Ascension

Easter 6, Year C, May 26, 2019

Acts 16:9-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22—22:5, John 14:23-29

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

This Thursday is Ascension Day.  Historically, it’s a very important Christian holiday.  Here in America we’ve mostly forgotten about it, but in other places—Germany, for example—it’s still celebrated enough that they get the day off.  Whether we remember it or not, it’s still part of our confession of faith.  “On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  The Creed gives a very bare-bones version of Jesus’ life: it doesn’t list any of his miracles, or any of his teachings, or any of his parables.  He was born, he was crucified, he was raised, he ascended to heaven, he will come again.  All the stuff that got left out, but the ascension was left in.

So, what is the ascension?  Let’s take a look at the big picture here, what the end of Jesus’ time on Earth was like.  Jesus died on Good Friday and rose on Easter, and spent the next forty days appearing to various of his followers.  The women in the garden, Cleopas and his friend on the way to Emmaus, Thomas in the upper room, Peter and the rest of the disciples on the beach for a fish fry.  All the various stories—and there aren’t many of them, but they are all significant—of Jesus being with various people after he rose from the grave take place in a span of forty days.  Then, after forty days, Jesus returned to heaven.  The Bible stories describe this as Jesus literally rising up from the ground and flying up into the air.  That may be why we don’t talk about the ascension much; it seems a little weird and magical and superstitious to modern science-minded people who know that while heaven exists it’s not a literal, physical kingdom sitting up there in the sky somewhere.  Ten days after Jesus ascended—which makes it fifty days after he rose from the grave—the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost and sent them out into the world.  And, as Christians, we believe that Christ will one day come again to judge the living and the dead, and all the dead will be raised, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and heaven will be part of earth.

Forty days after Easter is this Thursday, so that’s the day we celebrate Jesus’ ascension, when he went back to heaven after his resurrection.  And I thought about using the readings for Ascension Day today, the passages where the Bible actually recounts Jesus’ return to the Father’s side, but then I read the Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday and realized it does a better job of explaining why the ascension is important than the readings actually about the ascension itself do.

Today’s Gospel reading is part of the Farewell Discourses.  The Gospel of John records Jesus’ long night of teaching during the Last Supper, all of the things he told his disciples in his last night with them before his death.  Some of those teachings are instructions—the great command to love one another, for example—and some are explaining what’s going to happen and why, not only at his death but after it.  Jesus tells them, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.  Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.'”

Now, that’s all kind of complicated.  But the thing is, when he talks about going away, he’s not just talking about his resurrection.  When Jesus died, he only spent three days in the grave and then he rose again and came back.  But forty days after he rose, he ascended, and fifty days after he rose, the Holy Spirit came.  And the night before he died, Jesus spent a lot of time telling his disciples that it was important that he leave them, that he would send the Holy Spirit to them.  And later in this speech, he tells them that it’s better for them if he goes, because then he can send the Holy Spirit.

Now, I don’t know about you, but there have been times in my life that I would have dearly loved to have Jesus’ physical presence with me.  Times when I would have given anything for concrete, firm proof of God’s love for me, or times when I would have liked a simple, clear, direct statement from Jesus’ own mouth, so I would know exactly what God was trying to tell me without having to pray or discern or interpret anything.  And I’m sure many of you would love that too.  It’s great to have spiritual assurance; in a lot of ways, it would be even better to have physical, tangible, connection with God.  The thing is, though, that when Jesus was physically present in human form, he could only be in one place at once.  The Spirit, on the other hand, is like the wind.  It can be everywhere at once.  With everyone at once, not just one at a time.  God can work on a much larger scale through the Holy Spirit than through the Son.  So, yes, it is better for us to have the Spirit than if Jesus had stuck around in the flesh.

But as I was reading this passage, I wondered if it wasn’t also about something deeper.  I thought about what it was that Jesus did when he died on the cross and rose again, I thought about the kingdom of God, and how Jesus always said it was near.  I thought about how he’s coming again, to judge the living and the dead.  I thought about how all the writers of the New Testament talk about how in Jesus, God was uniting us to Godself.  I thought about how we become part of Christ, his body in the world.  I thought about how we are joined to Christ’s death and resurrection in our baptisms.  I thought about how Jesus was so insistent that he had to ascend back to heaven, that it would be better for us if he did than if he stayed here on Earth.  I visualized the course of his life and actions in my head.  He started out in heaven, then he came to earth and was born, then he died and rose from the grave, then he ascended back into heaven, and he’s coming back one day, and then heaven and earth will be united, made one.  And I realized that it looked like a needle and thread sewing two pieces of cloth together.  If you’re sewing, you take two pieces of cloth.  You push the needle down through both, and then up through both, and then down again.  Through this process, the two pieces of fabric become one whole piece.

