Wars and Rumors of War

25th Sunday after Pentecost, November 15th, 2015

Daniel 12:1-3, Psalm 16, Hebrews 10:11-25, Mark 13:1-13

 

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.

Wars and rumors of war. What a thing to read about the Sunday after 43 people were killed in a bombing in Beirut and 128 died in shootings in Paris and the Iraqi Kurds repelled a massive ISIS attack earlier this month. We have certainly had wars and rumors of war. Then Jesus says that there will be earthquakes and famines, too. I don’t know of any famines that are especially bad right now—that doesn’t mean there aren’t famines, just that famines in some places are so “normal” they don’t make the news—but Japan had an earthquake this week that touched off a tsunami. Fortunately, it was a lot smaller than the one a couple of years ago, and the damage was manageable. Jesus’ predictions were right on the money. But that shouldn’t be surprising, because they’ve been right on the money for the last two-thousand years. There have always been wars. There have always been catastrophes. There have always been famines, persecutions, betrayals. These are not signs of the end of the world, Jesus says—the end is still to come. This is what it means that the world is broken by sin and death. God’s kingdom will break in; God’s kingdom, when it comes, will break all the chains of evil, but we’ve got to live in the meantime. Jesus knew what his disciples would have to face, and he knew what we would have to face. And he wanted to give us comfort, cold though it sometimes is, to face it.

Our Gospel reading takes place at the Temple in Jerusalem, just days before Jesus was taken away and crucified. Jesus was at the height of his influence; his disciples were sure that any day now, a rebellion would begin and Jesus would sweep out the hated Roman oppressors and their toadies, replacing them with his loyal followers. They were high on life; they thought for sure that with Jesus at their side, nothing could touch them. Everything was going to go perfectly, because, after all, he was the Messiah, right? The great palace and temple in Jerusalem would be theirs for the taking—and that was saying something. In Jesus, day, the Temple was a pretty amazing place. It had been built by King Solomon, destroyed by the Babylonians, re-built by Ezra and Nehemiah, and greatly expanded by King Herod, making it one of the grandest buildings in the Roman Empire. It was huge, and it was grand, and it was glorious. It wasn’t just a building, it was a whole complex—they’d had to build out the top of Mount Zion so that it would fit. It was designed so that all visitors could see the glory of God. But it wasn’t just a pretty building. It wasn’t just the core of Jerusalem. It wasn’t just a place of worship. It was a symbol.

That Temple was the core of Judaism. It was most obviously the center of Jewish religious practices of the day, but it was also the center of Jewish culture and the center of Jewish politics. God could be anywhere, of course, but he was especially present in the Temple. Nothing too terribly bad could happen to the Jews as long as the Temple stood, because it showed that God was with them and they were faithful to God. Being Jewish meant worshiping at the Temple. Take the church building you love the most—multiply that feeling by ten and add to it the feeling you have for every iconic building in Washington, DC—and you can imagine what they felt like. The Temple had withstood invasions, wars, earthquakes, famines, every catastrophe imaginable, and it stood. It would always stand, they believed. Because God was with them, and the Temple was God’s, and God would not let the Temple fall.

The disciples looked in awe at the great and mighty Temple, and one said to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” You can almost hear them nudging each other and giving each other meaningful looks—what’ll it be like to live in the best houses in Jerusalem and come to the Temple every day? What’ll it be like when all this glory and grandeur is theirs? But Jesus knows that, in this life, the Temple will never be theirs. He’s not going to reign in glory in this life, he’s going to be crucified instead. Then Jesus asks them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

Now this, to the disciples, was the greatest catastrophe they could imagine. For some, it might have been more than they could imagine. This isn’t just the end of their hopes and dreams, this is the end of their whole people, their culture, their religion, their everything. The Temple, destroyed? The heart of their faith, gone? The proof of God’s presence, smashed? How? When? Why? They pestered Jesus with questions, anxiously needing answers. Would it be part of his battle with the powers that be, after which the Temple would be re-built even grander? Would it be part of the end judgment of the world? What would happen? They wanted names, dates, a firm timeline.

Jesus didn’t give them one. Because the point wasn’t the Temple itself. The Temple would be destroyed by the Romans in 70AD, in retaliation for a failed rebellion. To this day, only a wall remains—the Wailing Wall, where devout Jews go to pray. There’s a Muslim Mosque where the Temple once stood. But that’s not the point. If they focus on the glory, the grandeur, the ambition, they’re going to be totally caught off guard when trouble strikes. The more they imagine that following Jesus will bring only happy fun times, the more devastating it will be when they realize that’s not the case. And the crucifixion was going to happen in just a few days. They needed to face reality, and they needed to face it fast.

