Being a Part of the Body

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 24th, 2016

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21

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.

Americans prize rugged individualism. Think about TV shows and movies you watched, as a kid and recently. How often is it all about the One Great Hero? Whether that’s the Lone Ranger or Superman or John Wayne or James Bond or Harry Potter or a cowboy standing up to cattle rustlers or a cop who cleans up a neighborhood or a teacher who changes the lives of her students or a lost hiker surviving against all odds, there’s usually one person it all comes down to. One person whose life we follow. One person who does it all, saves the day, fixes the problem, and rides off into the sunset. And it’s not just our entertainment. We like to think of ourselves as strong, capable, independent—capable of doing it all on our own and pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We idolize self-made men, the strong, silent type, who don’t seem to need anyone’s help. We tend to prioritize individual needs over group needs, individual dreams over group dreams. Individual accomplishments over group ones.

This carries over into our spirituality, too. How many times have you been asked about your personal relationship with our Lord and Savior? How often do we focus on individual spiritual needs and development? Think of all those inspirational pictures you see of one person walking through a forest or down a street, with a Bible quote on them. All the hymns and Christian songs about how Jesus has touched the singer’s life. And up to a point, there’s nothing wrong with this! A certain amount of individualism is healthy, helps us achieve goals and develop our potential to the fullest.

But the problem is, the Christian life is not supposed to be an individual one. The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus” may be common in modern American Christianity, but there’s nothing even close to that phrase in the Bible. It first appeared in America at the beginning of the 20th Century. Instead of individualism, the Bible is all about community, as we hear in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

The Corinthians gave Paul more trouble than any other church he planted, in a lot of different ways. They fought over stupid stuff. They misunderstood the Gospel. They’d get really enthusiastic about all kinds of weird things that pulled them away from Christ. They had all these different spiritual gifts, but used them as an excuse to lord it over one another and play status games rather than to do God’s work. They praised the more visible and noticeable gifts, and ignored or derided the less impressive ones. And that’s what Paul was addressing in this section of his letter. They had lots of potential—the Holy Spirit was with them!—but they were missing the point of what the Spirit was giving them. Because the Spirit wasn’t giving them all these gifts so that individuals would be glorified, but so that the whole Christian community could benefit. And there were a lot of the Spirit’s gifts that were being wasted because they didn’t think they were important.

Being Christian is about being part of a community. Large or small doesn’t matter; there are small Christian communities that do great work, and large ones that fall apart or can even be harmful. To be a Christian is to be a part of the body of Christ, a metaphor Paul used in many different letters. It’s not just about me and Jesus, it’s about all of us together in Christ. We all have a part to play, and we all depend on one another, because nobody can do it all. When we were baptized, we were made a part of the body of Christ.

Let’s explore that metaphor for a bit. A body has lots of different parts. Paul names some of them—eyes, ears, hands, feet. And there are lots of other parts of the body, that you can’t see. Hearts, lungs, kidneys, thyroids, livers, nerves, all have their part to play. Most of those, you don’t notice! It’s easy to take them for granted, as long as they all work together and do their job. But when things get out of whack, when they don’t work together, you’re in serious trouble. I couldn’t tell you exactly what a thyroid does, but I’ve had friends and parishioners have thyroids that stopped working—or that worked too much!—and boy, did that cause problems. When all the parts of the body are working together, every part gets what it needs, and together they can do things that none of them could do by themselves. It doesn’t matter if the heart pumps blood if there aren’t any lungs to put oxygen in the blood and intestines to put nutrients in the blood and kidneys to filter waste out of the blood. And if you don’t have nerves that react to pain, you wouldn’t know to take your hand off the hot stove. You need all of them. Just like you need eyes and ears and hands and feet. Some of the parts of the body are more visible and noticeable than others, but all have their role to play. Some of the parts are more glamorous or beautiful or respectable, but all of them are important.

Being a Christian is like that. We are all parts of the body of Christ which is our congregation . No one person—no five people!—can do everything. We depend on each other. We all have different gifts and different strengths and different weaknesses, and some of them are pretty obvious. Some people are really good at music. Some people are really good at decorating. Some people are really good at reading. Some people are really good at ushering. Some people are really good at teaching. Others aren’t so obvious, or at any rate, we don’t value them as much as we should. Some people are really good at praying. Some people are really good at spreading good cheer. Some people are really good at doing the behind-the-scenes work that makes an event successful. Some people are really good at helping us connect as a community. Some people are really good at cleaning. And there are so many other gifts that people have! And each and every one of them is a gift of the Spirit, and each and every one of them is necessary to the functioning of the body of Christ.