Isn’t that what Jesus does?  He travels between heaven and earth, bringing the two together, and uniting them.  The kingdom of God is near because Jesus is near, because Jesus brings the two together.  God and humans are united because we connected with Christ in our baptisms, and the Son and the Father and the Spirit are one.  In Christ, God was reconciling us to God’s self.  In Christ, the world is redeemed and made new.  In Christ, heaven and earth are close and will one day be united.  If heaven and earth used to be separate, Jesus Christ is the thread bringing us together and making us one.

Amen.

Listen and Follow

Easter 4, Year C, May 12, 2019

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

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

It was there every year at the county fair: the little trailer with the big sign blaring out ‘ARE YOU SAVED? TWO QUESTION TEST REVEALS THE ANSWER!’  Even as a kid I thought it was funny.  I knew I was saved because I was a Christian and Jesus loved me, and I figured that everybody either was already a Christian and knew they were saved, or weren’t Christians and didn’t care about salvation one way or the other.  Having grown up in a Lutheran church that put a lot of emphasis on the grace of God, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to believe in Jesus and at the same time wonder if you were saved or not.  I had not realized just how much time and effort Christians have spent over the years worrying about who is saved and who isn’t, and how one tells the difference, and how one separates out the sheep from the not-sheep.

That little trailer is just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite the fact that the Bible talks far more about heaven than about hell, we humans are obsessed with you-know-where.  In one of the more popular interpretations of Christianity over the ages, God the Father is a vengeful, angry, destructive tyrant just waiting for an excuse to throw people into hell and torture them mercilessly for all of eternity.  Jesus, in contrast, is a nice kind loving friend who is trying to save us from God’s wrath, but only if we’re good enough.  Therefore, humans better shape up and be good enough people to buy God’s favor.  After the Reformation, people added the idea that it wasn’t enough to believe, you also had to believe the ‘right’ way.  You could tell who was saved and who was going to Hell by whether or not they believed the doctrines your church taught.  If you believe the “right” way, you don’t have to worry.  But all those other people who disagree with you better watch out, because they’re gonna be in trouble when Judgment Day comes!

We examine every Bible passage that has any reference to judgment or hell, and build elaborate interpretations that we then tell each other over and over and over until we have a much clearer picture of hell than of heaven, despite the fact that the Bible spends a lot more time talking about heaven than hell.  We use our interpretations of hell to try and motivate people, to terrify them into behaving the way we think they should or believing the way we think they should.  We terrify people with stories of what the Father will do if you’re not good enough, and then say you should love Jesus because he saves you from the wrath of God.

There are several fairly major problems with that basic understanding, though.  One of them is that you can’t scare people into loving anything.  No, really, you can’t.  You can scare people into complying with actions they’re supposed to take or words they’re supposed to say, but you can’t scare people into opening up their hearts.  Fear makes our hearts close in on themselves, whether that is fear of hell or fear of God or fear of the world or fear of anything else.  And even though you can scare people into doing what you want them to, that different behavior only lasts as long as the fear does.  And people can’t stay afraid forever.  It just turns into exhaustion and anxiety and numbness.  So by trying to use the threat of Hell to make people be faithful good Christians, we aren’t actually reaching hearts and minds, just the shallow surface behaviors.  Under the surface, all those threats and fear only separate us from God, they don’t bring us closer.

And then there’s the other major problem with the idea of believing that the Father is angry and wants to punish us, and Jesus is gentle and loving and wants to save us from the Father’s wrath.  Jesus states it flat-out in our Gospel reading for today.  Jesus and the Father are one.  They’re not separate.  It’s not a case of the Father being angry and Jesus being loving, it’s not a case of the Father wanting to punish people and Jesus wanting to save people.  No.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit one God, now and forever.  They’re different people, but you can’t separate them out because they are unified.  They have the same goals and desires.  They are acting together, and always have, and always will.  That belief that the core of God’s nature is anger and a desire to punish, it’s simply not true.

Yes, sometimes God gets angry at the way we treat one another and the world that God graciously gives us.  But it’s not a case of Jesus having to save us from the Father’s wrath.  God—all of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—desires that the world should be saved.  God loves the world.  God doesn’t want us to be tortured for all eternity because of the evil we have done; God wants us to stop doing evil and return to the Lord and be saved.  God loves us, like a shepherd loves the flock.  God gave us into the hands of Jesus specifically so that we might be saved.  Yes, we can turn away.  Yes, we can ignore God’s call.  Yes, we can choose Hell if we want to.  But God is willing to do everything up to and including the death and resurrection of God’s only Son to save us and all of creation.  God is putting all God’s power and might into the salvation and re-creation of the universe, us included.

God’s goal is that we might have life—abundant, eternal life.  God’s goal is that we might have that life now and for all to come.  And that eternal, abundant life isn’t just about getting into heaven, either.  God wants us to have life now, too.  We are in God’s hands—we are in Jesus’ hands—to protect us and guide us and give us life here, now, in the midst of all the troubles of this world.  And there is nothing, neither life nor death nor powers nor politics, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, God will be working to keep us safe.

