Kosher, change, and community

Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

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

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

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

Our first reading, from Acts, is the second part of a story.  In the first part of the story, Peter received a vision from God telling him that it was okay to break the kosher rules, the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws.  (At this point, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish.)  Peter got this vision, and then God sent some Gentiles to him, asking about Jesus.  He went to them and realized they had the Holy Spirit, and he lived in their house for a while and baptized them.  Then he went back home to all the other followers of Jesus, and instead of going “oh, yay, more followers of Jesus!” they went ” … you lived with Gentiles?  You ate non-kosher food?  What is wrong with you?”

There are two things that we Christians really don’t get about the Jewish rules of keeping kosher.  Well, there’s a lot more than two things we don’t get about kosher, but for the purposes of understanding today’s reading from Acts, there’s two things we need to appreciate.  First, when Jewish people call food “unclean” they sometimes mean it literally.  Kosher rules were way ahead of their times when it comes to food safety and washing your hands and your dishes and making sure you’re not contaminating your food with whatever dirt or germs might be nearby.  Jewish kitchens were so much cleaner than the kitchens of their neighbors.  If I travelled back in time to 35 AD and had a choice, I would much rather eat kosher food than non-kosher food just for sanitary reasons.  Non-Jewish kitchens of the time were pretty gross.

And hygiene wasn’t the only reason Jewish people were disgusted by their gentile neighbors’ eating habits.  When your culture doesn’t eat something, a lot of the times the thought of eating that thing is pretty gross.  You or I might not get why someone could ever object to bacon, but when I learn about foods in other cultures—like chicken feet, monkey brains, various edible insects or weird deep-sea creatures, and stuff like haggis—I often grimace in distaste.  It may be perfectly digestible and even good for you, and some people may love it, but it’s gross to me.  If Jewish people in Peter’s day felt the same way about things like bacon that I do about monkey brains, and then you add in the lack of cleanliness in the average gentile kitchen, I can certainly see why no Jewish person ever wanted to break kosher and eat with their neighbors.  And why they would give a pretty hard time to any of their fellow Jews who did.  It wouldn’t just be a matter of keeping a religious law; it would be a matter of visceral distaste.  You ate what?  That was prepared in a kitchen with how many health code violations?  Blech.

And then there’s the other part of the kosher rules.  Christians may regard them as extraneous and unnecessary, but the fact remains, they were commands given by God to the Jewish people and recorded in Scripture.  This isn’t just a case of “we’ve always done it that way.”  It isn’t just a case of blind traditionalism or human custom.  By keeping kosher, they were keeping commands given by God!  And however much certain modern Jewish denominations might have decided that strict adherence to kosher is unnecessary, there was no debate over the matter in ancient times.  If you were one of God’s people, you circumcised your sons and kept kosher.  Period.  End of story.  If you did not do either of those things, you were not one of God’s people.  You might love God … but you were not part of God’s people or part of God’s covenant.  You were an outsider, an apostate, unfaithful.  Eating unclean food was both viscerally disgusting and breaking God’s commands and putting yourself outside God’s covenant with God’s people.

So, given those two factors, you can see why the rest of Jesus’ followers were pretty upset when they heard that Peter was eating Gentile food prepared in a Gentile home.  This is not just a matter of personal preference.  It’s not just a matter of hospitality.  It’s a question of whether or not Peter is one of God’s people, and what it looks like to be one of God’s people, and what basic principles should God’s people uphold.  And it’s also a matter of Peter having done something that the rest of his community thought was absolutely disgusting.  We, today, hear this story and think the answer is simple.  Of course God wants us to go out into the world and convert people, and of course kosher laws are silly and unimportant!  But Peter’s community of faith, all of those who had followed Jesus in life and remained faithful even after his death and resurrection, they would also have thought the answer was simple.  Of course God doesn’t want us to mix with Gentiles, and of course kosher laws are much more important than reaching out to outsiders!  And they had the weight of all of scripture and thousands of years of tradition on their side guiding them to that conclusion.

The problem is, sometimes God does something new.  Sometimes the next step in God’s plan for the world isn’t what humans think is the next logical step.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to things we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have predicted.  Sometimes, it turns common wisdom and tradition on its head.  Sometimes, it leads you to places you really, really don’t like.  That was the case in the days of the first believers, who couldn’t have predicted that God would rescind the kosher laws so that they could bring God’s Word to the Gentiles more easily.  And it’s the case for us today, as we ask the question of what it means to be followers of Christ in a world that is changing so rapidly.  It makes this story important to study as an example of how God’s people faithfully discern what God is calling us to do in times of great change.

So the first thing to remember is that, for all the believers were shocked, and Peter was taking things further than anyone anticipated, God reaching out to Gentiles was not completely unprecedented.  There are a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures where God says that one day, all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God.  And none of those passages say that the nations will then become Jewish, following Jewish dietary laws.  God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to Gentiles, and told Jonah that they were God’s people too.  King David’s grandmother Ruth was a Gentile.  Then, when Jesus came himself, while most of his ministry was among Jewish people, he did several times travel into Gentile areas and preach there.  He healed Gentiles, he cast demons out for them, he taught them.  He never ate with a Gentile, but he did drink water with a Samaritan woman, and he ate with Jewish sinners and tax collectors.  That wasn’t quite as much of a kosher violation as eating with Gentiles, but it was closer than most good Jewish people would want to come.  Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had sent them out to share the Good News, Jesus’ followers had a series of encounters with Gentiles, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized.  So while the disciples would never have thought that God would tell them it was okay to not keep kosher, they could look back at Scripture and their experience of God and see how God kept including Gentiles and sending God’s Word to them and sometimes crossing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile.  They could see how this connected to what they had known.

Second, Peter didn’t just decide this on his own.  He prayed, and he listened to the Holy Spirit, and he didn’t just throw out thousands of years of tradition and Biblical understanding on a whim.  He didn’t let tradition blind him to what the Spirit was calling him to do, but he didn’t throw out tradition willy-nilly.  Human beings have always found it easy to delude themselves about what God wants and what God is calling them to do; Peter was right to be cautious and hesitant at first, and test things to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.

Third, the Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in Peter.  When Peter got to the new place the Spirit was leading him, he found that the Spirit was already there.  Which, of course the Spirit is everywhere.  But if Peter had been mistaken about what God was calling him to do, Peter would not have found the Spirit being poured out so freely.  And Peter was looking for it.  Even after Peter had figured out what he thought God was calling him to do, Peter kept looking, kept praying, kept listening, to confirm he was on the right path.  And having gotten that confirmation, Paul followed that call, even though it led him somewhere he would never have chosen to go himself, and led him to change beliefs and practices he would never have chosen to change on his own.