Jesus didn’t give them specifics. He gave them words so generic that pretty much every generation since has tried to claim that they applied specifically to that generation—in every age, there are people who believe these words of Jesus’ mean that the end is coming now, here. Because the point isn’t when these things will happen; the point is not to be surprised by them.

There will be people claiming God’s authority and using it wrongly, to promote their own ends, and they will lead many people astray. As a student of history, I can tell you that in the two thousand years since Jesus’ day, there have been many people who have used God’s authority to do evil, and some of them have been very popular. We vilify the Muslims who do this, while forgetting the crimes Christians have committed—and are committing right now, across the globe—in the name of God.

Jesus said there will be wars, and rumors of war. But when has there ever been peace on earth? There hasn’t been peace on earth since Cain slew Abel in Genesis chapter 4. This is part of the way sin corrupts human nature. We hate. We fear. We betray one another. We hurt one another—and then we get together in groups to do it on a larger scale. There will be famines—and boy, howdy, have there been famines. Some of them are caused by weather or blight; some of them are caused by political corruption diverting food from those who need it most. Earthquakes and storms—those happen all the time, too. Have you ever seen one of those half-sheet inserts from Lutheran World Relief asking for money for the disaster du jour and felt nothing but a drained since of déjà vu? I know I have. And as if that isn’t enough, Jesus says, brother will turn against brother and parent against child.

Quite a litany. All of that to go through. Are you feeling depressed, yet? But the point of these words isn’t to be depressing or hopeful. The point is to be ready. Where’s the Good News? Where’s the Gospel in Jesus’ words? Here it is: the end of all this misery is coming, and we don’t have to face the in-between times alone, and no matter what happens between now and then, Jesus will reign. You see, all of these terrible, horrible, evil things? That’s what the world’s been like since sin came into things. That’s “normal” for Planet Earth. At least, that’s what “normal” has been up till now. But it’s not going to stay normal. The world isn’t trapped any longer in a round of one damned-thing-after-another. It may seem that way—particularly when the news media gobbles up every tragedy, hungry for the most grotesque pictures that will shock and titillate the viewer—but it’s not. These evils are no longer meaningless, because the birth pangs have begun. This is not God’s plan for the world. There will be justice, and there will be mercy. Our call as Christians is to live out faithful lives in the meantime, responding to a broken world with love and justice and trust that this is not the end. This is the beginning.

And we don’t have to do it alone. Whether we live ordinary lives in relatively quiet parts of the world or in places where there is actual persecution, we are not alone, for the Holy Spirit is with us. We don’t have to worry about having all the answers, or solving all the problems, or being good enough or strong enough or brave enough or faithful enough. Because no matter what happens, the Holy Spirit will be with us.

And it doesn’t matter how powerful the things of this world seem to be. It doesn’t matter how much damage any country or ruler or terrorist or corporation or politician or anyone else does—they can’t change the fact that this world is God’s world, that Jesus redeemed it with his sacrifice, and that God’s kingdom will come.

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 14, 2014

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

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.

John the Baptist was one of the rock stars of his day. People came from all over to see him, to hear him talk, to watch him do his thing and to be baptized by him. If anybody had an excuse to be arrogant, to be confident of his own abilities, it was John. Yet when the chief priests in Jerusalem sent people to ask him about himself, John was quite clear: he wasn’t the Messiah, nor any great leader in his own right. John the Baptist’s job was to point to Jesus, to get people ready for him. That was his mission, and he never strayed from it. When others might have gotten a swelled head, John did not. He kept pointing to Jesus, even when it would have been easier not to. His job was to see God and point him out. Now, for John, this was easy; Jesus was his cousin, right there physically near him. It’s a little harder for us, two thousand years later, because Jesus isn’t physically present with us. So how do we point to Jesus?

The prophet Isaiah writes: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners … to comfort all who mourn.” Now, if this sounds familiar to you, it should. This, after all, is the passage Jesus quotes in the Gospel of Luke at the beginning of his ministry, saying “today this has been fulfilled in your sight.” And Mary’s song when she heard she was going to bear the messiah was very similar: the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things. And most of the depictions of the kingdom of God in the Bible contain these same elements: the oppressed are set free, those who mourn are comforted, the hungry are fed, true justice is given to those who have been abused and who have suffered. If you recall, about a month ago we had the parable of the sheep and the goats, and the sheep—the ones who were welcomed into heaven—were the ones who had fed the hungry, nursed the sick, clothed the naked, comforted the mourners, visited the prisoners, and in general acted to bring good news to the oppressed, just as Isaiah says here.