And when I say “no matter what,” I really mean it.  Consider the multitudes in our reading from Revelation.  They are safe and protected in God’s care.  You know what’s going on around them?  The opening of the seals.  Death on a pale horse is riding, along with famine and plague and conquest.  And yet, God’s people are safe under God’s protection.  It’s not necessarily a physical safety, because some of them have been killed; but they are not alone and they are not forsaken and they are shielded by God even in the midst of some pretty terrifying things.

And it’s not that they’re all perfect saints, either.  They have been made holy by God.  That’s what happened when they washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.  All the sin and evil that they had done or said, or allowed to happen through their own inactivity, all of it was washed away by the blood of the Lamb.  All of it was redeemed through the free gift of grace in Christ Jesus our savior.  They have listened to the voice of the shepherd, and even in the middle of all this death and destruction, Christ will lead them and guide them and wash them clean with his blood and protect them and wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And that blood that redeems?  It’s not rationed out by the teaspoon for those who have earned it or deserve it or can prove they understand the correct theological interpretation of it.  The blood is shed for everyone, for all of creation, by a God who loves us and claims us and is always reaching out to call us and claim us and save us and wipe the tears from our eyes.  We don’t have to earn it.  We don’t have to be “good enough” or have all the right answers memorized.  We just have to listen to our shepherd’s voice, and follow.

Amen.

Abundant Love

Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

 

My family went to church every Sunday when I was a kid, but the first time I remember consciously hearing the story of our Gospel reading was actually from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And that’s a great show with a lot of good songs, but like all dramatizations of Scripture it takes liberties here and there.  Being a good, church-going Christian child, I knew that God wanted us to give generously to those in need, and I knew that Jesus had spent a lot of time feeding the hungry and healing the sick and things like that.  So I assumed that when Jesus said that there will always be poor, it must have been made up for the show.  I was very surprised when my Dad explained that no, Jesus actually did say something like that, although the show elaborated it a lot.  It just did not make sense to me.  It didn’t fit with what else I knew of Jesus.

This passage made a lot more sense to me—or, at least, fit better within what I knew of Jesus—when I got to seminary and learned that Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15.  Deuteronomy 15 talks about how God’s people are supposed to be generous to the poor always, and give without being stingy or resentful.  There will always be poor, and that’s why God’s people need to be constantly generous.  Not just a little bit here and there, but always generous to those in need.  Most people take Jesus’ line that “there will be poor always” as an excuse not to be generous—after all, it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.  But Jesus is actually quoting a Scripture passage that, if you read the whole thing, says that we should be generous precisely because there are always people in need.

That fit better with what I knew of Jesus, but it still didn’t explain why he didn’t agree with Judas that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would be a better use of it than extravagantly anointing Jesus with it.  True, Judas had selfish motives, but he also had a point about how extravagantly wasteful this whole thing is.  I mean, what does Jesus need oil for?  It serves no practical purpose.  It does serve a couple of different symbolic purposes; as Jesus said in the reading, it’s something that they did to dead bodies, and Jesus was about to die.  And also, kings and priests and prophets were commonly anointed with oil; “Messiah” literally means anointed one.  The person who’s had the special oil put on them as a symbol of how chosen and precious they are to God.  So Mary’s actions served as a sign both of who Jesus was and what was to come.  But surely, there was less expensive oil that would have done the job, or she could have used less; spending the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars on a single action is pretty extravagant.  Surely they could have found some very good quality oil that would have been less expensive, and used the rest for feeding the hungry or whatever?  It just doesn’t seem like good stewardship.

The thing is, though, that abundance is a theme in the Gospel of John.  In the first chapter, we are told that we have all received grace upon grace from God’s fullness.  Jesus’ first act of ministry is providing 150 gallons of the best wine for the wedding at Cana.  In John 10, Jesus says “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  God’s goal isn’t just that we might have enough, but that we might have more than enough.  God works to provide enough so that everyone’s life might overflow with goodness.  The fact that there is need and poverty isn’t because of some failure on God’s part to provide; God provides abundantly.  If there is scarcity and need in the world, it is because of human sin and greed and stinginess.  God provides abundantly, and calls his people to do the same.

And this anointing is abundant.  It’s a pound of pure nard, imported from the Himalayas, a pungent, earthy perfume that filled the house.  Like any perfume, it would have lingered, and lingered even longer than we might expect, given that water was scarce and they probably didn’t bathe often.  Jesus might have carried the fragrance of that anointing with him all the way to the cross.  It was an extravagant gift, an extravagant act.  When Mary knelt and poured it over Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, it was an extravagant act of worship, far beyond what could ever have been asked or expected of her.  And that extravagance is kind of the point.  Love overflowed in her, love of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead, love for the God whose power was revealed in Jesus’ saving actions.  That love overwhelmed her, and no rational, logical, small gift would have conveyed the enormity of what she felt.  The only way to express her devotion was through an immense gift, given in a spirit of worship and service.  It was not the prudent choice, but not everything is about prudence.  Sometimes, it’s about abundant love.  Sometimes, it’s about a leap of faith.