That’s true of any congregation on a congregational level. But it’s true of congregations and denominations, as well. Each congregation is different, and each one is a part of the body of Christ, and each one has gifts of the Spirit that are real and important. It’s why you can’t judge a congregation based on the numbers. It’s why small congregations are just as important as little ones. There are a lot of awesome things that the big congregations in Bismarck and Minot can do that we can’t. But there are also awesome things that we can do that the big congregations can’t. We all, large and small, are members of the body of Christ. We all, large and small, drink from the same Spirit. We all, large and small, old and young, serve the same Lord, who calls us by name, claims us as his own in baptism, gifts us with his Spirit, directs our ministry, gathers us in his arms when we die, and will raise us to new life when his kingdom comes.

Paul lists many kinds of gifts, and there are many others he doesn’t name. Just as there are many different kinds of ministry. I guarantee you that God has a mission and ministry for us, and that God has given us the gifts of the Spirit necessary to accomplish that ministry. (Although I do warn you, God doesn’t always call us to the ministry that we want to be called to, or that we think we’d like.) The problem the Corinthians had was that they valued some gifts and scoffed at others. I think in a lot of modern American churches the problem is that we’re not seriously looking for those gifts, because we’re comfortable the way things are and just want things to continue. And at other times, we focus on the problems—we focus on what we lack—instead of on the gifts God has given us. But whatever the issue, the Spirit is with all of us, and will continue to be with us no matter what happens in the future.

This passage raises two questions, for me. First, what are the gifts of the Spirit that we have that we don’t know we have? What are the gifts that we don’t value enough? What part of our congregational body isn’t being honored the way it should be, and how do we fix that? And while I have some thoughts about this, recognizing gifts isn’t just for the pastor. It’s something we should all be looking out for. We should all be striving for the gifts of the Spirit, just as Paul recommends. The second question is, what part does our congregation have to play in the larger body of Christ that is the local community and our denomination? What spiritual gifts has God given us as a group to share with the world? May God help us recognize the gifts he has given us, and the ministry he has called us to do with them.

Amen.

Faith and Talents

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33), Year A, November 16, 2014

 

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

 

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.

Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than any other single topic besides the kingdom of God? It’s surprising, but true … particularly considering how many churches I could name where the pastor only talks about money once a year, when they’re doing the church budget. The rest of the time, money gets talked of in “spiritual” terms. In other words, it’s not really about money at all—it’s about faith, or it’s about power, or about honor, or something else. Now, all those can be legitimate ways of reading the text—after all, Jesus used money as a metaphor a lot. Like in our Gospel reading today, a ‘talent’ in the ancient world was a unit of money, about 15 years wages—say, around half a million dollars, in today’s terms. Jesus is telling a parable, a story designed to illustrate a point, and he uses money because how you handle money—what you spend it on, what you save it for, says an awful lot about your priorities. Like, a deadbeat dad may say he loves his kids, but if he’s going out partying instead of paying child support to help raise them, it’s pretty obvious that they aren’t very important to him. And if you say you feel sorry for people who are hungry but you don’t give to food pantries, or donate to ELCA World Hunger, and vote against government food assistance programs, you obviously don’t care that much. If you say you love God, and you don’t pay any attention to spending your money in ways God would want you to, well, that says something about you as well.

So here’s the parable. A man, going on a journey, summons his slaves. He doesn’t say how long he’s going to be gone or where he’s going, but he needs someone to take care of his household. So he divvies it up: five talents, about $2.5 million, to one slave; a million to another, half a million to the third. This is a huge windfall. A gift like very few people get, ever. And he just hands it over. No detailed instructions, just “here, it’s yours to take care of, you can handle it, I trust you.” And then he goes away. If it were you, if you were one of those slaves, what would you do with the money?

Two of the slaves get to work. They say to themselves, “Hey, my master gave me a lot. What can I do with lots of money?” You can tell where their priorities are, because you can see what they did with the gift they were given. They went to work, and they made a lot of money. Huge amounts of money, way more than anyone could reasonably expect. Now, remember, in those days you couldn’t just put a chunk of money in an index fund at the stock market like you can today. In our world, if you have money to invest, and you put it in an index fund for a long time—say, twenty years—you’ll get an average of about a 7% return. They couldn’t have done that back then—and, in any case, even today there’s no investment that will give you a 100% return, which is what they got. No, to get that kind of return, you have to be more active. You’d have to do something like start a new business that does really well, or find someone with a great idea for a new business and give them the money to start it. In other words, you have to pay attention to your community: what do people need that they don’t have, and how can I help them get it? Then, you have to be willing to work hard, and with some luck, you can get an incredible return. That’s what the first two did.