It’s a common thread, all through the Bible: the will of God is that all people should be free from the chains that bind them, whether chains of sinfulness or chains of oppression. The will of God is that no one should have to face grief or sorrow alone. The will of God is that all people should have enough to eat and shelter to live in and clothes to wear. The will of God is that all the brokenness in our lives and in the world—whether injury or illness or accident or evil—should be made whole. The will of God is that no one should suffer. And, in God’s kingdom, nobody will suffer. So when God comes into our world—when God moves among us, whether in the person of Jesus Christ or in the Holy Spirit—that’s what God is working towards. Passages like this one from Isaiah are common in the Bible because that’s what happens when God shows up.

As I look around the world this December, I see so many places where people are broken-hearted, where people are held captive by injustice and fear and hate, where people hunger and thirst and lack basic necessities, where cruelty reigns and love is nowhere to be seen. In Mexico, for example, many thousands of families mourn for loved ones who have been kidnapped by drug cartels with the collusion of local authorities. In Central America, too, gangs have killed thousands of people. But even in the midst of the violence, ordinary people work to protect their families and bring justice for those who have been killed. I think the Holy Spirit is working with them, in them, and through them. In China, pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong face police armed with tear gas. In North Korea, the leaders posture and spend huge amounts of money on weapons while their people go hungry. And yet, despite the worst their governments can do, people still continue to work for peace and freedom. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In the Middle East, extremists and terrorists oppress their own people and build power bases to attack the rest of the world. Any who speak out against them live in danger of their own lives. Girls who want to go to school, women who want to drive or vote or go to the market, boys who don’t want to fight, ordinary people of all ages and genders who want to live in peace, all are in danger. In the midst of it all, people like Malala refuse to be cowed. Palestinians are turned out of their homes and sent to refugee camps, Israelis fear terrorist attacks. Yet there are people on all sides working for peace and reconciliation. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

People in the Central African Republic try to rebuild their homes and their lives after the civil war, while many of the leaders who ordered and committed war crimes continue to brutalize their enemies. People in Liberia and Sierra Leone continue to suffer from the devastating disease Ebola, without enough resources for the basic protections that can stop the disease from spreading. In Nigeria, most of the three hundred girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram earlier this year remain in terrorist homes, forced to marry their kidnappers. But even in the midst of all this, hospitals are built, schools are opened, and people care for one another even at the risk of their own lives. I think the Holy Spirit is there.

In cities across the US, African-American families mourn men killed by police for little or no reason. Protestors take to the streets at injustices, and policemen who try to do their jobs well resent being blamed for the failings of others, and often make things worse out of their own fear and bitterness. Black children in schools face harsher punishments than white children, causing resentment and deep emotional wounds. And yet, even in the midst of fear and anger, people of all races are working together to try and bring justice and healing. I think the Holy Spirit is here.

Here in North Dakota, drug use is on the rise, ruining lives and tearing apart families. Children and teens, particularly girls, are forced into sex slavery and trafficked across the state, not just in the oil fields but even in places like Bismark and Jamestown. Rising costs of food and housing have pushed hard-working families into poverty, yet social assistance programs have been cut back. Domestic violence, abuse, neglect, and rape can be found in all corners of our own communities, and all too often we protect the abusers and blame the victims. And yet, there is a growing group of people working to stop the abusers and help the victims. I think the Holy Spirit is here. I look at all these places and I see so much evil … but I also see God at work.

Sometimes I wish God would come and put all these things right. Where is God when human beings hurt one another? We know that when God’s kingdom comes, there will be justice and mercy for all—so why can’t the kingdom come now, soon? The Spirit moves among us, helping us to see the wrongs in our society, and even in ourselves, and it inspires us to work for God’s peace and justice and healing, but surely it would be better if the problems never happened in the first place? Healing is wonderful, but wouldn’t it be better if nobody needed it in the first place? I thank God for the gifts of the Spirit, but I yearn for the day God’s Kingdom will come. Come, Holy Spirit. Come, Lord Jesus. Break into our world, break into our lives, and make us new. Whenever there is healing, whenever there is light in the darkness, whenever there is comfort for those who mourn, we have a foretaste of the feast to come. The Spirit that inspires such things is a gift from God, to help us until the day the kingdom comes. But there are times that taste seems awfully small, not enough to go around. I want the banquet. I know it will come, one day, but I want it now.

