The Righteousness of God

Baptism of Our Lord, (Year A), January 12, 2014

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

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.

You know, there’s a word in the Gospel of Matthew that repeats over and over and over again.  Since most of our Gospel readings for the next year come from Matthew, it’s something to listen for.  Righteous.  The Gospel of Matthew spends a lot of time talking about righteousness.  Fair enough, that’s a common religious word; Christians use it a lot, although less than we did, say, fifty years ago.  The thing is, though, that a lot of times when Matthew talks about “righteousness,” he’s not always using it the way we would expect.

According to the dictionary, “righteous” means “acting in accord with divine or moral law:  free from guilt or sin.”  So far so good; that’s what Matthew means, too.  But it’s when you put the word into use that things get tricky.  For example, we tend to make sharp distinctions between people who are “righteous” and people who are not.  Righteous people are good, moral, go to church and read their Bible.  They are pillars of their community.  And we often see a sharp divide between the righteous and the sinners, even when we don’t actually use those words to describe them.  The righteous people are good, God-fearing people; sinners are not.  If someone we consider righteous stumbles or has a problem, we rally around them.  If someone we consider a sinner has a problem, we are quicker to condemn than to help.  The righteous are always welcome at church.  The sinners often face gossip just for showing up.

John the Baptist was well aware of this distinction.  He called for sinners to repent and be baptized: to turn away from their sin, go into the water, and get a fresh slate to become righteous.  He knew that even people who looked righteous on the outside, like the Pharisees, were really sinners, and he wasn’t afraid to challenge them.  John wanted God’s kingdom to come, and he wanted people to live their lives in accordance with God’s law.  He’d baptized many people before Jesus showed up, and when Jesus came to be baptized, John tried to prevent him.  Matthew knew that Jesus was not a sinner.  Jesus, alone out of the entire world, had no need of a baptism for his own forgiveness.

When you think about it, John is right.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus is not a sinner.  Jesus is the son of God, God made flesh and blood like you and me!  Jesus doesn’t need to be washed clean from anything.  Jesus doesn’t need to get a clean slate.  Jesus is the one person in the history of the world who has been totally and completely righteous his entire life.  So why did Jesus want to be baptized?  More than that!  Jesus told John: “Let it happen now, for it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

There’s that word: righteousness.  But Jesus was already righteous, so what did he need to be baptized for?  Just for form’s sake?  No.  Jesus needed to be baptized because it was God’s will.  God was doing something, with that baptism.  And what God was doing was reaching out to the unrighteous.  The sinners.  The ones who fall short of God’s law, the ones who’re drowning in guilt and sin.  Everyone who has ever been baptized is tied to Jesus’ baptism.  And through Jesus’ baptism, we are tied to God.  Because Jesus was baptized, our baptisms are not just a temporary thing, getting a little cleaner.  Because of Jesus’ baptism, our baptisms mean we are saved.  We are set free from our bondage to sin.  Not just for a little while, but forever and ever.  In our baptisms, we are reborn children of God.  In our baptisms, we are claimed by God.  In our baptisms, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Remember the words the Father spoke when Jesus came up out of the water?  “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism.  So those words that the Father spoke to his Son, those aren’t just for Jesus.  Those are for us, too, for everyone who has ever been baptized.  When you were baptized, God spoke those words to you, too: “You are my beloved child.”  And that is a bond that nothing can ever break.  God has claimed us, washed us clean, forgiven us, and adopted us as his own children.

It doesn’t stop there.  Do you remember in the reading, where the heavens opened up and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove on Jesus?  That happens to us, too.  When we are baptized, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit comes to us in and through the waters of baptism.  God lives in us, because of our baptisms.  Because through our baptisms, we are tied to Christ’s baptism.

No matter how righteous we think we are, we don’t deserve that gift.  No matter how righteous we are, we could never earn God’s love and forgiveness.  We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.  Some of our sins are more obvious than others; some people’s sins are large and public, while the sins of others are more private, or pettier, and are largely ignored.  We may think we’re righteous, but we still sin.  We still go astray from God’s law and the path God has laid out for us.  And all too often we find justifications, reasons to convince ourselves that we’re doing the right thing even as we turn our back on God.  We are not righteous.

We’re not righteous, but through Jesus’ baptism and our own baptism, we are given the gift of Jesus’ righteousness.  Jesus is pure and sinless.  Jesus always follows God’s will.  And through Jesus, we are given the gift of the salvation that comes through that faithfulness.

We aren’t saved from our sin and brokenness and lostness because we are righteous.  We are saved because God wants to save us.  We aren’t righteous on our own; we could never be good enough to earn that title.  But God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit anyway!

And that’s the difference between the way we use the word “righteousness” and the way God uses the word “righteousness.”  We use it to exclude, to break people up into categories, “good” people and “bad” people, “righteous” and “sinners,” “worthy” and “unworthy.”  God looks at us, sees the depths of our sinfulness, our brokenness, our lostness, and loves us anyway.  God sees all the bad things we have done, our pettiness, our thoughtlessness, our selfishness, and instead of rejecting us for it, God sends his only Son to save us.  God looks at all the ways we have turned away from him, and reaches out to adopt as his children.  God’s righteousness is that he reaches out to us even though we are not worthy.

