Selective Hearing

Lent Wednesday 3, March 2nd, 2016

Isaiah 50:4-5, Psalm 40:1-8, Matthew 13:10-17

 

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.  Amen.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes people have selective hearing?  When you’re calling for them to come and do something they don’t want to do, gee, they just didn’t hear you calling them!  It isn’t their fault, you were just too quiet.  But when you’re telling them what they want to hear, oh, boy, howdy, their ears work just fine.  Any parent who’s ever had to tell a child to go brush their teeth and get ready for bed has experienced this, as has anyone who’s ever tried to give their spouse a list of chores.  Sometimes, it’s a relatively small thing they don’t want to hear, and results in nothing worse than a child being a few minutes late getting into bed.  Sometimes, it’s a bit bigger, like when a friend doesn’t want to admit they said something really hurtful, and so they laugh it off as if it were a joke, and ignore the pain they caused someone that they claim to care about.  And sometimes selective hearing is a big enough deal that people die because they weren’t willing to hear the truth.  For example: Some parenting gurus claim that vaccines cause autism.  That is not true, and extensive research has disproven it, and many scientists and public health advocates have said so loudly and publicly.  When people choose to listen to bad advice instead of good science, they don’t vaccinate their kids—and so people in America died this year from diseases like diphtheria, rubella, and whooping cough which had been virtually eliminated.

There are a lot of voices out there.  Some of them are good, some are bad, some aren’t really either.  Some are healthy, and some are not.  We have to choose what to listen to, what’s right and true and what’s not.  And which voices we listen to shapes our perspective on the world.  What we hear—what we choose to listen to—affects our minds, our hearts, our hands, and our eyes.  And it affects our relationships, too. Hearing is the basis of most communication.  If you’re not willing to listen to what someone else is saying, no communication is possible.  And it’s not just a matter of acknowledging the words, either.  You have to acknowledge what they mean by those words, and that can be the hardest thing of all.

There are a lot of things out there we don’t want to hear, and so we choose not to listen.  How many times have you seen someone behaving self-destructively, doing things that will only result in pain and misery for themselves and other people?  Maybe it’s relying on drugs and alcohol.  Maybe it’s the way they’re treating themselves and others around them.  Maybe it’s something else.  You can tell them why they should change their behavior until they’re blue in the face, but until they’re willing to open their ears and listen it doesn’t matter what you say.  Or maybe you’ve been the one in that position, destroying your life for what you think are the best of reasons, setting yourself up for a fall, closing your ears to all the people who want to help and convincing yourself that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

But that’s not all.  Sociologists have found that in the vast majority of cases, people only see or hear what they expect to see or hear.  That’s one of the reasons why prejudice is so damaging.  Because we only pay attention to the things that match our understandings of the way the world works.  If you think scientists are untrustworthy and doctors are in the pay of Big Pharma, you may discount their words when they explain that vaccines are safe and necessary to prevent disease.  And then you won’t vaccinate your kids, and disease will spread more easily.  If you think Mexicans are lazy bums, you’ll notice every time a Latino takes a break … but you won’t notice how hard he works between them.  If you think a woman is promiscuous, and she gets raped, you’ll be more inclined to listen to and sympathize with the rapists side of the story than the victim’s side.  And in all these cases, you will think you have seen and heard everything, but in reality you will only be seeing and hearing the things that agree with your opinions.

And much as we all might like to think otherwise, our own opinions don’t always agree with God’s opinions.  And when that happens, well, we choose not to hear God’s voice at all.  Or we may only hear the parts of it that we can twist into agreeing with us.  And I bet you that you are thinking right now of people you know who do this, because it’s really easy to see where someone you don’t agree with is doing it.  Liberals spot it right off when conservatives do it, for example, and conservatives notice when liberals do it, but we almost never see when we ourselves are doing it.  We shut our eyes and our ears, and don’t understand because we don’t want to understand anything that doesn’t agree with us.

If we depended only on our own ability to hear the truth, we would be trapped in a world of lies.  But we are not dependent on our own abilities, because God can and does work in us to open our ears to the truth.  Thank God for the power of God’s Word, that can break in even when we don’t want it to, and open our eyes and our ears.  May we learn to listen as God would have us do.

Amen.