The third didn’t. There were so many things he could have done with that gift, and he didn’t do any of them. He didn’t do any work himself. He didn’t invest it. He didn’t look for some way to use it as his master might want. He didn’t give it to one of the other two to manage. He didn’t even put it in a bank. He dug a hole and put it in the ground and forgot about it and went on with his life. The other two guys were working, they were using what their master gave them, they were thinking about how he would want them to use what he gave them. Even though the master wasn’t there with them, their relationship with their master was guiding their lives, and guiding what they were doing with his gifts. The third guy, on the other hand, well, he didn’t seem to care about his master one way or the other. Out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe he just thought, “well, the other guys got more than I did, and one talent isn’t enough to do anything with.” He ignored his master’s gift and anything his master might want, and called it good enough. He was too busy with all the other stuff in his life to care much about his master’s wishes.

So the master comes back! And the first two slaves show their master what they’ve done with his great gift, and the master is happy. “That’s awesome! You’ve done such a great job, I want you to keep on doing it, but here’s some more stuff to take care of, too—we can work together. I love you and I love what you’ve done.” And the third slave goes out, digs up the hole he put the half a million dollars in, and hands it back. Complete with an excuse: “I was afraid to lose it!” he said. “I know you’d punish me if I wasted it, and I know you can be really harsh and strict, so wasn’t it great of me to keep it safe?”

And the master was not happy, to say the least. First off, it’s not true—if the guy was worried, why didn’t he put it in a bank? It would have been almost as safe, and there would have been at least some return. Second, this description of the master as harsh and fearsome doesn’t match with what else we see of the master. We know he’s a generous guy, giving the money to his slaves to take care of. And when he comes to settle up with them, his first impulse is to praise them and celebrate. Third, the master doesn’t seem to care about how much the return on investment is—he doesn’t say, “that’s awesome that you doubled my money, so I’m going to give you a bonus!” No, he says instead, “it’s awesome how faithful you were.” The two faithful slaves, they trusted that their master was going to come back, and they kept working. They’ve been participating in their master’s work this whole time, so they will keep on doing it now that he’s back. That’s what the master celebrates: their faithfulness, not their profits. I mean, the profits are great, but they’re not what he master cares about. The third guy, he hasn’t been participating in his master’s work. He said he was going to, and he was given resources to do so. But he didn’t. He stuck the gift in a hole and forgot about it, and then tried to blame his master for doing so. Needless to say, the master was not impressed, and sent him packing.

So the question is, how are we managing the talents God has given us? We’re like the slaves in the parable, given great riches by our master. Sometimes those riches are in the form of wealth—and anyone who doesn’t think we’re wealthy here in North Dakota, remember that there are places in the world where people live on annual incomes of $300 or less. And many of those people who live on $300 or less still find the time and money to help one another within their community. Sometimes the riches God gives are in the form of relationships, the love and support that helps us grow and thrive and survive in times of trouble. Sometimes those riches are in the form of talents in our modern definition, things we’re good at that can make the world a better place. Sometimes those riches are in the form of opportunities God gives. Sometimes those riches are in the form of physical and mental health. Sometimes those riches are in the form of intelligence or street smarts. But whatever the riches are that God has given you, the question is, what are you doing with them? What are we doing with them?

Remember that the profit God wants isn’t money. What God wants us to do with his gifts is to spread God’s love. God wants us to spread healing, and wholeness. God wants us to spread community and hope. God wants us to grow, and God wants us to help others grow. God wants us to participate in his work of building up his kingdom in this world. God wants us to have a share in his joy, and to share that joy with one another.

It’s not always easy. It would be so much easier to put God’s gifts in a drawer or a hole in the ground and go on with what we want to do. It would be so much easier to say, “Others have more money, time, talents, treasures, let them do the work.” It would be so much easier to be the third guy and ignore the master and the gift both until he comes back to ask us in person what we did with it.

It’s easier to be the third guy. But it’s better by far to be the first two—to take the gift and use it, to spread it around, to participate in God’s work, and to enter into God’s joy.

Amen.

The Freedom of a Christian

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 13), July 7, 2013

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

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.

Last week we took a break from our study of Galatians to celebrate Augustana’s 100th anniversary.  It was kind of appropriate, because it means that we study this part of the letter—in which Paul talks about Christian freedom—on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, when we celebrate America’s political freedom.

Now, there are basically two kinds of freedom.  One, which is where freedom starts, is freedom-from.  Freedom from slavery.  Freedom from oppression.  Freedom from sin.  Freedom from foreign domination.  It’s about breaking away from what holds you back.  It’s a negation of what came before, a break with the past.  It’s about cutting away bad things.  So, for example, on July 4th, 1776, America declared its freedom from Great Britain.  That didn’t say much about what America was going to become, what they were going to do once they were free.  The Declaration of Independence is a simple statement that England couldn’t order America around any longer.  Freedom from.