John the Baptist protested when Jesus came to him to be baptized.  He knew that Jesus didn’t need to be baptized for his own sake.  But that wasn’t why Jesus went to the Jordan River.  Jesus wasn’t baptized for his own sake, but for ours.  Jesus was baptized because it is God’s will that sinners should be saved, and we are saved through the waters of baptism which connects us with Jesus.

We’ll be hearing the word “righteous” a lot as we read the Gospel of Matthew together in church this year.  We’ll hear it from Pharisees who think they know what God’s will is.  We’ll hear it used to describe Jesus.  Whenever you hear it, remember that the ultimate act of righteousness is the cross.  Righteousness means Jesus’ obedience even to the point of death on a cross so that sinners might be saved.  Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his baptism; Jesus’ righteousness is what led to his death, and resurrection.  And it is through that baptism, through that death and resurrection, that we are washed clean and forgiven.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A party for the lost

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 24), September 15, 2013

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15: 1-10

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

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

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

Society was very different in Jesus’ day, in many ways.  The gap between rich and poor was much larger, for example, and virtually everyone worked at hard physical labor since their machinery was very primitive.  Their ideas of what family was were very different than ours, as was their understanding of gender.  They had very little concept of science, and viewed numbers and mathematics with a kind of mysticism.  But, as it happens, despite all the differences, there was a group in Jesus day very similar to most modern Christians.

These people were the pillars of their community.  They were as close as the ancient world got to “middle class.”  They studied the Bible regularly (although their Bible was only what we would call the Old Testament, as the New Testament hadn’t been written yet).  They went to worship every Sabbath.  They tried to do everything the right way, the way God wanted it.  They tried their best to follow the Commandments and establish a good and godly society.  They tried to get everyone in their community to be faithful to God, too; they spent lots of time and energy teaching anyone who would listen about God.  And they were generous, always giving their offering at the Temple and supporting the needy in their community.  They tried to do everything right, and by most standards they succeeded.  They knew who deserved God’s favor, who had earned God’s love.  When Jesus showed up, they were among the first to listen to him, although in the end they didn’t like what he had to say.  They agreed with Jesus about most things, but in the end, the few things they disagreed on were so important to them that they turned on Jesus and helped the chief priests to arrest him.  Who were these people, you may ask, these righteous and self-righteous people doing their best to follow God’s commandments?  The Pharisees.

One of the things that most annoyed the Pharisees about Jesus was who he spent time with.  Sure, he came to be with them in worship, and he ate with them and taught them … but he also spent time with the sinners and tax collectors and all manner of unsavory people.  And sure, the Pharisees said, healing such people was great (as long as it wasn’t on the Sabbath), and teaching them was wonderful, and feeding the hungry was just what God would approve of.  But … eating with them?  Not just feeding the hungry, but spending time socializing with sinners from all walks of life?  Not just ladling out bowls of soup at a soup kitchen along with an invitation to worship, but building relationships with them?  These are the losers!  The lost!  The ones who have proved by their behavior that they don’t belong with the good people!  The ones who have proved that they aren’t worthy of being included in the community!  No respectable person should be hanging out with them, especially not someone who claims to be a teacher of the faith.  So it’s no wonder that they grumbled about Jesus’ social time with sinners.

Jesus, of course, heard the grumbling.  And so he told them three parables.  We only hear the first two today; the third, the story of the Prodigal Son, we won’t hear until Lent.  All three parables are about finding what is lost, and rejoicing.  The shepherd leaving ninety nine sheep behind to search for one that is lost, the woman who scours her house until she finds the last coin, the son who comes back expecting to be thrown out on his ear only to find himself wrapped in his father’s loving arms.

In our two parables today, the search for what is lost is extravagant, frantic, trumping all other concerns.  Have you ever thought what might happen to the ninety-nine sheep while the shepherd is away searching for the one that is lost?  Have you ever spent more time than you can afford tearing apart your home to search for something you know you have in there somewhere?  There comes a point where it makes more sense, from any rational standpoint, to simply accept the loss and move on.  But that’s not what happens in the stories.  The search continues until what is lost has been found.  We’re not told the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus’ choice of metaphor, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d been skeptical about it, frowning at what doesn’t seem to make sense.

And then, even worse is what happens after the lost is found.  There’s a party!  Rejoicing!  Sheep go astray all the time; it’s the shepherd’s job to keep them together and find the ones who wander off before anything happens to them.  So why is the shepherd throwing a party for doing his job?  And as for the woman with the ten coins, well, she, too, throws a party.  But how much did the party cost, I wonder?  She reacts to finding and saving money by … spending it.  Surely, the sensible thing to do would be to not lose things in the first place, and if you do lose them, take a good look at how important they are and whether or not it’s worth it to put in the time and effort to find them.  And how about a cost-benefit analysis before throwing the party.  Is it worth it?  Was the stuff you lost really that important?  What’s the sensible, responsible, logical thing to do?  Particularly when you remember that these parables are all about Jesus’ disreputable habit of hanging out with sinners.  It’s one thing to put a lot of time and energy into finding something that was lost by accident; something else entirely to search for someone who chose to get lost.  It’s no wonder that when Jesus was done telling his parables, the Pharisees ridiculed him!

