Can you blame Thomas?

Third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

If I didn’t know today’s Gospel story, and I had to pick which disciple was going to not believe that Jesus was risen, I would not have figured Thomas as the one.  Peter, maybe; Peter was always getting things wrong and not understanding what Jesus was doing.  But Thomas?  In John chapter 11, Thomas was the only disciple who seemed to get that going nearer to Jerusalem seriously meant risking death, and wanted to go anyway.  True, that was partly out of grief over Lazarus’ death, but at least it was something.  And then later, at Jesus’ Last Supper, Thomas asked a very good question, which Jesus used as the foundation for one of the great statements of who he is.  Thomas, in other words, gets closer to understanding Jesus than the other disciples before Jesus died.  And, unlike Peter, he’s never had a major mistake.  He’s never said or done anything so bone-headed that you just have to sit there shaking your head at it.  So why is it that Thomas, out of all the Disciples, is the one who doesn’t believe Jesus has risen from the dead until Jesus comes back to actually show him?

Let’s consider the larger picture.  Jesus died, and on the third day he rose again.  The disciples spent that time terrified that the authorities were going to come and arrest them, too.  They stay inside a locked room, where it’s safe.  Or at least, it feels safer than being out on the streets, among the people who so recently cheered Jesus’ crucifixion.  Let’s get real, if either the chief priests or the Roman governor decided to get rid of the rest of the group and sent troops?  A locked door would not keep the centurions and Temple guards out.  If all their fears come true, there is absolutely NOTHING the disciples could do about it.  They are absolutely helpless in the face of the powers that want Jesus’ movement crushed.  Nothing they say or do could possibly save them if the powers of the world truly decided to crush them.  But I’m sure that locked door made them feel safer.  It was absolutely, completely, and totally useless for any practical defense.  The lock on that door has one purpose, and one purpose only: to make the disciples feel better.

I’m sure it was very comfortable inside that locked room.  They could sit there and talk about how awesome Jesus was to their hearts’ content.  They could sing songs, and share stories about Jesus, and what he had done in their lives, and feel safe and secure and warm and happy.  They never had to take the risk of someone not understanding them.  They never had to take the risk of anyone looking at them and going, why do you care so much about a dead guy?  Or worse, wow, you guys sure are stupid for following him for that long.  And they never had to worry about putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.  Jesus asks hard things of his followers.  Jesus told us to forgive those who sin against us, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, love our enemies and people who are unloveable, and a lot of other hard things.  It’s a lot easier to talk about how we should feed the hungry than it is to actually do it.  It’s a lot easier to say, of course we should love our enemies, when we don’t have to actually put that love into action.  And if you’re hiding away in a locked room with only the people who agree with you, you never have to worry about any of that.  It’s very comfortable.

Which may be why, after Jesus appeared to them on that first Easter Sunday, and breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and sent them out to spread God’s peace and forgive sins, they … just keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I mean, this was a dramatic moment!  Jesus appeared in a locked room!  Jesus, who had been DEAD, was ALIVE.  And although he could apparently walk through walls when he wanted to, he was no ghost, no spirit.  His body was as living as the rest of him.  And then he gave them the Holy Spirit.  Now, when the Spirit comes, things are supposed to happen, right?  The Spirit is life!  The Spirit is fire and water and the breath of God and inspiration and it takes people, shakes them up, gives them faith, and sends them out into the world!  Look at what happened when the Spirit came into the disciples fifty days later, at Pentecost—they went out and spread the Gospel and baptized thousands!  Our first reading, Peter’s preaching to the crowd and three thousand people were baptized?  That’s from Pentecost!  That’s what happens when the Spirit moves people!  And here, the disciples have just seen the risen Lord, and he has personally breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and what do they do?

Nothing.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada, not one thing.  They keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I think we can all agree that this was not the fault of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that Jesus was not at work in their lives!  Jesus was really, physically present!  Jesus had personally and tangibly given them the Holy Spirit!  Jesus had told them to get out into the world and start spreading his peace!  And the disciples responded by going, well, that’s awesome, we’re really happy Jesus, but the world is a big and scary place and this locked room is pretty comfy, so we’re going to stay right where we are, instead.  But we’ll make sure to tell Thomas all about it!  I can just imagine Jesus standing there face-palming.