The question is, what do we do while we wait? We know that God’s kingdom is coming. The job of a Christian is to live the kind of life that anticipates the Kingdom. The job of a Christian is to point to the things God is doing in us and among us. The job of a Christian is to open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s work in us and in our midst. Healing, hope, justice, growth, love—these are all the things God wants us to have, the things Jesus Christ was born and died to give us, the things the Spirit inspires in us while we wait for Christ to come again.

None of these are easy things. It’s hard to bring justice in the midst of fear and oppression. It’s hard to stand up to the evils of this world. It’s hard to love when there is hate. It’s hard to heal and grow when there is danger. It means getting outside our comfort zone. It means taking risks. It means being willing to stand up to the powers of this world. That’s why we need the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to do it. But when we open ourselves up to the Spirit—when we let God open our eyes to the problems around us, when we let God guide us in truth and love—amazing things become possible. Not because we ourselves are great, but because God can use us to accomplish great things.

Amen.

A New Kind of Kingdom

Christ the King, Year A, November 25, 2014

Ezekiel 34:11-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

 

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.

 

At the ripe old age of 32, the holiday season turns me into a bit of a curmudgeon. Which holiday season, you may ask? ALL OF THEM, because these days the commercial rush to profit means they’re all in stores at the same time. By the time Halloween was over, the Christmas decorations were up in many stores, with Thanksgiving stuff shoehorned in anywhere it could go and the leftover Halloween costumes still in displays advertising half off. It makes me grumble, because back in MY day, Christmas preparations didn’t start until AFTER Thanksgiving, and there was a break between each holiday to catch your breath. This mish-mashed-everything-at-once is NOT the proper way to do things! Particularly when you consider that in the Church the Christmas season doesn’t start until December 25th. The month of December is the season of Advent, where we wait for Christ’s coming. Christmas, the celebration of his birth, doesn’t happen until the actual day! And the Wise Men don’t show up until Epiphany on January 6th!

But today I myself will be guilty of mixing up holiday seasons and mashing them together. You can see by the colors that today is a special day—not many days within the church calendar get the color white. Today is Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year. The Church year doesn’t begin in January, it begins in late November/early December with the First Sunday of Advent. So, Happy New Year! And, as at the secular New Year, it’s good to take a look back and a look ahead, as we contemplate what it means to proclaim that Christ is King.

What I noticed, as I studied our texts for today, is that the cute little baby we’ll see in the manger a month from now is the king on the throne on the day of Judgment, the one calling all people to account for their behavior in the earthly kingdoms before they enter God’s heavenly kingdom. And that cute little baby is also the one prophesied by Ezekiel in our first lesson, the new King David, who will come to create a kingdom based on justice and mercy, and not the power and inequity our worldly kingdoms are based on. And that baby, lying in a manger, will suffer and die to bring that kingdom to reality.

Let us be honest with one another. Our world, the kingdoms we build, falls far short of God’s desire for us. Instead of the justice God wants, we build up injustice. Instead of mercy, we act all too often out of hate, jealousy, fear, and greed. Consider the sheep metaphor from the first lesson. The strong sheep butted the weaker sheep out of the way so that they could get at the best food and then trampled it so that the weak got nothing. And the strong sheep drank their fill of water, and then fouled up the rest so that the weak sheep didn’t get any. The strong got stronger and the weak got weaker, and the ones who were supposed to shepherd the flock did nothing. That’s kind of like our world. Since the economic bust of 2008, there has been a great recovery in the economy … but outside of North Dakota, most of that recovery has been among the richest Americans, passing the majority of the middle class by and leaving the poor even poorer. Even here, where we’ve got the oil boom to rev up the economy, the number of people in need of help with basics such as rent and food has soared. Some have been left behind. Others have gotten pushed out of the way of progress.

It happens in sports, too. Consider the Sayreville Football team, where ‘hazing’ meant that older players sexually assault younger players. When the coach found out and cancelled the football season, the parents were outraged. Many of the parents of the older boys were more upset that their son couldn’t play than that he had participated in horrible crimes. Consider the many professional sports players who have been caught on tape in the last few years abusing their families: wives, children, girlfriends, and then getting little or no punishment or intervention because their wealth and status protected them from consequences. The powerful abuse the powerless, and use their position to protect themselves from justice.