And while the Pharisees are standing around debating the finer points of Jesus’ stories and pointing out the logical flaws, they were missing the big picture.  Any time, in Scripture, that you hear someone talking about a party, you should start paying attention.  Particularly when they’re talking about God throwing a party.  Because, you see, one of the great metaphors for Heaven is that of a party.  You see it over and over and over again, in the Old Testament and again in Jesus’ parables and even through to Revelation.  The Pharisees, good Bible-thumping people that they were, should have recognized the party just as you or I would recognize a picture of someone in a white robe sitting on a cloud with a harp.  But they don’t seem to; in chapter 16 when Jesus finally gets done with this string of parables, they ridicule him.  They’re so focused on the commandments, that they can’t see the love and grace behind them.  After all, as Jesus pointed out, all of the commandments can be summed up as loving God and loving your neighbor.  And that love comes in response to God’s love for us, a love that is extravagant and impractical and can’t be subject to a cost-benefit analysis.

You have to wonder if the Pharisees are ever going to get with the program.  Because, if they continue on as they are, they’ll be standing outside the party by their own choice.  In the great party that is heaven, will they be standing outside the gates complaining about who got in and refusing to enter because they certainly wouldn’t want to be seen with those kinds of people?  And complaining about what low standards God has, instead of joining in the rejoicing that what was lost has been found?   Will they spend eternity complaining about the extravagance of God’s determination to find and save everyone no matter how lost they are, an extravagance that includes pouring out God’s own self on the cross for the sake of the world?

But it’s easy to condemn the Pharisees.  After all, they lived so long ago and they are often Jesus’ opponents in the Bible.  It’s harder to recognize the same flaws in ourselves.  We, too, are good God-fearing people.  We, too, judge others, sometimes harshly.  We, too, are prone to think more about our own righteousness than on God’s saving grace.  We, too, sometimes hold to the letter of the law instead of the spirit of love which is its foundation.  If Jesus came here today, would we be offended by whom he chose to hang out with?  Would we be shocked to see him seek out druggies and welfare mothers and gang-bangers and pregnant teens and spend time with them?  Not just giving them a handout and a sermon, but building a relationship, loving them, and inviting them to the great party that is God’s kingdom?  Would we ridicule the time and effort spent seeking out the lost?  Would we, too, find ourselves on the outside of the party looking in, complaining about the guest list and the extravagance?

The truth is, we are all lost, in one way or another.  No matter how well we think we know God and follow him, we fall astray.  No matter how good we think we are, we fall short of the glory of God.  We fail to love God, and we fail to love our neighbor.  And sometimes, we even get so caught up in trying to follow the letter of the law that we forget the spirit of it.  If we can’t love our neighbors, particularly the ones who aren’t particularly good or likeable, how can we understand and accept God’s love for them?  Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own judgments that we lose sight of God’s grace, and become lost.

So thank God that our God loves us—all of us—so much that he will never stop seeking us.  Thank God for the extravagant grace and mercy poured out on all people, saint and sinner, good and bad, respectable and outcast.  For we are all, every one of us, sinners, in one way or another; and we are all, every one of us, saved by God’s grace and love, and invited in to the great party.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Rules We Make

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9), Year C, June 2, 2013

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

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

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

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

For the next six weeks, we’ll be hearing a lot from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  It’s one of the more important books of the Bible, for it proclaims the heart of the Good News.  There are few other places in the Bible where the Gospel is laid out so clearly.  While many books tell the Good News, Galatians explores what this means for us, and for our journey of faith, in clear and compelling words.  We won’t be reading the whole letter in church, but I highly recommend you read the book for yourselves, and consider what Paul’s words mean for you as we explore the highlights together in worship.  Today we start with the beginning of the letter.

In ancient times, people customarily began letters with a section of thanksgiving.  People from Egypt to Palestine to Greece regularly started out their letters by thanking whatever God they believed in for the person they were writing to.  Paul was no exception.  No matter how messed up the congregation he was writing to was, he found something positive to say about them, some way to lift up what God was doing in their midst.  All of his letters start out by thanking God for the congregation … except his letter to the Galatians.

You can imagine what it was like for the Galatians.  They gather to hear a letter from the man of God who brought them to Christ.  They expect that, even if things are happening that he doesn’t like, he will start off by giving thanks for everything they’re doing right.  Instead, Paul starts by scolding them: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ!”

What had they done to deserve such censure, such attack?  I highly doubt that they thought they were doing anything wrong!  Some new teachers had come, fellow Christians, with a lot of new rules to add to what Paul had given them.  The new teachers were Jewish Christians, who had grown up following the Jewish laws such as circumcision and dietary laws, and wanted the Galatians to do the same.  After all, both Jesus whom they worshipped and Paul who had brought them to the faith were themselves Jews, who were circumcised and kept the Jewish Laws.  Circumcision was a physical symbol that you belonged to God.  If a man was circumcised, he was a faithful follower of God.  If he wasn’t circumcised, he was an outsider, not a true follower of God.  Circumcision was the mark of a Jew—it had been for centuries the thing that set followers of the One True God apart from all the other so-called gods out there.  So shouldn’t these new followers of God do the same?  It all sounds so nice and logical.  A good way to prove that even though they started off as outsiders, non-Jews, they are now on the inside track to faithfulness.