And then, fourth, he went home and talked with his community about it.  He shared what he had seen and heard with the community, and the community debated it.  The community kept on debating it.  This is not the last time the issue of kosher and Gentile believers would come up; it would come up constantly for the next several decades as Jesus’ followers figured out exactly what the new boundaries would be and what this new thing would look like and how God’s commands to them would or would not apply to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.  It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy.  Some people disagreed; some people stopped being Jesus’ followers entirely over the issue.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple, but they talked about it together.  They prayed about it together.  They looked for what the Holy Spirit was doing together.

This wasn’t just a matter of one person having a vision and then everything is changed.  This is a matter of people coming together in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, and listening to all the many voices of faithful people, and scripture, and experience, and the Spirit, and figuring out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple.  And yet, it laid the foundation of everything that was to come.  If they hadn’t done this hard work, none of us would be here today.

Now, over the centuries there have been times when God called people in new and different ways, and times when people thought God was calling them to do things for very convincing reasons, but they turned out to be wrong.  Sometimes where we think God is calling us is where God is really calling us, and sometimes it isn’t.  And sometimes even if God is calling us in a certain direction, God may not be calling us to do it the way we think it should be done.  God may have a lot of different things in mind, and no one person can ever fully know what God is calling us to do.  But if we listen to God, if we look for the Holy Spirit in us and around us in the world, if we study Scripture, if we listen to one another and talk it out, the Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us as we make these decisions.  When change comes, we should never make changes just because it’s trendy or new, but we shouldn’t reject it just because it’s new, either.  Like Peter and those first followers of Jesus, our goal should be to find out where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is speaking, and listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and to trust that God is leading us as we move forward, even if we disagree.  May we learn to listen to God and to one another.

Amen.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 17, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26

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

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

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

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.  We recite these words in church almost every Sunday we gather … and when we don’t, we usually recite the Nicene Creed instead, which says basically the same thing.  In so doing, we join a Christian tradition stretching back to the very earliest days of Christianity, when all new converts to the faith memorized and studied the Apostles’ Creed, the teaching of the Apostles distilled into its purist form.  We believe in the Resurrection.  We believe that Christ died, and descended to the place of the dead, and that he was resurrected.  He rose from the grave not just in spirit but in body.  In flesh and blood.  And we believe that when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, all the graves will open and all those who have died will be raised.  All people will be resurrected, not just Jesus, and enter God’s kingdom in bodies purified and made whole by God.  Resurrection happened first for Jesus Christ, but it will come for all of us.

At least, that’s what’s in our faith statements.  How many Christians actually believe it … I don’t know.  We tend to think of heaven as some ethereal place,  spiritual, not physical.  Lots of Christians believe that when you die your spirit goes to be in heaven with Jesus, leaving behind all fleshly matters.  It’s a very old way of thinking about things, and it comes straight out of pagan Greek philosophy.  And it’s what Paul was arguing against in our reading from Corinthians.  “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”  In a nutshell: Salvation comes from Christ, who died and was raised from the dead and in so doing destroyed sin and death.  If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and all of Christian teaching is false.  You can’t have just one resurrection, in Paul’s view.  Either resurrection is impossible, and nobody has ever been raised or ever will be; or resurrection is possible, and Christ was raised from the dead, and we, too, will be raised from the dead some day when Christ comes again.  As Christ was raised, so too will we be.

To get why this is so important to Paul, you have to understand a little bit about the way Jewish people think.  In Greek, as in English, there are separate and distinct words for body and soul, because we think about them as two separate things, as if human beings are ghosts who just happen to walk around in meat suits.  In Hebrew, however, there is no word for soul that doesn’t include the body as well.  When you read an English translation of the Old Testament, and you see the word “soul,” the actual Hebrew word is usually “נפש” which means your whole self, personality and body and spirit and heart and guts and all the things that make you who you are.  The word most Old Testament translations give as “spirit” is “רוח” which literally means breath.  The Holy Spirit, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is literally God’s breath.  In Genesis, God breathes on the primordial chaos and the world comes into being.  There is a connection between the spiritual and the physical.  One cannot exist without the other.  There is no concept in the entire Old Testament of a spirit or soul separate from a physical body.

Because of this, physical things matter.  Evil and sin come through physical means—eating the forbidden fruit—and are manifest in all the many ways human beings abuse one another and themselves.  But you can’t ever forget that all good things come through physical means, too.  The Garden of Eden was a physical place.  It was a garden, filled with plants and animals, in which humans and God walked side-by-side.  The Old Testament is very earthy.  Condemnation is being trapped in a world where humans hurt one another and where the soil is rocky, thin, and full of weeds.  Blessing is a world where humans reconcile with one another and the soil is fruitful and easy to work.  Creation, like humans, may be marred by sin and death, but first it was a good gift from God.  And, so, it is not just souls that need to be redeemed, but bodies too, the whole self, and all of creation.  And that is what Jesus Christ came to do.

On the other hand, the Greeks hated the physical world.  Or, at least, they didn’t trust it.  Pagan philosophers as far back as Plato (and possibly even earlier) had decided that the realm of spirit and the realm of flesh were two completely separate things, and obviously anything to do with the flesh or the physical world or the body was inherently bad and disgusting.  This is why they believed rich people were better than poor people—work required physical effort, and doing things, and that was degrading.  The only good things in the world were sitting around, thinking deep thoughts, and contemplating art.  And so when Paul converted Greek people, they brought with them this idea that there is a separation between body and soul, and that flesh is inherently bad and spirit is inherently good.  Some of them even thought that Jesus hadn’t been a real flesh-and-blood human being at all, just a divine spirit sent to bring enlightenment.  (This is a heresy called Gnosticism.)  Even the ones who accepted that Jesus had been human before his death often thought that Jesus hadn’t really been resurrected, he’d just appeared to have a physical body, and that when Christians died, they would be freed from the prison of flesh and brought into a realm of spirit.  Which, uh, isn’t that far from what many Christians today believe.

And then we come again to Paul: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died, and one day we too will be raised.  We are not ghosts piloting meatsuits, we are whole people—body, mind, and soul—and Christ came to save all of us, body and soul together, along with all of creation.  God created the world to be good—God created us to be good—and even the worst that sin and death can do doesn’t change the fact that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  God has been at work in the world since the very beginning, bringing light and truth and calling people to live in the world according to God’s good plan.  God has been working to bring life and healing and renewal and reconciliation even in a world that keeps turning away, and God keeps calling us to participate in that work.  And one day, when Christ comes again, all will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.  All that is broken will be healed, all that is destroyed will be made whole, all of creation will be made new.  The work that God keeps beginning in us will be completed.  And we will see God face-to-face.

