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.

God’s Spirit Dwells in You All

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18, Psalm 119:33-40, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23, Matthew 5:38-48

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.

Paul writes: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?”  Normally, when someone talks about being God’s temple, they’re talking about moral issues: since our bodies are God’s temple, we should keep them “pure.”  But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here.  And Paul isn’t speaking to individuals, he’s speaking to the whole community of faith.  You see, in Greek, the word for saying “you” is different when you’re talking to a group than to just one person.  It’s kind of like how in the South, some people use “y’all” or “all y’all” when talking to a group, but “you” when talking to just one person.  Paul is addressing the whole church in this section of the letter.  His words could also be translated like this: “Don’t you know that all of you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in all of you?”

So what difference does it make?  What’s the difference between Paul talking to one person versus talking to the whole group?  Christians in America tend to focus on our individual relationship with God—our personal relationship with our Lord and Savior.  And that’s important … but the Bible focuses more on the community’s relationship with God.  In Matthew 18, Jesus says “where two or more are gathered in my name, I am there.”  In other words, God is most fully present when a group of Christians gather together to study, to pray, and to worship.  Paul is talking about the entire congregation being the Temple together.  He’s talking about the Holy Spirit dwelling within the whole congregation.  When they come together, as baptized children of God, the Spirit is there in their midst.  When the congregation comes together, Christ is working in them and through them.

Paul says it like it’s an obvious thing, something they should already know.  But anybody who’s ever spent much time inside churches knows that it sure doesn’t always seem like that.  Churches, you see, are full of people.  Being committed to Christ doesn’t always stop people from being petty and sinful.  There are hypocrites in church.  There’s gossiping in church.  There are people who are just plain mean.  And sometimes even well-intentioned people who are genuinely trying to do their best have no idea the hurt they can cause others.  When I talk to people who don’t go to church, often their number one complaint is the people in church: they just don’t seem like they’re following Christ.  When you see people, warts and all, it’s hard to look at them and think that the Holy Spirit is dwelling in their midst.  It’s hard to imagine that God is working even there.

And yet, the Holy Spirit is present.  Even in the midst of human problems and doubts and conflicts, the Holy Spirit is there, whenever we gather together, helping to guide us and inspire us to be the people that God created us to be.  The Holy Spirit inspires us to be the people Christ died to save, the people God claimed and chose as his own.

Today, we see the Holy Spirit at work in the baptism of Tanner David Jacobson.  We will see Christ reaching out to claim Tanner as his own through the water of baptism, and we will see Tanner be marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  In this sacrament, the Holy Spirit’s work becomes tangible: we can see the water through which God is working, and touch it, and taste it.

But the Holy Spirit’s work in Tanner’s life doesn’t stop at baptism, and it’s not confined just to Tanner himself.  It’s not even confined to Tanner and his family and godparents.  No, what the Holy Spirit is doing in Tanner today involves the whole congregation.  We, too, are baptized children of God.  In the waters of baptism God claimed us just as God is claiming Tanner today.  We, too, have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit works through this congregation today and always to support Tanner and all the children of this congregation, young and old.  The Holy Spirit works through us to minister to one another and to the world.  The Holy Spirit inspires us to love one another even when we’re not very loveable, because the Spirit teaches us how to love as Christ loves us.  The Holy Spirit brings us together and inspires us to do God’s work in the world, spreading God’s love to all people.

Which brings me to another place the Spirit will be at work in Tanner’s baptism.  Before the water is poured over Tanner, I’ll be asking questions.  I’ll ask Tanner’s parents if they promise to live faithful lives with Tanner, bringing him to worship and teaching him the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, placing in his hands the Holy Scriptures, and teaching him to proclaim Christ through word and deed.  I’ll ask Tanner’s godparents if they will promise to nurture Tanner in the Christian faith and help him live in the covenant of baptism.  And I’ll ask you, the congregation, if you promise to support Tanner in his new life in Christ.

The Holy Spirit is working in and through those promises, just as the Holy Spirit works in and through all promises made in all baptisms—Tanner’s baptism today, and your own baptisms however many years ago they were.  At every baptism, those promises are made.  You made those promises as a congregation for every baptized person here.  As God’s temple, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and calls and inspires you to support one another in life in Christ.

What does it look like, to support someone in their new life in Christ?  Some things are easy to spot: teaching Sunday School is one way of supporting a baptized child’s life in Christ.  Giving to Camp of the Cross so that child can experience God’s love and grow in faith amid the beauty of God’s creation is another way to support their life in Christ.  When you strike up a conversation with a young person and hear their story, encouraging them to speak of their struggles and joys and sharing your own in return, you are supporting them in their life of faith by helping that young person see what a faithful life is like.  No one individual can do all of that—it takes a whole community of faith to provide the support children need to grow in Christ.  We are the temple of God, all of us together.  Christ is the foundation, the cornerstone of our life together.  And the Holy Spirit helps us build one another up in faith toward God and in fervent love toward one another.

