Abundant Love

Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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

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

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

 

My family went to church every Sunday when I was a kid, but the first time I remember consciously hearing the story of our Gospel reading was actually from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And that’s a great show with a lot of good songs, but like all dramatizations of Scripture it takes liberties here and there.  Being a good, church-going Christian child, I knew that God wanted us to give generously to those in need, and I knew that Jesus had spent a lot of time feeding the hungry and healing the sick and things like that.  So I assumed that when Jesus said that there will always be poor, it must have been made up for the show.  I was very surprised when my Dad explained that no, Jesus actually did say something like that, although the show elaborated it a lot.  It just did not make sense to me.  It didn’t fit with what else I knew of Jesus.

This passage made a lot more sense to me—or, at least, fit better within what I knew of Jesus—when I got to seminary and learned that Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15.  Deuteronomy 15 talks about how God’s people are supposed to be generous to the poor always, and give without being stingy or resentful.  There will always be poor, and that’s why God’s people need to be constantly generous.  Not just a little bit here and there, but always generous to those in need.  Most people take Jesus’ line that “there will be poor always” as an excuse not to be generous—after all, it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.  But Jesus is actually quoting a Scripture passage that, if you read the whole thing, says that we should be generous precisely because there are always people in need.

That fit better with what I knew of Jesus, but it still didn’t explain why he didn’t agree with Judas that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would be a better use of it than extravagantly anointing Jesus with it.  True, Judas had selfish motives, but he also had a point about how extravagantly wasteful this whole thing is.  I mean, what does Jesus need oil for?  It serves no practical purpose.  It does serve a couple of different symbolic purposes; as Jesus said in the reading, it’s something that they did to dead bodies, and Jesus was about to die.  And also, kings and priests and prophets were commonly anointed with oil; “Messiah” literally means anointed one.  The person who’s had the special oil put on them as a symbol of how chosen and precious they are to God.  So Mary’s actions served as a sign both of who Jesus was and what was to come.  But surely, there was less expensive oil that would have done the job, or she could have used less; spending the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars on a single action is pretty extravagant.  Surely they could have found some very good quality oil that would have been less expensive, and used the rest for feeding the hungry or whatever?  It just doesn’t seem like good stewardship.

The thing is, though, that abundance is a theme in the Gospel of John.  In the first chapter, we are told that we have all received grace upon grace from God’s fullness.  Jesus’ first act of ministry is providing 150 gallons of the best wine for the wedding at Cana.  In John 10, Jesus says “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  God’s goal isn’t just that we might have enough, but that we might have more than enough.  God works to provide enough so that everyone’s life might overflow with goodness.  The fact that there is need and poverty isn’t because of some failure on God’s part to provide; God provides abundantly.  If there is scarcity and need in the world, it is because of human sin and greed and stinginess.  God provides abundantly, and calls his people to do the same.

And this anointing is abundant.  It’s a pound of pure nard, imported from the Himalayas, a pungent, earthy perfume that filled the house.  Like any perfume, it would have lingered, and lingered even longer than we might expect, given that water was scarce and they probably didn’t bathe often.  Jesus might have carried the fragrance of that anointing with him all the way to the cross.  It was an extravagant gift, an extravagant act.  When Mary knelt and poured it over Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, it was an extravagant act of worship, far beyond what could ever have been asked or expected of her.  And that extravagance is kind of the point.  Love overflowed in her, love of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead, love for the God whose power was revealed in Jesus’ saving actions.  That love overwhelmed her, and no rational, logical, small gift would have conveyed the enormity of what she felt.  The only way to express her devotion was through an immense gift, given in a spirit of worship and service.  It was not the prudent choice, but not everything is about prudence.  Sometimes, it’s about abundant love.  Sometimes, it’s about a leap of faith.

Yes, the money spent could have been given to the poor.  But the poor are always with us; one extravagantly generous gift wouldn’t have solved anything.  Mary and Martha and Lazarus were devoted followers of Jesus, so I have no doubt that they lived lives of generosity and service, giving regularly to help those in need.  The fact that in this instance Mary gave such a gift to Jesus doesn’t mean she wasn’t also giving to those in need.  The thing is, while God’s call to be generous is an important part of the Christian life, it is not at the heart of it.  We give because of our love of God, and because we have experienced the love of God poured out in us and in our lives.  That love—the grace upon grace we receive and share—is the core of the Gospel.  That love is the reason God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, and finally to rise from the grave for us.  That love is the reason for all of God’s saving actions.  That love is what created us in our mothers’ wombs, nurtured us as we grew, and has been with us every step of our lives.  That love is what redeems and saves us from our own sins.  That love is what heals us and makes us whole.  That love is what brings us here today.  And that love is what calls us to share God’s abundance with the world.  As we ourselves have received grace upon grace from God’s loving arms, we are called to share that grace with others, in word and deed.