Paul heard about what they were doing, and he hit the roof.  This was worse than anything any other group had done, even worse than the Corinthians and their divisions and immorality.  Why?  Because in putting their trust in circumcision and belonging to the “in” group, the Christians in Galatia were starting to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in Christ.  They were trusting to tradition rather than to the will of God.  They had been freed by the Gospel, but they went right out and began their new life in Christ by hedging themselves in with new laws.

The Galatians weren’t alone in this tendency, of course.  Humans throughout history have preferred to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in God.  It seems that every time God’s Word comes to us, we celebrate it … and then go right on depending on our own actions rather than on God’s saving grace.  God gives us a precious gift in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That gift is given for the salvation of the world, and it is greater than anything we on our own could possibly do.  Yet still we look for ways to do it ourselves, rules and laws and traditions to follow that will save us, instead of trusting in God’s love.  For the Galatians, and for many of the first Christians who came to Christianity from the Jewish faith, those rules and traditions were centered in circumcision and dietary laws. But it seems like every generation builds up its own lists of things people must do to be saved.

In the 16th Century in Germany, at the height of the Reformation, one of the things that Martin Luther hated most about the Roman Catholic Church was the way it had created so many obligations for the faithful.  In order to get to heaven, you had to pray the right way at the right times, confess your sins and do the proper penance, fast from certain foods at certain times the church specified, and follow many other rules and guidelines set down by the church.  Now, I think we all agree that praying is a good thing!  All Christians should pray.  And confessing your sins and being forgiven is also a good thing, and fasting can be a very effective spiritual discipline.  None of the things the Roman Catholic Church required were bad by themselves: what was bad was that they said you could only be saved if you did all those things the way the Catholic Church told you to.  Instead of relying on the grace and mercy of God, they taught people to rely on their own ability to do the right things.  So, the Reformers—the first Lutherans and Calvinists and Anabaptists—quite rightly told the world that salvation didn’t depend on all the rules and rituals the Roman Catholics required.

But, a generation or two later, some Reformers had started their own lists of things people had to do to earn their salvation.  Different things than the Roman Catholics, of course, but they still drew people away from relying on God’s grace.  So the reformers had to fight the same battle over again, teaching people to rely on God’s grace instead of their own actions.  How’s that for irony?  It seems like we humans would rather do anything rather than rely on God’s promises and love.  We know that there are things that can help us be faithful to God, things that can help us grow in our love for God and our fellow human beings.  Prayer, reading the Bible, acts of fellowship and charity, all can help us grow spiritually.  All can help us follow God more closely.  But our salvation doesn’t depend on them.  What are some of the things we Christians today hold up as essential for salvation?  What things do we tell ourselves we have to do to be saved?

We human beings were created by God to be good, but we became broken by sin and death.  So no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we fall short of the goodness that God created us to be.  We do the wrong things.  We convince ourselves that we know best, and that we’re doing just fine on our own.  We tell ourselves that our sins don’t matter.  We blind ourselves to the suffering of our neighbors, and sometimes we even add to it.  And then we look at a world that has been broken by sin and death just as we have, and think we can fix it all.  We come up with rules and traditions to help us come closer to God, and then we pay more attention to those rules and traditions than to God’s call.  But no matter how helpful our rules and traditions may be, they can never take the place of God’s love.  We cannot be saved by our own actions and words, because our actions and our words are just as flawed as we are ourselves.  No matter how self-sufficient we would like to be, we depend on God’s love and grace for every good thing in our lives.

Our salvation depends on the love of Christ Jesus, who came to this earth and was born as a baby, truly human and truly God, both human and divine in one person.  For God so loved the world that he came to us as one of us, taking on human frailty and weakness.  Jesus taught people about God; he showed them the love of God in word and deed.  He healed the sick and the broken.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors, with the outcasts, the ones society cast out, and he forgave them their sins and loved them.  And when the authorities felt threatened by his radical generosity, he died so that all the world might be saved from their sins.  For God so loved the world that he would let nothing come between us—not sin, not brokenness, and not death.  Jesus Christ was willing to die for us.  And now, because of God’s saving actions, there is nothing in this world—not life, not death, not rules or rulers, not angels or demons, nothing we do or fail to do—can separate us from the love of God.  Salvation is not something we do; the Good News is not just another set of rules.  Salvation is something that God does.  The Good News is that God loves us no matter what, that no matter how much we fail or go astray, God will still keep coming to us with the gift of his precious love.

Amen.  Thanks be to God.

The Gifts of Baptism

Baptism of Our Lord, Year C, Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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

Those of you who have read a lot of the Bible or paid a lot of attention in church and Sunday School may have noticed how many of the major Bible stories have to do with water.  The first chapter of Genesis speaks of God moving over the waters during the creation.  Noah was saved in the midst of the flood which destroyed civilization.  Moses was hidden in safety in a basket on the river and later led the people of Israel to freedom through the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s army drowned.  In the wilderness, water was one of the basic necessities God provided the wandering Israelites.  All of that water, in just the first two books of the Bible!  And it doesn’t stop there.  God uses water in many ways throughout the Bible.