Yes, the money spent could have been given to the poor.  But the poor are always with us; one extravagantly generous gift wouldn’t have solved anything.  Mary and Martha and Lazarus were devoted followers of Jesus, so I have no doubt that they lived lives of generosity and service, giving regularly to help those in need.  The fact that in this instance Mary gave such a gift to Jesus doesn’t mean she wasn’t also giving to those in need.  The thing is, while God’s call to be generous is an important part of the Christian life, it is not at the heart of it.  We give because of our love of God, and because we have experienced the love of God poured out in us and in our lives.  That love—the grace upon grace we receive and share—is the core of the Gospel.  That love is the reason God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, and finally to rise from the grave for us.  That love is the reason for all of God’s saving actions.  That love is what created us in our mothers’ wombs, nurtured us as we grew, and has been with us every step of our lives.  That love is what redeems and saves us from our own sins.  That love is what heals us and makes us whole.  That love is what brings us here today.  And that love is what calls us to share God’s abundance with the world.  As we ourselves have received grace upon grace from God’s loving arms, we are called to share that grace with others, in word and deed.

The church is not a social service agency that happens to have a worship service every week.  The church is a community built around God’s love, nurtured through worship and God’s Word, which sustains us and helps us grow and sends us back out into the world to be God’s hands and feet.  This last week our Lenten Bible Study focused on the fruits of the Spirit.  To use that metaphor, generosity to those in need is the fruit of the spirit … and the love of God is the root.  You cannot have one without the other.  You cannot have the constant generosity God calls us to without being devoted to the love of God.  If you try to separate generosity and love, all too often you end up like Judas: nickel-and-diming everything, and using charity as a cover for your own selfishness.  Mary knew how to love beyond measure.  Mary knew how to let God’s love overflow in her.  Mary did not allow anything—not self-consciousness, not society’s approval, not money, not anything—get in the way of letting her show that love in word and deed.  And it was extravagant, and it was amazing.

I wonder what it would be like if we loved like that.  If we were willing to let the love of God overflow in us that much that sometimes—not always, not in everything—but sometimes, we let that love overflow into extravagant, abundant signs of the kingdom.  If we spent more time focusing on God’s abundance than on what we lack.  If we let go of our fears and anxieties and self-consciousness and put our trust in God.  If we let that love and trust be the core of everything we do, not just in name only but in reality.  I don’t know, but I bet amazing things would happen.

Amen.

Abundance

Second Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, January 20, 2019

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

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

 

We are in the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany means revelation, and specifically something being revealed by or about God.  An epiphany is a “Eureka!” moment, when you realize something big that changes the way you see the world.  And so, the Gospel readings in the time after Epiphany tend to deal with revelations of who Jesus is and what his ministry is all about.  On Epiphany itself, we hear about God revealing the coming of Jesus to the Magi through the star.  In Jesus’ baptism, we hear of the Spirit coming down like a dove, and a voice from heaven calling Jesus the Beloved Son.  And today, we read John’s account of Jesus’ first act of public ministry, his miracle at the wedding of Cana, in which Jesus was revealed as something more than just another wandering rabbi.

So Jesus goes to this wedding, and something TERRIBLE occurs: they run out of wine!  Now, weddings in the Middle East are BIG BUSINESS.  The parties can go on for DAYS, and food and drink are supposed to flow freely.  If the bridegroom didn’t provide enough hospitality, he would be shamed in the community.  Everyone would talk about it for decades to come.  It would have been a nightmare.  But Jesus and his mother Mary were there, and Mary knew darn good and well Jesus could fix this.  And he does: he turns water into wine, into really good wine.  The party is saved, and so is the bridegroom’s reputation!  Yay!

To our ears, it’s a weird little story, because why is this party special enough to rate a miracle from Jesus?  And why is this the first public act of Jesus’ ministry?  Like, if I were planning my first public act as pastor of a new church, providing refreshments at someone else’s wedding reception wouldn’t be what I’d choose, I’m just saying.  But every story included in the Gospels is included because it’s important, because it tells us something about Jesus or about the life of faith.  And this passage is specifically picked for the season of Epiphany because it reveals something about who Jesus is.

First, abundance is one of the themes of the Gospel of John.  Each Gospel has its own perspective on what traits of Jesus should be emphasized, and one of the things the Gospel of John emphasizes about Jesus is that life in Jesus brings abundance.  As Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Or as John 1:16 puts it, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  If you ever read through the Gospel of John, notice how Jesus provides: wine here, bread and fish at the feeding of the 5,000 with twelve baskets left over after everyone had eaten their fill, so much fish for the Disciples in John chapter 21 that they couldn’t haul all of them in, healing and forgiveness whenever anyone needs them.  Any spiritual or physical need that Jesus encounters, he provides for it, abundantly.  Things overflow, or are given beyond any rational hope or expectation.  Like here: the party’s already been going on long enough for the wine to run out.  Jesus provides somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.  That’s the equivalent of somewhere between 600 and 900 bottles of wine.  And not just two buck chuck, either; this is the really good stuff.