Most political freedoms are like that.  So, for example, the Bill of Rights establishes a whole set of freedoms for American citizens by saying what the government can’t do.  The government can’t establish a state religion.  The government can’t search your property without a warrant and probable cause.  And so on and so forth.  Nothing is said about what citizens should do with the freedom granted them; nothing is said about how society should be organized to help people live free and good lives.  It’s about freedom from tyranny, even the tyranny of our own government.  Negative freedom, freedom from, is about stopping bad things.

But once the old chains have been broken, that’s where positive freedom starts.  Freedom for something.  Freedom to do something.  For example, the freedom to marry the person you choose.  Freedom to come together without fear.  Freedom to build a better life.  Once you’re not being held back, what new thing becomes possible?

Christian freedom is ultimately freedom for something.  Christ’s death and resurrection has broken the chains of sin and death, but our freedom is not merely about no longer being slaves.  Christian freedom means that we don’t have to worry about going to hell for our sins, but that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to go out and do bad things just because we can.  Christian freedom isn’t just freedom from punishment.  It’s freedom to build a better life.  Once we are free, then we are free to become the body of Christ.  We are free to follow the spirit.  We are free to love God and one another.

In fact, love is one of the hallmarks of being free in Christ.  We don’t have to be bound by fear and jealousy and anger and hate and all the other things that trap us and hold us down.  We don’t have to give in to a world that tells us it’s all about climbing the ladder even if it means stabbing people in the back to get ahead.  We don’t have to give in to a world that says that your worth depends on how much money you have in your pocket, how cool your smartphone is, how many people follow you on Facebook and Twitter.  We don’t have to give in to a world that says what you look like is more important than who you are.

We have a better option.  We have something to move towards.  And we have the Holy Spirit to help us grow in the freedom of Christ.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We live in a world where too often people use their freedoms to do bad things.  They use their freedom of speech to attack and defame.  They use their freedom of religion to turn Jesus into a weapon against their enemies.  They use their freedom to bear arms to murder people.  But what would the world be like if we all used our freedom to be guided by the Spirit?  What would the world be like if we used our freedom to love God and love our neighbor, rather than as an excuse for selfishness?

Christians aren’t always very good at using the freedom God has given us.  The disciples give a perfect example of this in today’s Gospel lesson.  Now, Jews and Samaritans were enemies, who didn’t even talk to one another if they could help it.  They didn’t live in the same towns or drink from the same wells.  There were ethnic and religious differences.  Jews and Samaritans worshipped the same God, but Samaritans worshipped at Mount Samaria instead of in Jerusalem, and Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Bible.  And anyone who’s watched the news of places torn by such division knows the kinds of violent actions and retaliations that can erupt in places with such dislike across ethnic and religious boundaries.  Jesus, however, had broken that barrier: he was just as welcoming to the Samaritans as he was to his fellow Jews.  For Jesus, the ethnicity of his followers didn’t matter.  He loved them all, and he had come to save all of them from their sins, whether Jewish or Samaritan or Greek or anything else.  He broke the walls of hate, so that they could establish new relationships.  He broke the cycle of discrimination and retaliation.  He loved them all, and taught them to love each other.  The disciples—all Jews—had grumbled about it, but gone along.  And then, in today’s reading, they came to a Samaritan village.  And because they were heading to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, the Samaritans weren’t willing to welcome them.  And you can see what the disciples really thought about all those Samaritans Jesus had taught.

They’ve rejected Jesus!  The disciples’ first response is unlike any other time someone rejected Jesus.  When one of their fellow Jews didn’t like Jesus, they shrugged and went on.  Now, however, it’s a Samaritan village that’s rejected Jesus!  You can practically see them chortling with glee and rubbing their hands.  “Lord,” they say, “obviously, this love stuff isn’t working.  Can we smite them now?  Can we?  Can we?  Hellfire and brimstone Jesus, and we’ll make them pay for turning us away!”  But Jesus rebuked them, and so they left in peace and went somewhere else.  I’ve often wondered what Jesus said to them.  I imagine it was something along the lines of “Way to miss the point, guys!  I’m trying to break the chains of hate, fear, jealousy, and strife, not make them stronger!”

The early Christian communities misused their freedom, too.  Paul warned both the Galatians and the Corinthians about not letting their freedom be used as an excuse for bad behavior and infighting.  And Christians today often misuse that freedom, as well.  Some Christians today, like the Corinthians and Galatians, use the freedom given to us in Christ to justify all kinds of self-indulgence and wrongdoing, ignoring the way such behavior hurts themselves and others.  Others follow the example of the disciples, and use their faith as an excuse to attack people they don’t like, people who are different than them.