When the Light Breaks In

Lent Wednesday 1, February 17th, 2016

Isaiah 42:5-9, Psalm 119:17-24, Acts 26:4-18

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

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

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

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. We romanticize light, and sight. Oh, how wonderful to be able to see clearly! Oh, how precious is the light, particularly when all else is dark! And certainly that is true. But we don’t like to admit the downsides of seeing, and the light. We don’t like to talk about the consequences of seeing clearly, the difficulties and hardships created by stepping from darkness into light. And we like to assume that we can already see, that we are already walking in the light. (It’s only other people who need to be enlightened—after all, we see clearly—don’t we?) But the story of Paul tells a different story. Because even people who are walking in darkness assume that they are walking in the light. They assume they can see, when they’re blinded by their own assumptions and prejudices. The first step is recognizing that you are blind, and most people don’t want to admit it even when it’s true! Seeing is hard. Stepping into the light is difficult. And it can have severe consequences! But it’s still worth it.

Take Paul. Paul was a fairly high-status guy. He was a noted religious leader of his own people, the Jews, and he was a well-educated, well-connected citizen of the Roman Empire, respected by Gentiles, as well. He was fairly well-to-do, he could afford to take time off to travel, and wherever he went, whether in Jewish or Gentile communities, people respected him. He was devoted to God, a man who dearly loved reading the Scriptures and praying and worshipping God. He was truly a righteous man. And so, when he learned about a group of his fellow Jews who were worshipping God in a new way, who were saying things about God that were different than the things he had been taught, he assumed that they were wrong. Because he was a righteous man! He was faithful! Therefore, he could see what God wanted, and anyone who said differently was blinded by darkness. And so he set about persecuting those people who were trying to say new things about God. He had them thrown out of the synagogues, and he had them killed. Because he knew best. He could see clearly what God wanted. He was a child of the light, and they were trying to spread darkness.

Except that he was wrong. Those people who were trying to say something new about God? They were Christians! They really did have something new to say about God, because God had revealed himself to them in a new way through Jesus Christ. They had the light of God. Paul was the one who was walking in darkness. Paul was the one who couldn’t see the truth right in front of him. Paul was absolutely, totally, and completely wrong. But the biggest problem wasn’t that he was wrong, it’s that he was so sure he was right that he didn’t listen to God trying to correct him. Ordinary channels didn’t work. Paul was so certain his vision was right that he refused to see what God was doing. God had to physically strike Paul blind, and appear to him in a vision, for Paul to realize that he was spiritually blind. And then, when his eyes were physically opened, his spiritual eyes were opened as well.

And once Paul’s eyes were opened, there was a cost. Because seeing was only the first step—once he could see, truly see, what God wanted, he had to do it. And what God wanted led him into danger and trouble. God wanted him to preach what he had learned, which led him into direct conflict with all the friends and religious leaders who were just as blind as he had been. They all liked the way things were; they didn’t want to change. So when Paul changed, they stopped supporting him and started persecuting him. And secular leaders, too—both Roman magistrates and the Jewish King, Herod Agrippa—they didn’t like Paul’s new work, either. You see, the early Christians followed Jesus in building communities where all were equal in God’s eyes, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female. This threatened the social order, the way things existed. It threatened the secular leaders’ power. So they persecuted Paul, too, for teaching those things.

By letting God open his eyes, and by following God’s call, Paul had to face up to what he had done. He had to realize that he had imprisoned and killed people. He had to admit that he was terribly, horribly wrong. And that wasn’t all. By acting on the light God shone into his darkness, Paul lost all of his power. He went from respected leader to outcast, he was thrown in prison on many occasions, he was endangered regularly, he faced many hardships, and, in the end, he was killed. His life would have been easier and safer, if he’d continued on in the darkness. Because once he started walking in the light and exposing the darkness around him—darkness in the religious institutions, darkness in the secular social order—those forces of darkness started trying to shut him up by any means possible. Yet Paul said—repeatedly!—that it was all worth it. That he had more joy, and hope, and love, in the light than he had ever imagined possible when he walked in darkness.

And that’s often true today. Yes, the light is better. Yes, being able to see truly is better. Joy is only possible in the light. Love is only possible in the light. Hope is only possible in the light. But there are consequences. Because when you can see—when God opens our eyes—then we can’t ignore the darkness around us and in ourselves any more. And admitting the truth about ourselves is hard. Even harder is the fact that when we act on that light, when we reflect God’s light into the world, when we challenge the forces of darkness, they fight back. And that darkness isn’t just in the secular world, but sometimes in the church as well. The darkness is easier, safer. But the light is better. The more we reflect God’s light, the less darkness there is in the world and in the church, and the better everything gets. May God open our eyes, and lead us into his light.

Amen.

Saint and Sinner

Ash Wednesday, February 10th, 2016

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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.