And where was Thomas when all this was happening?  Well, that’s the interesting thing.  Thomas was the only one of the disciples who WASN’T cowering in a locked room.  He was out and about in Jerusalem somewhere, and that’s why he didn’t see Jesus when the rest of the disciples did.  Maybe he was doing the grocery shopping.  Maybe he was visiting friends and family.  Maybe he was doing what Jesus had told them to do all along—feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, forgive the sinner, spread God’s peace.  I don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t say.  But whatever he was doing that first Easter Sunday morning, he was braver without even knowing Jesus was risen than the other disciples were after a personal appearance by Jesus and a personal, tangible gift of the Spirit.

So Thomas was out and about in Jerusalem while the rest of the disciples barricaded themselves in a locked room.  Then he gets back and they tell him awesome news!  Jesus is risen!  He gave us the Holy Spirit and told us to spread peace!  Isn’t that wonderful!  And if I were Thomas, I would have said something along the lines of, okay, great, what happens next?  Because whether you believe Jesus was risen or not, nobody can stay in a locked room forever, right?  So where are we going, what are we going to do, how are we going to start spreading that peace and forgiveness like Jesus commanded?

This is where the disciples start hemming and hawing and coming up with excuses for why they can’t actually go out and start sharing the good news, spreading God’s peace, forgiving sins, or doing any of the other things Jesus has taught them and commanded them to do.  Well, you know, it’s too late to start today, we better wait until tomorrow, when we can get a good head start on it.  And, you know, people don’t want to listen to messages of peace, the city’s pretty tense right now and everybody is busy with cleaning up after Passover and getting back to their normal lives, so they probably wouldn’t listen right now.  And we can’t possibly do anything until we’ve got a good plan, and we’ve never done this before so we don’t know what would be best.  And people might get mad if we tell them that Jesus, the same guy they crucified, is God’s Son and rose from the grave!  And what if the Romans hear about it, they’d get mad.  What if the high priests hear about it, they’d get even more angry, and so we can just stay here sharing peace with each other and forgiving each other when we make mistakes, okay?  Any excuse that will justify staying up there in that comfortable locked room.

I can just imagine Thomas standing there staring at them, listening to all their excuses for staying where it’s comfy and cozy and they never have to actually put their faith into action.  Do you blame him for not believing them that Jesus rose from the grave?  Do you blame him for not believing that the Holy Spirit had come into them?  They’re not acting like Jesus is risen!  They’re not acting like they’ve been given the Holy Spirit!  They’re just sitting there like bumps on a log!  Why should Thomas believe them?

Why should anyone believe us?  Because we do the same!  We have been given the Holy Spirit!  Many times!  We were given the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptisms, and again at Confirmation, and again throughout our lives whenever God wishes to inspire us.  But how often do we act like it?  How often do we let that Spirit, that relationship with the risen Christ, drive us out into the world to start spreading God’s peace and love?  We come for Easter services and say He is risen, alleluia! And then we go back to our homes and have a nice family dinner and an Easter Egg hunt.  And then we go right on about our business like nothing has changed.  We stay firmly in our comfort zone, in our safe and ordinary lives, coming up with all the reasons why we can’t open up to what the Spirit calls us to do.  Just like the disciples stayed up in that locked room.  And then we wonder why no one listens to the Good News we have to share.

The disciples don’t look like Jesus is risen.  Sometimes, neither do we.  Jesus says that those who have not seen and believed anyway are blessed, but most people are like Thomas.  We need to see something.  If not Jesus risen with our own eyes, then at least the Holy Spirit sending us out into the world.  May we follow the Spirit wherever it sends us.

Amen.

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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.

Being a Part of the Body

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 24th, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.

Where the Spirit blows

Pentecost, June 8, 2014

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, John 20:19-23

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.

I have a confession to make. I have never seen the Holy Spirit manifest as tongues of fire, and I have never heard anyone speak in tongues. Nor have I ever participated in the kind of mass spiritual experience described in our lesson from Acts, in which thousands of people come to the faith. When I hear of miracles, my first reaction is often skepticism, and when I go to a worship service full of people waving their arms and jumping and dancing and shouting “Amen!” as they feel moved during the service, I feel uncomfortable. And since this is a common attitude for Lutherans and other mainline Christians, I bet there are many of you out there who would agree with me.