One of the reasons for that, of course, is that water is one of the most basic needs of all human beings.  Thirst will kill you quicker than hunger; and it’s really hard to keep anything clean without water.  On the other hand, water is also very dangerous: even a moment’s inattention by any open water, and you can drown.  We love to swim in it and go boating over the top of it on hot summer days, but we can’t ever take it for granted.  And in the desert, where the people of Israel lived, the search for water is a daily necessity.  People walk miles every day to the nearest well or river to get the water they and their animals need to survive.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that water is everywhere in the Bible.

The most important use of water in the Bible and in our churches today is, of course, baptism.  In the Gospel we read today the story of Jesus’ baptism, and from Acts we heard the story of the baptism of some Samaritan Christians.  After his resurrection Jesus commanded his followers to go out into the world, baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we are gathered here today to baptize young Weston.  So what is baptism, and why is it so important?

Baptism is a sacrament, one of two.  The other sacrament is, of course, Communion.  A sacrament is a rite commanded by God in which God’s promises are given form in a physical element.  Intangible words and tangible things are united as one.  In Baptism, the sign is water.  Although we can’t see or touch God, we can see and feel the water God uses to seal his promises.  And the promise is God’s love and grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, God comes to us to claim us as his own.  Did you hear the words God the Father spoke at Jesus’ baptism?  “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  That sounds a lot like what God said in the reading from Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  And again: “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  God speaks these words to us at our own baptisms.  As the water is poured over us, God claims us.  At each baptism, God says to each person being baptized “You are my beloved child.”  That love is unconditional: there is nothing we can do that will ever make God stop loving us and calling us.  In baptism, we become God’s children, and nothing can ever change that.

In Baptism, we die to sin and are born holy and righteous before God.  We are broken, sinful people who live in a broken, sinful world.  But through Baptism, we put on Christ’s righteousness.  Instead of seeing our sins, God chooses to see Christ’s sinlessness.  Although we are still sinners, we have been redeemed by God through our baptism.  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism, and to his death and resurrection.  We are marked with the cross of Christ.  As Christ died, so we too will die.  But as Christ rose from the grave, so we too will rise when Christ comes again.

In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  As the Spirit descended out of heaven like a dove to Jesus, and came to the people of Samaria after their baptism and the prayers of the apostles, so too the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  During Weston’s baptism, you will see me anoint him with oil and say that he has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will be with him all the days of his life, through good times and bad, even when he can’t see or feel the Spirit’s presence within him.  God will always be with you, even when your own doubts and fears and the cares of the world blind you to God’s presence.  Baptism doesn’t mean that your life will be all smooth sailing, but it does mean that you never have to face trouble alone.

In Baptism, we become part of the Christian community, which is the body of Christ in the world.  As we become children of God, that means that all of God’s other children are our brothers and sisters.  At the end of the baptism today, you will all join me in welcoming Weston into the family of God.  We don’t often take that as seriously as we should, but it’s true.  We are all brothers and sisters, through our baptisms, and we should be better at loving and helping one another than we are.  Being a child of God means participating in the community, and sharing in the life of faith with all of God’s children.  Being a child of God means following God’s call and listening to the Holy Spirit.  So during the baptism, you will all be asked to make promises.  Weston’s parents and godparents will promise to raise Weston in the faith, bringing him to worship and helping him learn the scriptures.  But the congregation as a whole will promise to support Weston in his Christian life.  We make this promise at each and every baptism, that we will help and support our new brother or sister in Christ, and it is the basis of the Christian community.

All of these things happen in baptism.  God claims us as his beloved children, we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God and members of the Christian community.  That’s a lot!  Each and every one of these things can have a profound impact on our lives, if we let it.  And yet, all too often we forget.  We forget that we are children of God, we forget that God loves us, we don’t pay attention to the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and we ignore the promises we make to one another to support each other in faith.  We forget that our need for God is as fundamental as our need for water to drink.  We forget that without Christ, our souls shrivel up in thirst for the living water that comes from God alone.

So what can we do?  How can we respond to the great gifts God has given us in our baptism?  The first step is obvious enough: remember your baptism.  Remember always those words God spoke over you: “You are my beloved child.”  Remember that all your sins are forgiven.  Remember that the Holy Spirit always dwells within you, and listen for its guidance.  It sounds easy.  But these are all intangible things.  We can’t see these promises God has made to us; we can’t touch them or taste them or smell them.  And sometimes it is hard to believe that they are real, in the midst of this solid world.  That’s why God has given us another gift in baptism: the water.

We can’t touch God’s promises, but we can touch the water.  We can bathe in it, swim in it, drink it, hear it splash, feel it soak into our dry skin, feel it run down our throat.  So each time you use water, remember your baptism.  Each glass of water you drink, remember that God loves you.  Each time you take a bath or a shower, make the sign of the cross and remember that you have been washed clean and your sins are forgiven.  Each time you jump in a pool, remember that you have been made a member of the body of Christ, part of the community of faith.  And thank God for the promises made in your baptism.

Amen.

Serpents and the Son of Man

Lent 4, Year B Sunday, March 18, 2012

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

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

So Must the Son of Man Be Lifted Up

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.

