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.

Our God is so Great

Trinity Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

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

 

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

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

We worship one God, who is three people.  One-in-three and three-in-one.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—each distinct, each different, with their own characteristics, with their own role to play.  Definitely not the same person—they are definitely three.  Yet none of them are God by themselves; they are all three God together.  And if you’re confused, you’re not alone; this concept has been confusing people since the days of Jesus.

The disciple Philip once asked Jesus to show them the Father.  Jesus was a bit frustrated because he’d spent a lot of time trying to teach them that when they saw him, they saw the Father; the Father was there with him in a very tangible way.  Jesus and the Father were one—and yet, at the same time, Jesus prayed to the Father, speaking to him.  All that the Father had was Jesus’, and all that Jesus had was the Father’s—but the Father was not the one dying on the cross.  And then there is the Holy Spirit, who was present with God in creation, through whom all things were made, who was sent by Christ to guide us into truth and call us into right action and stir us up, who breaks down the walls dividing us from God and one another, comforts us in our griefs, pours God’s love into our hearts, and lives among us.  They are one God, who is three people.  And every time in the last two thousand years someone has sat down to figure out logically how it all works, they’ve either failed or fallen into heresy.

I actually find that kind of reassuring, personally.  Don’t get me wrong, I like knowing how and why things work.  But at the same time, God is greater than any mortal can understand.  If we could figure out all the whys and the wherefores and truly understand the depths of who God is … well, that would mean God wasn’t any bigger than we are.  We can’t understand all of God any more than an ant could understand all of a human being, because compared to God, we are smaller than an ant is to us.  All that we know about God, we know because God, in God’s infinite love, has chosen to reveal himself to us.  Think about that for a second: God is greater than we could possibly imagine.  But we know him.  We know him because he loves us.  Us, small, frail, limited as we are.  As the Psalmist says, “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them?  What are human beings that you should care for them?”  Yet God does care for us.  God loves us, and so he comes to us and shows himself to us.  And God does that as three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit, who are nevertheless one God together.  It’s not something for us to be able to logically analyze.  It’s a mystery to be lived, not a question to be answered.

But most of us find that kind of ambiguity uncomfortable.  We like things to be tied up into nice, neat, easily understandable packages.  This has always been true, but it is even more true in the modern age.  Everything is designed to be concrete, easily understandable, one right answer that you memorize and move on.  Take school, for example.  For twelve years—longer, if one counts preschool—we sit our children down for hours a day and teach them the things that will be on the test.  2+2=4, water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule combined, because is spelled b-e-c-a-u-s-e, and the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.  The whole system is designed in this way: you memorize the facts and regurgitate them for the test.  There is one right answer to each question, and anything else is wrong.  Then you take the percentage of right answers and use that to determine if the student knows enough to pass the class and move on to learning the next bit of information.  It’s very efficient, and teaches us a lot of things that are very important—but it’s not good at teaching us to deal with situations that can’t easily be boiled down to one right or wrong answer.

This is the season of graduation, when our students who have spent twelve years learning all the things we think everyone should know prepare to move on to the next phase of their lives.  And I know that when I graduated high school, brain full of information and a college scholarship waiting for me, I thought that I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the world worked.  Oh, sure, there were things to learn in college, things to prepare me for my adult career (whatever that would turn out to be), but I thought I knew about people and about life and about myself.  I thought that life was like school: you figure out the right answer—and of course there was always a right answer, and only one right answer at a time—and then you do it.  And that would lead to success and happiness, as if life were a test that I was being graded on.  I thought faith was kind of like that too: you memorized the right answers about God and the Bible and that was all you needed to know.  And since I’d been a good kid and gone to church and Sunday School and Bible School and Camp Lutherwood and Confirmation and youth group, I thought that I knew all the answers I would need.

Boy was I wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where I found that there wasn’t a right answer, only answers that were varying degrees of wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where there were many possible “right” answers.  There were times I found that what would have been the right answer for me was a wrong answer for a friend, and if I tried to insist that I knew the answers, all I did was hurt myself and my friend.  There were a lot of times where, forget having the right answers, I didn’t even know what the right questions were.  Life was a whole lot more complex and less defined than I thought it was, when I graduated from high school.  And the worst part of it was, those answers about God and the Bible and faith that I’d learned in church and Sunday School and Bible School and church camp and confirmation and youth group?  A lot of the time they just didn’t fit.  They weren’t enough.  They had answered the questions I had when I was five, and ten, and fifteen; but by the time I was twenty, twenty-five, and thirty, I had different questions.

Thank God that God is bigger than I thought he was.  The older I got, the more complicated I realized the world was—and each time I realized the world was bigger than I thought, or more complicated than I realized, God was still greater.  And God was still with me.  And those answers I learned as a child and teen weren’t enough to answer all the questions I had, but they provided a foundation for asking the new questions and guiding me to new answers.  The things I learned as a child and teen weren’t the be-all of faith development, but they provided a framework on which to grow, like the trellises my mom uses to support vegetables in her garden.

But what I learned most of all, is that the most important thing in life isn’t having all the answers.  Being right and having the right facts ready to hand is not what life is about.  Life is not about having a nice, neat, logical answer to every question—and neither is faith.  They’re about relationship.  Relationships with God, with family, with friends, with the whole community.  Life and faith are both about participating together, about forming bonds together.  The important thing about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit isn’t figuring out a logical explanation for how it all works, but realizing that it’s all about relationship.  The Father, Son, and Spirit, all different, with their own person and work, and yet participating together in a common life, filled with love and joy.  And that’s the life that we are called to participate in as Christians—by the Father’s creation, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, we are called into a life-giving and love-overflowing relationship with God and one another.  We’re given a model of what love looks like, we experience it, and we are called to live in response to that love.  Instead of focusing on giving us the right answers to deal with life’s questions, God gave us the right guiding principle: love.  As God has loved us, so we are called to love God.  As the Father, Son, and Spirit love each other, so we are called to love one another.  That love—God’s love—is what God has given to guide us through life, through all the questions, through times when there is no simple answer, through good times and bad.

We don’t understand all that God is and does; how could we?  God is greater than we could imagine.  But we don’t have to, because God comes to us, God shows himself to us, God shows us what true relationships and true love look like, and God invites us to live out that love and relationship in everything that we see and do.  May God keep us in that love and relationship all the days of our lives.

Amen.

An Easter People

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8th, 2016

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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

 

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

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

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

If you’ve taken a moment to glance through your Bibles at the Gospel of John in the last few weeks, you may have noticed something a bit … odd in the Gospel readings.  Not in the readings themselves, but in the fact that these particular texts are assigned to be read now, in Easter.  Easter is a time of resurrection.  We celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the time when he will come again in glory and all those who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead, as well.  That’s why we read from Revelation in Easter—we’re celebrating Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to the general Resurrection, which Revelation gives us a vision of.

And that’s what’s so peculiar about the readings from John that we’ve been reading.  Because they’re taken from before Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And not just any time throughout his ministry.  No, they come from what is called the Farewell Discourse, the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after their last meal together, before he was handed over to the guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is Jesus praying and teaching the very night before his crucifixion.  Jesus knows he is about to die, and is preparing for it by preparing his disciples for it.  The disciples don’t know Jesus is about to die, because they’ve been willfully blind to what Jesus’ teachings mean … but even so, they know just how tense the situation is, how much the authorities in the city would like to silence Jesus and his followers.  It’s a time of fear, a time of pain, a time of death, a time when nobody but God could see any hope… and even that hope could not come without suffering.  So why, out of all the times during the year, do we read this discourse during Easter?  The time of great joy and hope?  The time of healing and resurrection and new life?  On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense.