This may be why we don’t pay as much attention to the Holy Spirit as we do to the Father and to the Son. Today is Pentecost, which in some Christian traditions is the third holiest day of the Christian year, behind Easter and Christmas. We do celebrate this day more than ordinary Sundays—We dress up! But we certainly don’t plan the service as carefully as we do Christmas and Easter, and people don’t tend to plan big family celebrations for Pentecost Sunday. We don’t expect it to be a big day, just like we don’t expect the Holy Spirit to be a major factor in our lives.

That’s okay, though, because the first followers of Jesus weren’t expecting the Holy Spirit, either, and it came just the same. Imagine the disciples. Jesus had died and was risen again, but they were quite comfortable in their meeting rooms behind closed doors. They were a small group: twelve men, about that many women, a few other miscellaneous people. Outside their doors were the people who had killed Jesus and would be quite willing to kill them, too, if they started making waves. Since Jesus had showed up after the Resurrection, they weren’t quivering in fear, but they weren’t going out and shouting their story to the rooftops, either. They were comfortable. Secure. Happy. They’d been praying, and they’d been talking and retelling the stories about Jesus. But they didn’t know what was coming.

And what came was the Holy Spirit. It dragged them out into the square, and it inspired them to speak, to tell the story of Jesus. Because what God needed then was for the story to spread beyond their walls, beyond their small group. God needed them to spread the word, and so he sent the Holy Spirit to empower them. Empower—it sounds like such a “new-age” word, a word of psychologists and social theorists. Yet that is literally what the Spirit does: it puts power into people. Power to do God’s will—and the skills needed to do it.

I would bet anything you want to name that, had the full planning of the missionary work been left up to those first followers, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. “Well, we can only talk to the other Jews, because we all know Hebrew and Aramaic. A couple of us know Greek, they can speak to any God-fearing Greeks we find. But there’s no point in seeking out the foreign Jews who don’t speak Hebrew anymore, because we won’t be able to speak with them. We just don’t have the gifts.” That’s what they would have said. “Who can we put in charge?” they would have asked. “Who’ll be the spokesman?” If anyone had suggested Peter, they would probably have laughed. Let’s remember that Peter wasn’t his real name; his parents had named him Simon. Peter was a nickname, and it meant “Rocky.” Peter was a real rock, all right; solid, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth type who would not win any contest of smarts or charisma. Peter’s most common contribution to the disciples was to get things spectacularly wrong so that everybody else had an example of what not to do. He got several things right … and always followed up his good ideas with something boneheaded. Peter, good ol’ Rocky, as the public face of the organization? Rocky as a preacher? Naaaah. He just didn’t have what it takes.

Many churches, if you give them an idea of something they could do, some new ministry they could try or people they could help, will respond with reasons why they can’t. “We couldn’t possibly do it! We don’t know enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have anybody who could or would do that …” And I bet you the early church would have been no different. After all, what happened on Pentecost is a lot bigger than starting up a food pantry or sending people out to build handicap ramps or do a mission trip.

And yet, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered them. The Holy Spirit swept into their lives like a rushing wind, and they listened to it. They might not have chosen the things the Spirit empowered them to do, but they listened when it came to them. They followed where it led them, and they all—particularly Peter, good ol’ Rocky—used the gifts it gave them to do the ministry it called them to do. I bet it was scary. I bet it was nerve-wracking, to get out there and trust that the Holy Spirit was going to give them the ability to speak in new languages. They could have said no, but they didn’t. They could have said, “My it’s windy today! Better close the windows tight!” and kept on praying, in their back rooms. But they didn’t. They realized it was the Holy Spirit, and they followed it. And the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to do what needed to be done.

I’ve never seen tongues of flames; I’ve never seen people speaking in tongues. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen other gifts of the Spirit. Because even though we don’t pay much attention to the Spirit, it is here among us, blowing. It is here among us, empowering. It is here among us, equipping us for the ministry that God is calling us to. Which may not be the ministry we’re expecting. But whatever God is calling us to, God is also giving us gifts to handle.