The church is not a social service agency that happens to have a worship service every week.  The church is a community built around God’s love, nurtured through worship and God’s Word, which sustains us and helps us grow and sends us back out into the world to be God’s hands and feet.  This last week our Lenten Bible Study focused on the fruits of the Spirit.  To use that metaphor, generosity to those in need is the fruit of the spirit … and the love of God is the root.  You cannot have one without the other.  You cannot have the constant generosity God calls us to without being devoted to the love of God.  If you try to separate generosity and love, all too often you end up like Judas: nickel-and-diming everything, and using charity as a cover for your own selfishness.  Mary knew how to love beyond measure.  Mary knew how to let God’s love overflow in her.  Mary did not allow anything—not self-consciousness, not society’s approval, not money, not anything—get in the way of letting her show that love in word and deed.  And it was extravagant, and it was amazing.

I wonder what it would be like if we loved like that.  If we were willing to let the love of God overflow in us that much that sometimes—not always, not in everything—but sometimes, we let that love overflow into extravagant, abundant signs of the kingdom.  If we spent more time focusing on God’s abundance than on what we lack.  If we let go of our fears and anxieties and self-consciousness and put our trust in God.  If we let that love and trust be the core of everything we do, not just in name only but in reality.  I don’t know, but I bet amazing things would happen.

Amen.

Fruit Worthy of Repentance

Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 62:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

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

 

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

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

In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his followers they should recognize the signs so they could tell what was really going on.  Unfortunately, they prove immediately that even when the signs are clear (such as major disasters and acts of evil), they don’t understand the message they’re supposed to.  And I’m not sure if we’re any better than they are.  In fact, I think all too often we make the same mistake they did.

There had been two major tragedies in the area.  In one of them, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later order Jesus crucified to appease the crowd and the religious elite, had sent his soldiers in to the Temple and killed those who had gathered there to worship.  Why, we don’t know; Pilate was a cruel man, and not terribly bright, from what records we have of him; he was prone to violent overreactions.  Then there had also been another great tragedy: a tower had fallen and killed a lot of people.  Not an unusual event in a land with regular earthquakes and relatively poor building materials and techniques.  But still, a tragedy, one that would have been big news.  And the people had looked at these two tragedies, and heard Jesus telling them they should be alert for signs to tell them what sort of age they lived in, and they had concluded that those people had died because of their sins.

Which sort of misses the point, because the thing is, we’re all sinners.  Every single human being ever born, except Jesus Christ, is a sinner who cannot save themselves from their sins, or the consequences of them.  We don’t like to remember that.  We’re fine with noticing the sinfulness of people we don’t like, or don’t care about; but unless we have a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we will do a great deal to avoid noticing our own sinfulness.  As a pastor, one of the most frustrating things is how people with mental illnesses often fixate on their own sins, real or imagined, to such a degree that they cannot accept God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, while most people convince themselves that they’re not sinners—or, at least, not bad sinners, even if they give lip service to acknowledging their sins—and thus don’t think they need much forgiving.  It’s either feast or famine: we either fixate on our sinfulness to the exclusion of all else, or try to ignore it and excuse it.  We rarely have a realistic appraisal that might lead us to change our behavior.

The other thing humans love doing, besides ignoring our own sinfulness, is control things.  We crave control.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own destiny even when it is perfectly obvious that we are not.  We want the world to fit into nice, simple categories with nice, simple reasons for things happening.  Then, all we have to do is figure things out and take the appropriate steps to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us.  Put these two factors together, and you get the common human response to tragedy: figure out why those who suffered or died deserved what happened to them.  Then reassure yourself that since you don’t deserve it, it could never happen to you.  Is someone you know sick?  Well, they didn’t exercise enough or eat the right foods.  But you do, so you won’t get sick.  Did somebody slide on an icy road and crash their car?  Well, they were a bad driver, but you’re a good driver, so you won’t have an accident.  Is someone poor?  Well, they must just be lazy, but you’re not lazy, so you’ll never be poor.  Did someone get raped or assaulted?  Well, they must have led their attacker on, but you‘d never do that, so you’ll never be assaulted.  Did some big tragedy happen?  Well, it must have been a punishment from God because of their sin, but you’re not a sinner, or not as bad a sinner as they were, so it can’t happen to you.  It’s very reassuring.