But the thing is, even as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection—even as we look forward to the general resurrection of the dead that is to come—we still have to live in a world filled with death.  Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste of the feast to come … but before we sit down to the full feast that is heaven, we’ve got to get through life today, first.  We know there is healing to come, but we live in a world of sickness.  We know there is life to come, but we live in a world of death.  We know there is hope and love to come, but we live in a world of fear and hate, where sin and brokenness run rampant and abuse is all too normal.  Like the disciples, we want to know God, and to live in God’s kingdom—but like the disciples, we are still caught up in a world of fear and death.  We are a resurrection people.  We celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and we look forward to our own resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead … but we live in a world of death, and will until Christ comes again.  And I think that’s why these readings from the Farewell Discourse are read in Easter.

The question—the great question, that most of the New Testament revolves around—is how do we live as children of the resurrection in a world broken by sin and death?  How do we keep the faith, how do we maintain our hope, how do we live and speak and act, in a world that is determined to sell itself out to power and greed and hate and lust and fear and all the sin and brokenness there is?

Revelation has two answers.  Revelation is a dream, a vision, not meant to be taken as a literal history of the future but rather as a reassurance of two great truths.  First, that no matter how bleak things get, no matter what horrible things happen—in our own lives, and in the larger world—God is at work.  God is present, God is active, no matter how bad things look.  Just as the disciples couldn’t see God’s hand in Jesus’ death until afterwards, in the light of the resurrection, so too God is present and at work even when we can’t see him, even in the darkest moments there are.

And the second answer that Revelation gives is that we don’t have to worry about the end of the story.  We don’t have to worry about how things are going to turn out.  We already know.  God wins.  Sin and death are defeated.  Heaven comes to earth, and this world truly becomes God’s kingdom as it was always meant to be.  There is resurrection, and healing, and life, and joy, and love, and hope, and all pain and sorrow and evil will be gone.  No matter what happens, no matter what trials we have to live through in this life, we know how the story ends.  Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, suffering and evil and brokenness, even though it kills us—and this world will kill us, each and every one of us—we don’t have to be afraid, because we know how the story ends.  And it’s a good ending, the best ending possible.

We don’t have to worry about the end, just the middle.  Just the here-and-now.  Just getting through each day.  And that’s what Jesus was talking about in the Farewell Discourse, as he said goodbye to his disciples and tried to prepare them for what was to come.  How to get through each day, because knowing how the story ends gives hope but that may not be enough by itself when the going gets rough.  And Jesus’ answer is love.  In these three chapters, Jesus talks about a lot of things, but the common thread is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another.  That’s how we get through the middle times.

Now, when I talk about love I don’t just mean a kind of wishy-washy platitude, and when I talk about sin and brokenness and evil I don’t just mean on a cosmic scale.  I know you’ve all experienced it.  For example, I know you have all seen and experienced how feuds, rivalries, jealousies, and prejudices can build up in a small town, how they can hurt and twist people over and over again.  I know you’ve seen how people turn to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems and hurt themselves and their families and friends in the process.  I know you’ve seen how petty and nasty and mean people can be to one another, even when they smile and hide it behind a nice façade, and the damage that does to people.  And there are members of this parish who have been abused; there are members of this parish who have been raped.  If you have been lucky enough never to have suffered that way, you know people who have—even if they’ve never told you about it.  We have a nice community, a good community, but even in our own homes and hearts and minds there is sin and brokenness, there are victims and aggressors, and oftentimes people who are both.  And the love of God—the love that Jesus asks us to have for one another—is right there in the midst of it.  Not just in platitudes and sayings, but in action.

That love is the love that leads us to be there for people when they need help—when they’re sick, or in pain, or hurt.  That love is the love that leads us to work for a just peace and reconciliation, even when choosing a side and striking back would be easier.  Striking back and lashing out are the easiest things in the world when pain and fear come.  Building walls and closing out problems is simple, too—just go with the flow, follow the world’s advice, contribute to the pain in the world—but that’s not what God calls us to do.  We are called to love.  To open our hearts and our hands and our lives.  To witness to the abundant life and love that God brings.  We are called to heal the world, not add to the hurt.  We are called to be kind when it is easier to be mean, to be forgiving when it is easier to be resentful.  We are called to love in tangible ways, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and brokenhearted, and in all things be Christ to our neighbors.  And when we, together, put God’s love into action, that is when we are most truly a resurrection people.  When love is not just a word but a way of life, that is when we see a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.  Love is how we live as an Easter people in a world still full of sin and death.  May God teach us truly how to love one another in thought, word, and deed.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

Amen.

What kind of a Messiah are we looking for?

Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

People gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Now, the thing is, this is half-way through the Gospel of John.  Jesus has already spent ten chapters teaching, preaching, and giving miraculous signs that he is the Messiah, the Son of God.  And there are, by this point, PLENTY of people who have recognized who Jesus is.  It’s not like it’s this hidden, secret thing.  Jesus has not been hiding his light under a bushel.  And he’s in the Temple, right?  The home of the Jewish faith.  If anyone in the world could recognize the Messiah, the chosen anointed king of the God of the Jews, it should be these people here.  And they’ve figured out he’s something special—that’s why they’re asking the question—but they’re still on the fence.  Still wondering.

Now, there were probably a couple of reasons for that.  A couple of reasons why they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the anointed king of David’s house sent to save them.  And the first reason was simply that Jesus was not the first claimant to come along.  There had been, by that point, several Jewish leaders who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah.  Some of them had had pretty good evidence to back them up, at least in the short term, and still ended up disappointing everyone by not actually being the Messiah.  We forget, now, but in the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus’ life there were half-a-dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah—and probably at least that many more that are lost to history.  Reason enough for people to be a little skeptical at the latest wandering holy man.

The other big reason for them to be skeptical, though, is that Jesus … didn’t look that much like a Messiah.  I mean, by this point, they’d had almost a thousand years to build up a picture of what the Messiah would look like.  And the greatest thing they knew about him was that he was to be David’s descendent.  So they expected him to be, well, like King David.  A king, a great warrior who could slay the giant.  David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the great enemy of his day; they expected the Messiah to slay the legions and defeat Rome, the great enemy of their day.  It was a reasonable assumption.  After all, the Messiah did come to slay the great enemy … except on a rather larger scale than they were expecting.  The great enemy that the Messiah came to slay was death, the enemy of all living things that ever have been or ever will be, not just the empire that was the current enemy du jour.  They had their eyes firmly on their current political problems, and wanted God to fix them.  They were faithful people, who believed that since they were faithful people, all the things they were concerned with must also be God’s concern.  They assumed that God thought the same way they did; they assumed that God agreed with them.  And so they assumed that the Messiah would kill their enemies, help them and their friends, and establish the kind of earthly kingdom they most wanted to see.  But God had his eyes firmly fixed on the far greater problems facing all of creation.  It’s not that God didn’t care that the Romans were oppressing them; it’s just that God was trying to save the universe, not limiting himself to a small group of people in one place and time.

But that was not what Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear.  Sure, they hated death, who doesn’t?  But it never even occurred to them that the destruction of death could be on the menu.  In any case, the empire that currently had its boot on their neck was a far more immediate problem for them.  And because they were concentrating on that problem, they assumed that God must be too.  They saw their immediate problem, but couldn’t see beyond it.  And so here’s this Jesus fellow, obviously some sort of holy man.  And he went around preaching and teaching, which the Messiah was supposed to do; he went around talking about the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was definitely supposed to do, because after all, wasn’t Israel God’s Kingdom?  And as for heavenly signs, well, between miraculous feedings and healings and whatnot, this Jesus fellow obviously had signs of God’s favor.  And he drew crowds, a very promising thing for someone who is going to have to start raising an army pretty soon if he’s going to start taking on the Roman legions.  Except … he’s not raising an army.  He’s not even trying to.  He’s just continuing to teach and preach and heal and feed.  You can see why they’re a bit confused.  “Tell us plainly!” they say.  “Are you the Messiah, or not?”  In other words, are you the political and military leader we think God is going to send us who’s going to solve our immediate political and military problems?