So what this tells us about Jesus, besides the fact that he has good taste in wine, is that when Jesus provides he really provides.  In a world in which there is scarcity, Jesus provides abundance.  So often in the world, people run out of things they need.  People go hungry, or cold, or thirsty; people can’t afford to pay for healthare; people struggle to pay rent, or go homeless; people are one paycheck away from disaster; people are afraid of losing what they have.  But our God is a God of abundance.  God does not measure out grace by the teaspoonful, demanding we prove ourselves worthy and grateful for every drop.  God’s love overflows like wine at a really good party, more than we need, simply because we need it.  Because that’s the kind of God that God is: God loves abundantly.  God gives abundantly.  God wants us to have abundant lives.

But still: why a party?  Why a wedding banquet, specifically?  We don’t tend to associate parties—particularly ones with lots of wine—with God, but they did back in Bible days.  Specifically, contrary to our modern imagery of people sitting on clouds and strumming harps, the most common metaphor for heaven in the Bible is a party.  God’s coming kingdom is repeatedly described, throughout the Bible, as a feast, a banquet filled with rich foods and well-aged wines.  It’s not some sort of ethereal unworldly place for souls to float around in.  It’s an earthy, joy-filled, feast, like the best holiday dinner you ever had except better, because all the impurities, all the bad things that creep in to mar even the best earthly experience, will be gone.  There will be no fighting or hurt feelings, because every petty or selfish or scared or hateful bit of us will be healed, and we will all love and understand one another.  There will be food that tastes better than anything you’ve ever imagined, and nobody will have to worry about calories or allergies or balancing their blood sugar, or anything else.  For those who drink, there will be the best wine you can imagine, only nobody will have to worry about addiction or hangovers.  For those who don’t drink, there will be other awesome things.

This is how the Bible describes God’s kingdom: a vast and great party, a banquet, with every good thing you can imagine overflowing, and all bad things destroyed or healed or purified.  It’s no accident that in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the first thing the father does when his son returns is throw a huge party.  Think back to the Garden of Eden.  The thing that made it paradise was that it was a garden filled to overflowing with every good thing.  Our God is a God of abundance.  Our God is a God who rejoices.  Our God is a God whose love and mercy overflow.  That’s just how God rolls.

So why, then, is the world the way it is?  Why is there scarcity?  Why is there suffering?  And the answer is sin.  Sin warps people, and sin warps the universe.  In Genesis, we’re told that things like weeds and rocky soil and all the things that make life hard are a result of sin contaminating things.  And even then, God’s creation keeps providing, but we do not use that provision wisely.  Every year, enough food is produced to feed everybody, but people go hungry because there aren’t good roads to transport that food on, or because they can’t afford to buy it, or because stores throw out food they can’t sell, or because violence destroys their livelihood.  If we as a planet sat down and decided we were going to ensure that nobody went hungry, we could do it.  We could solve the problem of hunger.  It is human sinfulness, not God’s gifts, that cause hunger.  And yet, even in the midst of human sinfulness, God is at work to provide.  Even as people do things that add to the pain and suffering in the world, God inspires others to work for the good of all.  There are countries in the world that cut their rate of hunger in half between 2000 and 2015.  It took a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people at the local, national, and international level, but they did it.  And I firmly believe that God was working in their midst, inspiring them and leading them and bringing them together to help more and more people receive the gifts of God’s abundant creation.

It’s really easy to look at the world and think that there is no redeeming it.  That there is too much violence, too much hunger, too much conflict.  It’s easy to look at the world and think that there just isn’t enough to go around, so we need to fight for ourselves and our families even if it means depriving others of things they need.  But that is not the way God created the world to work.  Our God is a God of abundance, who showers all of creation with love and every good thing.  Our God is a God who created the world to be a great feast, a banquet, a wedding party, with more than enough for all.  The question is, can we see that?  Can we see all the gifts God has given us, and give thanks for them?  Or will we let ourselves get hypnotized by all the bad things?

May we all feel God’s abundance in our lives, and may we respond in gratitude to share that abundance with all God’s creation.

Amen.

Following the Word of Life

Lectionary 21B, August 26, 2018

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18, Psalm 34:15-22, Ephesians 6:10-20, John 6:56-71

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA.

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

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

It’s one of the great verses of the Bible, often-quoted and used in worship: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  And it’s true!  Jesus’ words bring life to all.  Moreover, Jesus is the living Word of God made flesh, all the things God wants to say to us wrapped up in flesh and blood and sent out into the world for all to see.  The life that Jesus brings is eternal, everlasting, extending from now and lasting past the end times and into the reign of God.  The life that Jesus brings is more powerful than death itself.  The life that Jesus brings is abundant, meant for all of creation and all people, meant to transform the world and our lives and our hearts and minds and bodies and all that is, seen and unseen.  There is no one else that has such life, no other source of it.  Peter knows this and is absolutely right about it.