Loving people can be hard, particularly when you don’t like them.  Loving people can be especially hard when you don’t agree with them.  And the more you focus on your own wants, your own fears, your own hates, the harder it is.  In fact, there are some types of love that we simply can’t come up with on our own.  There are some types of love that can’t be achieved without the help of the Spirit.  I don’t know anyone who’s ever been able to love their enemies, without the Spirit’s help.

But if we open ourselves up to the Spirit, anything becomes possible.  If we open ourselves up to the Spirit, and allow ourselves to love God and our neighbors, joy follows.  Peace follows, the kind of peace that the world doesn’t understand and can’t take away no matter what.  Patience and kindness, the generosity that opens the way for growth and new life, faithfulness that builds relationships, gentleness, and the kind of self-control that says “Sure, I could do that—but my own personal gain is not worth the harm that it would do to others.”

Christ frees us from sin and death, but that’s only the beginning of what it means to be a Christian.  The freedom that Christ gives opens us up, and gives us possibilities we could never have dreamt of when we were slaves to sin.  The Spirit brings gifts that lead to life and hope and love, for us and for all people.  May we use the freedom God gives us to grow in faith towards God and in fervent love to one another.

Amen.

“Who, me?”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:21-30

 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.

A pastor preached a moving sermon on the gifts of the Spirit.  After church, as people were shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out the door, one of the members of the church stopped to chat for a bit.  Now, this member had been on the fringes of the congregation for some time.  He attended worship sporadically, and he didn’t participate in any event or ministry of the church besides Sunday morning worship.  “Pastor,” he said, “that was a great sermon.  Thank you so much for preaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and how people should figure out what gifts God has given them so they can use them in ministry.  I could name a couple of people in this congregation who really needed to hear that!”  And off the man went, whistling, secure in the knowledge that while other people had gifts they should be using, he didn’t need to think about it.

No, that hasn’t happened to me, despite preaching on the gifts of the Spirit two weeks running, but many of my friends have a story like that.  It seems to be very easy to assume that God only gifts other people, that God only calls other people, so we can go on with our comfortable lives.  Even when we do accept that God is calling us, too often we try to argue with God, and claim we couldn’t possibly do whatever it is we’ve been called to do.  “Who, me?” seems to be the most common response, followed by a list of excuses.

I know I did.  When God started nudging me in the direction of ministry, I didn’t even believe God actually intervened in daily life.  I believed in God, sure, I just didn’t think he was doing anything in the world these days.  I didn’t believe he could possibly be calling me to ministry, and I sure didn’t want to be a pastor.  I wanted to be a science fiction author, or maybe an editor at a publishing house.  I could also see myself as a historian or an English professor.  I tried to ignore that sense of call as long as I could, but eventually I had to give up, and so I went to seminary.

What a relief it was to hear all the stories of how my classmates got there—I wasn’t the only one who’d tried to get out of a call to ministry!  We sat around in a circle and heard story after story about arguing with God, story after story filled with doubts and plans that got derailed.  Then, in class, as we studied the Bible and the history of Christianity, I noticed more stories about people who were called to a ministry they didn’t want to do and didn’t feel qualified for.  Yet God called them despite their objections, and gave them the gifts and support needed to perform the ministry to which they were called.

Jeremiah was one of them.  Like Moses before him, Jeremiah’s response to being called as a prophet was to say he couldn’t possibly do it.  He was too young.  He wasn’t a good enough speaker.  Who would listen to him, anyway?  Yet God had an answer to every one of Jeremiah’s objections.  “Don’t say you’re too young,” God said, “just go where I tell you.  I’ll give you the words you need, and I’ll take care of what needs to be done.”  God dismisses Jeremiah’s objections, because in the end, it isn’t really about Jeremiah at all.  It’s about God, and what God is doing through Jeremiah.  The words aren’t Jeremiah’s: they belong to God, just as Jeremiah himself does.  Jeremiah may be young and untried, but God will give him the gifts he needs to do the work God has called him to do.

Prophets and pastors aren’t the only ones who don’t expect God’s call and try to avoid it when it comes.  I’ve only been working in ministry full time for a few years, but in that time I’ve seen many cases of ordinary church-goers who’d been given gifts, but didn’t even realize it.  I’ve seen ordinary people sitting in pews just like you are today, who think God may be calling them to something, but dismissed it out of hand.  They were too young, too old, too rich, too poor, too busy, too proud, too humble, not good enough, not eloquent enough, not brave enough, not big enough.  Who were they to think that God might have a job for them to do?  Besides, if God really wanted something done, why hadn’t he asked someone else to do it?