It has been my experience that most people generally fall into two categories: those who spend too much time dwelling on their own flaws and faults, and so think they’re worthless and horrible and not-good-enough, and those who mostly ignore the fact that they’re not perfect. This presents a problem for a preacher, because people generally only really hear the things that agree with what they already believe. So when you talk about sinfulness, the ones who dwell on their own sin and can’t believe God would love them tend to hear a confirmation of how bad they are, while the people who think they’re practically perfect think you’re not talking about them. And when you talk about God’s love and forgiveness for all people, the ones who think sin has nothing to do with them, personally, take it as confirmation that they don’t have to look at their own behavior and thoughts, while the ones who believe God can’t love them think you’re talking about other people.

The message of Lent—the message of Ash Wednesday in particular—has two parts. First, you are a sinner. I am a sinner. We are all sinners as individuals, as community members, in every way possible. We fall short of the glory of God. We do selfish things that hurt ourselves and others. We ignore God’s call. We break relationships, people, creation. We soak up the worst of society’s mores and habits and find a way to justify it. We spread poison with a smile, and when our choices hurt people we shrug and shift the blame. If salvation depended on our own righteousness, our own goodness, our own holiness, every single one of us would be destined for hell. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even those of you sitting there thinking “I’ve never done anything really bad! I’m a good person!” Would your spouse agree? Your kids? Your parents? Your boss? Other people in town? Or would they have a list of things you’ve done that you’ve forgotten about—things you justified to yourself or minimized—that did a lot more damage than you realized?

God made us out of dirt, and truth be told, we’re still a lot dirtier than we want to admit. We will all die. And if it was up to us, to our efforts, all that would happen is that we’d turn back into the dirt God made us out of. You are dust, and to dust you shall return.

The other message of Lent is that God loves you anyway. That’s what the cross is—a giant glowing sign from God saying how much he loves you, that he was willing to die to save you from the consequences of your own actions. Yes, you. Yes, me too. Yes, even when you genuinely did something horrible. Yes, even when you think you are too bad, too horrible, for God to love you. There is nothing you or anyone else can do that will make God stop loving you. He may not like what you’re doing—if you are hurting yourself or others, I guarantee that he doesn’t—but he will always love you no matter what.  And all that dirt?  God wants nothing more than to wash us clean.

This is the reality of the cross. We are sinful creatures of the dust, and we are the beloved children of God, washed clean in the waters of baptism. And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God. We are transformed by God. We are reborn and made the righteousness of God. We become the hands and feet which God uses in the world to share that love with all people. We eat and drink Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist and become the body of Christ. We are baptized into Christ’s death so that we may one day be resurrected as he is. And none of this happens because we deserve it! None of this happens because we’re good enough, or holy enough, or righteous enough, because we are not. We are dirt. It happens because God loves us that much.

Lent is a time to dwell in those two realities—our sinfulness, and God’s love. It’s a time to shape our hearts and minds, our actions and our words, to reflect those two realities. That’s what all those things people do for Lent are supposed to do. They’re supposed to help us live out our faith, live out the promises that God has made us, live out our baptismal promise. They’re designed to help us acknowledge both our sinfulness and God’s love, and return to the Lord our God.

If you have a Lenten discipline or observation that you already do that is meaningful to you, great. If not, I have a suggestion. Pick a Bible verse about one of those two realities, and recite it to yourself at least twice a day. Put it on a sticky note in the bathroom so you’ll see it when you brush your teeth, and take the time to really think about what you’re saying. Keep that verse in your heart and mind all through Lent, and see what it does for you. If you’re one of those who has trouble remembering that you are a sinner, I suggest Psalm 51:3-4. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.” If you’re one of those who knows their sinfulness on a bone-deep level but has trouble remembering God’s love, I suggest Psalm 103:8, a saying that appears many times in the Bible, including our reading from Joel earlier this evening. “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” You might even follow that up by singing Jesus Loves Me.  I know, it’s a kid’s song, but it’s got a really important message. And as you go through Lent, living with your verse, you may be surprised at how your experience of Lent deepens and grows.

Amen.

Who are you?

Ash Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Isaiah 58:1-12, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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.

I’m a science fiction geek, and one of my favorite TV shows is an old show called Babylon 5. And there are two questions that Babylon 5 asks over and over again: Who are you? What do you want? Those are really important questions to take seriously. To ask yourself, every once in a while. Because if you don’t, you can end up in places you didn’t want to go, doing things you didn’t want to do, being the kind of person you don’t want to be.