You can see why Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer.  Because yes, he is the Messiah!  But he’s not the Messiah they’re expecting.  If he says “yes,” straight up and unambiguous, they’re going to assume he fits neatly into the little box in their heads marked “Messiah.”  They’ll probably start buying weapons and recruiting soldiers for the army they assume he’s going to need.  And they’ll go back and interpret everything he’s ever said in light of “how will this help us beat the Romans.”  Which will be completely missing the point.  I mean, they’re already missing the point, but they will miss the point even more if they get the straight answer they want.  So instead Jesus continues to talk in metaphor and tells them to look at what he’s done and judge by that.  And, by the way, by this point the middle east had been using the “shepherd” metaphor to describe kings in general for centuries.  It’s kind of like if we asked someone if he were the President, and he started soliloquizing about what it means to be Commander in Chief.  It’s pretty much answering the question—but it’s sidestepping it at the same time.  You can see why they were annoyed with him—why wouldn’t he just tell them what they wanted to hear?  And if he wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t going to free them from the Romans, why was he taking up their time?

We don’t assume that Jesus is going to save us from the Romans—in fact, the Roman Empire has been gone for a long time, which the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked about—but we’re just as likely to put Jesus and his message into a nice neat box in our heads and assume that we know what it means that he is our Savior and Lord.  We tend to assume we know what he wants; we tend to assume that our goals are his goals; we tend to try and fit him into our view of the world, rather than conforming our minds and our lives to him.  But if you’ve been sitting here shaking your heads at those crazy people in Jesus’ day who assumed that getting rid of the Roman Empire was God’s greatest worry in the world, maybe you should take a look at the things we tend to assume are God’s greatest worries in the world today.

If you ask the average American Christian what problems they think God is worried about in the world today, they would throw out a lot of different answers.  But we’re like those Jews who questioned Jesus because a lot of those problems are based more on our own immediate worries than on the true scope of God’s saving power.  Like the ancient Jews, we tend to assume that because we are faithful followers of God, God agrees with us.  We tend to try to fit God into our preconceived notions of what God should be like rather than let God shape our hearts and minds.  We focus on changing morals, or our worries about America’s future, or our worries about terrorists and other foreign enemies, our or worries about the future of church institutions—buildings, denominational structures, that sort of thing.

And God cares about those things, of course.  But, just like the military might of the Roman Empire, these things are not necessarily God’s primary concern.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came to destroy death so that we—and all people, all of creation—might live.  The people in the Temple asked him if he was the Messiah, and he told them to look at the works he had done in his Father’s name, and that would answer their question.  It forced them to look beyond their preconceptions to see what God was actually doing in them and among them.  Because while Jesus’ mission and his ultimate work, his death and resurrection, was great beyond their imagining, the seeds he was planting were often too humble for their notice.  This is what Jesus did in our Father’s name: he brought forgiveness where there was sin and separation.  He brought love where there was hate.  He brought healing where there was illness.  He brought food where there was hunger.  He brought wisdom where there was ignorance and confusion.  He brought life where there was death, and he brought it abundantly.

We can’t fight the great battle that Jesus fought in his death and resurrection.  We don’t have to; Jesus has done it for us.  But we can participate in the work that supports it in our world today.  We can work for forgiveness and understanding and love.  We can work for healing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.  We can feed the hungry.  We can bring life, in a thousand different ways, great and small.  And we can trust that God, who created the world, who saves us from the great enemy which is death, will lead us in his path.

Amen

We Gather to Eat and Remember

Maundy Thursday, March 24th, 2016

Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31b-35

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

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

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

Meals are important.  And I don’t just mean in the literal “if you don’t eat you’ll starve to death” sense.  Meals are important on a psychological level, too, and on a social level.  Meals bring us together.  There’s a reason that pretty much every holiday is accompanied by a special, traditional meal.  Christmas?  It’s a religious holiday, but there are a lot of people (even a lot of Christians!) for whom Christmas dinner is more important than going to worship.  Easter?  Yup.  Thanksgiving?  That one is all about the meal.  Fourth of July?  It’s just not the same without a barbecue.  Birthdays?  Even if you don’t have a special birthday dinner, you gotta have cake and ice cream.  And it’s not just about the food itself.  While a wonderful holiday dinner with friends and family can be a joy and a heart-warming event you’ll remember for years to come, eating the same food by yourself can be just depressing.  We eat when we come together, but it’s not just about the food: it’s about the community, the family, the relationships that are built around that meal.

Those relationships are built partly through the act of eating together, and partly through memories.  The memories that get shared again and again—I’m sure there are some stories your family tells repeatedly at holiday dinners.  The time your brother fell asleep at his own birthday party.  The time your uncles got into a fight and everyone went home mad.  The great aunt who always brings that dish everyone hates.  The time your mom and dad got each other the same present.  There are some holiday stories that happened before I was born, that I know because they got told so often.  And those stories shape us!  They tell us “this is who we are, as a family; this is how we get along (or don’t get along); this is where we came from; these are the things that make us a family and not just a collection of people who happen to share genetics.”  The food brings us together, the food helps us remember our stories by giving us a tangible reminder of times past—smells, tastes, sights—all working together to help make the memories real and relevant to our current experiences.

Tonight we have heard two stories about meals in our readings.  Meals that were remembered.  Meals that were celebrated.  Meals that brought people together and built up relationships.  The first was the story of the first Passover meal, eaten on the last night the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.  This is the night that changed things.  This is the night where God finally convinced Pharaoh to let his people go.  This is the night when they truly became his people, the night that was the foundation for all the rest of their experiences.  This is the night when they passed from slavery to freedom, from death to life.  This is the night when they learned that their God was a God who saves people, a God who frees people from bondage, a God who brings new life and new possibilities.  This meal, this Passover, which God told them to share every year together, is to reinforce those memories. It’s a night to remember who they are and where they come from.  A night to remember who God is, and what God has done.  A night to imagine, a night to contemplate what that means for their lives.  It’s not just about the past.  It’s about what that means for the future.

In the three thousand years since that first Passover, the Jews have faithfully gathered for a Passover meal and to remember God’s saving actions every year.  Two thousand years ago, a thousand years after the first Passover, Jesus and his disciples gathered to celebrate Passover and share a meal.  They told the story.  They remembered how God saved them from slavery and death.  They remembered what kind of a God they worshipped.  And then Jesus did something different—something that would, as time passed, become a new treasured memory for those Jews and Gentiles who followed him.  A memory that they—we—would tell and retell, that we would re-enact and think about, that would tell us what it means to follow Jesus.

He put on a towel and went to wash his disciples’ feet.  Now, that was a bold statement.  It’s not something a lord would do, or an ordinary citizen—it’s something that a slave would do.  Washing someone means serving them, and it’s an intimate form of service.  If you’re not doing it because it’s your job, you do it out of love, like a parent giving their child a bath or a friend coming over to take care of you when you’re weak and sick from chemo.  This is what it means to be a follower of God, Jesus says.  This is what should guide your life: love.  I love you, and I’ve put that love into action, so you, too, should love others, and put that love into action.