Did you know that the symbol of the medical profession is a snake entwined around a stick?  It’s always seemed weird to me, even after I learned where the symbol comes from: today’s first lesson.  I guess it’s because the story of the bronze serpent being lifted up seems weird to me, too.  Snakes are freaky things.  I grew up in a region where there really aren’t any dangerous snakes, but they still creep me out.  There are many places around the world that have very dangerous snakes, snakes that can kill you.  Deserts, especially, like the one the Israelites were travelling through, contain many poisonous snakes.  People who live where poisonous snakes live hate them even more than I do.  After all, snakes can be more dangerous than other wild animals, because snakes are a lot more likely to come into your camp or your home without being noticed.  You can have a snake right next to you and not even know it until it’s too late.

I get why God would use snakes as a consequence for sin: it was easy.  Probably all he had to do was stop protecting the camp from the snakes that were already there around them.  What I don’t get is what happened next: why would God then use a statue of a snake, the dangerous thing that was killing people, one of the things they hated and feared most, to save them?

And then there’s the Gospel, where Jesus compares himself to that snake.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.”  Now, how many of you think of snakes when you think of Jesus?  Jesus is life, and love, and salvation—snakes are dangerous and deadly and insidious.  What’s the connection?  There are a lot of other metaphors Jesus could have used, so why pick something so creepy?

When Jesus speaks of being lifted up, he’s talking about being lifted up on the cross.  For his first hearers, the cross was a lot more terrible than snakes.  We don’t really get how horrifying it was, because we’ve never actually seen anyone crucified.  Dying on a cross was agonizingly painful and humiliating.  It was about the worst way to die anyone could imagine—that’s what made it so effective a punishment.  The question those first Christians asked about the cross was the same question I asked about the statue of the serpent: Why would God use something so evil to do something good?  Why would he save people through something bad?  Why not just zap the snakes away?  Why not just wave a magic wand and say our sins our forgiven, no messy crucifixion necessary?

Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.  Just ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.  Sending the snakes away wouldn’t do anything for the people who were already bitten.  For some kinds of snakebites, only antivenom, made from the venom of that species of snake, will give the body the resources it needs to fight off the poison and break the poison’s destructive power.  The bronze serpent which God told Moses to make worked like that, turning the power of the snakes against them.

Sin is like a snake.  It gets in everywhere, and it can be hard to spot.  Of course, the difference between sin and snakes is that most people don’t like snakes, but lots of people either like their sins or don’t recognize them for what they are.  It’s easier not to pay attention to the consequences of our actions.  It’s easier to be selfish than it is to be generous, and it’s easier to focus on our own wants than it is to genuinely open ourselves to the people around us.  It’s easier to focus on our own anger and hurt than it is to understand and forgive.  It’s easier to choose revenge than justice.  It’s easier to follow our own ambitions than it is to follow God’s call.  It’s easier to separate ourselves than to connect with God and our fellow human beings.  And it’s easiest of all to come up with justifications, reasons why our selfishness, greed, bigotry, self-righteousness, and callousness are okay.

But we can only believe that if we walk in darkness, hiding from the knowledge of what we’re really doing.  Once God shines a light into that darkness, we can see what we’re really doing.  We can see our sin like snakes around us and in us.  We can see the snakebites caused by our sinful thoughts and actions.  And it’s not easy to deal with.  Being healed isn’t easy, whether we need to be healed from physical illnesses or spiritual ones.  As anyone who’s been sick or injured knows, some treatments can be painful or unpleasant in the short term.  For people with cancer, for example, chemo and radiation treatments make you sick in the short term to save your life in the long run.  God heals all who call upon him from sin and from physical illness, whether in this life or the next.  But sometimes, we would rather stumble in the darkness than walk in the light.  Sometimes we would rather live with snakes and snakebites than be cured.  Sometimes we would rather live with the cancer of our sin than face the healing that only God can bring.  “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Sin matters.  Sin has consequences.  When we sin, we hurt ourselves and the people around us.  One definition of sin is that sin is whatever separates us from God and from our neighbor.  The injuries we do to ourselves and other people can’t simply be waved away.  They matter.  I’m sure every one of you can think of a time when someone said or did something that really hurt you, in a way that had long-lasting consequences.  We can’t, or at least we shouldn’t, pretend that those hurts don’t matter.  Forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, doesn’t mean sweeping the bad stuff under the rug and ignoring it.

Forgiveness, for God, means taking all the pain and suffering, all the consequences of our sin, and confronting it head-on.  Forgiveness, for God, means breaking the power of sin and death so that healing can begin.  Forgiveness, for God, means creating an antivenom in the form of the cross, to turn the power of sin against itself.  Forgiveness means cleaning out the wound so that healing can begin.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  Christ didn’t come to condemn us, but to save us.  God came into the world and became truly human for our sake, because he loves us.  No matter how sinful we are, no matter how much we sometimes cling to darkness instead of God’s light, God still loves us.  God loves us so much that he was willing to take the pain needed for our healing on himself.  God loves us so much that he, who has never sinned, was willing to bear the consequences of the whole world’s sin, on the cross.

Christ has been lifted up, to shine God’s light into our darkness and to heal us from our sin.  By God’s grace we have been saved, not by our own worthiness but because of Christ’s love and mercy.  We can turn away from God if we want to; we can choose the darkness, if we want to.  But no matter how far astray we go, how sick with sin we become, God’s love is more powerful than anything else in the whole world.  God’s light is more powerful than the darkness, and the cross of Christ is more powerful than any sin.  May we walk in the light of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Amen.

Whose decision is it, anyway?