And that support in the life of faith doesn’t stop when people grow up.  When you build a relationship with a fellow Christian, when you are there for them in their time of need, you are supporting them in their life in Christ.  When we pray together, sing together, read the Bible together, we are being built up in the faith.  And we receive over and over again the gift of the Holy Spirit in so many ways.  Yes, as sinful human beings we fall short of God’s plan for us.  Yes, sometimes we follow our own sinful ways rather than the Holy Spirit’s call for us—even when in church.  But even when we fall short, God sends the Holy Spirit to rebuild us into his temple.  A temple not built with stone and brick and wood and sheetrock, but with love and faithfulness.  We are built up with God’s love and faithfulness and light, and we are called to share that light and love and faithfulness with one another and with the whole world.

We are God’s house of living stones, built for his own habitation.  We are built up together on the rock that is Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.  But no one stone can make up a building by itself.  You need a lot of different building materials to make even the simplest building.  You need bricks and mortar and wood and nails and screws and glass and shingles and wiring and pipes and insulation and a hundred other things.  And they all have to work together to make a good building, or things will fall apart.  In the same way, we as God’s people need one another.  Each of us has a different role to play, a different thing to contribute to the whole, and our roles change at different points in our lives.  Each of us is called by the Holy Spirit in different ways to give our gifts for the good of all.  In order to be God’s temple, in order for God’s work to be done, we all have to participate as the Holy Spirit calls us.  We have to support one another through good times and times when we struggle with our faith and even in times when it’s hard to remember that we are all children of God.

Today we welcome Tanner into that house.  He’s just a small part of God’s temple, today, but that will change as he grows.  And we are the ones called to guide and guard him on his path, to support and encourage him, as we are called to support all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, young and old alike.  I pray that as Tanner grows, the Spirit will grow in him and in all of us.  I pray that wherever Tanner goes on his faith journey, he will find faithful communities filled with the Holy Spirit to support him.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Guided by the light of Christ, who has been made known to the nations, we offer our prayers for the church, the world, and all people in need.

Holy and perfect God, you call us to share your word of love even when it seems like foolishness to the world. Make your church bold to proclaim our hope in Christ. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

You make the sun to rise and the rain to fall on all. Feed rich and poor, land and animals, with your abundance. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

You call us to the ways of justice. Lead all who govern in the path of justice, so that those in need will not be forgotten. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

All in need belong to you through Christ. Strengthen weary caregivers. Comfort those who are sick and in pain (especially). Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Help this congregation trust that your Spirit dwells in us. Show us the way to be your holy people. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Sustain us, O God, until we gather with all your saints from every time and place (especially Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna and martyr) in your eternal protection. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Radiant God, hear the prayers of your people, spoken or silent, for the sake of the one who has made his dwelling among us, your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.

Paying Attention

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 19), August 11, 2013

Jeremiah 23:23-29, Psalm 82, Hebrews 11:29—12:2, Luke 12:49-56

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.

Jesus said, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky.”  Is he sure of that?  Because I’ve known some weather reporters who were pretty badly wrong.  And that’s professionals!  They didn’t have satellite imagery in Jesus’ day, nor radar imaging of weather fronts; they were limited to what their own eyes could see.  And I know just how often I’m wrong about what the weather will be like on any given day.  Just this last winter, one Sunday we cancelled service at Birka because of a storm that was supposed to hit late Saturday night and early Sunday morning.  When I got up, I shook my head—I thought we’d made the wrong decision.  It wasn’t a perfect day, but no worse than any other that winter.  And then, about the time service started at Augustana, the snow started falling down heavily.  By the time I would have been leaving, there was a lot of snow on the ground.  I was so glad I didn’t have to try to make it out there!

But the thing is, I don’t have to pay much attention to the signs the weather makes; my livelihood doesn’t depend on what the weather does.  And if I do need to know what the weather’s going to be like in advance, I can look up what the experts say.  I don’t have to depend on my own experience and scrutiny of the day’s conditions.  And when I get things wrong, I can just laugh it off.  No big deal.  A farmer can’t do that; and most of Jesus’ audience would have been farmers.  I guarantee you that like farmers today, they were paying darn close attention to what the weather did, and constantly adjusting their farming techniques to adapt to it.  When something is that important, you pay attention.

How much attention do we pay, every day, to what God is doing in us and around us?  How much do we care about it?  Not as much as we should, I can tell you that.  I have this thing I do with the Confirmation class, and I’ve done it in the past with everyone from little children to adults.  When the group meets, we go around the table and everyone has to say a God moment—one time they’ve seen or felt God’s presence in their lives or in the world around them in the last week or two.  It’s hard!  Most people, the first few times we do it, can’t think of a single thing.  It’s not that God isn’t there, it’s that they weren’t paying attention.  They weren’t looking for the signs of God’s presence; they weren’t listening prayerfully for God’s Word.  Well, I say “they,” but I’ve had this problem, too.  It’s so easy to get caught up in life, in what we need to do next, that you don’t even stop to think about God.  Even for pastors!  You spend all your attention on your to-do list, and getting all the work done, and doing things with your friends and family, and then when it comes time to say your prayers at night you just toss off a few quick things that come into your head and fall asleep.  Then the next day you get up and do it all again, on auto-pilot.  God was all around you all day, and you didn’t notice!