Those are important questions, but they’re also hard questions. You have to stop and think, really think, not just let yourself get swept up by life. Who am I? When I strip away all the unnecessary stuff, all the baggage, all the distractions, all the assumptions, what’s left? Am I the kind of person I want to be? Am I the kind of person God wants me to be? And what do I want? When I do something, is it because I want to or because it’s just easier to go along with everyone else? Am I just going through the motions of life? Am I giving lip service to my ideals, or am I living them? Are the things I’m doing getting in the way of being the kind of person I want to be? The purpose of Lent—the reason for the ashes, for the fasting, for the prayers, for the worship, for the confession—is to help us ask those questions, to take them seriously. The rituals are designed to make us stop just going through the motions of life, and take a good hard look at who we are, and what we’re doing.

Rituals can help us. Rituals are powerful things that can shape our understanding of the world. Rituals can help us connect to God and one another and give us tools to build good and loving lives full of connection with God and one another. If we take them seriously, rituals can help shape who we are and what we want. But if we don’t take them seriously, rituals can also be nothing more than empty show, hypocrisy, and pious platitudes.

That’s what was going on in Isaiah’s day. God had called the people of Israel to be his own people, a light to all nations. God had called them to be free to love one another, free to live in justice and peace and harmony. And they had responded! They had said “yes” to God. They chose to be that light. They had agreed to the covenant, to the solemn promise that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was part of their name: Israel means “God rules.” It’s a way of saying “we’re God’s people.”

And the thing is, they didn’t. They turned away from his ways. Oh, sure, they kept the rituals, the sacrifices and the special holy days and the temples and the fasting and the feasting, and all that, but they didn’t really mean any of it. They did what was easy instead of what was right. Instead of loving one another, they quarreled and fought. Instead of justice, they exploited one another. Instead of working together, they nitpicked and found fault. The powerful ignored the needy. Slavery, abuse, backstabbing, greed, hypocrisy, hatred, fear … those were the things that drove them. They’d go through the motions of doing the religious stuff, and then go right out and do horrible things. They still said they were God’s people, they still said they wanted good and faithful lives … but it didn’t really matter because they didn’t take it seriously. It was easier to just drift along and ignore all the ways they were falling short of who God called them to be.

There were people like that in Jesus’ day, too, which is why he warns the disciples against empty shows of piety. And there are people like that today, too. And before you start thinking of all the people you think are like that, stop and take a good look at yourself. Because human beings are very good at pointing fingers, and not so good at examining our own behavior. And finger-pointing is one of the things that God condemns in our first lesson! Nobody can fix other people; we can’t even fix ourselves! The only thing finger-pointing does is make yourself feel better by tearing down others. We are all sinners, here; forgiven by God, born anew in the waters of baptism, but we are saved only by the grace and mercy of God. Without God, we are nothing but dust, dirt. We keep falling in to old bad habits, destructive and self-destructive ways of thinking and being and acting. But God has chosen us to be his beloved children, washed clean and given new life.

The question is, what are we going to do with that new life? Who are we? God has called us his children, his people, forgiven us, and set us free to live lives of faith and love. But we sometimes use that freedom for other things, things that hurt ourselves and others, things that take us further from God, things that betray our deepest calling and lead us into bad places.  And the road that leads us into those bad places, the road that leads us to hurt ourselves and others … it’s not always obvious, when we set foot on it.  And it’s usually easier to start and harder to get off.  But not impossible.  The first step is to ask the questions: who am I?  What do I want?  Who is God calling me to be?  Even when the world is leading us in different places, taking the time to ask these questions and build our relationship with God can bear great fruit.  And that’s what Lent is all about.

Amen.

The End of the Story

Lent 5, (Year A), April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

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.

The scriptures appointed for each Sunday are supposed to be thematically appropriate for the day, but that doesn’t mean that they always come from the same event in the Bible that is being commemorated. If you pay attention, the texts we read each week often jump around. So, during Advent, when we’re preparing for Jesus’ birth, we’ll have Gospel readings from his adult ministry. In the Easter season we’ll have stories from before Jesus’ death. But today’s Gospel matches up. We are one week out from Holy Week, a week and a half before Jesus’ arrest and trial and execution, and two weeks out from Easter. And our Gospel lesson comes from that time. Today’s reading takes place less than a week before Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and in fact if you read the rest of John eleven you’ll find that this event was the last straw, the final thing the chief priests and the scribes needed to convince them that Jesus was dangerous and needed to be gotten rid of.
Two weeks before his own death, Jesus was called to the bedside of a dying friend. Now, remember that while Jesus knows what is to come, his friends and disciples have not been willing to listen. They don’t want to hear about suffering and death, and have in fact gone to great lengths to ignore or misinterpret everything Jesus has said predicting it. And we look back at them and shake our heads, but really, who can blame them? Who likes to think about death? Particularly the death of someone we love? I can’t tell you how many hospital and nursing home rooms I’ve been in when family members have refused to believe that their loved one will die. “He’ll pull through—he’s strong, and he’s made it this far.” “How can they know she won’t recover? Just yesterday, she was doing fine!” We don’t like to think about death.