Bodies matter.  The more we learn about the way bodies and brains work, the more connected we realize they are.  Our bodies influence our brains in a multitude of ways great and small, and our brains influence our bodies just as much.  Those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood human nature far better than the Greek philosophers did.  When we focus too much on the spirit alone, we forget about the body, and we forget about the world we live in.  We pray for peoples’ souls while ignoring the ways in which their bodies are suffering.  We are flawed, sinful, fleshy people living in a flawed, sinful, fleshy world.  We live in a world in which sin and death have done unbelievable damage to people and communities and to creation itself.  But we believe in a God who triumphed over sin and death, a God who will make all things new, a God who became flesh and blood like us, who died and rose again, and who will raise us to life again.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Trying to Stop the Spirit

Lectionary 25B, September 30, 2018

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

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

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

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

“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’”  John—one of Jesus’ disciples, one of the Twelve—saw someone casting out demons and thought to himself, “how terrible!”  This is one of many places in the Bible where faithful followers of God get upset that other people are doing things in God’s name.  Another example is in our first lesson from Numbers.  Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, out and among the general people instead of where Moses and the other Israelite leaders were gathered.  The Holy Spirit was with them, speaking in and through them!  And Joshua ask Moses to stop them!

When I was a kid, I thought stories like these were incredibly unbelievable.  Not the casting out demons and the prophesying; I had total faith that if demons existed God could give the power to cast them out, and that God could give people the spirit enough to speak in God’s name.  No, the thing that was unbelievable to me was the response people had to such demonstrations of God’s power.  Demons were being cast out, and they thought it was a bad thing?  The Holy Spirit was being poured out on people, and they thought it was a bad thing?  They wanted to stop it?  Come on, that is TOTALLY unbelievable.  It was obvious that the power of God was working!  Surely, God’s faithful people would never try and stop the Holy Spirit!

I don’t find it unbelievable any longer.  I’ve seen it too many times among God’s faithful people.  I’ve even done it myself!  There are a lot of reasons, but far too often we as God’s people see God at work in the world and try to shut it down.  Oh, we don’t say that’s what we’re doing, even to ourselves.  We find all sorts of justifications, ways to explain how it wasn’t really God at work, it wasn’t really good, and so we were right to try and shut it down.  Unfortunately, sometimes we succeed.  We shut down God’s work in and among us and in the larger society, and then we wonder where God is.

Joshua wanted to stop Eldad and Medad because he was jealous.  God’s Spirit had been given to the elders, to the in-crowd, to the ones who supported Moses.  That was exactly where Joshua wanted that power: with those he approved of, those he followed.  Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man, and he knew all the stuff Moses had had to put up with, and here are two guys who refused to join Moses who are prophesying!  Obviously, it’s bad, Joshua thought.  Moses is God’s chosen leader.  Therefore, the Spirit of God can only come to those who follow Moses, those who are part of our party.  So no matter what it looks like, they can’t really have the Spirit of God.  Because if it was really the Spirit, they would have come and joined Moses.  Therefore, Eldad and Medad must be stopped.

The thing is, God’s power doesn’t work like that.  God’s Holy Spirit is not stingy.  It doesn’t measure out wisdom and power by the teaspoonful in the appropriate places.  The Holy Spirit is a bonfire, or a raging flood, or a rushing wind.  It overflows, it goes where it wills, it is not confined, it cannot be controlled.  It’s not bound by Human rules or conventions or traditions, but by the will of God.  The world would be a much better place if everyone were open to the Spirit, and followed where it led.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the leadership, the in group.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the people on the outside, the people who have no power or leadership role.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is in both places at once, with insiders and outsiders, the people we agree with and the people we don’t agree with.  Even when we are truly following God’s guidance, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t following God’s guidance as well.  Joshua had to learn that, and so do we.  The way we think God should organize things is not necessarily the way God chooses to organize things.  And when it comes down to a choice between our will and God’s will, the only faithful thing to do is choose to follow God.

Then there are the disciples.  They, too, were jealous.  There was a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name—publicly showing Jesus’ power, and taking tangible part of that power as well—and he wasn’t one of them!  Our Gospel reading this week is a continuation of last week’s Gospel, it’s the same day.  They’ve been arguing about which of them is the greatest, and Jesus told them they were missing the point.  He took a child and told them that they should be like children, that the Christian life is about service and sacrifice, not power and glory.  And they learned nothing from his words.  They’re still focused on power.  They don’t want to talk about sacrifice, or responsibility, or taking care of children and other vulnerable people.  They want power to be concentrated with them, in their little group.  Not with this random outsider who is doing more impressive things in Jesus’ name than they are.  They don’t care how much good this other guy does; he’s not one of them, he’s not doing the things they think he should be doing, so he needs to be stopped.  The love Jesus’ power, but only when they benefit, only when they’re at the center.  Their wants, needs, fears, and comfort level are more important than any of the people this other guy is helping.  And so they want him stopped.  They don’t care how many people are suffering.  All they care about is themselves.

It’s no wonder Jesus is so harsh with them.  They are not listening to him!  He’s trying to tell them to put love first, to care about others in word and deed, to put more attention into serving those in need than into their own power and comfort levels.  And how do they respond?  By doubling down on their selfish jealousy!  They are letting their own pride and selfishness become a stumbling block to following Jesus, and in the process they themselves are being stumbling blocks to others.  They are trying to shut down someone who is saving people from evil.  They are trying to stop people from getting help they desperately need.  They are trying to keep those who need Jesus most from receiving healing in his name.  They, who claim to be Jesus’ most devoted followers, are trying to stop Jesus’ power from working in the world, and all because it’s not happening in ways they approve of.  And it’s dangerous, and it’s wrong, and it’s hurting people.  All their self-righteous justifications are a great big millstone dragging them down and keeping them from understanding Jesus; and worse, they’re preventing others from following Jesus, too.

And we Christians today do the same thing.  When God is at work among us, when God’s Holy Spirit is giving wisdom or healing, all too often we try to shut it down.  Sometimes it’s because of jealousy, or because it’s coming from outside our comfortable circle.  A lot of the times we try to shut it down because it’s leading us places we don’t want to go, or trying to make us deal with people we don’t want to deal with.  People who have demons, literal or metaphorical.  People who don’t look like us, or sound like us.  People who are different.  Or sometimes we shut God’s Spirit down because it requires us to change.  Given a choice between our traditions and following Jesus, most Christians will take their traditions every time … and then claim that they’re being faithful.  God called us to do a particular thing long ago, and it was good, and we’re comfortable with it, and therefore we tell ourselves that God can’t ask us to do something new or different.  We place our trust in our traditions and rules and comfort level, instead of in the Holy Spirit of God.  And in so doing, we become stumbling blocks.  We get in the way of God’s work in the world.  We create a culture of saying no to everything.  We lose our saltiness.  We work against God’s will, and all the while claim we’re being faithful.

