with his customers, and on the Sabbath he’d preach, and between the contact he made while working his day job and the people who listened to him preach, he would soon have a new congregation meeting in somebody’s house.  Then, once the congregation was going strong, he’d move on to another city.  But if the Spirit was telling him to keep moving, he wasn’t going to be doing much work.  Money would have been getting tight.

So imagine what it would have been like.  Think of how frustrating that must have been for all of them.  They’d been on the road, walking, for such a long time.  They’d been trying to do God’s will and spread God’s Word, and had been stymied at every turn.  They were a long way from home among people who didn’t speak the same language or eat the same food.  Tired, hungry, low on money, far from home.  And they had nothing to show for it.  Not one thing.  Not one person given the gift of faith in Christ Jesus.  Not one community brought together around the love of God.  Nobody saved, nobody healed, nothing at all in reward for their efforts.

And then something strange happens.  Paul had a vision that they were called to Macedonia, which is in the Northern part of Greece.  Now, Greece isn’t part of Asia, as Turkey is; it’s part of Europe.  Paul and his companions hadn’t intended to go to Europe.  They were trying to do God’s work in Asia, where God had called them before, where they’d had such great success.  But that wasn’t where God wanted them anymore, and it took some wandering around to figure out what God was calling them to do next.  Once they got there, things didn’t go according to plan, either.  Usually, Paul would set up a booth and start working in the market-place, and go preach in the synagogues or wherever people gathered in the city.  This time, something drew him and his companions someplace else: outside of the city of Phillipi, to a group of women gathered for prayer.  God was calling them there, because there was a businesswoman named Lydia there, who heard the message and was baptized, along with her household.  And she helped them in their mission, giving them a place to stay and other resources they needed for ministry.

Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in Europe was not a perfect success story.  It started out with failure: the failure of their preaching in Asia.  It started out with conflict, as Paul broke from his long-term partner in the Gospel, Barnabus.  It started out in confusion, as they wandered around trying to figure out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t an overnight success.  And I would bet you anything you please that Paul and Silas and Timothy were discouraged and disheartened as they tried to figure out what to do next.  But even in that confusion and discouragement, through failure and conflict, God was with them, calling them to where he wanted them.  It wasn’t anywhere they’d planned to go; it wasn’t anything like what they’d done before.  And if you took a look at them wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out what God was calling them to do, they would have seemed like the opposite of the success stories we associate with following Christ.  But following God through that period of wandering brought them to a new place, a good place for ministry, a place hungry for the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.

God calls people in all kinds of ways, and God calls people and communities to do all kinds of things that they wouldn’t have dreamed up on their own.  Sometimes there are failures along the way; sometimes there are periods of aimless wandering.  Something that looks barren and fruitless on the surface can lead eventually to new life in Christ—if we follow Christ through the disappointments and failures to the goodness he promises us.  That can be so difficult; it’s a lot easier just to live on past glories and continue doing the same thing we’ve always done; it’s even easier to fall into doom and gloom and spend all our time wondering what’s wrong.  But imagine what would have happened if Paul and his friends had given up and gone home.  Imagine what would have happened if they’d stayed in Asia because that was where they’d had good success in the past.  Imagine what would have happened if they’d stuck to their standard pattern of mission-work in the city center instead of going outside to meet Lydia and the women with her.  Imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t been open to the Holy Spirit calling them to do something new.  May God grant us the strength to follow their example.

Amen.