The Spirit gives many gifts. Saint Paul lifts up a few of them in his letter to the Corinthians. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing both spiritual and physical, prophecy, discernment of spirits, interpretation, miracles … these are all gifts of the Spirit. But do we notice them? Do we acknowledge them as such, or do we dismiss them? A lot of times we take the gifts of the Spirit for granted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with Christians over the years where someone pointed out a gift they or their church had, only to hear them dismiss it in the next breath, find some reason why it wasn’t enough, wasn’t what they needed, wasn’t useful for the ministry of the church. Unless there are bolts of lighting and literal tongues of fire, we don’t tend to notice these gifts of the Spirit for what they are. At the Synod Assembly last weekend, I heard several pastors get up and talk about great things happening in their congregations. And although they were all good pastors whom I respect and admire, it wasn’t the pastors’ actions that were making things happen. It was the congregations, who were willing to respond when someone pointed out what gifts the Holy Spirit had given them. They noticed the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they listened to where the Spirit was calling them, and it has led them to do some amazing things.

Something else to notice from Paul’s account in Corinthians is that nobody gets all the gifts. Everyone has different gifts, and quite often they go together: someone gets knowledge, and someone else gets the wisdom to know how to use that knowledge. Someone gets the gift of tongues, and someone else gets the gift of how to interpret it. It’s only when you start putting those gifts together—when people come together to form the body of Christ—that things start to happen. It can’t be just one or two people—no matter how talented and dedicated. It has to be the body, together, using the gifts the Spirit has given for the common gift of ministry.

When the Spirit came to them, those first Christians were ready. They went where it sent them, they realized the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they used those gifts as the Spirit called them to. And because they did, the Spirit did great things through them. May we, too, learn to hear the Spirit’s call and follow where it leads.

Telling the Story

Second Sunday of Easter, (Year A) April 27, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 22-32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.” I’ve always thought Thomas—called “Doubting Thomas” because of this story—gets a bum rap. After all, he was no different than the other disciples, who didn’t believe when the women told them Jesus was raised; he just wasn’t there the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples.

Our readings today are all about belief: who believes, and when, and why. The disciples don’t believe Jesus has been raised until he enters their locked room and shows them his wounds. This is not a hallucination, or a ghost; this is a real, physical person, who truly died and truly was raised from the dead. Then there’s Thomas, who doesn’t believe until he gets the same up-close-and-personal look at the risen Jesus that his fellow disciples got, and Jesus gently chiding him for not believing their words and experiences. Jesus praises those—like us—who have not seen these things up close and personal, and yet believe anyway. And the chapter ends with the narrator telling us that the stories told in the Gospel are only part of what Jesus said and did while on Earth, but these specific stories were told so that we—everyone who reads these stories—might believe in Jesus.

After the events told in the Gospels, the disciples and the rest of Jesus’ followers went out and began sharing the stories of Jesus, the things he had done and the lessons he had taught. They shared those stories with everyone they met. Our first lesson was a short excerpt from a talk Peter gave about Jesus just a few months after the Resurrection, and our second lesson today is a short excerpt from a letter Peter wrote to those who had learned about Jesus and believed in him through those stories.

Those stories were passed on, first through word of mouth, and then eventually written down in the form of the Gospels. And to this day, those stories of Jesus’ words and deeds have been helping people to come to believe in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, who died to save the world from sin and brokenness, and calls all people back to God. We are all here today because of those stories. And today we celebrate the faith of four young people who are here today to make a public statement that they, too, have come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that they have life through his name.

Faith in Jesus Christ can’t be transmitted without those stories. But the stories are only part of how the faith is passed on from one generation to another, from one believer to another. The stories are powerful, but without people to tell them, they are just words on a page. God is not confined to the pages of the Bible; God is working through those words, but God is also working through the people who read and share them, through the people in all times and in all places who share the stories of how they have experienced the love of God. That’s one of the reasons why we start every Confirmation class with “God moments,” where we go around the circle and everyone says where they have seen God in the last week. And if I forget, the students remind me! It’s a way of helping ourselves to remember that God is with us, here and now, acting in our lives and loving us just as God was with the disciples two thousand years ago. We have never touched Jesus’ hands and feet, or put our hands in the wound in his side, but we have felt God’s love in our lives in many different ways. And after we’ve shared these moments of where God is working now, we turn to the pages of Scripture to see what God has done in the past, and what promises God has made to us.

Peter and the other disciples did something similar, when they passed on the faith that Jesus had taught them. They told people stories of how they had seen God acting in and through Jesus, and they turned to the Scriptures they had grown up with—the books of the Old Testament—to explain what God had done and the promises God had made to them through Jesus Christ. You see, that was the mission God gave them: he sent them out to tell the stories, to share the faith, to give life to all the world. The word “apostle” means “someone who is sent.” They were men and women on a mission, to share their experiences of Jesus the Christ. To pass on the faith. And with the gift of the Holy Spirit, they brought many to God. We are here today because they told people about Jesus, and those people believed their words, and those people passed that faith on to others.