I like traditions, myself.  I get in a rut very easily, and I like my well-worn patterns.  But God keeps calling us to do new things.  And God keeps calling us to love and serve all people, not just the ones we like, but even the ones we don’t like.  So here’s my challenge for us: to open ourselves to how God is calling us here, and now.  And not just to the ideas that are comfortable, or that we’ve done before.  What is God calling us to do that might make us uncomfortable?  What is God calling us to do that we’ve never done before?  What is God calling us to do that we would rather not do?  How is God calling us to love and serve our neighbors that aren’t like us?  What would it be like to actually follow the Spirit wherever it led?

Let us pray.  Holy Spirit, living Word of God, breathe new life into us.  Break our fears and help us avoid the temptation to close our hearts and minds to you.  Stir up in us a passion for your will that will lead us out into the community to speak your word and act as God’s hands and feet in the world.

Amen.

Lectionary 10B, June 10, 2018

Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1, Mark 3:20-35

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

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

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

This week’s Gospel reading has Jesus tangling with the scribes from the Jerusalem temple.  In the chapter prior to this, Jesus had healed people who were sick and cast out demons, causing quite a stir.  He’d also preached and taught and called the twelve disciples, so there was a great crowd everywhere he went.  And there was a ton of controversy about him, because he forgave sinners and was openly friendly with social outcasts, the tax collectors and the sinners.  He ate meals with the people that nice religious people were supposed to despise.  And he’d tangled with the Pharisees because he used a messianic title to refer to himself and they didn’t believe he was the Messiah.  So now here he is.  It’s still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but he has already created quite a stir.  And people are flocking to him because they know something good is happening, even if they’re not quite sure what.  They see people being healed, they see demons cast out, they see good news being preached, and they are excited.  They don’t know exactly what’s going on—some people think this Jesus fellow is simply nuts—but they know something big is happening.  Something worth keeping an eye on as they figure things out.

And this is when the scribes from Jerusalem show up.  Now, we don’t have a position exactly like the scribes today.  The word “scribe” means “someone who writes for a living,” which in the days before people had typewriters and computers and printing presses meant that they were the people who kept the records.  But don’t think of them as if they were mere functionaries or secretaries.  They were the ones who kept the records … which meant, effectively, that the records meant what they said they did.  They were the ones who recorded everything from history to poetry to business deals, and they were the ones who interpreted it.  In a lot of ways, they were like today’s lawyers and judges.  This was a very important and prestigious position.  No scribe was independently important, but as a class they were a force to be reckoned with.

The other thing about them is that their position and class depended on the patronage of the chief priests and the secular hierarchy.  Poor people can’t afford to pay a scribe to take notes for them, or to interpret the law for them.  Even middle class people only used a scribe’s services rarely.  The Temple and the chief priests were their primary employers, and the rich and powerful were their main other source of income.  And let’s review who the rich and powerful were, at this point in time.  The Romans ruled, either directly or through puppets like Herod.  Israel was a conquered territory ruled by foreign invaders who responded to any hint of rabble-rousing with immediate cruelty to the whole population.  The rich and powerful were either Romans or people who sucked up to them.  And the Romans did not like anything stirring up the ordinary person on the street.

As for the Temple, well, the chief priests were intimately aware that their existence depended on Rome’s good will.  Rome allowed the Temple to exist in the hopes that it would placate the Jewish people.  If the chief priests and temple authorities allowed the beginnings of an uprising, their heads would be first on the chopping block.  Or rather, first on the cross, because that was how the Romans executed conquered people.  Not to mention, the chief priests were supposed to be the ones with the monopoly on God’s power and wisdom, not untutored yokels from the sticks.  So, basically, when these scribes show up to see Jesus, they have a ton of reasons not to like him.  He’s a threat to their power and authority, and they are afraid at what might happen if he incites the crowds around him to violence and the Romans respond.

So when those scribes arrive, they don’t even bother to see what he’s doing or hear his message.  They have already decided he is a threat, and therefore he cannot be from God.  God’s Spirit cannot be present in someone they do not approve of, someone who threatens to upset their applecart.  Therefore, all of his supernatural powers—healing, casting out demons—must come from a demonic source.  It doesn’t make any sense AT ALL, because why would a demon want to cast out demons?  Why would a demon heal people?  Those are the LAST two things a demon would want.  Demons do evil, not good.  That’s their very nature.  But the scribes don’t care.  Jesus is a threat, so he must be discredited at all costs.

Think about that, for a second.  Think about the arrogance and hard-heartedness it would take, to see someone healing the sick and casting out demons, saving people from the very real evils in their lives in the most concrete way imaginable, and declaring that the healing force is demonic and evil.  They are literally seeing God’s power at work in front of their very eyes, and it’s not just that they don’t believe it.  No, it’s worse than that.  They see God’s power, and it’s doing something they don’t approve, so they believe it’s the devil.

And Jesus tells them that they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin.  Now, Christians in various times and places have sometimes interpreted it in various ways, mostly by taking whatever sin they find most immoral and calling it a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  But this passage is actually fairly specific about what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  It’s when you see the Holy Spirit at work and call it evil.  Everything else can be forgiven.  Unbelief, spreading lies about God, killing people, stealing, lying, cheating, and any other sin you care to name, it can all be forgiven.  But not looking at the power of God bringing healing to the world and calling it evil.

Unfortunately, the scribes of old are not the only ones to feel this temptation.  You see, the Holy Spirit is disruptive.  The Holy Spirit is a troublemaker, it is disorderly, upsetting, disruptive.   The Holy Spirit is wind, ruffling our feathers and blowing the dust off us and inspiring us to move out of old, comfortable, worn-out tracks.  The Holy Spirit is flame, setting us on fire and purifying us.  The Holy Spirit is water, washing us clean and drowning our old sinful self and making us re-born children of God.  The Holy Spirit sets prisoners free and makes people see things they have been blind to.  The Holy Spirit forgives sins and crosses boundaries.  The Holy Spirit brings good news to people who are poor and oppressed, and healing to a world broken by sin and death.