Think about your own life: how many times have you seen somebody powerful and well-respected get their way, while others get pushed aside? How often have you seen people get hurt by someone else’s desires? How often have you seen someone spoiling something so that nobody else can have it? How often have you been the one getting pushed out, and how often have you been the one doing the pushing? This is not the good and abundant life that God wants for us. This is not the way God wants God’s people to live. This is not the way God’s kingdom will be. In God’s kingdom, there will be justice. In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, and all will have enough. In God’s kingdom, there will be no divisions between people. In God’s kingdom, there will be no abuse or domination.

And so God sent a new David, a Messiah, an anointed King to establish his own reign of justice. To call all people to a world in which there is justice for all. Not just for the rich and powerful, not just for the respectable and popular, but for all people. A world where everyone gets enough and nobody gets too much. There’s a reason he was born in a stable, with no room in the inn—this new David, this baby Jesus, this God in human flesh, is going to know with every cell of his being what it’s like to be the one getting shut out in the cold. He’s going to know what it’s like to be hungry, to be naked, to be sick and alone. He’s going to know all this because he’s experienced it, he’s suffered it, he’s been abused and shut out and he knows what it’s like. So every time you see someone suffering from hunger, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone without a home, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone who is sick and alone, Jesus is there. Whenever you see someone imprisoned, Jesus is there. We like to focus on the nice pretty stuff—the things as pretty as a newborn baby—and forget the messy stuff. The hard stuff. The painful stuff. But Jesus is present in the pain and grief as much as he is in the joy and healing. No one suffers alone, because Jesus is with them. Jesus, who gets what you’re going through because he’s lived through it.

And this baby Jesus out in the cold is going to grow up. He’s going to give his wisdom and his miracles and his justice to any who will listen—rich and poor, old and young, healthy and sick, powerful and powerless. He’s going to tell them about God’s kingdom. And he’s going to die to plant the seeds of God’s kingdom, and one day he’s going to come back and bring those seeds to their full growth. And so, a few weeks before he was killed, Jesus told this story about what his kingdom will be like. It will be a kingdom where Ezekiel’s words will be true, a kingdom where the powerful will not abuse the powerless, a kingdom where everyone has enough to eat and clothes to wear and no one is sick or hurting. And as people come streaming in to this awesome, incredible place, this wonderful kingdom, the king will know about us. Our deepest fears, our deepest hopes, the things we did that are worthy of him and the things we wish he didn’t know.

And for some people, the kingdom won’t be completely new. It won’t be completely unexpected, because they’ve been participating in it all along. They’ve been spending their time in this kingdom trying to make it look more like that kingdom. So when they see someone hungry in this world, they feed them. When they see someone thirsty, they give them a drink. When they see someone sick, they take care of them. When they see someone in prison, they visit them. When they see any kind of injustice or abuse, they speak up. Even if they don’t see Jesus in what they do, even if they don’t see Jesus in the faces of the people they help, Jesus is there. Whether or not they’re even looking for him, whether or not they even believe in him, Jesus is there. And he will say to them “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

But other people are going to get a rude surprise. Because they weren’t participating in the work of the kingdom. They saw people in need, people hurting, and didn’t do anything. Maybe they didn’t think there was anything they could do. Maybe they didn’t think that the people deserved help. Maybe they thought someone else would do something. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they were the ones hurting people, or maybe they benefitted from it. For whatever reason, they haven’t been living the kind of life God calls us to. And so while they’ve been looking for their king in the bright and powerful and glorious places, they’ve been missing the king living among them, in the corners and shoved off to the side and forgotten.

Because that’s the kind of king we have. He doesn’t do what we expect—he doesn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he doesn’t dole out grace by the teaspoon to those who deserve it. He gives of himself freely, to all people. He lifts up the lowly and knocks down the powerful. He feeds his flock with justice, and is present wherever there is pain, or hunger, or thirst, or nakedness, or sickness, or fear, or hate. He brings joy and hope and justice in the midst of hopelessness and he calls his people to do the same. May we lead lives following our king’s commands.

Amen.

To Be Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

 

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 Wednesday, in honor of today being All Saints Sunday, I took the Confirmation class out to Basto Cemetery. Most of you probably don’t know this, but Birka Lutheran Church is not built on the site it was originally planned to be built on. In the 1890s, the Swedish settlers to this area built a settlement they called Basto, about three miles away from where Birka is now, on the bluffs overlooking the river. There was a post office there, a stage coach stop, and they planned to build a church. While the building of a church building could wait, a cemetery could not. So they started a cemetery there at Basto. But, by just a few years later, things had changed, and Birka was built three miles away. Some of the people buried at Basto were dug up and transferred to the new church’s cemetery. But not all. About a dozen are still buried there on the bluff, and while we know most of the names and locations of the graves, there are a few we don’t.