The faith that the Apostles taught—the faith that God sent them to spread—is summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Now, here’s a question for the Confirmation students: where in the Bible is the Apostles’ Creed found? That’s a trick question: it isn’t in the Bible. We don’t know exactly where and when the Creed was first used, but it came into being very early on. By the second or third century, Christians were teaching it to those who were about to be baptized, as a handy summary of the faith that had been passed on to them by the Apostles. In those days books were extremely expensive and few could read, but everyone could memorize the Creed. And the Apostles’ Creed would help them remember the basics of the faith. It has been used ever since to teach people about who God is and what God has done. It is a framework of belief and a summary of all the stories of the Bible, shared in common by all Christians.

We may have our differences, but we all believe in God the father, the almighty, who created heaven and earth, and everything that is, seen and unseen. That Creator made us out of the dust of the earth and brought us life, and when we turned away from our heavenly father, he sent his Son, Jesus the Christ, to love us and heal us and bring us back to God.

We all believe in Jesus Christ, the Son, who was truly God and truly human, both at the same time, God in Human flesh, born of Mary, who taught and healed and was willing to die to save us from our sin and brokenness. He was tortured by Pontius Pilate, put to death on a cross, and died. He was buried. He was dead for three days, but the tomb could not hold him. The powers of death could not keep him down. He was raised from the dead on Easter, and because we are his, we too shall be raised from the dead. Jesus returned to heaven, where he is with the father, but he will come again, and bring God’s Kingdom with him.

We all believe in the Holy Spirit, the breath of God which moved over the waters of creation, which was given to Jesus’ followers through tongues of flame at Pentecost, which is given to every one of us through the waters of baptism. Christians have splintered into so many different factions, but we believe that even when we fight and squabble among ourselves that there is still a unity among all who believe that makes us into one holy universal church in the eyes of God. We believe that God forgives us and calls us to forgive others. And we all believe that God’s kingdom will come, and the dead will be raised, and we will be with God forever.

This is the faith in which we baptize, the faith taught by the Apostles and passed on by all those who have come before us. It is the faith that we are called to share with the world, and it is the faith that these four young people are about to claim as their own. It is the faith that we live out every day.

God has done so many things in this world, in and among God’s people, for those who believe and those who don’t. There is no way that all of the stories of the things God has done could be collected in a single book; no book can hold it all. But we learn the stories of what God has done best through hearing people share the stories of what God has done for them and in them and through them. Thanks be to God.

The Spirit blowing through

Lent 2, (Year A), March 16, 2014

 Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-15, 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

In some ways, Nicodemus is a very 21st Century guy.  We in the 21st Century tend to take things literally—being literal, fact-based, provable with objective scientific accuracy, is a big thing for us.  Have you noticed how often people say “literally”?  Any time you want to say something is absolutely true, you say “literally.”  Even when something isn’t literally true, we try and claim that it is.  We look for rational answers.  We want everything cut and dried and easily explainable.  All laid out in black and white.

That’s kind of how Nicodemus thinks, too.  He knows Jesus comes from God because of the miracles that Jesus does.  And he wants to know more.  He wants to learn about God.  He wants to know more.  All very admirable!  Except, if you notice, he goes away with less certainty than he came with.  He wants to figure things out, and Jesus doesn’t exactly help him out.

The first thing Jesus says to him is “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Notice that Jesus doesn’t give Nicodemus time to ask his question; Jesus wades right in.  Now, Nicodemus is a very logical fellow.  He takes people at their word.  It doesn’t seem to occur to him that Jesus might be speaking metaphorically or spiritually or anything; he takes Jesus literally.  “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”  I ask you.  Was Jesus speaking literally?  No, he was not.  Does Nicodemus even seem to consider that Jesus might not mean literally re-entering one’s mother’s womb and being squeezed out a second time?  No.  Nicodemus thinks in nice, neat categories: babies are babies and adults are adults and once you’re born, that’s it.  He’s come to seek God, but he wants answers that he can easily understand.  Answers that make sense.  Answers that fit Nicodemus’ own ideas of the way the world works.