None of that is comfortable.  In fact, most of it is really uncomfortable.  Given a chance, most human beings do not like change.  We prefer things we understand, even if they’re not all that great, to things we don’t understand, even when it is so much better than anything we could have imagined.  We are prone to nostalgia, viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses and forgetting all the bad parts of it, as an excuse to keep things the same.  We don’t want to be set on fire, and we don’t want to be reborn, and while we like being forgiven we don’t like others to be forgiven, and by and large we don’t want to see things that might make us think new thoughts, either.  And the more wealth and power and status and influence we have, the less change we want, because after all, we don’t want to risk losing things.  And the more likely we are to count the Spirit’s disruptive action as a threat.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and though it is not always comfortable, it is always good: healing people and communities, inspiring, and working to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  It isn’t always easy to understand, but it is always present.  Whether we understand it or not, whether we want to be disrupted or not, may we always see it for what it is.

Amen.

Lit Up By The Spirit

Pentecost, Year B, May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

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

 

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

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

One of the interesting things about the story of Pentecost is what came before it.  Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared to the disciples and the rest of his followers several times.  He reassured them, he comforted them, he ate with them … and he told them to go out into the world to share their faith.  He told them that he wouldn’t be with them personally, but he would send the Holy Spirit to them, to help them and guide them and inspire them along the way.  And then he ascended into heaven, after telling them again to go into the world and spread their faith.

What are the disciples doing, a week later, on the day of Pentecost?  Why, sitting together in a room, just like they had been on Easter.  What weren’t they doing?  Going out into the world and sharing their faith as they had been commanded.  Now, they hadn’t been idle.  They’d done some necessary things, like sorting out leadership and sharing the stories of Jesus in the group to build the faith of the people who were already Jesus’ followers.  This sort of preparation and planning and sharing is very necessary to success.  But the problem was, that’s where they were leaving things.  They had the Word of God.  They had the preparations and infrastructure.  And what were they doing with it?  Sitting on their butts where it was comfortable and safe.  Not following Jesus’ commands to go out into the world and share the good news.

And then the Holy Spirit came.  It burst into their room, lit them up, and sent them out.  In fact, if you notice, there is no transition between being in the room and being out among the crowd.  The Spirit comes in, and suddenly they’re somewhere else.  It makes me wonder if the transition was so fast, so confusing, that they simply didn’t remember it well enough to tell the story, afterwards.  Sometimes life is like that when things happen quickly, especially if the Spirit is involved.  When I entered the process of becoming a minister, it was like that.  I remember knowing God was calling me to ministry and stubbornly not wanting to do it.  I remember filling out paperwork and meeting with the Synod committee.  But even at the time, I didn’t remember actually making the decision.  I don’t remember when things changed from “I’m not doing this” to “I’m doing this.”  I didn’t see any fire or wind, and I didn’t suddenly start speaking in other languages (which might have been helpful when it came to learning Greek and Hebrew).  But the Holy Spirit came, and set my feet on a new path, one I’d been resisting even as I did things that prepared for it.

Have any of you had an experience like that?  A time in your life when God set you on a path you hadn’t expected?  Or maybe one that you hadn’t wanted, but that turned out to be the right one for you?  God’s call isn’t just a matter of ministry.  God sends the Spirit into us to guide us in many ways, both within church and outside of it.  Some of you who are being Confirmed today, or who will be graduating in a week, you might not have experienced this yet.  But I’m pretty sure that some time in your life, you will.  Your lives are just beginning, and so far there’s been a lot of preparation, a lot of study, a lot of getting ready.  Some of you have plans for your future, some of you don’t, but you will each and every one of you find there are times in your life when God has a different plan for you than you expected.  It may be something big, it may be something small, but you will find yourself someplace you never expected to be.  But you won’t be alone, no matter what else happens, because the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Acts reading, the Pentecost story itself, the Holy Spirit is very impressive.  It is fire and wind and inspiration and it literally sets the disciples on fire for the Lord and sends them out on the wind to minister to people from every nation in the world.  And there will be times in your life, we pray, when you will get fired up like that.  When your faith will be strengthened and you can’t not follow God’s call, whatever that may be in your life, and it leads you to be and do things you never dreamed, to places you might not have chosen on your own but which will nevertheless be good for you.  It may be as obvious as Pentecost, or it may be a bit subtler, but it will be amazing and probably a little scary.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Gospel reading, the Spirit isn’t as showy, or as wild, but it is just as strong.  Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, who will speak in our favor and defend us and support us, who will help us know the truth even when the world tries to confuse us or just doesn’t understand.  And there will be times in your life when the Spirit will be your Advocate.  There will be times when you will be confused.  There will be times when the world’s ideas of right and wrong are just not true.  There will be times when the right thing to do may not be obvious, and times when you will be tempted to do things you know are wrong.  There will be times when you need your faith encouraged and supported in the midst of a world that doesn’t understand.  And we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you in those times of trial, advocating for you and strengthening you and showing you the right thing to do and say, and giving you the courage to face the world with faithfulness and goodness.  And again, it may not be obvious when you’re going through it that the Holy Spirit is there; sometimes, when you are going through hard times it’s difficult to see God’s presence in you and around you.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our second reading, from Romans, the Spirit is a comforter in times of trouble.  Saint Paul describes the whole world as groaning in labor pains, with the future Kingdom of God on its way but not here yet.  Like a woman in labor, we know that something good is coming … but there is pain and hardship before it can get here.  In this life, there is pain and sorrow and grief.  There are hard times.  There are people who hurt others, or allow others to be hurt through inaction.  There are all kinds of evils.  And sometimes it seems so hopeless we don’t even know what to pray for.  But even in the midst of that we have hope, because the Spirit is in us, and we know that God’s kingdom of peace and love and joy is coming even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t imagine that anything good could possibly come out of a world as messed up as this one.  There will be times when your life will suck.  Times when you will suffer.  Times when hope seems foolish.  But we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you then.  That it will wrap its arms around you and hold you tight, and know the longings of your heart, even when you feel too bad to express them.  Even when you are at your very lowest ebb, when you are weak and beaten up by the storms of life, the Spirit will be with you, supporting you, working on your behalf.  The Spirit will know all the darkest places in your heart, all the times when you feel like just giving up, and it will be with you.

You are going out into the world in new ways.  Some of you are graduating and leaving town for further schooling or work.  Some of you are staying here and continuing to grow in our midst, but you will be making promises and taking responsibility for more of your own faith development.  But no matter what stage of life you are in, or where you are going, always remember this: the Holy Spirit will be with you.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

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.

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.

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.

Wherever the Spirit blows

Pentecost, Year C, May 18, 2013

Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-35, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

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.