The thing is, though, nobody is good enough, on their own, to do God’s work.  Nobody, on their own, has enough gifts.  Nobody, on their own, knows what really needs to be done.  Nobody, on their own, has all the right words.  Everything that we have, everything that we are, comes from God.  Our Lord created us, formed us in our mothers’ womb.  He was with us every step of our lives and he is still with us, today.  And God has lots of plans for each and every one of us, and gifts to give.  The question is, how will we respond?  Will we hear that call, and will we use those gifts for the work God has given us?  Or will we say, “No, I couldn’t possibly do that, God must be wrong”?

I don’t know what God is calling each individual person here to do.  I don’t know what gifts God has given to members of this congregation.  I don’t even know what God is calling this congregation to—after all, I just got here myself.  But this I can tell you: God is calling us to minister to one another, to our community, and to the larger world, and God is giving us the gifts we need to do so.

Have you ever felt a pull you couldn’t explain?  Have you ever seen a problem and thought, “Somebody really should do something about that”?  Have you ever had people around you say, “you know, I think you could be great at that!”  Those might be signs that God is calling you.  It might be something big, or it could be something as small as sending a card to someone who is sick.

So how do we know whether or not we’re being called?  And how does God give us the gifts for ministry?  The first step is always prayer.  Prayer for guidance, for strength, for wisdom, for courage.  Prayer should be the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we do at night.  And in that prayer, we should leave room for God to speak to us.

The second step is looking around and seeing what resources God has given us.  Part of the way God equips us for ministry is through the church around us.  Regular worship attendance is a large part of it; regular worship strengthens our faith and deepens our connection both to God and to the body of Christ which is the church.  Worship helps nourish our souls just as food nourishes our bodies.

But besides worship, God has given us many things to prepare us for God’s ministry that we don’t always take advantage of.  Bible study, particularly in groups, can help deepen our understanding of God’s Word.  (Augustana will be having an evening Bible study on the first Monday of the month at 7 PM, starting tomorrow.  Birka’s will be the third Sunday at 6:30.)  When we read God’s Word and discuss it, we learn more about how God is active in the world around us and in our lives.  Camp is one place where our faith can be strengthened and our skill at talking about our faith can be helped.  The Synod has regular events to help people learn and grow in their faith.  For example, there will be a Global and Local mission event in Bismarck on February 22nd and 23rd.  And the GIFTS program has regular sessions to help people’s understanding of Scripture and worship grow.

These are only a few of the things God uses to equip us for the ministries God has called us to.  Yes, our lives are busy.  Yes, God’s call is sometimes daunting.  But God has provided all that we need to answer that call, and will continue to provide.

Good News in a Broken World

3rd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

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

 

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us the first act of Jesus’ public ministry recorded in Luke.  Jesus goes to his home town, Nazareth, and participates in regular Sabbath worship.  He reads a short passage from Isaiah, sits down, and says the prophecy has been fulfilled.  What an announcement!  As sermons go, that’s pretty short.  Only one sentence.  (Sorry, but mine’s going to be a little longer than that.)  Yet Jesus’s sermon is so short because the prophecy from Isaiah says it all.  It perfectly encapsulated what Jesus’ ministry on earth was about.

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit came down like a dove to him.  The Holy Spirit was with him, as he began his ministry, and there in Nazareth he proclaimed what his ministry was about, what God’s kingdom is about.  Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and God’s abundant grace for all.  That’s what Jesus is all about.  That’s what God is all about.  That’s what life is like in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.

Good news for the poor: not a handout that feeds them for a day, but dignity and respect and a world in which they can earn enough to support their family.  Release to those who are held captive, whether that captivity is of body or mind.  There are all kinds of captivity.  Prisoners in jail are captives, yes, but so are those trapped by the cares of life that are grinding them down.  People in abusive relationships are captives, too.  And the longer you’re trapped, no matter what’s holding you down, the harder it is to even imagine what it would be like to be released.  What a relief to hear that you are free!  And blindness comes in all forms, from the physical to the spiritual to the intellectual.  Trapped in a dark world, what a joy to finally see the light.  Oppression comes in many forms, some blatant, some subtle.  To all people weighed down in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus comes bringing news of freedom.  Jesus comes proclaiming God’s love and grace.

Jesus comes to tell people that they have not been forgotten, and they have not been abandoned.  God wants us to be happy, and healthy, and free.  God wants us to live abundant lives filled with love and faith.  We live in a broken, sinful world, with all kinds of things that trap us and weigh us down.  We live in a world full of bad news and injustice.  It’s easy to take it for granted, to take it for normal, to assume that that is what the world is supposed to be like.  But that is not the life God wants for us.  Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim Good News to all, but especially the ones who are most in need of it: the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, the trapped, all those who suffer.