Of course, the fact that Peter knows that Jesus is the only source of the words of eternal life doesn’t stop him from deserting Jesus in his hour of need, a couple of years later when Jesus was arrested, tried, beaten, and executed for blasphemy by the civil and religious authorities.  Peter didn’t just abandon Jesus, he denied knowing him.

And, let’s look at the rest of the people around Jesus now, the crowds and students and disciples and such.  Jesus brings the words of eternal life; Jesus brings himself.  Jesus feeds them both physically and spiritually.  Jesus overflows with food for their bodies and souls.  And what do they do with this gift of life?  They leave.  The physical food is great, but they don’t like the message that goes with it.  It’s too hard.  Too confusing.  Too weird.  People like Jesus as long as he’s predictable and giving them what they want.  But as soon as he’s asking them to think deeper, to challenge the way they see the world, they start leaving because his words are too hard for them.  And even the ones who stay with Jesus at this point aren’t going to stay with him forever.  Judas is there, and Peter, and both of them are going to betray Jesus in different ways.  Jesus is the Word of eternal life, but even the disciples who know that repeatedly choose to turn away.  Peter can say “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  But he can’t live up to that knowledge, or at least not consistently.

Why do we do that?  Even when we know better?  Even when we know all that God has done for us?  Even when we know that life comes from God through Jesus Christ, why do we still turn away?  Well, when the disciples say “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they’re right.  Jesus’ teachings are often hard.  I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard in my life where the preacher has devoted themselves to explaining how Jesus doesn’t really mean what it sounds like he means.  And sometimes they’re right; sometimes, there’s a difference in culture or context or language between then and now means that we hear things very differently from how Jesus meant them.  But a lot of the time, that’s not the case.  A lot of the time, the preacher just didn’t like what Jesus was saying, and so decided that Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant it.  And religious professionals aren’t the only ones guilty warping Biblical texts to something that they like better.  Most Christians do it at least some of the time.  This is true regardless of denomination, of training, of political convictions—knowing that the words of eternal life come from God through Jesus Christ does not stop us from turning away from those words, or leaving them behind, or turning them into something that we like better.

For example, we’ve spent the last several weeks going through John 6.  Jesus has been talking about drinking his blood and eating his flesh.  Okay, we know he’s talking about the bread and wine of communion, not literal cannibalism, but we can understand how his original hearers would be confused since it really only makes sense when you know about Jesus’ Last Supper and his crucifixion and resurrection, none of which have happened yet.  So the body and blood stuff would have been hard to hear for his original listeners in a way it isn’t for us.

But that’s not the only thing that’s hard to hear about this chapter.  Jesus fed people and then compared it—and himself—to the manna in the wilderness.  Remember that, from the book of Exodus?  Every morning, the people would go out and find a mysterious bread-like food covering the ground.  They could gather only as much as they needed for that day, no more, or it would go bad.  The lesson of the manna, which they forgot as soon as they came into the Promised Land, was to trust God.  To depend on God.  To trust that no matter how dire things were, God would be there, every day, fulfilling God’s promises.  The people of Israel had to learn to trust God and not their own abilities.  They had to trust God more than their resources, more than their intelligence, more than their health and wealth, more than politics or economics or experience, more than anything else in the universe.  That’s what Jesus is telling people to do in this passage.  Trust God’s gifts of life, more than anything else, no matter what.

I bet if I asked you, most of you would say you trusted God.  But.  Could you live like that?  Could you live every day knowing that God’s gifts were a literal life-and-death difference in your life?  Could you trust that God would provide more than you trusted your own ability to figure out a way to get what you needed?  Could you trust God more than your own ability to work hard, more than your ability to think and figure, more than your assumptions of how the world works, more than anything else in the world?  Most people can’t, or at least, we can’t for long.  We tell ourselves that we’re trusting God, but really we’re trusting ourselves and telling ourselves what we want to hear.  And so we go astray.  Just like the people did in our Gospel reading.  Just like Peter did, after Jesus’ arrest.  But you know what?  Even when we go astray, even when we betray Jesus, even when we forget that Jesus is the only true Word, God does not turn God’s back on us.  God’s grace and forgiveness are lavished on us no matter what, and Jesus the Word keeps speaking to us until we hear him again and turn to him once more.

Consider our reading from Joshua.  That, too, contains one of the great classic lines of the faith.  “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  You see it embroidered on pillowcases, printed on bumper stickers, calligraphed on wall hangings.  It’s a beautiful statement of faithfulness to God.  God has freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, God has led them through the wilderness to the Promised Land, and here Joshua their leader brings them together after all they’ve been through and reminds them of all that God has done for them, the freedom and new life he is giving them, and asks them to choose to serve God.  And the people give a resounding yes!  “It is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

Problem is, they failed.  They were sincere when they made the promise; they just weren’t sincere for very long.  They failed repeatedly and consistently.  That’s the story of the rest of the Old Testament.  The people promise to serve God and live as God’s people.  They fail.  Sometimes by explicitly worshipping other gods, but sometimes by allowing injustice and oppression to take root among them while still giving lip service to God’s commandments.  God sends a judge or a prophet, the people don’t listen, things get worse, God allows their enemies to invade and conquer, the people repent, God saves them, but it doesn’t last.  People turn away from God, again.  It doesn’t matter what promises we make or what words God gives us: we turn away.