Boy, we had a lot of wind this week!  A lot of wind.  I was down in Bismarck on Tuesday, and I could see the stop signs and street lights waving in the wind.  It was a novel sight for me—back home in Oregon, I would never have seen metal poles anchored in concrete move.  But here in North Dakota, when the wind gets whipping around, it happens.  Wind here is such a dramatic metaphor for the Spirit.  You see, the Holy Spirit and wind are alike in a way.  You can’t see wind, just as you can’t see the Holy Spirit.  But you can sure see what it’s doing.

Before Jesus was crucified, he told his followers what was coming.  He would leave them, and he would send them the Holy Spirit.  Now, the disciples were very worried.  They didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them; they couldn’t imagine that anything which resulted in Jesus dying might work out.  They were afraid of being without Jesus.  They were afraid of what might happen when they no longer had Jesus there to tell them what God wanted and guide them in God’s way.  So Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus responded by saying they’d seen the Father—because after all, the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit are all one.  So, since they know Jesus, they know the Father as well, and the Holy Spirit.  And once Jesus was gone, he would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them always, so that God would still be with them even if Jesus was no longer physically present for them to see and touch.

This made the disciples nervous, and I can understand why.  When Jesus was right there with them, it was easy to feel the presence of God.  They could see him, touch him, sit down and have a meal with him and talk about who God was, what it meant to be God’s people, and what God was calling them to do.  This “advocate” Jesus told them of, this “Spirit,” that’s a lot more difficult to see and feel.  And it’s a lot easier to misunderstand.  Just like with the wind, you see the Spirit’s effects, and not the Spirit itself.  If you’re looking out a window and see a stop sign shaking, it could be the wind—or it could be an earthquake.  Or there could be construction guys using heavy equipment nearby.  You have to make a judgment call—which is it?  And for me, at least, I haven’t lived in North Dakota long enough for “wind” to be the first thing I think of.

The Spirit’s effects can be more difficult to discern than the effects of wind.  You have to be watching for it, and open to the possibility of God working among us.  Just look at the lesson from Acts.  The Holy Spirit filled the disciples, sending them out from the rooms they’d been hiding away in.  They went out into the community and began to tell people about their experiences with Jesus.  Even more than that, they spoke in many different languages, so that everyone could understand them.  And some people heard them and believed, but others heard them and thought they must be drunk.  To us who know Jesus, who hear this story with the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that they could miss God’s actions in this story.  This was a great miracle, and yet they couldn’t see it!  They looked for reasons to doubt, for other explanations.  They were faithful people—they were all in Jerusalem to celebrate a major Jewish religious festival at the Temple—and yet, when God intervened directly in their midst, they couldn’t see it.  They weren’t expecting it, and so they found other explanations that made more sense to them.

Sometimes, we do the same thing.  Be honest: how often do you actually look for God’s presence in your life?  How often do you see something happening around you and wonder if it might be the Holy Spirit?  Too often, we simply don’t see the Spirit because we’re not looking for it.  We shrug and explain things as coincidence, or as the result of a whole host of reasons.  And that may very well be true—but that doesn’t mean the Spirit can’t be working through those things!  Throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, God has done amazing things that the people at the time would never have thought of.  Without the Holy Spirit, Peter and the rest of the disciples would never have gone out there to preach to the crowds, and, later, it would never have occurred to them to spread the message of Jesus to non-Jews.  And without the Holy Spirit, the crowds who heard the disciples’ story on that first Pentecost would never have believed.  Without the Spirit, those crowds would have remained divided by race and language.  Without the Spirit, nothing is possible; but with the Spirit, all sorts of things are possible.  But if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t looking for the way the Spirit is moving, we can miss seeing it just like some of those who saw the first Pentecost did.

We look back at what the Holy Spirit did in the Bible, at stories like Pentecost, and it’s easy to think that nothing like that could happen now.  That was a long time ago, and I haven’t seen any tongues of flame, have you?  Yet we know the Holy Spirit is with us, because Jesus promised to give it to us.  We may not always recognize its work in our lives and in our world, but it is with us always.  And it can do amazing things, whether we recognize it or not.  The Spirit comforts us in our sorrows, inspires us, connects us to God, and guides us in our journey through life.  The Spirit leads us to do things we would never have believed we could do, to places we would never have believed we would be.  The Spirit brings us together as God’s people and forms us into the body of Christ.  And, when this broken, sinful world brings sorrows and griefs, the Spirit comforts us and shows us God’s love.

We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptisms, and that is an awesome gift.  In baptism, we are washed clean.  Our old sinful self is drowned and we rise to new life in Christ.  And the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  We are, in the words of the baptismal rite, “sealed by the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit dwells within each one of us.  No matter what happens, no matter what we do or where we go, the seal of the Holy Spirit goes with us.  Even when we can’t see the Spirit moving, we know it is with us.  Even when we can’t feel its effects, we know it is with us.

Rylan and Roslin will be receiving that gift of the Spirit here today.  It’s an awesome gift!  It’s not the end of their journey towards God; it is the beginning of their journey with God.  We here are all making that journey.  It’s not a journey to take alone.  Christianity is not, at heart, about being alone with God.  Christianity is about coming together in the community of faith, to support and encourage one another and to be the Body of Christ in the world.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings us together despite our differences.  It is the Holy Spirit that guides us along that journey and helps us to be faithful to God.  It is the Holy Spirit that helps us to share God’s story with all people, and it is the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world.

When people are baptized, we promise to support them in their life as Christians.  We welcome them into the family of faith.  In the case of children, we promise that we will help their parents and godparents raise them in the Christian faith.  It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we received at our own baptisms, that allows us to do this.  We have been chosen and called by God, here in this place, to share the Good News with all people through our words and our actions.  Rylan and Roslin, who will be baptized today, are entering into that relationship.  We will support and encourage them to grow in God, just as they in their turn will support and encourage others.  We will tell them the stories of God’s work in the world just as those stories were told to us, just as the disciples told the crowds at that first Pentecost, so many years ago.

Two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit sent the disciples out to tell the story of Jesus.  It sent them out into a world that didn’t like them much, a world in which many people wouldn’t hear or understand their message, wouldn’t see God’s presence in their midst.  The Spirit acted through them, and we call Pentecost the church’s birthday because the conversions that started that day were the beginnings of what came to be the church.  By hearing and responding to the good news, those people became part of the family of God, and they, too, received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The story of Pentecost is not over.  The story of Pentecost continues wherever the Holy Spirit blows.  Pentecost is happening right here in our church today, as we celebrate the work of God in our young people, from those who have grown in faith until they are ready to graduate from high school and become adults, to those who will be baptized here today.  We see the Spirit at work in them, and it reminds us that the Spirit is at work in all of us.  Wherever the Spirit is at work, it is Pentecost, and the Spirit is at work here.  It led the disciples out of their comfortable rooms and into the world to preach God’s Word.  It led crowds of people to be given the gift of faith.  I wonder what the Spirit will do in and through us?  May we all feel the Spirit’s work in our lives.  Thanks be to God for that gift.