Of the dozen or so graves at Basto, the Confirmation students were most struck by the three infants buried there. Two died within a few months of their birth, and although they died in different years, they are next to one another. The other died at birth, and was buried with his mother—who died with him, in childbirth. He was her last child, but not her first … nor her first to die. We’re not used to tragedies like that, in our time. Yes, children die, but not often. We have medical knowledge and techniques the likes of which our ancestors at Basto couldn’t have imagined. Even more critical for those of us who live in rural areas, we have ambulances that can get a critically-ill person to a hospital quickly. We have better nutrition and safety to prevent problems before they start.

Yes, tragedy is far rarer now than it was a century ago. But sometimes all that means is that we aren’t as good at dealing with it. We are so used to be able to do something that we don’t know what to do when there is nothing that can be done. And so we avoid talking about death. We avoid thinking about it. We dress it up in euphemisms, we push it away. And as a society, we tend to avoid people who are grieving, because it makes us uncomfortable. A few months after someone has died, I sometimes hear people talking about the family. “Shouldn’t she be over it by now? I’m worried about her!” “You just need to stop dwelling on it—you’ll feel better.” We tell ourselves stories in which only bad people die, and good people always survive and thrive, no matter what happens. We try to ignore the possibility of pain and sorrow.

And yet, even in today’s world, tragedy happens. People die. People get sick, and injured. People get abused and violated. There are times when we can no longer hide from the reality that sometimes, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, tragedy strikes—and it strikes good and bad people alike. Ignoring it won’t protect us. And so maybe we should take a look at how our ancestors in the faith handled it.

Life was a lot harder a century ago, as the graves at Basto show. In fact, life was harder throughout most of history. They didn’t have what we’d consider basic medical care. If you broke a bone, anything more complicated than a simple fracture would probably cripple you for life. Famines were a regular part of life for most people. And, unless you were very rich, you would probably spend your life in backbreaking labor, day in and day out, from childhood until you died. There was no such thing as retirement. And in Jesus’ day, if you were a Jew, you could add political oppression to that, too. Judea was occupied territory, conquered by Romans whose favorite method of dealing with dissenters was killing them—by crucifixion, if they were slaves or non-Romans. So people in Jesus’ day understood death better than we do. They understood suffering; they saw it every day. They experienced it every day.

So when Jesus went up on that mountain and started talking about blessing, it was pretty shocking. We tend to spiritualize it or view it as a nice saying of Jesus, but really listen to his words: Blessed are the meek, the ones who get ground down by everyone and everything. Blessed are the mourners, the ones who have lost loved ones. Blessed are the ones who get persecuted and beat up for trying to do the right thing. Seriously? Every sad state we try to avoid, every horrible thing we try to ignore, Jesus pronounces a blessing on it. Now, sometimes when bad things happen, people will say something like “Oh, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—God will teach you something, you’ll grow in faith through this experience!” Is that what Jesus is saying, here? That bad things are actually good because God’s trying to teach us something?

I don’t think so. For one thing, Jesus is not saying that those states are good. And he’s certainly not denying the pain and grief and hardship are horrible to live through! He’s pronouncing a blessing. He’s saying that even when horrible things happen, even when life really sucks, God is present, giving love and grace even in the midst of pain. Yes, life sometimes sucks. But we don’t have to face it alone, because God, who loves us, will be with us. God will give us blessing even when the world gives us grief and horror. It’s not that grief and pain and persecution are good, it’s that even in the worst that life can hand out—even when children die, one after another, even when there seems to be no hope, even when things seem like they can’t possibly be any worse—God is with us, giving us refuge and hope.

That hope isn’t always validated in this life. There are some people who think that having faith in Jesus will protect you from anything truly bad happening to you, that being a Christian means prosperity, that being blessed means something tangible in this life that anyone can see. If so, they need to read Revelation more closely. Revelation was written during a time of persecution. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his followers being persecuted for his sake. Well, that happened to his followers, and it still happens in some places today. In the first few centuries after Jesus died, being a Christian could get you killed. It could get you crucified, it could get you fed to lions. Christians in this country sometimes talk about being persecuted when “Happy Holidays” cards are more common in stores than “Merry Christmas” cards. In the days when Revelation was written, persecution meant being tortured and murdered for your faith.