That’s one of the reasons I like asking about God-moments regularly: it keeps me accountable.  It’s not just something for the group, I need to do it, too!  There are times when I get to the “God moment” time in our Confirmation class and realize that I haven’t been paying attention to the signs of God’s presence in the last week.  The thing is, no matter what my week was like, there’s always something in it that has God’s fingerprints all over it, even if I didn’t notice it at the time.  And if you’re not paying attention—if you can’t even see what the signs are—how can you possibly interpret them?  Chances are that even if you know what God wants you to do and how God wants you to live, you won’t be paying attention to that, either.  We’re all really good at ignoring God, and what God wants.  No wonder Jesus gets upset with people!

Right before today’s reading, Jesus told two parables about servants waiting for their master’s return.  Some of the servants were waiting for him and paying attention, and were ready when their master came.  Some of the servants were trying to pay attention, but didn’t know what to look for.  But the worst ones knew what the master wanted, and knew what to look for, but they didn’t bother to pay attention and do what they should have done—instead of taking care of the master’s home, they got drunk and started to abuse their fellow servants.  The bad servants put their own selfishness ahead of their love for their master and for their fellow servants.  They weren’t waiting for their master; they didn’t see the signs of his coming.  They saw only what they wanted to see, and took advantage of it.

You see, that’s the other thing that keeps people from seeing God’s presence for what it is, and from seeing how God wants them to live their lives.  When they do see the signs, all too often they convince themselves that it means what they want it to mean.  Take the false prophets in today’s first reading.  God complains about the false prophets who lead people astray.  They prophesy the deceit of their own heart.  They probably believe what they’re saying; they think they know what God wants them to tell people.  But in reality, they’re lying to themselves.  They have heard only what they want to hear.  They’ve found ways of interpreting the Scriptures and the world around them so that God only says things they agree with.

We do that a lot, these days, I think.  It’s not the sin of any one group; it’s pretty common among American Christians of all churches.  Conservatives do it; so do liberals; so do moderates.  People have an issue they feel strongly about, so they find a few verses that support them, and they convince themselves that’s all they need to know because obviously God agrees with them.  Sometimes people do that in support of some cause; sometimes people do it just so they can sit back comfortably and don’t have to do anything other than what they’ve always been doing.  It’s easy; you don’t have to think; you don’t have to take the chance that God might want to teach you something new, or lead you to do something outside your comfort zone.

But God’s Word is like a fire, says the LORD, like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.  God comes to comfort the afflicted, yes, but God also comes to stir up the comfortable, to break in to the neat little boxes we’ve put ourselves in, to lead us out into God’s world.  God comes to make all things new: a new heaven and a new earth.  Even when we’re in our comfort zone, there are things in the world—in our own community and in our own hearts—that have no place in God’s kingdom.  Hatred, jealousy, fear, greed, bigotry, pettiness, bullying, deception, injustice, all those things we shake our heads at when we see them on the news and ignore when we see them in our daily lives—those things have no place in God’s kingdom.  But we don’t want to face our own sin, our own brokenness, and so we pretend they’re only problems for other people.  Or we twist God’s Word to find justifications for our actions.  We ignore our own faults, and we ignore God’s presence.  It’s easier, more comfortable.  Nicer.  And then God comes and exposes our self-justifications for what they really are.

It can be hard to face the truth; it can be hard to face our own brokenness.  It’s hard to admit we need a savior, that we can’t fix ourselves.  It’s a lot easier to point out other peoples’ mistakes, and it’s easier still to shake your head and do nothing.  I wonder if that’s why Jesus says he came to bring division, rather than peace.  I have seen churches that were transformed by God’s power, which brought them new life and growth and a deeper faith and discipleship.  I have seen families, full of brokenness and dysfunction, given strength by God to work through the issues that plague them to become healthy and nurturing and loving.  I have seen God’s power at work in the world … but none of that happens easily.

Watching for the signs of God’s presence, listening for God’s Word … all of that brings change.  It means you have to step outside of your comfort zone.  It means you can’t just work on autopilot.  It means you have to confront issues that you would rather keep buried and forgotten.  And not everyone wants to do that!  It’s easier and simpler not to; it’s easier to pretend that everything is fine; it’s easier to just convince yourself that the Emperor’s new clothes are gorgeous than to admit he hasn’t got any on.  So there is division, and dispute, just as Jesus said.  Not because God wants division, but because deep down we don’t want to let God bring the fire of his Holy Spirit into our lives and into our hearts.  We would rather close our ears and go our own way.  We would rather hear comforting lies than the truth that saves us.

And yet, God still keeps coming.  We may ignore or misinterpret God’s Word; we may ignore or misinterpret God’s work in and around us.  We may listen to false prophets who tell us what we want to hear.  But through it all, God keeps speaking.  God keeps sending us the fire of God’s Word, the light of truth.  God keeps coming to us; God keeps working in us and around us, calling us to follow.  May we learn to hear God’s Word, and follow in God’s ways.

Amen.