Then he returned to the meal.  And as they shared the Passover wine and bread, he added a new layer of meaning: this bread, the bread of affliction and freedom, is Jesus’ body.  Jesus’ body, that will be broken for us so that we might be freed from slavery and death.  This wine, the wine of God’s promise, is Jesus’ blood.  Jesus’ blood, which will be poured out for us and for all people to fulfill God’s promise of salvation.

The first Passover celebrated God’s saving work.  It taught them that their God was a God of salvation, a God who brought people from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from pain into joy.  It taught them what kind of a God they worshipped, and who they were as God’s people.  And that was a lesson they learned every time they shared that meal and told those storied.  When Jesus celebrated it with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed, before he was handed over to sin and death, it was a potent reminder to them: the God who saved their ancestors, who brought them out of slavery and death, was still saving people.  God was saving people from slavery to sin and death of body and soul.  And it wasn’t something that happened to other people, a long time ago, far away.  It was something that was happening right there and then.  Because saving people is God’s nature.  It’s what God does.  When God sees people in bondage, whether physical or mental, God acts to free them.  Sometimes it’s big showy acts, sometimes it’s little things, and often it’s through other people.  God saves people.

And God does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus washing their feet symbolized.  God loves people—even smelly, dirty, weak, sinful humans.  And that’s not just an abstract feeling; God acts that love out in many and various ways.  God loves people, and so God helps them, and saves them.  That’s who God is.  That’s what God does.  And that means that if we’re going to be God’s people, we can’t ever forget that.  We need to remember who God is, and what God calls us to do.  We need to look for the love and salvation and freedom that God gives us every day, and we need to let that love shape us and form us as God’s people.

That’s why we remember this night, every time we celebrate Communion and especially once a year on Maundy Thursday.  We remember who God is and what God has done.  And we know that God is present with us, here, now, giving us his love and salvation and strengthening us to be God’s people, to do God’s work in the world.  Because when Jesus said the bread and wine was his body and blood, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Whenever we eat this bread and drink this wine, we proclaim his death until he comes again.  We know that he died for us, but that death was not the end of the story.  We know that he is here, with us, that in this bread and wine we can touch and taste and see and smell him, that in this bread and wine he is strengthening us and forming us as his people.  We remember, but we know there is more to this meal than memory.  It’s about who God is—the one who saves, the one who loves—and who we are as God’s people: the ones who are called to put that love into word and deed and action.  Even when it’s difficult.  Even when it’s smelly or unpleasant, like washing feet.  Even in the midst of betrayal like Judas’ betrayal, and anger like the Elders’ anger, and even when it’s in the middle of pain and sorrow and suffering.  Even when love seems like the hardest thing in the world.  We worship a God of salvation and freedom and love.  And so we love, as God first loved us.

May these memories, shared around this meal, form us as God’s people and help us to truly know God’s love and salvation, and follow his command to share that love with all the world.

Amen.

We Want to See Jesus

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 22nd, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33

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.

“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the LORD. Wouldn’t that be awesome? A world where everyone knew God, and loved him? The kind of “knowing” that God speaks of in this passage isn’t an academic kind of knowing. It’s not about memorizing facts or Bible verses or bits of theological interpretation and being able to trot them out on cue. It’s not about having all the answers ready to go for any question. No, this kind of “knowing” is about relationship. It’s about knowing God like you know your parents, or your spouse, or your child, or your best friend. It’s about living together and loving and working together through good times and bad. It’s the kind of knowing you only get through experience and trust and being there for one another.

But how do we have that kind of relationship with someone we can’t see? Sure, we can worship, study the Bible, pray, give generously of our time and treasure, but that doesn’t guarantee a relationship with God. There have been times in my life when I’ve done all of that and still felt spiritually empty, dry, wondering if God was listening and sometimes if he even existed. It’s possible to do everything right and still not feel that relationship. Of course, then there have been other times when God has felt so close to me I felt like I could reach out and touch him. Times when God felt like he was sitting beside me in worship, or speaking directly to me from the pages of Scripture. Every relationship goes through rough patches—but when my relationships with my family and friends go through rough patches, they’re still physically there, present, and it’s a whole lot easier to bridge that gap.

Of course, the thing is, even when I’m going through a spiritual rough patch, when I can’t see or feel God, he’s still there. I just can’t see him. And sometimes, it’s because I’m not looking in the right place. I get so wrapped up in my own ideas—in how I expect God to act, and do—that I can’t see him because he’s working in a way I didn’t expect. Other times it’s because I’m so distracted by all the stuff going on in my life that I’m just not paying attention. And still other times even looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t see God, and I just have to trust that he was there as he promised to be. When I’m going through a spiritually rewarding patch—when worship is renewing to my soul, when Scripture is enlightening, when prayers feel like they’re being heard—it’s easy to see God. It’s easy to feel that I know God, that our relationship is strong and that God’s teachings are written on my heart. But other times it’s not so easy. So I have a real feeling of kinship with the Greeks in our Gospel lesson who want to see Jesus, because sometimes I want to see him, too. I trust God when he says he’ll always be there, I just … want a little bit of reassurance.

Some Greeks in Jerusalem came to the disciple Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Don’t we all? Wouldn’t that be wonderful, to see Jesus in the flesh? To be able to ask him questions and learn directly from our Lord? What a great opportunity! I wonder what those Greeks thought when they actually did get to see Jesus. If they were following along behind Philip as he went to get Andrew, and then went up and told Jesus there were some people here to see him. Because if they did, if they heard what Jesus said to Philip and Andrew, I bet they were disappointed and confused. He started talking about dying and rising and bearing fruit and glory and service and being lifted up and … okay, after Jesus died and was resurrected, it would make sense, because that was what Jesus was talking about, but these guys don’t know what’s about to happen. They don’t know. They’re looking for God, or maybe they’re just looking for a miracle worker, and what they find is a guy who looks ordinary but says some crazy weird things. He’s not the kind of guy anybody was expecting. I wonder if they went home disappointed, thinking that they’d been wrong about this Jesus guy, after all. Because here’s the thing, even seeing Jesus in the flesh didn’t magically make peoples’ doubts and fears go away. It didn’t magically mean that they knew God in that deep relationship that Jeremiah was talking about.

Here’s the thing about relationships: they take time and effort and attention. They don’t generally just spring into perfection overnight. You have to work at them. You have to be willing to take the time to get to know someone, to learn and grow with them, and to put in the effort to fix things when they’re wrong. You have to be willing to choose love and forgiveness when people mess up. And God is always willing to do that. To take time for us, to reach out to us, to forgive us and love us and go through life with us and experience it with us.

But we aren’t always willing to do that. We aren’t always willing to take the time for God, to let go of our preconceived notions about God and experience God as he is. We aren’t always willing to take the time to learn about God, to follow God, to get to know God. Sometimes we get distracted. Sometimes we get confused, or angry that God didn’t do things the way we wanted him to. Sometimes life just gets in the way. Sometimes we just … don’t understand, and can’t trust what we don’t understand. And so we break that relationship. We turn away. For a lot of different reasons—some of them that seem pretty good at the time!—we break that relationship.

But here’s the thing. God doesn’t abandon us, even when we abandon him. God won’t force us, but he’ll always be there to offer us forgiveness and a place with him. God is always working to break down the barriers that keep us from seeing him and knowing him. God is always planting the seeds of a new relationship in us and in the world around us.

Amen.

The Snake Problem

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B, March 15th, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9, Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-21

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.