Now, in those days they believed that the soul of the dead person stuck around for three days after the death. You will note that Jesus makes a point of not coming until the fourth day. This isn’t the case of someone in a coma. This isn’t the case of someone being only “mostly dead.” This corpse is dead and rotting. And I think Jesus does this to make a point for his disciples. They don’t want to face death, well, Jesus is going to force them to. This is reality, as stark and as bare as it gets: everyone dies. Good people, bad people, friends and enemies. Some die young, and some die old, but everyone dies. Ignoring it doesn’t change that basic fact. You can’t argue it away; you can’t misinterpret it; and you can stick your fingers in your ears and ignore it, but not forever. Death is going to come.

But please remember, this is the beginning of this story. We usually place death at the end of the story, but that’s not where God puts it. No. For God, death comes in the middle. So Jesus comes to Bethany, and Lazarus’ sister Martha comes out to confront him. The first thing she says is “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Where was God when her brother, his beloved friend, lay dying? Where was he throughout the first days of Mary and Martha’s grief? It’s a question I hear often. If God loves us, why does he allow this? Why doesn’t he just wave his hand and fix things?

Jesus and his disciples weren’t there, but I don’t think that means that God had abandoned Mary and Martha and Lazarus. I think the Spirit was with them even in their pain and grief, even as Lazarus died. As for why Jesus wasn’t physically present, well, remember that this is only a week and a half before Jesus’ own death. Two weeks from Easter. And for God, death is not the end of the story.

Jesus loves Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, but he didn’t come to Earth only for them. God was not born in human flesh solely so that one man might be saved. If that was the case, Jesus would have been there when Lazarus caught that first sniffle, and fixed it. No, God was born in human flesh so that the entire cosmos might be saved. If Jesus had been there from the beginning and waved his hand and cured Lazarus when he first fell ill, it would not have solved the basic problem. Lazarus would still die someday, unless Jesus stuck around perpetually to take care of every ache and pain and injury and sniffle. The basic problem of existence is not that one person gets sick and dying. The basic problem of existence is that everything dies. The basic problem is that for all mortal beings, death is the end of the story. That’s the problem Jesus came to Earth to solve. Jesus came to save Lazarus, yes, but also Mary and Martha and the disciples and the thieves crucified with him and the Pharisees and the Romans and the whole entire world. And he’s going to do that by dying himself. His disciples have been trying to ignore that fact, but time is running out. They have to be prepared for what’s coming. They have to be able to look death in the eye.

Death is a consequence of the brokenness of the world. You can’t always tie it to specific sins, but the sinfulness of humanity results in the death of all created things. Sin and brokenness creep in everywhere, even where we least expect them. To overcome death, you have to heal the brokenness. You have to atone for the sins. You have to remake the world into the good creation God made it to be. And that doesn’t happen without sacrifice. It doesn’t happen without pain. Because the brokenness of this world is not just going to give up without a fight.
Jesus knew that was coming. Jesus knew that it was his own sacrifice, laying down his life for the whole world, that was going to save things. It was going to be God’s own pain and grief that saved creation. And that salvation was going to come in two phases. First, after Jesus death and resurrection, the followers that Jesus has taught and brought together are going to spread the stories of Jesus. They’re going to tell people what God is like, the God who loves us so much that he became human and died for our sake. They’re going to teach people how to live lives full of love and hope, and they’re going to teach people how to build right relationships with God and with one another. That’s phase one. Phase two is that Jesus is going to come back. God’s kingdom will be established, and all the living and the dead will be raised, sins forgiven and all brokenness will be healed. God’s good creation will be re-established.

That’s what’s coming, in the end. Resurrecton. Not just resurrection of one or two people, but all people. And not just so that they can go on living in the same broken, sinful world they’ve always been living in, but in a new and better world, where there is no pain, no grief, no loss, no fear, and no hate. A world where there is only goodness and kindness, love and hope.