And that’s not all.  Jesus didn’t just tell people the good news.  Jesus came to make the Good News a reality, to start the process of creating the kingdom of God, the place where sin is forgiven, brokenness is made whole, and where there is abundant life and freedom for all.  That kingdom isn’t here yet—it won’t be until Christ comes again—but it will come.  That is the deepest, truest reality of the universe.  In this world we live in, we see and experience so much pain and loss and brokenness.  But we know that it will not last forever, that the Good News is true, that all the world will be redeemed and healed and made free.  We have heard the words of Jesus, we have the Spirit in us, and we wait.

Last week I talked about the gifts of the Spirit.  These are all the talents that God gives to all of us.  Everything from the ability to teach or preach to the ability to heal or lead or follow—all are gifts of the Spirit.  All are given by God.  But why does God give them?  What are they for?   When the Spirit comes to us, what is it moving us to do?  The interesting thing about the Spirit is that if you look at the times the Spirit appears, it points to Christ.  The Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration, when God the Father claimed Jesus as his Son and told the Disciples to listen to him.  The Spirit appears at Pentecost, sending the Disciples out into the world to tell the crowds about Jesus.  The Spirit still points to Christ today, showing us the way to Christ.

In the Spirit, we were all baptized into the body of Christ.  We are Christ’s body in the world.  And what was Jesus Christ sent to do?  As he told the people of Nazareth, he was sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and to tell God’s grace to all people.  Jesus was sent to proclaim the coming kingdom, and to bring it to all, so that they could see and hear and feel God’s presence with them.  Jesus came to help people live in the reality of the world to come.

We, too, are called to live in the reality of the world to come.  We are called to be the body of Christ in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet and ears and eyes and mouth in the world.  We aren’t just here to think about Jesus for an hour a week.  We aren’t just called to remember him fondly.  We are called to live our lives in response to the Good News that Jesus came to bring.  Now, we can’t create God’s kingdom or make it come more quickly—only God can do that.  But we can live lives that point to that coming reality.  We can follow the Spirit which leads us to Christ, and with the Spirit’s help we can live lives that point to Christ and the Good News he brought.  We can live in the light of Christ.

None of us can do it alone.  We are all members of the body of Christ, but not one of us is Christ alone.  We all have different skills, different passions.  We have all been called to different ministries by the Holy Spirit.  But those ministries all work together to proclaim the Good News in word and deed.

As Paul says, no part of the body is complete in itself.  Hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, and all the other parts.  Each one is needed, each one has its own task and its own gift.  We may like some parts better, and we may think some parts are prettier and more valuable, but all are needed.  All have been given gifts by the Spirit, and all are needed.

There are many divisions in our world.  Money, race, gender, politics, sexuality, religion.  You’ll find those divisions within the church as well as outside of it.  It’s very easy to let our differences and disagreements take center stage.  After all, they touch on fundamental issues.  But there is one thing more fundamental still: our lord and savior Jesus Christ, whose body we are.  Despite all the divisions and brokenness, we are called and gifted by the Spirit, beloved children of the Father, saved by the Son.  Despite all our divisions and the brokenness, we have heard the Good News of Jesus, the news of freedom and light and renewal and healing.  Despite all our divisions and brokenness, we are called to be the body of Christ in the world, to live in the light of God’s grace and show God’s love to the world.  May the Spirit which points to Christ guide our thoughts and our actions.

Amen.

The Gifts of the Spirit

2nd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 21st, 2013

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

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

The Christians in Corinth had a problem.  Well, actually, they had lots of problems.  All the time.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, to misinterpret its meaning for the life of the community and the individual, Corinth found it.  Consistently.  Repeatedly.  Corinth was Paul’s problem child, always trying and failing, consistently missing the point.  Paul’s pattern was to found a church and then move on, keeping in touch with his congregations through letters, some of which now make up part of the New Testament.  We know Paul wrote at least four letters to Corinth, though our Bibles contain only two.  Four letters.  To the best of our knowledge, that’s more letters than he wrote to any other congregation.  And these weren’t short letters, either.  No, each letter had many, many issues to deal with as Paul tried to keep the Corinthians on track.

There were divisions in the church in Corinth, caused by theology and gender and money and sex and eating habits and anything else you can think of.  They cheated and sued one another at the drop of a hat.  From what we can tell, they used the Gospel as an excuse for doing anything they wanted, no matter how destructive of themselves or others.  They doubted the resurrection.  They held grudges.  They boasted in their own wisdom.  They gave lip-service to God without following through.  Their divisions and rivalries twisted their worship of God into a way for the powerful to have fun and exclude the powerless.