The book of Revelation was a dream, a vision, to give hope to people who were being tortured and murdered, who were suffering every kind of hardship imaginable. And the message was this: no matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, no matter what kinds of monsters and horrors you face in life, God is with you, and God gives life and love to all of God’s children. You may cry now; you have much to cry about. But God is with you, and at the end, God will bring you to a place where there is no need for fear, where there is no pain, no tragedy, no loss. It may not come in this life—it may not come until Christ comes again. But there is hope, no matter how dark things get, because this life is not the end of the story. As Christians, we know we are citizens of this world, but we are also citizens of the world to come. We are children of God, no matter what happens, and God will never abandon us. Even when all hope seems lost, God is with us. And God will take every horrible thing, every tragedy, every grief, every loss, and every tear, and heal us. God will make us whole in a way we can never be in this life. God will wash us clean from all the stains and mend all the holes, all the broken places, in our bodies and hearts and minds and souls.

We may not face the same hardships our ancestors faced; we may never know true persecution, or famine, or plague, or any of the things faced by the first Christians or our ancestors who first came to this prairie. But we have the same assurances they had: we have the same gift of God’s love that will never let us go. And we have the same promise that no matter what, the pain and grief and death of this life is not the end of the story. Not for us, and not for those who have gone before us.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A little like this, a little like that

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 16), Year A, July 20, 2014

Genesis 28:10-19a, Psalm 86:11-17, Romans 8:12-25,  Matthew 13:24-43

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.

If you were travelling, and you met someone who had spent their entire life in a big city and never seen the countryside, never even seen a picture of a farm, had no clue where that steak dinner came from, and they asked you what life on a farm was like, how would you answer? How would you help them understand the total dedication it takes, the days when you work sun-up to sun-down for weeks, to get the crop in? How would you help them to feel the frustration at a broken-down tractor when you’re almost done seeding and the satisfaction of looking out and seeing a field planted? How would you show them what it means to be totally dependent on the weather, the hope and the fear as you watch the skies and listen to the weather report each day? How would you make the isolation real to them, the knowledge that there’s no one around for miles to help if something goes wrong? How would you show them the beauty of standing in a field under the open sky and soaking in the beauty of God’s creation? How would you help them to know the smell of dirt in spring, the heat of the sun in the summer, the crisp bite in the air on a fall day, the endless slog of snow-plowing in winter, and the constant blowing of the wind in all four seasons? How would you convey to them what it means to be rooted in a place, as so many of us are rooted in North Dakota? How could you make it real to them? Would it even be possible?

There’s an old story about some blind people who were taken to feel an elephant, and try to figure out what it was. One of them was standing at the elephant’s backside, and felt the tail. “It’s a snake!” he said. Another was at the elephant’s head, and felt the trunk. “It’s a tree!” she said. “No, you’re both wrong,” said another, feeling the elephant’s side. “It’s a wall!” None of them, by themselves, could figure out what it was, this thing that was a little like a snake and a little like a tree and a little like a wall. But by putting all those together, they were able to figure out what it must be.

That’s what Jesus is trying to do with the parables. No human being has ever seen the Kingdom of heaven. No human being has seen what the reign of God will look like. So, in Matthew chapter 13, Jesus tries to explain it by telling a series of parables. “It’s a little like this, and a little like that,” he says. By painting one picture after another with his words, Jesus was trying to help us to visualize something we haven’t seen. We’re like the city kids with no concept of what farm life is like. Each of the images Jesus uses tells us a little bit of what a part of God’s reign is like. When you put them all together, you get a much fuller, richer picture than any of them by themselves.

So what is the kingdom of God like? Last week, we heard that it’s like seed sown on all different kinds of ground, good and bad alike. This week, we hear several more parables. The kingdom of heaven is like a field where the master sowed good grain and an enemy sowed weeds. But since they’re all mixed together, the weeds can’t be taken out until the harvest time. But the kingdom of heaven is also like yeast—a little bit of yeast gets mixed in with the rest of the dough until all of the dough is leavened and yeasty. And the kingdom of heaven is like a very small seed which grows into a big bush, making a home for birds.