But to get there, Jesus has to die. And the disciples have to be ready for it. They’re going to have to be able to stand at the cross, at the place where all their hopes and dreams are shattered by the cruelties of life, and watch their friend and teacher die. They’re going to have to be able to stand there and see it and not run away. They’re going to have to be willing to stay through the grief and pain of the crucifixion, so that they will also be there when Jesus rises. They’re going to have to be able to look at death and say, “This is not the end of the story. There is still hope. God is still working, even in the midst of death.”

Because isn’t that what the Christian life is all about? Let’s not forget that the symbol of our faith, the cross, is an instrument of torture and execution. When we wear a cross, that’s what we’re saying. Yes, the world is a broken, sinful place. Yes, there is death: horrifying, terrible, death, that leaves people torn by grief and fear. Yes, there are horrors in the world. But they do not get the final word. Death does not win. God is alive, God is present, God is with us even when we can’t see him. God is with us even when we think he is dead and gone. God is with us no matter what, and God is going to turn this world upside down. God’s plan for this world is life, abundant life, joyful life, where sin and brokenness can’t hurt us anymore. And God’s plan is fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was, and who is, and who will come again.

And so, a week and a half before Jesus’ own death, two weeks before his resurrection, Jesus takes the disciples to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He weeps with Mary and Martha. He tells them to have faith in the Resurrection—because he is the resurrection, and the life, even in death when it seems like all hope and life are lost. And Jesus commanded them to take away the stone from the tomb, even knowing that Lazarus had been dead long enough to rot. And he called Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus did. And everyone there could see that death was not the end. Lazarus could see it, and the disciples could see it, and Mary and Martha, and the people who were there. And we can see it, too, whenever we read this story: death does not get the final say. Death is not the end of the story. Because Jesus is the resurrection, and the life.
The story doesn’t end with death, not then and not for us here, and now. We won’t see the resurrection until Jesus comes again, but Jesus will come. Death is not the end of the story. Life is the end of the story. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Water of Life

Lent 3, (Year A), March 23, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

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, when I wrote last week’s sermon and focused a bit on “being born from water and the Spirit,” I hadn’t yet looked ahead to this week’s lessons, to see that water would be an even bigger part of today’s Gospel. As the story begins, Jesus was travelling on his way, and he had to stop in a Samaritan town. Now, Jesus and all his disciples were Jewish, and Jews and Samaritans did not get along. There were religious and cultural differences that had led to an enmity stretching back hundreds of years. Think of the differences between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, or between Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land today. They worshipped the same God, but they told the sacred stories of Scripture differently, and while Jews believed the best place to worship God was in Jerusalem, the Samaritans believed that Mount Samaria was the best place. There wasn’t any danger of war between the two groups, but that was mostly because they tried to ignore each other as best they could even when they lived right next door. Jews and Samaritans didn’t talk to one another. They didn’t do business with one another. They certainly didn’t eat or drink with one another.

So there Jesus is, sitting by a well. It was an important well, with a long history, and a tradition that connected it to Jacob, who was an ancestor to both Jews and Samaritans. Both groups liked to pretend that the other group wasn’t really faithful to God; both Jews and Samaritans liked to claim that only their own people were right and the others were completely wrong. But that well was a reminder that they both worshipped the same God. They might fight—and fight bitterly—about what God’s Word meant, and how to worship God rightly, but they were all children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But beyond its history, reliable wells are incredibly valuable things in dry climates like the Middle East. Even if it was just a random well, it had given water to the community for centuries. The Holy Land isn’t like Egypt or Mesopotamia. They don’t have great big rivers that flow reliably through the country, giving water whenever they need it. They have the rain, when it comes, and they have wells. Each drop of water is precious. It can’t ever be taken for granted, because there is never enough of it. They depend on rain to grow their crops; if it doesn’t rain, the crops don’t grow, and if the well dries up, they have nothing to drink with, nothing to wash with. In Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as indoor plumbing. As in many third-world countries today, collecting water from the well was one of a woman’s most important daily tasks. Every drop the household used had to be carried from the well, sometimes miles away from home. It’s a heavy task, hot and painful. The walk out to the well isn’t bad, but the walk back is hard. Imagine carrying a large pot full of water for a mile several times a day. We today complain when a water line break means we don’t get water to our houses for a few days and we have to get it elsewhere and carry it home, how awkward it is when we don’t have running water for drinking and cooking and showering and flushing the toilet. But imagine living your entire life like that, with every drop of water your family uses carried for miles on your back.