Paul addressed all these issues, and more.  But while Paul sometimes gave practical advice of what to do and what not to do, what actions should and shouldn’t be taken, Paul realized that there was a deeper spiritual dimension to the Corinthians’ problems.  They acted as they did because, on a fundamental level, they didn’t get what the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus meant.  They didn’t understand what was important about the gifts the Holy Spirit had given to them.

1 Corinthians chapter twelve starts off Paul’s explanation of the deeper things they’re missing.  Chapter eleven ends with instructions on how to celebrate Communion the right way, with love and unity for the whole congregation.  In chapter twelve, Paul starts talking more generally, about gifts the Spirit gives; in the second half of the chapter Paul will speak about how even with our different gifts we are all members of the body of Christ together.  Chapter 13 is the climax of this section of the letter, the great love passage that we hear so often at weddings, in which Paul overflows with emotion in describing what love—the kind of love that will allow them to overcome their differences—truly is.  Only the love of God and one another that will allow them to make right use of the gifts of the Spirit.  Only the love of God and one another brings any meaning to their existence.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the section we read today.  It’s about gifts, and unity.  First off, Paul assures us that there is a clear way to tell if people are working with the Holy Spirit.  The only way anyone can say that Jesus is Lord is through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Faith is a gift of the Spirit, in the midst of doubts and divisions.  You can’t reason your way to a belief in Christ.  And no matter how much you disagree with someone, if they believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, God is working within them.  In other words, no matter if you disagree with them—even if they’re wrong on major issues like the ones that divided the church in Corinth—you can’t exclude them or ignore them.  You can’t just wrap yourself in a comforting certainty that you’re right and they’re wrong so you can ignore or attack them.

I know there have been times when I have listened to a Christian I didn’t agree with and wanted to completely shut them up so no one could be led astray by how wrong they are.  And they may have been wrong—but they still had the Holy Spirit in them.  You can’t say: “I like that person, and I like how they think and what they do, so they must be real Christians working with the Spirit.  But that person over there, I really think he’s a jerk and he’s wrong about everything and so therefore he must not really be a Christian.”  No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  And if they have the Holy Spirit, they are members of the body of Christ and of the community.  They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We may not like them, but we do have to love them, and treat them always as the children of God they are.

Next, Paul turns to the gifts given by the Spirit.  And they’re all different!  Nobody gets exactly the same gift as anybody else, but they’re all important.  Paul only describes general categories; the Spirits gifts are far more wide-ranging than the few examples that Paul gives.  The ability to preach is a gift of the Spirit; so is the ability to teach.  Healing, faith, wisdom and knowledge, all of these and more are gifts of the Spirit.  In some people they’re easy to spot: the people who lead worship, who teach Sunday School and lead the women’s group and the youth group, it’s easy to see and value the gifts the Spirit has given them.  But those aren’t the only gifts in the congregation, and the ones who are already in leadership aren’t the only ones with the gifts of the Spirit.

Every single person here today has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit.  Every single person here, no exceptions.  If you believe that Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit dwells within you, and the Spirit never comes empty-handed.  But here in American churches, we don’t tend to be very good at identifying the gifts the Spirit gives.  We think as if the pastors, the teachers, the leaders are the only people who have gifts.  Often times, we don’t even look to see what gifts are in our congregation and our community, or in ourselves.  If there’s a hole that needs to be filled, a job that needs to be done, we take any warm body we can guilt into filling it and shove them into it.  Instead of trusting that the Spirit will give the gifts needed for ministry, we focus on plugging holes.

Sometimes we acknowledge the gifts, but don’t use them.  We think we’re too busy.  We fill our lives with all kinds of activities and entertainment, and use that as an excuse to ignore the gifts God has given us.  Now, these things we choose to focus on, our activities and our entertainments, aren’t bad in and of themselves.  Many times they are a blessing for us.  But they become harmful if we treat them as if they’re more important than our calling as Christians.  They can be corrosive to ourselves and our community if we let them draw us away from God.  We are not given gifts to let them sit on the shelf.  We are given gifts so that we can use them.

One last thing.  These gifts the Spirit gives are not primarily for the blessing of any one individual.  Paul says that the Spirit is given to each for the common good.  Everyone comes to the table with different gifts in different strengths—no one person can do it all, and no one person should do it all.  Each and every person has something to contribute, something that God is calling them to do in our life and ministry together.  We minister to one another for the sake of the Gospel, not for the glorification of any individual.

It’s almost time for the annual meeting.  As we look back on the year that has just passed, and look towards the year to come, ask yourself what gifts God has given you for ministry.  How can you share those gifts with the congregation and the community?  May we be inspired to share our gifts, this year and always, so that together we can be the Body of Christ in the world, full of love for God and each other.

Amen.