Amen.

Listening to the Spirit

Easter 6, Year B, Sunday, May 13, 2012

Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 115:9-17

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

Download an audio recording of this sermon.

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

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

The Psalmist writes: “Sing a new song to the LORD, who has done marvelous things.”  I don’t know much about worship music in Biblical times—no one does—but in America, most people who go to church don’t like to sing a new song.  Anyone who’s done any worship planning could tell you that.  No matter what denomination, region, or era, the complaint is the same whenever a new song is introduced.  “What’s wrong with the old songs we know and love?” people say.  “They were much better than this new stuff!”  I had a professor in seminary who had a list of hymns, some new and some that are for us old familiar classics.  Below that list was another list of actual complaints made about the songs when they first came out, and the game was to match which complaint belonged to an old classic and which belonged to a new hymn.  It was surprisingly hard, because people made the exact same types of complaints a hundred years ago as they do today.  It was a good reminder that every old thing was once new.  Every bit of beloved tradition started out as a change from the way things used to be done, and was probably grumbled at when it was introduced.  I don’t think it was that different in ancient Israel.  People like familiar things.  It’s human nature.  Change is messy, and unpredictable, and always has unintended consequences.  So unless things are going terribly wrong, most people like things to stay the same, and assume that the way things are is the way things should be.  It’s just human nature.

In our first lesson, Saint Peter and his followers shared that appreciation for the status quo.  Even though Jesus had come to them, had lived and died and turned the whole world inside out with his teachings and his sacrifice, they assumed that things would go on and be business as usual.  The Jews were the people of God, so those who wanted to follow Jesus would become Jewish, and would follow Jewish customs and be circumcised.  After all, circumcision was the mark of being God’s people.  That’s why they were amazed that the Holy Spirit came to these gentiles.  They weren’t Jewish, weren’t circumcised.  How could God be with those outside of the community that had been worshipping him for centuries?  As the book of Acts says, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

This story could happen in any church in America today.  In fact, it could happen in any congregation in the history of the Christian church.  It’s an old pattern.  We meet someone new—someone who’s different than we are.  Maybe they come from another country, or another state, or another ethnic group.  Maybe they come from another religion.  Maybe they have a different political ideology.  Maybe they’re from another economic group.  Maybe their orientation is different.  The specifics don’t really matter, in any one of a million different ways, the newcomers are not like us.  They are, in the words of today’s reading from Acts, gentiles.  People from outside the traditional community of faith.  And then we see that God is at work in them, and we are astonished to find that God can send God’s Spirit even to those who are different from us.

After all, we know that we are God’s chosen people.  Peter and the circumcised believers in the Acts story knew it too.  God had come to their ancestors long ago, and made a covenant with them, a promise that he would be their God and they would be his people.  God had chosen them, given them the gift of his love, taught them how to live good and fruitful lives.  God had been with them through many dangers, toils, and snares.  Every male of their community had physical proof of their relationship with God in the circumcision that was part of the covenant.  Jesus Christ had come, God’s Anointed One, and given them an even deeper understanding of God’s love.  Jesus had shown them that all the commandments God gave could be summed up in one word: love.  Love for neighbor and love for God.  Instead of focusing on the rules and regulations, they should focus on the intentions behind the rules, and love one another in deed and in truth, and love God—abide in God—with all their heart, soul, and mind.  They were doing everything that God had called them to do!  They were God’s chosen people.

That’s why they were shocked to find that these gentiles were God’s chosen people, too.  These gentiles did not share their history.  These gentiles were not part of the covenant God made with the Jewish people.  These gentiles didn’t share their language, their worship traditions, their culture, their values, their perspective on the world.  These people were different.  And yet, God had chosen them!  Those first circumcised believers had thought that because they were God’s chosen people, God would only choose people who were like them, or were willing to become like them.  But God had a different plan.  The gentiles didn’t have to give up their identity and become Jewish in order to receive the Holy Spirit.  God gave it to them as they were.  God’s love was given to everyone, not just those who were already part of the community of faith.  Jesus’ commandment to base our lives on love for God and one another was given for everyone.  God chose these Gentiles, guiding them in new ways to be God’s people.  God was gathering in all peoples together.  God was doing a new thing, a marvelous thing.

And it is that new thing, God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to those gentiles, which brings us here today.  You see, those gentiles are our ancestors in the faith.  If the first circumcised believers hadn’t recognized and followed God’s will to baptize them and teach them God’s Word, and do the same for all the Gentiles who came after them, we would not be here today.  We owe our faith, our relationship with Jesus, to their willingness to follow God even when God was doing something surprising, something new, something that changed and challenged their assumptions.  Thank God for Saint Peter, who saw God’s Spirit working and followed where it led even through his astonishment.  Thank God that he was willing to baptize and teach people who were different from him.  Thank God that Peter later support Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles.

The question for us here is, what new, surprising, marvelous things is God doing today?  What new songs is God calling us to sing?  How is God pouring out the Holy Spirit in today’s world?  Are we willing to recognize the work of the Spirit if it comes in forms—and people—that don’t look like what we’re used to?  No matter how much we like things to stay the same, our world is changing.  Our culture is changing.  Young people today act and think very differently than their grandparents did.  And thanks the ease of modern travel and communications, many people of all ages have friends who come from different cultures, countries, and faiths.  Church attendance is decreasing all over America, and we hear a lot of doom and gloom about that.  But I think the pessimists are wrong.  I think we have extraordinary opportunities to do ministry.  We have the opportunity to be like Peter and his band of circumcised believers, going out to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the gentiles.

But that depends on us being willing to see the Holy Spirit in unexpected places, and recognizing that God sometimes comes in places and people we don’t expect.  People who aren’t like us.  And that’s harder than it sounds.  The story of Pentecost is coming up in a few weeks.  At Pentecost, God sent the Spirit to a large group of believers.  But some of those who were there, and saw this miracle, dismissed it out of hand.  They saw the Holy Spirit working, and assumed people were just drunk.  God was there, and they didn’t see him because they didn’t want to see him.  If we are not careful, we can miss the Spirit’s presence and see only what we expect to see.

God was with Peter, and God was with those first gentile believers, and God is still with us today.  God is still gathering all peoples to himself.  God is still doing new things.  May God open our eyes to see the work of the Holy Spirit in the world, even in places and people that astonish us.