Pentecost 14 (Year A), Sunday, September 18, 2011

 

Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

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.

Today’s first lesson comes from the book of Jonah, one of the most fun-to-read books of the Old Testament.  How many of you learned the story of Jonah and the Whale in Sunday School when you were a kid?  If your Sunday School lesson was anything like mine, it went something like this: Jonah didn’t want to do what God wanted him to do, so he ran away and God made a big fish eat him.  Jonah said he was sorry, God forgave him, the fish spat him up on the shore, and Jonah went on to do what God told him to do.  The moral of the story was to listen to God and do what God tells you.  It’s a good lesson.  How many of you think this when you hear it: “That Jonah is so stupid.  I’m glad I’m more faithful than that.  Of course God knows best.  Of course I would have gone to Nineveh to preach God’s Word, if God had sent me.”

Then we get to today’s lesson, the last chapter of the book and the end of the story.  In between the fish and our reading, Jonah had gone to Nineveh as God commanded him to, preached the shortest sermon ever (only one verse long!) and the people of Nineveh repented of their sins.  Now God sees their repentance and spares them … and Jonah gets mad at him for it!  Jonah quotes one of the Bible’s most frequent descriptions of God: “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  Except that Jonah thinks that’s a bad thing: “This is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning,” he says, fuming.  He doesn’t want God to be merciful.  He doesn’t want God to be forgiving.  How many of you, listening to this, are thinking to yourself: “That Jonah, he just doesn’t get it.  God is love!  God is about forgiveness!  It’s a good thing that the people of Nineveh repented and God forgave them.  I’m glad I understand God better than Jonah.”

It’s tempting to judge Jonah like that, but don’t be too hasty.  Jonah wants God to hate the people of Nineveh because he hates the people of Nineveh.  He doesn’t want God to save them because Jonah doesn’t believe they deserve to be saved.  Jonah wants to be the one to decide who gets God’s grace and who doesn’t.  And the truth is, we are a lot more like Jonah than we think.

Jonah had good reason to hate the people of Nineveh.  You see, Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire.  And the Assyrians weren’t just your ordinary pagan empire in the ancient middle east.  In their heyday, they were the great power of the region, conquering most of the area and dominating those countries they didn’t directly rule.  In 721 BC, they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, deporting the ten tribes who lived there, and who were never seen again.  For the next century the Assyrians dominated the southern kingdom of Judah.  Nineveh wasn’t just any city.  Nineveh was the city that destroyed God’s people.  If any city deserved God’s wrath, it was Nineveh.  And yet Nineveh was the city God sent Jonah to preach to.

That puts kind of a different spin on the story, doesn’t it?  I have a suspicion that if we were in Jonah’s shoes, the majority of us would do the exact same thing Jonah did.  Would you want to bring God’s word to your enemies?  Would you want to be the person through whom God saved them?  I think that like Jonah, most of us would try and run away from God’s call, and like Jonah I think we’d be angry at God’s mercy.  God’s mercy is a wonderful thing—when it’s aimed at us.  We love that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love—when we or people we care about benefit from it.  But it’s a whole other story when God shows mercy to people we don’t like, people who aren’t like us, people we don’t think deserve God’s grace and love.  The whole question of the book of Jonah is this: who decides who receives God’s mercy?

That’s the question of today’s Gospel reading, too.  Should God be fair and just, or should God be merciful?  I know that my own gut reaction is to side with the laborers hired first.  They have a good point!  There is no way to make the landowner’s treatment of the laborers just.  Those who have worked longer deserve more compensation for their labors by any human judgment.  And yet God reckons things differently.  The landowner held to his agreement with the ones hired first: a full day’s work for a full day’s pay.  They are not shorted, but given a just reward for their labors, a living wage.  Yet he treats the other workers with mercy and grace, instead of with justice, and gives them more than they have earned.  When we identify with the laborers hired first, we are tempted to see that as a bad thing.  Because we like God’s grace and mercy when we receive it ourselves, but not so much when it is given to others.

But put yourselves in the shoes of the laborers hired last.  The “usual daily wage” was just that—the daily wage.  It was enough for the needs of that day.  It paid for one day’s food and shelter.  Imagine standing around in the marketplace, hoping for work, and knowing that you and your children will go hungry that night if no one chooses you to harvest their crops.  Imagine the despair growing as the day goes on and there is no work for you.  You will be hungry that night.  You will have to explain to your kids that there is nothing to eat.  You may be sleeping in the streets and hoping no one steals what few belongings you have.  And then—someone comes and offers you a job.  They don’t even say what they’ll pay you, but whatever it is, it’s better than nothing, so you take it.  And as you work you wonder: how hungry will I be tonight?  I only earned a little—I know it isn’t enough for a full meal, but at least it will be something.  And maybe, maybe the manager will be generous.  Maybe he’ll give me a little extra, maybe even enough for my children to eat a full meal, at least.

And then comes the end of the day, and the manager calls everyone in to receive their wages.  And he hands you a full day’s wages: the same pay he would have given you if you had been hired first thing in the morning, far more than you earned.  It means that you and your family will be able to sleep safely in a warm place tonight.  It means that you and your family will have enough to eat.  It means life.  It means hope.