When people ask for God to save them, I doubt they have the serpent on a pole in mind. Put yourself in the Israelites shoes. You’re out camping in the wilderness, with your whole family, and you can’t just pack it out and go home because you have no home but the one you’re travelling towards. And then, all of a sudden, there are snakes. LOTS OF SNAKES. Everywhere around. You can’t avoid them. You can’t get away from them. And they’re poisonous! If they bite you, you die. What would you pray to God for? Probably to take the snakes away. Right? You would want them gone. And, if that wasn’t possible, you would pray to God that they wouldn’t bite you. First choice, no snakes. Second choice, snakes that don’t bite.

And that’s not what God did. Instead of smiting the snakes, vanishing them, or pulling their fangs, God arranged a cure for the poison. An anti-venom. Put a bronze snake up on a pole, and look at the snake, and it will heal you after a snake bites you. I read this lesson and I asked myself, “couldn’t God have just prevented the snakes from biting them in the first place?”

That’s a question that comes up often. Whenever someone gets sick, whenever someone gets hurt, we pray for healing, and we wonder, why couldn’t God have prevented it before it happened? Wouldn’t prevention be easier and cheaper than a cure? All this evil and violence and sin and brokenness in the world—why can’t God just make it go away? Why can’t God get rid of the snakes?

The problem is, of course, that all too often the snakes are us. We human beings cause so much hurt in the world, as individuals and as societies. We hurt one another. We act selfishly. We are broken with sin and death, and we spread that brokenness around. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. We hurt others and ourselves through what we do and through what we leave undone. We don’t always see the consequences of our words and actions—in fact, humans tend to be pretty good at ignoring them—but they can be huge. In the case of the Israelites, their poisonous words came back to haunt them in the poison of the serpents. But it wasn’t only the ones who had been complaining who bore the brunt of the snake attacks. No. The whole community was affected. It’s like that with us, too: the people whose lives are most devastated are often not the ones doing the worst.

In order to prevent evil—in order to keep human beings from screwing up and hurting themselves and each other—God would have to take away our free will. God would have to take away our ability to make choices. Because we choose the wrong thing so often! We choose to spread the poison. We choose to close our eyes to the pain of others. We choose to ignore the way our words and actions affect the people around us and even the people far away. In our first lesson, God could have removed the snakes. But what do you do when the snakes are the people? When everyone is a snake, and everyone is a victim of snakes? Because we are all sinners, and we are all victims of sin.

And if you think I’m exaggerating, think about Jesus’ words in the Gospel lesson about doing things in the dark instead of doing them in the light. What are the things you do or say or think in the darkness—where nobody can see it—instead of the light? What things about yourself do you hide away? What things have you done or said that you sweep under the rug where nobody can see them? I do it, you do it, we all do it. “And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.” Even when we think we want the light, we keep doing things in the dark. We talk about how much we love Christ’s light, and yet we keep doing things under the cover of darkness.

Until Christ comes again—until there is a new heaven and a new earth and we are made whole in Christ, we’re going to keep sinning and being sinned against. We are going to keep choosing the darkness because it’s easier, because everyone else does, because we’re ashamed. While we live in this sinful, broken world, that’s not going to change. We repent, we turn to the light, and pretty soon we slide back into the shadows. Or we talk about the light, but we keep the shadows inside us, hidden away so the world can’t see them. There isn’t a way to take the snakes out without taking us out as well. While we live on this earth, there will always be darkness. When Christ comes again, when we stand before the throne, all our darkness will be washed away. Until then, we’re going to have to live with it.

But that doesn’t mean the snakes win. It doesn’t mean there’s no hope. It doesn’t mean the poison gets the last word. When the people of Israel were bitten by the snakes, and they looked up to that bronze serpent, they were healed. The snakes were still there. The bites and the pain were still there. But the poison was gone. They were saved from death. They weren’t saved from the snakes at that point—that would come later—but the snakes couldn’t kill them, as long as they were looking to the serpent on a pole.

It’s a matter of perspective. Where were they looking? Where was their focus? As long as they stayed focused on the snakes, on their own pain and the poison that was killing them, they died. When they looked up—when they looked for the gift God had given them—the poison was healed. It is so easy to focus on the pain, on the suffering, on the creepy and bad things. But if we do that, we may not be able to see the salvation God gives us. We don’t have a bronze serpent on a pole. We have Christ, crucified for us and resurrected. When we focus on the pain and suffering around us and in our own lives, it’s so easy to lose hope, to drown in it. But when we remember God’s love, when we remember the salvation and grace given to us in Christ Jesus, when we look to Christ, we know that we are not alone, that we have hope, and that there is a love that will not let us go.

Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” God has not abandoned us to the poison and darkness of the world. We look to Christ, hanging on a wooden pole for all the world to see. It was our sins that killed him. We look to his death on a cross as an example and symbol of our sinfulness, just as the people of Israel looked to an example and symbol of the snakes that were killing him. And Christ saves us from the poison of our sins and our darkness, just as the serpent on a pole saved the people of Israel from the poison of the snakes, the poison of their own bitterness. In this life, we still have to live with the consequences of our actions, and all too often we have to live with the consequences of other peoples’ actions, too. The snakes are still here, and they still have the power to bite, even if they can’t kill us any longer.

But unlike the serpent in the wilderness, Jesus’ death on a cross is not a temporary fix, because it’s not the end of the story. Jesus died, but he rose again. And we who look to him are tied to his death and resurrection. Just as he rose, so we too will rise, when he comes again. We will see him, face to face, and we will be made whole and clean so that no darkness or poison will ever be able to get a hold of us again. We’ll choose the light, forever and always, joyfully and freely, and all the pains and hurts that our darkness causes ourselves and one another will be healed. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Holy Spirit and the Kingdom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Responding to Prayer

Fifth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 18, 2014

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

 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.

When I was a senior in high school getting ready to go off to college, someone told me this joke: God answers all prayers. Sometimes the answer is “yes,” sometimes the answer is “no,” sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” That last answer, “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” by the way, is the answer you’ll probably get if you decide not to study for a test and just pray that the answers will magically appear, as I found out once or twice in college.

Jesus said, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” And in another place, Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.” These are words Christians quote a lot, when talking about prayer. If you just ask God, God will give it to you.

It’s an interesting lesson to be paired up with the martyrdom of Stephen, which was our first lesson. Stephen, you see, was one of the first Greek converts to Christianity. He was a deacon; he preached and he did social ministry work, giving food to the poor and making sure the widows and orphans were taken care of. But the authorities in Jerusalem were not happy. They had thought that when they had Jesus killed that they wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. They thought that Jesus’ death would mean that things would go back to normal. And here the Christians are, telling everyone they meet that Jesus was raised from the dead and helping people in Jesus’ name, bringing more people to the faith. The authorities tried to stamp this “Jesus movement” out again by arresting Stephen and putting him on trial. But they couldn’t get him to deny Jesus; in fact, he used the trial to try and spread the Gospel even to his accusers. And so they killed him. They took him out and threw rocks at him until he was dead.

“If in my name you ask me for anything,” Jesus says, “I will do it.” Then what about Stephen? If I were in his shoes, I certainly would have prayed to be set free. And what about the other Christians, the ones who worshipped with Stephen and worked with him and studied God’s word with him? What about all of the poor people whose lives had been touched by Stephen’s gifts? What about all the widows and orphans who needed Stephen’s help? Surely they must have prayed for him! Prayed to the God he worshipped to save him! And yet Stephen was killed in a brutal execution.

Our prayer list has several people on it who have been on it for quite some time. One of them is Grace, who is related to Julie from Birka. Grace is only a little girl, I think she’s about three, but she’s spent most of her life in the hospital. She has cancer in her brain. She’s had many surgeries, and although sometimes things seem to be going well inevitably there is some new problem, some new challenge, some new heart-wrenching procedure for her to endure. Her whole family are devoted Christians, and they have been praying her entire life. We have been praying for her for a long time. Jesus says that he will do whatever we ask in his name. And yet Grace still suffers.