Jesus’ words and teachings are hard, if we really take them seriously.  This is just one of many that sound simple on the surface but are almost impossible to truly live out.  Thank God for God’s forgiveness and love, lavished on us even when we choose to go astray.  Thank God for the Word of eternal and abundant life present in Jesus Christ our Lord, who keeps speaking even when we turn away.  May we hear that Word, and may we always come back when we turn away.

Amen.

The Process of Being Born

Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017

 

Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17

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

 

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

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

I was there in the room when both of my brothers were born.  I don’t remember much about Nels’ birth; I was only four and a half.  But I was sixteen when Lars was born, and I remember it very well.  And one of the things that I remember is how long it took, and how much was involved.  It seemed to take forever.  Mom was at the center of things, with Dad supporting her, and nurses and doctors coming in and out as things ebbed and flowed.  There were moments when things got very intense, and then everyone would relax for a bit.  Then another pang would come, and things would rev up again.  It seemed to take forever, and there was a lot of yelling and mess and gross stuff, but at the end, there was a new life: my baby brother Lars.

I think that may be one of the reasons I’m so comfortable with the Lutheran understanding of what it means to be “born again.”  In those traditions which emphasize being “born again,” it’s usually talked about as a relatively simple event.  You hear a call and come to Jesus.  You see the light and become a Christian.  You feel God’s presence in your life and get baptized.  Over and done, boom.  I’m oversimplifying, of course, but the point is that a born-again Christian can usually give you a time and date for the moment they believe they were born again, born from above.  In theory, that moment of being born again changes you forever.  In theory, once you have been born again, the Christian life is simply a matter of continuing on in holiness and growing in a straight line towards God.  You shouldn’t still struggle with your faith, or sin, or fall back into un-Christian behavior.  It happens, of course, but it’s not supposed to happen.

I can’t name a date and time when I was saved or born again, but that isn’t because I haven’t experienced that second birth Christ talks about in our Gospel.  I can’t give you a specific moment partly because I’m pretty sure it’s still happening.  We are all, every one of us, in the middle of being born from above.  We are still in the middle of all the pain and mess of our second birth.  It’s an ongoing process.  No Christian, in this life, is perfect in faith; no Christian, in this life, follows God’s call completely.  None of us are free from sin; none of us are free from temptation; none of us is free from doubt.  There are times when we feel close to God, and times when we feel separated.  We are forgiven, and then we fall back into sin, and then we confess and are forgiven anew.  Faith is not a simple one-and-done thing; it’s a complex reality to be lived through.

Martin Luther put it this way: “This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it.  The process is not yet finished, but it is going on.  This is not the end, but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”  In other words, the life of a Christian isn’t about already being a perfect faithful Christian, but about growing in faith.  It’s not a one-great-moment and then everything’s settled and fine forever.  There are highs and lows, peaks and valleys.  There are pains, setbacks, trouble; there are times of rest to catch your breath.  Just like in a birth.  There are a lot of people who have a part to play in our growth in faith; some of them are there for the whole long process, and some are just there for one part of it.  Just like in a birth.  It’s a long, drawn-out process, just like a birth.  And, at the end, there is new life … just like in a birth.  Except that this birth takes our whole lives, and the new life is the life we have in Christ.  This birth is not about blood and biology; this birth is about faith and the family of God.

This birth comes through water and Spirit.  That should sound familiar to you.  There is a sacrament we have—shared by all Christians—of water and the Holy Spirit.  Baptism.  When we are showered with the waters of baptism, we are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  We become part of a new family, the family of God—just as we become part of our birth family when we are born.  The water washes away the old, sinful self; our sins are drowned in the waters of baptism.  And yet, we still sin.  But that doesn’t mean that baptism isn’t effective, and it doesn’t mean that the transforming power of water and the Spirit isn’t still at work in us: that just means that the Spirit’s work in us is not yet done.  Although we only are baptized once, the reality of baptism lasts our whole life long.  Every day, we are drowned in the waters of baptism, and every day we rise to new life in Christ.  As our faith ebbs and flows, as our commitment to Christ grows (and sometimes shrinks), the Holy Spirit works in us continually.  We are in the process of being re-born as children of God.

We don’t get to choose what the Spirit does in us.  We don’t get to choose where it sends us.  Just like the infant in the birth canal, we go where we are pushed.  We don’t know what’s coming; the future is beyond our understanding.  But we know that we are on the way; we know that something wonderful is coming.  We know that something new is coming, and that we will be new in it.  We trust the Spirit to lead us to God.  We trust the saving grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to work in us and around us, and to work in and around the whole of creation.  We trust that love will win, and that love will be active in faith.  The whole purpose of God’s work in the world is that his love will overflow in us.  For God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but live God’s abundant life now and in the world to come.  God didn’t send Jesus into condemn the world, but to save it.