Think of the parable of the yeast. The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that gets mixed in with flour and water and oil to make bread. You can’t make regular bread without yeast, but you only need a very little bit of yeast mixed in. Even just a little yeast will have a dramatic effect on the other ingredients. You mix them together until you can’t possibly separate them out, and the yeast turns the dough into a loaf. It transforms the whole thing, all the flour and salt and water and oil and seasonings and any other ingredients. Just a little bit goes a long way. God is like a woman baking bread, putting a little bit of yeast in things to transform them into something new and wonderful. Imagine the smell of fresh-baked bread coming right out of the oven. That’s what the kingdom of God is like. All the parts of us, good and bad, are transformed by the yeast that is the kingdom of God, just like all the ingredients in the bread are transformed by the yeast. All people, good and bad, are transformed by God’s kingdom just as the dough is transformed by the yeast.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed. It starts out small, and gets big. The funny thing about this one is that we kind of expect that a mustard seed would be grown to get the mustard, the spice and seasoning, the thing that benefits humans. It’s why we grow mustard plants, right? Because we like to eat mustard. Yet when Jesus uses it as a parable of the kingdom, his point is not what humans can make of it but what birds can make of it—a home for their nests. The kingdom of heaven grows, and it benefits all of creation, not just humans. It is a shelter and a home for all creation, including the birds. It grows larger than we would have thought. It starts small, but it has a big impact. And that impact affects more things than we could imagine.

Think about the parable of the wheat and the weeds. I would be willing to bet quite a lot that when I read this passage, many of you focused on the fire—that the weeds, the sinners, will be cast out into Hell. And you probably have quite detailed imaginations of what that might be like. After all, Christians throughout the centuries have been focused on Hell, with lots of art and poetry and songs discussing what it’s like and who’s going to go there. I would be willing to bet that some of you are sitting here right now wondering who’s in and who’s out, who’ll go to heaven and who’ll go to hell.

The problem is, that’s not what the parable—any of these parables—is about. They’re about heaven, not hell. In fact, Jesus actually talks very little about hell in the Gospels, and it’s never even mentioned in the Old Testament. We focus on Hell a lot, but the Bible doesn’t. The point of the parables in today’s lesson is to assure the listeners that the evil in the world is not part of God’s plan, and will not be part of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom, which transforms and brings to life and gives good to all of creation. When we see weeds, when we see evil, we don’t need to worry—it will not be allowed into God’s kingdom. It is not part of God’s plan for the world. All the pain and brokenness and problems in the world are not part of God’s plan, and even when we can’t dig them out and get rid of them in this life—even when they’re too firmly rooted in the good parts of life to get rid of them—they are not going to get to stay forever.

We hear this parable and other parables about judgment, and we think of who won’t make it into God’s kingdom. Sometimes that makes us happy, if they’re people we don’t like. Sometimes that makes us sad, if they’re people we love. Christians have spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out. And we like to think of Heaven as an exclusive club with St. Peter as a bouncer. Yet even in the judgment, this parable goes against that view. For one thing, the weeds aren’t just people—Jesus explains that the weeds are, first and foremost, all the causes of sin. In other words, all the things in each one of us that make us hurt people, all the things in us that drag us down and poison our hearts and minds and souls, all those weeds that choke the life out of the good seed that God has planted in us, those will be taken out of us and thrown onto the burn pile. It’s not simply a matter of separating out good people and bad people; it’s a matter of taking the badness out of people. That badness can’t exist in God’s kingdom, so God will take it out. And yeah, there will be some people who, when you take out all the evil in them, there’s nothing left. But the fire isn’t there because God likes hurting people who don’t shape up, and it’s not there to torment people eternally. Think of it like a burn pile on a farm: the farmer doesn’t keep a burn pile to torment the weeds for all eternity, just to get rid of them. The fire is there to dispose of the parts of us that just can’t stay in God’s kingdom. And God plants the good seed of God’s kingdom everywhere, in good soil and bad, and rejoices in even the smallest response.

God’s kingdom is greater than we can imagine. It’s full of hope, and full of surprises. It transforms us, it transforms the world, and makes something new and good. It is stronger than any evil in the world, and it grows into new life for all. Thanks be to God.

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!

Recommended Reading

Here are a few articles written by others recently that I thought I would pass on:

Cursing our Enemies Before God.  “Given the debate over the last few days about whether it’s appropriate to be happy about, and even celebrate, the death of Osama bin Laden, I thought it would be worth revisiting Ellen Davis’s discussion of the cursing (imprecatory) psalms in her book Getting Involved with God. These psalms, which call God’s wrath down upon the psalmist’s enemies in what often seems like a very unchristian spirit, are frequently glossed over or heavily edited, if not extirpated entirely from contemporary Christian worship.”

Defined by Freedom by Jaqui Thone.  What does it mean to be freed in Christ?  What does it mean to be people of the resurrection?

And, completely off-topic and just for fun, Obi-Wan Kenobi is Dead, Vader Says, a Star Wars parody of the news coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death.