When I pray with someone who is seriously ill, I always include this petition: “Lord Jesus Christ, we know that you are a healer. We know that you heal every ill, whether in this life or in the life to come. We pray that healing will come in this life, and soon. But we trust in the healing that will come in your kingdom.” Sometimes, when I’m praying with someone who is old and frail and at the end of their life, that is a comfort. Yes, things won’t get better in this life; but this life is not the end. But when I pray for someone like Grace, who would have her whole life ahead of her—her life in this world—if only she could be healed now, it is cold comfort. We know that God has a place for little Grace all ready, a place where she can play and laugh and run. But her parents would much rather be able to see her play and laugh and run now, here, in this world.

So how do we deal with times like this? Times when we pray and pray and pray and bad things happen anyway? How do we reconcile it with Jesus’ words? I’m not talking about when people pray for stupid things, things that they think they want but will only hurt themselves or others in the long run. I’m not talking about when people pray selfishly or only out of habit. I’m talking about heartfelt prayers that stream from deep needs. What happens when we ask Jesus for something, and it doesn’t happen?

There’s two responses that people generally fall into. One is to lose faith. “Nothing happened, so God must not care. Or maybe God doesn’t exist.” The other is almost worse: it’s to blame the one who prays. “Well, Jesus says he answers prayer, so if their prayer wasn’t answered, they must not have prayed the right way. Or maybe they just didn’t have enough faith. If they’d been better Christians, God would have listened.” What a horrible, hurtful thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one!

I am reminded of Stephen. He prayed. And I am certain he prayed to be set free; I am certain he prayed that he would not be killed for his faith. Stephen’s faith was as deep as it is possible to be: he would literally rather die than keep silent about it. And we know God heard his prayers; Stephen saw Jesus with him. He did not die alone. But he did die. It wasn’t because God didn’t care, and it wasn’t because he wasn’t a good enough Christian. So what do we make of that?

I notice a lot that when we talk about answers to prayer, we talk about specific things. We don’t tend to talk about prayer as a conversation with God; it’s a laundry list of things we want and things we want to apologize for. Yet when Jesus taught us to pray, he told us to start with the relationship: “Our father in heaven.” But even that is too distant a relationship: we say “father,” but what Jesus actually said was something closer to “Dad” or “Papa.” This is a close and loving relationship. That’s where we start from, with prayer. God is not a vending machine in the sky. God is the one who made us, the one who loves us, the one we can call at three in the morning when we hit rock bottom.

Then, Jesus’ prayer goes on: Pray for God’s kingdom to come. Pray for God’s Will to be done here on Earth, just like God’s Will is done in heaven. God’s Will—Jesus has told us what God’s will is. God’s will is for wholeness, and healing. God’s will is for all the things that have been broken by sin and death, by injury and illness, by malice and carelessness, to be healed. God’s will is for the entire cosmos to be saved. God’s will is for love to win. Bad things happen, in the here-and-now: good people die. Children get sick. People say and do things that hurt one another. People go hungry and can’t find work. But this is not God’s plan for the world, and this is not the end of the story. God’s kingdom will come. God’s Will will be done here on Earth as it is in heaven. We don’t know the timeline for that; we don’t know when. But it will happen, and we pray for it.

Jesus’ prayer continues. Pray for your daily bread. Not for steak dinners and caviar, not for a year’s supply, just what you need to get through the day. Don’t worry about the future; let God take care of it. Pray for the courage and strength to get through today. And while you’re at it, pray for forgiveness, for yourself and for others. Pray for the grace you need to get through the day, along with the strength. Grace given by God, and grace shared with the world around you. Pray that you won’t have to go through dark places in your life, and pray that God will lead you safely through those dark places you can’t avoid. But always remember that the dark places are temporary. The kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God, now and forever. The dark places don’t win, in the end; the evils of this world don’t last forever. God’s kingdom is real, and God’s kingdom is coming, and thanks be to God for that.

God answers all prayers. But the answers aren’t always the ones we expect, or the ones we hope for. Sometimes the answer is yes, and then we rejoice. But sometimes God acts in ways we didn’t expect, to do things we didn’t even know to pray for. Sometimes the answer is no—sometimes we pray for things we shouldn’t be praying for. Sometimes the answer is “You have got to be kidding me.” But sometimes, sometimes the answer is, “Wait.” Sometimes the answer is, “My dear, precious child, what you ask can’t be done in this world as it is now. But my Father’s house is large, and there’s room for all. I’ve prepared a special place just for you. It will be waiting for you, no matter how long it takes to get here. But in the meantime, let me help. Let me support you and guide you and comfort you. You are not alone; I love you.”

Through the Gate

Fourth Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 11, 2014

 Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

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

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

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

Jesus sure used a lot of metaphors and figures of speech to describe himself. In today’s Gospel lesson, he uses two: he calls himself the gate and the shepherd. We’ve all heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd many times, and seen beautiful pictures of Jesus as a shepherd, so I’m going to talk for a little bit about what it means for Jesus to be a gate.

First of all, a gate means there’s probably a wall or a fence. There’s no point in having a gate in the middle of nowhere, unless you’re at a sheepherding contest, and the goal is to see how well a sheepdog herds the sheep through a series of exercises. Walls and fences keep things out, and keep things in. The walls or fence of a sheepfold keep out wolves and thieves. And in Jesus’ day, both wolves and thieves were a danger to sheep every day. Walls kept them out—they keep out the dangerous things in the world. And the walls of the pen also keep the sheep in, keep them from wandering or straying into dangerous places. When a sheep is in the fold, it’s safe and secure.

But the problem is, sheep can’t stay penned up forever. It’s cruel to keep them locked up. They need to go outside of the pen to get food and exercise. You can bring food to the pen, but they’re not going to get the exercise they need unless they can go to the pasture. So the shepherd would let them out, and take them out to the pasture. The gate wasn’t just so the sheep could get into the pen where it was safe, it was also so that they could get out of it to go to the pasture they needed. It was not a one-way trip. If the sheep stayed in the pen, they would starve. If they stayed out in the pasture, they would be vulnerable to thieves and wolves. They needed both places, and the gate was how they travelled from one to the other every day.

Parents of small children know this dilemma well: sometimes kids need to be kept in a safe place, and sometimes you have to let them out to explore. Sometimes, you need to reign the children in and keep them corralled; sometimes, you need a baby gate to keep them from falling down the stairs. And other times you need to help them explore the world and learn how to climb up and down staircases, how to run and fall down and get back up again. A parent has to judge when to keep their child safe and protected, and when to let them free, because they need both. The same door that lets a child out to the yard to play also lets them back in.

But doors are more than just holes in the wall. Doors and gates don’t let just anybody in and out. If they did, you wouldn’t need a gate at all, just an opening in the wall. In Jesus’ day, there would be a gatekeeper to keep thieves out, a person keeping watch at the gate: that’s why thieves couldn’t just walk in the same as they shepherd. Today we would use a lock and key, but back then they had a watchman. They would make sure that only the shepherd could get in, and that the sheep could only get out when the shepherd was with them to guide them and protect them.

As Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come and go in and out and find pasture.” We come through Jesus to be saved, but it’s not a matter of just going in the door once and staying in a nice happy safe place forever. We still have to go out into the world, to learn and grow, to live our lives. We come back into the safety of God’s sheltering arms, but then we go out into the world again. And no matter whether we’re coming in our going out, we come through Jesus. And when we go out into the world, we don’t go alone. Jesus is the gate through which we come to God, but Jesus is also the shepherd who leads us out to find pasture, who leads us when we are walking beside still waters and green pastures, and protects us when we walk through all the dark places in our lives. Whether we are going out or coming in, whether we are safe in the sheepfold or out in the pasture, whether we are walking beside beautiful, still waters or slogging through the valley of darkness, surrounded by enemies, Jesus is with us, our light and our salvation, guiding and protecting us.