That salvation works through faith.  Faith is not just a static thing that we have, it is something we do.  It’s something we are.  It’s something we grow into.  Belief isn’t just about memorizing the right answers.  In Greek, the word for faith—pistis—can be both a noun and a verb.  In other words, it can be an idea, but it can also be an action.  But in English, faith is a noun, and a noun only.  There is no verb form; “faithing” is not a word.  When faith is used as a verb in Greek, it’s translated as “having faith” or “believe.”  Which still makes it sound like faith is an object you possess and carry around with you, instead of something you do.  When Jesus talks about “having faith” or “believing” in our English translations, he’s not saying that we need to memorize the right beliefs and be able to recite them on cue.  He’s talking about trusting God.  He’s talking about living faithfully, and trusting God to bring us through the labor pangs.  Jesus is talking about putting our belief into action, living with the reality of God’s salvation as the motivating force in our lives.  Jesus is talking about letting the Spirit work God’s will in us, opening us up to the power of God.

We can’t see the Spirit directly.  We don’t see where it comes from or where it goes.  We can feel it working in us; we can see it in the love of God poured out for all the world.  We can experience it in the new life that brings God’s love more clearly to all the world.

Amen.

Light in the Darkness

Christmas Day, December 25th, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

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.

I think it’s hard for us modern people to understand the miracle of light in the darkness.  Sure, we get that darkness is bad—you’re a lot more likely to hurt yourself when the lights are out, either by tripping over something or walking into something you didn’t see.  And when it’s dark, the animal part of your brain gets a lot jumpier.  Or, at least mine does.  When I get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water by the light of the nightlights, there is always that bit of my brain that is sure there is something lying in wait to get me in the shadows.  I know perfectly well that there isn’t anything there, under the bed or around the corner, but there’s always a little corner of my mind that just won’t listen to reason.  I know the darkness is bad.

But at the same time, I have light any time I want it.  I can flip on a switch, or turn on my phone, or grab a flashlight.  There are streetlights outside so that I can talk through town even after dark with enough light to see.  And if the power went out for a long time, I’ve got a lot of candles I could dig out.  The only time I ever have to deal with darkness—truly deal with it—is when I want to.  When I choose not to turn the lights on.  But that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have electric lights.  They did have oil lamps … but those were expensive, and a lot dimmer than any modern electric light.  The oil to provide good light for fifteen minutes of work could cost as much as a day’s wages for a poor laborer.  So poor people generally didn’t use lamps at all.  When the sun went down, the only light available was that of the cookfire.  And, since the Middle East is arid and trees are scarce, even wood was expensive.  You didn’t burn it unless you had to; you might only light the fire when you actually had a meal to cook.  If you were a poor person, you went to bed with the sun.  And while middle-class people could afford lamp oil, it was still an expensive and precious commodity.  There were no streetlights, no lamps on peoples’ front porches.  When night came, the light went away.  You went home, probably to bed, and stayed there until dawn.  The darkness could be pushed back a little by a lamp or a cookfire, but only dimly, only temporarily.

So when our Gospel reading calls Jesus the light of the world, that means something far more significant than we really get.  The light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can’t overcome.  This is not just a dim and feeble lamp that you save for when you absolutely need it.  This is a light that shines, always.  That gives light to everyone, not just those huddled around it.  This is a light that shines deep into the gloomiest corners of the world, the murkiest corners of our hearts.  There is no shadow that can hide from it, no evil that can escape it, no hate or fear or selfishness that can prevent that light from shining.  That light sustains our life, sustains our souls.

That light came into this world in the form of a baby, born in a manger, the Word of God made flesh and blood and bone.  That light is Jesus Christ, and his light still shines in this world.  It does not matter how dark the world gets.  It does not matter how much sin and evil try to hide, it does not matter what shadows they try to cast over all the world.  The light of Jesus Christ will always be there, guiding us to God and showing us the truth.  The light of Christ will always be there to soften the hard-hearted and heal the broken-hearted and judge the cruel-hearted.  The light of Christ will always be there to expose our self-deceptions, to quiet our fears, to help us see the world as it really is.  That light helps us to see the truths deeper than any illusion.

Much as we fear the dark, we sometimes turn to it.  Because, you see, the dark is easier.  It’s easier to let our fears control us than it is to be brave.  When dealing with people who are different, it’s easier to hate than it is to love.  It’s easier to cling to comforting illusions and self-deceptions than it is to face the truth.  It’s easier to puff ourselves up with self-righteousness than it is to follow God’s true path of righteousness.  It’s easier to assume we’re always right and good than it is to face the times when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we are wrong.

But the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The light of Christ helps us see God as he truly is, and turns our hearts and minds to God, so that we may become his children ever more truly.  The light of Christ helps us see ourselves and others more clearly.  Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our light and our life.

Amen.