That is, after all, what God’s grace is all about: life and hope, even to people who haven’t earned it.  Even to people who only come late.  Even to people like the inhabitants of Nineveh who were so lost in their sin they didn’t even realize they were sinning until Jonah told them.  Let’s face it, no one has earned God’s grace.  The only reason the complaining laborers had a job—the only thing that separated them from the ones who came later—was because the landowner hired them early in the morning instead of late.  If the landowner had hired them later in the day, I bet they would have been singing a different tune.

No one has earned God’s love.  God loves us freely, unconditionally, whether or not we’ve earned it.  God wants us to follow his commands not because he’s waiting to punish us when we fail, but because he loves us and wants us to have good and whole lives.  Christ came that we might have life and have it abundantly.  This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about: the kind of life that can only come from God’s generous love.

It’s tempting to be like Jonah, and the laborers hired first.  It’s tempting to think that God’s love and mercy are things we can control.  It’s tempting to assume that God agrees with us about who deserves grace and mercy and who doesn’t.  One thing that devout Christians have done throughout the ages—usually with the best intentions—is try to figure out what the criteria are or should be for salvation.  Do you have to go to church regularly, and how often is regularly enough to count?  Do you have to do good works, and if so, how many?  Do you have to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?  Are some sins too great for forgiveness?  When you sin, do you have to do something to make up for it for God to forgive you?  Does being a member of one group mean that God loves you more than God loves members of another group?  Do you have to work the whole day to receive the reward, and what happens if you come late?

Too easily we forget the times when we ourselves have come late, when we have failed to follow Christ, when we have rejected Jesus.  Too easily we forget that we, too, need God’s unconditional love.  And we begrudge others what God has freely given us.  Thank God that God’s mercy is greater than ours, that God’s love is wider and deeper than we imagine.  May God help us to show that love and generosity to others.

Amen.

The Light of Christ

Lent Wednesday 4A, Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Isaiah 60:17-22

Beneath the Cross of Jesus

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

Lent seems like such a gloomy time of year.  Certainly, the weather doesn’t help; even though Easter is very late this year, the weather we’ve had this Lent has been bad enough that it’s not much change from years when Easter was earlier.  There’s been lots of snow, ice, cold, and just generally miserable weather.  I know I’m not alone in hoping for nicer, more clement weather.  But it’s not just the weather.  There’s a deeper sadness of Lent, and I don’t mean depression at the thought of giving up candy or soda or chocolate or whatever.  Lent is a time of contemplation, of acknowledging our sin and brokenness and how far we have strayed, and returning to the Lord our God.  It is a time of remembering the agony of Jesus’ death on a cross for our sake.  The texts we read in church, the hymns and songs we sing, all remind us of our fallen status and the gory death of our Lord Jesus.

This evening’s hymn is no exception.  The first few verses of “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” dwell on the groans and bloodiness of the crucifixion before turning to contemplate how the whole thing is our fault.  And on the page across from it is a hymn called “Deep Were His Wounds” which talks about cruel Calvary, bitter agony, wretchedness, forsaken.

And yet, even in the midst of all this darkness, there is light.  That light is the light of the LORD our God, our everlasting glory, which shines brighter than the sun or moon.  The suffering has a purpose.  Our reflections of our own sinfulness have a purpose.  Paring back the things that clutter up our lives has a purpose.  Because the cross, and the bloody death of Jesus Christ upon it, is not the end of the story.  No matter how much death, sin, and brokenness look like they have the other hand, they don’t.  No matter how unworthy we are of God’s love, God loves us still.

On the cross Jesus takes our sin upon himself and in his suffering and death, breaks the power of sin and death over us.  All the things that separate us from God’s love are wiped away and we are made whole.  God’s work in us will not be completed until he comes again, but it has started, growing within us like a seed.  We have been claimed as the shoots God has planted, the work of his hands, made righteous.  We look forward to the day when Christ comes again and the words of our lesson are fulfilled.  We look forward to the day when there will be no more violence in our land or any other, no destruction or devastation, when salvation and praise are the defining characteristics of our world.  It may take a long time, but it will come in God’s time.

So if that’s what we’re waiting for, and we know it’s coming, why all the gloom now?  Why do we focus on the bad instead of the good during Lent?  In his book “The Cost of Discipleship” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great Lutheran theologian and pastor from Germany, talked about what he called “cheap grace.”  Grace is God’s free gift of salvation to us.  There is nothing we can do to earn it, and nothing we can do to lose it—God gives salvation to us because he loves us, and there is nothing we can do that will make God stop loving us.  But at the same time, we shouldn’t take God’s love for granted and use it as permission to sin as much as we want.  Cheap grace is when we take God’s love for granted.  “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

In the Cross we are freed and forgiven.  Jesus suffered and died to purchase our redemption, to break the chains that bind us.  We are called to live in the light of that sacrifice, remembering always what Christ has done for us.  We are called to respond by acknowledging our brokenness, and turning back to God.  We are called to respond by being disciples.  We are called to respond by living out that grace and sharing it with others, as freely as God has given it to us.  That grace should never be taken for granted—we should always celebrate and remember it.

In the Cross, the gloomy darkness of this broken, sinful world is pierced by the light of God’s love for us.  We are freed to become God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture and the work of God’s hands.  We are called to live that reality by following Christ, our salvation and our glory.

Amen.