So a Samaritan woman gets to the well and finds a Jewish man there. A bit unusual, but they’re on the road from Judea to Galilee, and after all, Jews like to come to Jacob’s Well too. She assumes that they’ll just ignore one another as Jews and Samaritans do. But as she’s lowering the bucket into the well, he speaks to her. Unlike Nicodemus last week, this woman was not coming for any spiritual enlightenment. She was just going about her daily chores, probably distracted with all the things that needed to be done that day. Did she have enough food for supper or would she have to go to the market? How much weeding did her garden need?

And then this Jewish guy she doesn’t know speaks up. “Give me a drink,” he says. Now, if he were a fellow Samaritan, this wouldn’t be anything remarkable. After all, what else would you expect someone sitting by a well to ask? But this isn’t a Samaritan, this is a Jew, and Jews and Samaritans don’t talk to one another and they certainly don’t eat and drink together, and here’s this Jew asking her for water? “You do realize that I’m a Samaritan?” she says. And the stranger starts talking about water.

Now, this is a woman who knows about water. She knows to the very marrow of her bones how important water is. She knows the thirst of getting to the end of the day and realizing they don’t have enough and it’s too late to go to the well again and so she’ll have to go to bed parched, lips cracking from the heat and dryness, swallowing repeatedly to try and keep her throat moist. She knows about making the hard choices—when water is scarce, who goes thirsty? What stays dirty? She knows how quickly people get sick and die without water. She knows the weight of water, carried step by aching step from this well back to the village every day of her life. Water? If there’s a better way to get it, she wants to know.

Jesus tells her, “Those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” Jesus isn’t talking about the kind of water you can get in a well, he’s talking about living water, the kind that nourishes your soul and not your body. We tend to concentrate on the needs of our bodies—food and water and clothing and shelter. And certainly there’s nothing wrong with tending physical needs! But our souls have needs, too. Our souls get thirsty, too. Our souls need the water of life just as deeply as our bodies need physical water.

While we focus on our bodies, we let our souls wither away. We thirst for a deeper connection, with each other and with God; we can bury that thirst in all kinds of things. We go out looking for the water of life and try to convince ourselves that other things will do just as well. We fill our stomachs and hope that will fill our souls. We post the best parts of ourselves on Facebook and Twitter and hope that getting a lot of “likes” will fill our deep need for friendship and connection. We drink and hope that the oblivion of alcohol will soothe the hopes and fears that plague us. We put one another down and hope that feeling superior will fix the cracks in our own lives. We build rules and walls and hope that we can build something that will fill our souls. We look for living water in all the wrong places, and we pay heavy costs for things we think will fill that thirst.

But here’s the thing about living water: it’s free. It’s a gift that is free for everyone. Whether you’re an insider or an outsider; whether you’re good or bad; whether you’re a man or a woman; whether you’re rich or poor. All you have to do is ask. The woman at the well, and thousands like her, work hard every day for water, but the living water flows freely for everyone. It comes through Jesus, in the love he has for each and every one of us. It comes as God comes to us, calls us by name, and builds a relationship with us. Jesus knew that woman, even though she didn’t know him; he knew everything she’d ever done. He knew the good parts and the bad parts, and he loved her and called her, warts and all. Just one encounter with him was enough to change her life. She still had to go to Jacob’s Well for water to drink, but her soul’s thirst was quenched.

And her encounter with Jesus didn’t just change her life, it changed her community’s life, too. She told them about her experience with Jesus, and that experience brought others to Jesus, too. She didn’t have any fancy training; she was no Bible expert. She didn’t win them over by quoting long passages of Scripture. She told them about her experience with God, a God in human form who knew her better than anyone in her life ever had and loved her and called her by name. Jesus gave her the fountain of living water, and through her that living water came to her whole community. The divisions between Jew and Samaritan—that great gaping chasm that ruled their lives—wasn’t important any longer. The old barriers were knocked down. The living water is for everyone. God’s love is for everyone. It’s not a scarce commodity to be rationed out by the cup to those who deserve it. It’s a wellspring that gushes forth with more than enough for everyone in the whole world. We go out looking for things to quench our soul’s thirst, and all the time Jesus is giving out living water. May we hear him when he comes to us.

Amen.