Jesus tries to expand on what he meant a little bit.  “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”  He’s still speaking metaphorically, which isn’t much help to poor old Nicodemus.  Jesus doesn’t give up on the metaphors and start giving a polished spiel that neatly explains what he’s talking about.  He doesn’t give a step-by-step answer with bullet points and examples and detailed explanation.  He continues to speak in symbols, which is something Jesus did a lot of.  Jesus almost never spoke on a literal level; he spoke in parables and stories and imagery and metaphor.  I think it’s because the reality of God is too big for our mortal, finite brains to handle.  I think that the Kingdom of God is not only greater than we imagine, but greater than we can imagine.  How would you explain the color purple to someone born blind?  How would you explain a symphony to someone born deaf?  Human beings like things to be neat and tidy and easily understandable.  But God isn’t neat and tidy, and God certainly isn’t small enough to fit into our mental boxes.

So there’s poor Nicodemus, listening to Jesus talk about being born again and wondering what the heck he means.  What does it mean to be ‘born of water and the Spirit’?  Well, one thing about the Word of God is that it’s all connected.  What that means is that all the stories resonate with one another.  So when we hear Jesus talking about water, we should start thinking of all the places where the Bible talks about water: the Holy Spirit moving over the waters of creation.  Noah and his family being saved through the waters of the Flood.  The Israelites being led to freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, and later being given water in the desert, and finally being led through the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Psalm 51, where the psalmist prays for God to wash him and make him clean.  Isaiah, calling everyone to come to the water.  John in the Jordan, calling all to repent.  Jesus, coming to the Jordan to be baptized.  All of these images and words should be going through our minds when we hear Jesus talking about ‘being born of water and Spirit.’  And the connections don’t stop there: think of our baptisms, where God’s promises come to us through the water, and we are marked with the cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.

All of those stories talk about change, about something new, something different.  The old is gone, wiped away.  Slavery becomes freedom, becomes a new life in a new community.  Sin is washed away and we become clean.  We are tied through the waters of baptism to all of those stories; we are tied to Jesus Christ through his baptism.  Something happens in us.  Something new.  Something that doesn’t fit into nice, neat categories.  When we come out of our mothers’ wombs, we are born children of a fallen humanity.  When we come out of the water, we are re-born children of God.  We are re-born as children of a God who loves us so much that he was willing to send his only son to die for our sake, to break the powers of sin and death that enslave the entire world.

In the waters of baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to us and inspires us and sends us out into the world.  And the Holy Spirit absolutely, positively, can’t be shoved into our nice neat categories.  It’s like the wind.  We all know about wind, right?  It can be powerful.  It can change directions quickly, or it can blow strongly and consistently.  Nothing can control it; nothing can stop it.  “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”  The spirit blows us about, turns us around.  Whenever I think I have everything figured out, whenever I think I have God’s plans for me pinned down and explained, the Holy Spirit blows through my life.  And I think that’s true for a lot of people.  Have you ever had the Holy Spirit blow through your life and turn things upside down?

How do you boil all this down to nice, neat, logical, literal categories?  Nicodemus couldn’t, and—at least at that point—he couldn’t take that leap of faith to let go of his literal-mindedness and live in the ambiguity of God’s Word.  He leaves, without saying another word.  He came under cover of darkness, not really knowing what he was looking for, and he leaves Jesus more confused than he was when he showed up.  But this isn’t the only time Nicodemus appears in the Gospel of John, and for those of you reading through the New Testament this Lent I encourage you to look for him when he shows up.  Because this encounter with Jesus will not be Nicodemus’ last.  At this point in the story, Nicodemus can’t open his heart and his mind to Jesus.  But that will change.  Nicodemus might not understand the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is still working in him.

So what about us?  Today, in the twenty-first century, we tend to take things more literally than they did in Jesus’ day.  Like Nicodemus, we tend to want to put things in nice neat categories, and we want easy, logical answers to our questions.  But God defies our expectations, giving us a Word that is messier and more complicated and bigger than we can understand.  We’re not left alone to muddle through it, though.  We have been born anew in the waters of baptism.  We have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit; it blows through us and through our world just as it did in Jesus’ day.  The Holy Spirit breathes new life into us, breaks up our mistaken certainties, opens us up to the greatness of God’s work in the world.  But are we paying attention?  Are we watching for the wind that blows where it will, or do we focus on the things we can understand and pin down?  Are we going to go away like Nicodemus, with more questions than answers, or are we going to follow God’s Word?

Amen.