We are connected to Jesus through our baptisms. In our baptisms, God claims us as lambs of his own fold, sinners of his own redeeming. Through the water of the Holy Spirit, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit. Through the water of our baptism, we learn our Shepherd’s voice, the voice that will lead us in to safe harbor in God’s fold, and out into the world to live and learn and grow. In baptism, we receive the still waters that quench our soul’s thirst. The waters of baptism give us the strength to follow Jesus even through the darkest valleys of our lives, trusting that he will lead us back to the safety of the sheepfold even when that seems impossible. Baptism—being dunked in the water, marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit—only happens once. But a baptismal life is something that we live every day, coming to God for safe harbor and rest and then following God back out into the world. Life for a baptized child of God means doing everything through Christ, whether we’re coming in or going out.

Jesus says he is the shepherd, the one whose voice the sheep know. And because they know his voice, they will follow him and not the others who come to hurt them and steal them away. But sheep can’t decide on their own who the shepherd is and who the thief. They have to learn the shepherd’s voice. They have to grow in faith that the shepherd will take care of them, and bring them back safely home. In baptism, Jesus calls us as his own. Baptism is the beginning of life with Jesus; it’s the beginning of learning to listen for his voice.

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Nash and Teagan. I’m sure their parents, Ryan and Christina can tell us how hard it is to get them to listen to their parents’ voices. Children, like sheep, don’t always want to listen to the people who are trying to take care of them. It seems like there’s always something to distract them, some reason they would rather go astray. Teaching them to listen and follow takes patience. And they have to want to hear; they have to be listening for the voices of their mothers and fathers. (And sometimes children can be pretty selective on whether or not they hear their parents.) But whether or not the children are listening, the parents don’t stop calling for them, and teaching them to listen. Sheep have to be taught to listen just like children do: they aren’t born knowing their shepherd. They get to know him as they follow him, as they learn that he is taking care of them and protecting him, as they learn that he will keep coming for them, keep calling them, even when they go astray.

We’re kind of like sheep. We need to learn to hear God’s voice calling us, and it is baptism that gives us the first lesson in hearing God calling us by name. But we’re not always very good at learning that lesson. Sometimes we’re like children who can hear God perfectly well, but don’t want to admit it because something is distracting us, or it sounds like more fun to do our own thing than to listen. But the God who called us by name, who connected us to himself through our baptisms keeps calling, keeps reaching out, keeps shepherding us and guiding us.

The Love Mandate

Maundy Thursday, (Year A), April 16, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31-35

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

 

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

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

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.” I learned that song in Sunday School as a child. It’s taken from John’s Gospel, not very long after our text. The Gospel of John devotes several chapters to Jesus’ last teaching for this disciples. And the command to love one another is repeated over and over throughout. In fact, the name for tonight’s service, “Maundy” Thursday, is taken from an old Latin word for command: “Mandatum,” from which we get the word “mandate.” Jesus’ last command, his last mandate, was to love one another as he has loved us. On the night before he died, in the last meal he shared with his disciples, the theme was love.

Of course, the theme for all of Holy Week is love, when you get right down to it: everything happens because of love. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save us. Jesus loved us so much that he died for us. That’s the greatest kind of love there is. Being willing to sacrifice for the sake of someone else. And that’s the kind of love Jesus wants us to have for one another.

Sometimes we think of love as something selfish. Think of someone who is jealous that their boyfriend or girlfriend has other friends. Or a dog who doesn’t like you paying attention to someone else, and so shoves his nose in between the two of you. Sometimes, for some people love drives them to hurt the ones they claim to love. There are a lot of abusers who use love as an excuse for their actions. And there are a lot of people who talk a lot about love without ever showing that love in their actions. But these are all examples of a love that is twisted and broken by sin and the powers of this world. Yes, even love can be twisted by sin. The kind of love Jesus was talking about is just the opposite.

Jesus’ love is all about service. That’s what the foot-washing is all about. Jesus shows his love for his disciples by doing something for them that’s a little bit icky. Jesus’ love is not about himself. It’s not selfish in any way, shape, or form. Jesus’ love inspires him to consider other peoples’ needs. In Jesus’ day, they walked everywhere, and they wore sandals instead of shoes. So peoples’ feet got really dirty and smelly, even when you were trying your best to stay clean. So in a rich household, a good host would send a slave to wash his guest’s feet. The host wouldn’t wash the feet himself—washing peoples’ feet is kind of gross. But he’d send a slave to do it. Jesus didn’t send a slave, he did it himself. Why? Because he loved them, and he was willing to do something uncomfortable and gross to help those he loved.

Think about what parents do for their children. There’s a lot of things parents do for their children that are not fun at all. Changing messy diapers, taking care of them when they’re sick, cleaning up all kinds of really nasty messes, tending wounds and fishing toys out of toilets—these aren’t fun, but they need to be done. Nobody does them because they like doing those things. And most parents do them out of love. They love their children, so they are willing to do messy, icky things that otherwise they would never do. That love isn’t just words. That love is shown in everything parents do for their children.

That’s the kind of love that Jesus showed when he washed his disciples’ feet, the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice to benefit others. It’s a love that is shown in actions. It’s not just talking the talk, Jesus’ love walks the walk. And washing his disciples’ feet is just the beginning. Jesus is going to show his love for the entire world by dying. He loves us all—every last, sinful, one of us. And because he loves us, he’s willing to die for us. Not because it’s fun, not because sacrifice is good on its own merits, because we need it. It’s something we can’t do on our own, something we would die without. And Jesus loves us, and he can save us, so he does. Even if it means his own death.

But even dying for us, to save us from our sins, isn’t the only thing Jesus’ love means. Jesus doesn’t just want to free us from sin and death. That’s huge, but Jesus’ goal is bigger than that. Jesus’ goal isn’t just to change what happens to us when we die; Jesus’ goal is to also change how we live. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to be happy. He wants us to be healthy. And in order for us to be healthy and happy, we have to love one another. We have to live lives filled with joy, with relationships that build us up and spread God’s love to every corner of the globe. We have to be willing to open ourselves up to the kind of love that is bigger and more powerful than sin, the kind of love that is more powerful than selfishness, more powerful than hate, more powerful than jealousy, more powerful than fear. In order to live the kind of life God wants for us, we have to love God and one another deeply and truly. So Jesus spent his last night before his death teaching us about love.

It wasn’t the only time Jesus talked about love, or showed what love meant. Jesus talked about love a lot. And he spent his life acting on that love. For Jesus, love was stronger than anything. Love was stronger than politics, stronger than proper behavior. Love was stronger than religious rules, stronger than gender or race. Love was stronger than money, stronger than fear. If there was a chance to show love for someone, Jesus took it. Whether that was healing them, eating with them, accepting them, forgiving them, Jesus always chose to love people. No matter who they were or what they had done. That was actually a lot of the reason the authorities didn’t like him: he showed love to people they believed to be unworthy of it. If Jesus saw someone who needed help, he showed them his love by helping them. Even when it was messy. Even when it broke the rules. Even when they didn’t deserve it. Even when it would cost Jesus.