The power of the Word

Lent Wednesday 2—Scripture reading

March 19, 2014

Psalm 119:105-112, Isaiah 55:6-11, Matthew 13:7-13

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

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

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

When you hear an American Christian talk about the Bible today, the most common phrase is something like this: “The Bible says it, I believe it.”  And who can argue with that?  But there’s an underlying attitude to that phrase that can be a big problem: it’s a tendency to treat the Bible, God’s Holy Word, like a textbook.  Textbooks explain objectively provable facts with clear explanations that one memorizes to regurgitate on a test.  You can generally boil the facts in a textbook into simple premises to memorize.  You don’t have to spend much time thinking about it; you don’t have to spend time wondering about how it affects your life, you don’t have to wrestle with anything difficult or contradictory.  Once you’ve learned the material, you don’t have to come back and re-read it because it will stay exactly the same.  If you can get a handout from the teacher with a summary of the material, you don’t even need to read the textbook itself, just memorize what the teacher wants to hear!  And if you come back to a textbook ten years after learning the material, well, you’re not going to learn anything you didn’t already learn from it.

The Bible is not that simple.  Isaiah says that God’s Word is like the rain and the snow that come down from heaven, bringing the water that things need to grow.  And God’s thoughts aren’t like our thoughts; they’re greater than we are.  Trying to boil them down into something simple and easy is kind of like trying to predict the weather.  We know that snow and rain will come, but they don’t come on cue.  And even the smartest people with the best equipment can’t completely predict the rain and the snow; the forces involved are just too complicated and too big.  And yet, the rain and the snow come, and the ground is nourished, and things grow.  And the things that grow give life to all of creation.  God sends out God’s Word just like he sends out the rain and snow, and things happen because of it.  Things grow, and that life and growth is a gift to the whole world.  That growth is not just something that can be memorized and put back on the shelf.

Or consider the parable of the sower—in this metaphor Jesus says that the Word is like a seed.  It gets spread everywhere—God doesn’t just give the seed to the good soil, he gives it to every patch of ground there is.  And in each of those places, something happens.  What happens on the path is not the same as what happens in the good soil; instead of new plants springing up from the seed, the seed on the path gets eaten by the birds.  But the birds are God’s creatures, too, beloved by God.  When the Word is spread, things happen.  Those things may not be what we anticipated or expected or chosen, but they are what God has chosen.

Or consider the psalmist’s words: God’s Word is a lamp lighting her way.  It’s not just passively sitting there, it’s doing something.  It’s making a difference in the psalmist’s life, and that difference changes depending on the circumstances.  Think about it: you need a flashlight when you’re taking a walk outside at night, and when the power goes out, or when you’re trying to do something difficult in a tight space.  Each time, that light is necessary, it opens up possibilities, but those possibilities are different depending on what’s going on in your life.

Every week I go to a Pastor’s Bible Study where we study the Scripture readings assigned for the coming Sunday.  For those of you who don’t know, many churches including our own use a three-year cycle of Bible passages for Sunday worship.  So the readings we heard last Sunday, the Second Sunday of Lent 2014, we’ll hear again in three years on the Second Sunday of Lent 2017.  They don’t change.  When people hear that, they ask, “so, do you just have three years’ worth of sermons and repeat them?”  No, I don’t; I couldn’t.  You see, when I read a passage from the Bible I usually notice something I haven’t noticed before, even if the passage is an old favorite.  The passage hasn’t changed, but God may be using those same words to say something different to me.  Or maybe it’s that I’ve changed, and with new ears I can hear more clearly God’s message for me.  Or maybe it’s that my life and circumstances have changed, and so I’m looking for different things.  Usually, it seems to be a combination of those three things.  And I’ve asked veteran pastors, retired pastors who had thirty years of preaching on the same texts and preached on each text at least ten times.  Yes, they all say, every time I come back to these passages I see something different.  The letters on the page haven’t changed, but God’s Word isn’t ink on dead trees, or even pixels on a screen: God’s Word is alive, and it does things, to us and to our world.

Instead of a textbook, the Bible is more like sitting on the couch with your grandparents and the family photo album.  You get all the family stories—who we are, where we come from, why we do the things we do.  What’s important to us, and why; what relationships have made us who we are today.  And you get all the little things—recipes and jokes and proverbs and such—at the same time.  It’s the wisdom of your family, passed on to you.  It gives you roots.  You can sit down with the family album many times, but the stories will be told differently each time, and sometimes there will be different versions of the same story.  The Bible is the photo album of the family of God, telling the stories about who we are and why we are the way we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going.  We need those stories to give our faith roots, to know who we are and why we are and where we came from and where we’re going.  You don’t get that by memorizing a couple of key verses.  You get that by reading and rereading it, by paying attention to what God’s doing with those words.  In that way, you open up possibilities for God’s Word to grow in you and shine a light on your path.  Thanks be to God for that light, for that growth.

Amen.