Amen.

Baptism of Our …

Baptism of Our Lord (First Sunday after Epiphany, Year B), Sunday, January 8, 2012

Genesis 1:1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

As you may know, I went home for the week after Christmas.  On December 30th, my mother and I went shopping in the mall near my home, and they already had the Valentines candy and Easter outfits on display.  The tinsel and lights and presents of the December holiday season were already packed away in their boxes to await next year’s sales.  And yet, we here in this church are still in a season of gifts.

No, it’s not still Christmas, even here—the twelfth and last day of Christmas was January 5th—but now we are in the season of Epiphany.  The festival of Epiphany is January 6th and celebrates Jesus Christ as the light of the world.  It also celebrates the coming of the Magi following the light of a star to lead them to Christ.  And what do the magi bring?  Presents!  So it’s no surprise that the readings of the season of Epiphany usually focus on either light, or gifts.  And today is a day of celebrating gifts—in this case, the gifts God has given us.

Specifically, we are remembering the gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through water and God’s Word, in baptism.  If ever there was a gift that kept on giving, there it is.  We start off the readings with the breath of God—the Spirit—sweeping over the face of the waters at the dawn of creation.  You see, the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  God created it out of nothingness.  Everything in this world, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy, from the smallest microbe to you and me, was and is created by God.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from the creative work of God.  Our existence and every good thing in our lives is a gift from God.

In the beginning, the Holy Spirit was there, moving through it and working with the Father.  One thing I notice is that whenever I come across references to the Holy Spirit in scripture, it’s always moving, or doing something.  The Spirit never stands still.  The Spirit is never stagnant.  And it was moving in Creation, as the world was called into being.  The Spirit was moving in the primordial chaos of the formless void, and the Spirit was part of the Father’s creative work.

The Holy Spirit is still moving in the world.  But the Holy Spirit is also moving in us, specifically and uniquely.  That gift was given to us in our baptisms, as we are united with Christ in his baptism, and the Father claims us as his beloved children.  What greater gift can there be than for God to claim us as God’s own?

John the Baptist knew that.  “I baptize with water,” he said, “but there is one coming after me who baptizes with fire and the Holy Spirit.”  You see, John’s baptism was a form of ritual bathing common in Jewish religious life.  When you committed a sin, one of the ways to purify yourself and make yourself right with God was to symbolically wash the sin away.  It was a public statement that you understood that you had done wrong, and a promise to do better next time, to turn away from the thing that made you unclean and separated you from God and from other people.  But it wasn’t permanent.  Everyone sins, and so then you would have to go back and be cleansed again.  It was a never-ending cycle.

Jesus’ baptism is not like that.  Jesus’ baptism is not about our commitment to do the right thing, and it’s not something we can fail at and redo.  When Jesus came to the Jordan River and was baptized, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down on him.  And God said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Jesus baptism is God’s public declaration of love and relationship.  And that’s the baptism that we are baptized with.

When we are baptized, we are claimed by God.  The Holy Spirit comes to us and begins moving in us.  And God our creator speaks those same words he spoke to Jesus in the Jordan River: “you are my beloved child; with you I am well pleased.”  There is nothing we can do to break that relationship; God will love us no matter what.  The Holy Spirit will move in us no matter what.  No matter how far we go astray, no matter how much we mess up, God is with us, claiming us as God’s own and leading us back to wholeness and goodness.  Think about that, for a second.  God is with us no matter what.  God loves us no matter what.  And through us, God is doing amazing things.  What greater gift could we possibly receive?

As everyone knows, some gifts are better than others.  And I’m not talking about how expensive they are.  When I was a child, there were some gifts that I loved and played with for years, and others that I thanked the giver politely for and promptly put on a shelf and forgot about.  Probably the single best gift I ever got was my oboe, a very high quality instrument.  My grandparents gave it to me in High School, and if you were here for the second service on Christmas Eve you heard probably heard me play it in the prelude.  Fifteen years after they gave it to me, it is still a cherished possession that I regularly use.  Most of the other gifts I received then have long since been outgrown or worn out.  But the Holy Spirit is a gift that doesn’t just gather dust on a shelf, and it can never be outgrown or worn out.

Remember earlier I mentioned that whenever the Spirit is mentioned in the Bible, it’s doing something.  The Spirit moves, it dances, it inspires people to participate in God’s saving work in the world.  The problem is, so often we don’t listen.  We get so caught up in our busy lives and our daily worries that we ignore the movement of the Spirit in us and around us.  We get so used to our ordinary world that we miss the extraordinary presence of God in our midst.  The Spirit invites us to join in God’s work in the world, to participate in the Kingdom of Heaven, and most of the time we don’t even realize it.  When we do hear the Spirit’s call, all too often we find reasons to ignore it: I’m too busy, it’ll never work, I’ve never done it before, what will the neighbors think, let someone else do it.  We treat the Holy Spirit as if it were an ill-fitting sweater given us by some well-meaning relative, that we can exchange for something we like better.

And yet, the Spirit will not be silenced, and the Spirit will not be still.  God has done marvelous things, from the creation of the world to the present day, and God is still doing marvelous things.  God has given us our very lives, everything that we have and are, and God has given us the gift of God’s own presence.  I wonder, what would the world be like if we let the Spirit stir us?  What would Somerset be like, if we let the Spirit call us into wholehearted and joyful participation in God’s work?  What would this congregation be like if we opened ourselves up to the presence of the Holy Spirit moving in us and around us?

As we come forward for communion, you will notice that there is a box, wrapped up as a gift, sitting at the font.  In that box we are asked to place our commitments of time, talent, and treasure.  In this way we give back just a small portion of the many blessings God has given us.  This is not just about money.  This is not just about keeping the lights on and paying salaries.  Through our gifts of our time, our abilities, and our treasures, we participate in God’s work.  We come together to minister to one another, to our community, and to our world.  We share the Word of God and all the gifts God has given us with all creation.  I hope that you have been praying about how God is calling you to participate in this congregation’s ministry, and I pray that you have reflected that call in your commitments.

But these commitments are not the end of our participation in God’s work.  Answering the call of the Holy Spirit is not just something we do once a year and then put it back on the shelf and forget about.  Following the Spirit’s call is the lifelong vocation of a Christian.  As the Spirit is always moving, always calling, we should always be listening and responding.  As you go through the year to come (and all the years to come), don’t let yourself forget that God is with you.  Keep praying for the Spirit’s guidance, keep responding to God’s word.  May God open our hearts and minds to the Spirit’s call.

Amen.