The disciples had seen this, but they hadn’t really understood it. Jesus had one last night to teach them, to teach us, about what it means to love people as God loves us. So he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet, and commanded them to love one another as Jesus had loved them. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We talk about what it means to be a disciple, what it looks like to follow Jesus. Well, Jesus tells us quite clearly here what the core of a disciple’s life is, and it’s love. The kind of love Jesus has for us. The kind of love that doesn’t ask “are you worthy?” but rather “how can I help?” The core of discipleship isn’t memorizing scripture, and it isn’t perfect morality, and it isn’t worship or any of the common things we think of. Don’t get me wrong, scripture reading and worship and how we live are important parts of the life of a disciple. But they support a life of discipleship, they’re not the core. The core is love. If we love one another as Jesus loved us, we are truly his disciples.

If we love one another, we are closer to the kind of life God wants for us. We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world of extreme poverty and extreme riches, a world of hate and violence and fear. We live in a world where most people would rather turn a blind eye to the injustice and abuse around them than lift a finger to help. We’d rather point fingers than fix things. As Paul put it, we have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. And the only way that’s ever going to be healed is through love. Through the love of God, poured out through Jesus on the cross. And through our love for God and one another, poured out in our words and our actions.

So Jesus commanded his disciples, commanded us, to love one another. He showed what that meant through washing their feet, and he showed what that meant again by dying for us all, to save us and redeem us and heal us. Unlike the disciples two thousand years ago, Jesus is not going to walk into the room to teach us this lesson and show us what love is. But Jesus is still with us here and now. Because washing feet and talking about love isn’t the only thing Jesus did that night.

The other thing Jesus did was to share a meal with his disciples. He took the bread, and blessed it, and gave it to all to eat. And the wine, also, he gave them. And he told them it was his body and blood, given to save sinners, and that he would always be present in it. When we eat the bread and wine, we eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood. We hold in our hands a tangible proof of how much Jesus loves us, we smell it and taste it and feel it. Jesus’ love fills us, and inspires us. May we let Jesus show us how to love one another as he has loved us.

Fears and Expectations

Lent 4, (Year A)
March 30, 2014

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5:8-14, John 9:1-41

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.

Today’s lessons don’t seem to have a common thread, at first glance. Sometimes you can see very easily why the church decided to pair certain readings together. But I think there are two things that link the first reading and the Gospel, and those two things are fear and expectations that can get in the way of God’s work.

In the first lesson, the prophet Samuel had strong expectations about what kind of a person God is going to want as the next king. God told Samuel to go and God would tell him who. But when it gets to be time, Samuel isn’t just waiting for instructions from God. He sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab. And he thinks to himself, “That’s gotta be the one.” Eliab was the oldest son, he was tall, he was handsome, and he was just the sort of guy people want to see on a throne or leading an army. But no, Eliab wasn’t the one God wanted. God wanted the youngest son, the one who got left behind to take care of the farm while the rest of the family went out, the one who was a cute kid but still the runt of the family. David was not who Samuel was expecting. But God was using different judgment than Samuel was. Samuel was a prophet, but even Samuel needed to learn to listen to God’s desires rather than his own expectations.

The Pharisees in the Gospel lesson also had some pretty strong expectations about what God wanted. They had spent years studying God’s word, trying to figure out the best ways to incorporate it into their daily life. And they had turned those ways into traditions, so that there was only one right way to do things, and if you didn’t follow those ways, well, then, you weren’t following God’s Word. There was only one way to honor the Sabbath, for example; you went to worship and you studied God’s word and did nothing else all day but rest. Healing is work—just ask any doctor or nurse. So to the Pharisees, even doing something good, like healing someone, wasn’t honoring the Sabbath. Then along comes Jesus, and he heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Giving someone their sight is a good thing! And in those days, without things like cataract surgery, giving sight to the blind was something only God could do. But they thought that God wouldn’t work on a Sabbath, so therefore it couldn’t be an act of God. This gave them quite a dilemma: if it wasn’t an act of God, what was it? That’s why they spent twenty-five verses trying to figure out who Jesus is and what happened to the man born blind. Their expectations of who God is and what God was doing got in the way of seeing what God was actually doing among them.

But why did they cling so hard to their expectations? Why didn’t anyone in that community say, “Wow, I guess we must be wrong—maybe this is a sign from God that we need to rethink some things”? I think it was because they were afraid. There was a lot of conflict in Jesus’ day, and a lot of change. The Jews were pawns in a larger world. They were a conquered people, subject to the Romans, and the Romans made things a lot easier for people who followed Roman ways instead of Jewish ones. And charismatic leaders like Jesus kept popping up, each with their own spin on how Jews ought to live and worship. Other people called for rebellion against the Roman overlords. With the world changing around them, devout people like the Pharisees clung ever more tightly to their traditions and their ideas of what good and faithful people should be like. Their traditions were their anchor in a stormy world; their traditions kept them from being blown all over the place. Jesus was a threat to their stability—he challenged them by telling them that the traditions they clung to weren’t the most important thing God wanted them to be doing.

In this case, Jesus did something he’d done many times before, that always got people upset: he healed on the Sabbath. God told them to keep the Sabbath holy, and they were very strict about doing just that. They clung to their strictness as a protection against all the changes happening around them. And here Jesus is, publicly showing God’s power in a way that breaks their traditions about the Sabbath. If Jesus is right, that means that their traditions—the things that they cling to for stability in turbulent times—are going to have to change. So they’re afraid, and looking for any way they can to discredit Jesus and show that they were right all along. And they let their fear get in the way of seeing God. Their fear of change and their expectations of what God wanted got in the way of being God’s people. Their fear made them blind.

The parents of the man born blind were afraid, too. They were afraid that if they didn’t say what people wanted to hear, that they’d get thrown out. And that doesn’t mean they could just go on down the road to the next synagogue. It means they wouldn’t be able to go to worship anywhere, or go to any festivals or events. Put yourself in their shoes: can you imagine what it would be like to be thrown out of church? To not be allowed in to any community event? To know that wherever you go, people are talking about you behind your back, whispering about what a horrible person you are? It’s no wonder they were afraid. But they let their fear be stronger than their will to follow God.

Back to the story of Samuel anointing David as king. There’s fear in this story, too. At that time, Saul was king of Israel, the first king the nation had ever had. And although he’d started out as a pretty good king, things were starting to go downhill. Enemies were attacking Israel from the outside, and there was strife and deadly politics brewing inside. Nobody knew what was coming, and everybody was afraid. So God tells Samuel to go out and anoint the person who’s going to be the next king. Samuel says he can’t go because King Saul will kill him! He’s afraid. If Samuel followed his fears, he would stay put and Israel would be stuck with Saul as king. But God tells Samuel to go and worship with a religious sacrifice—a perfectly normal action for a priest—and God will tell him to anoint along the way. Well, Samuel decides to trust God despite his fears.

When Samuel gets to Bethlehem, the people of Bethlehem are afraid, too. Remember that things are very unstable, and so when they see Samuel coming, they’re afraid. Samuel is the prophet who put King Saul on the throne (and probably has his ear), and as a prophet he definitely has God’s ear. He can call down an army or the wrath of God. So when they see Samuel coming, the elders of the city came out to meet him literally trembling with fear. “Do you come peaceably?” they ask him. Imagine how relieved they must have been when Samuel said he came in peace and invited them to the sacrifice! I wonder what they thought and felt later, after the conflict between David and Saul put them squarely back in the hot seat?

In both the stories, people are afraid. And in both stories, people have expectations about God and God’s will that turn out to be wrong. In one story, people let those fears and expectations stop them from following God. In the other story, people follow God even when they’re afraid, even when God does something that surprises them. So my question is, which are we? What fears do we have that prevent us from following God? What expectations do we have that blind us to what God is doing in us and around us? And are we following them, or are we following God?