You can judge the person suffering, and give them all sorts of advice, and never have to grapple with the fact that sometimes bad things just happen and we can’t control it.  Sometimes tornadoes and floods just come.  Sometimes people get sick because of things outside their control.  Sometimes accidents just happen.  These and other tragedies are manifestations of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, but they are not caused by any one person’s actions or inactions.  And even when a tragedy is caused by the sinfulness of one person in particular, all too often, the consequences are not felt by the sinner.  The Galileans that Pilate killed in the temple weren’t killed because they were particularly horrible sinners who deserved death more than any other group of people; they were killed because Pilate was a sinner, a cruel, stupid man, and he decided to have them killed.  They died because of his sins, not their own.

Knowing the time and reading the signs is not about reassuring yourself by blaming the victim for their suffering.  It’s about realizing that the whole world—including your and me!—is broken by sin and death.  It’s about recognizing that the whole world and everything in it—including you and me!—desperately needs to be healed, made new, and reconciled to God.  It’s about knowing that you and me and everyone in the world depend completely on the grace and mercy of God, and trusting that mercy, and letting it overflow in our lives.  It’s about being transformed by Christ, instead of conforming to the ways of this broken, sinful world.  It’s about knowing that we and everyone else deserves the judgment that is coming, and still trusting that God is at work to bring salvation and healing and new life.  In other words, it’s about repentance.

But repentance is another thing we don’t understand.  We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty.  As if the thing God wants most out of us is that we feel bad.  Sometimes our understanding of repentance broadens enough to include trying to atone or make up for specific sins we have done, but all too often it’s just about feeling bad about what we did.  This is why a number of non-Christians of my acquaintance really don’t like Christian talk of sin and repentance.  From what they’ve seen, either it’s shallow and doesn’t lead to real meaningful change, or it leads to depression and anxiety and still doesn’t lead to positive change.

But for Luke, repentance isn’t just about admitting your sin and feeling bad about it.  Repentance is about bearing fruit.  You may have heard sermons in the past that “repentance” literally means “turn,” and that true repentance is turning away from sinful behaviors.  And that’s true.  But the repentance God wants isn’t just any old change, any old turn.  It’s not just about rejecting sin, it’s about turning towards something good.  Towards the beginning of Luke, John the Baptist tells people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  And here, Jesus immediately connects talk of sin and punishment and repentance to the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t produce.  It’s root-bound, in poor soil, and without enough water, and so it does not bear fruit.  And the gardener says, instead of cutting it down, let’s fix the problems and heal it and see if it bears fruit then.  And if it doesn’t bear fruit even after that … then comes the judgment.  Repentance, here, is not about the tree apologizing for not bearing fruit; repentance is the gardener working to get the tree to bear fruit.  The fruits of the Spirit, the fruits God is calling us to bear, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the things that we need.  These are the things the world so desperately needs.  These are the things we are called to produce and bear into the world.

So what are the things we need to do to bear fruit?  What are the ways that our soil needs to be prepared, and the soil of our community?  Where are the places in us or our community that need fertilizer or water, or weeds removed?  May God so garden in our souls that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may we help others bear such fruit also.

Amen.

It’s About Trust

Lent 1, Year C, March 20, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

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

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

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

Ever since paganism died out in the West, most Christians have not really paid attention to the First Commandment, “you shall have no other gods besides me.”  After all, there aren’t exactly any temples to Ba’al or Zeus or whoever around.  If you’re going to worship, the main choice is which branch of Christianity you’re going to follow.  But Martin Luther didn’t think that first commandment was obsolete.  On the contrary, Martin Luther saw idolatry everywhere.  Luther put it this way: whatever you say on Sunday morning during worship, your true God is the thing in which you put your trust.  The thing you rely on to keep things going well, the thing you look to to get you out of any problems.  And for a lot of people, even for devout Christians, we may say we trust God, but we don’t necessarily actually do that.  We put our trust in ourselves, our money, our political ideology, our leaders, in a lot of things, but not in God.  We focus so hard on the things we are doing, the things we can affect, that we don’t always see the other things around us that go into making our efforts possible.

Say you have a group of people go to play Monopoly together.  And one of them—decided at random—has different rules than the rest.  Rules that make the game much easier.  They start with more money and collect twice as much money when passing Go, for example, and get out of jail freely every time.  Chances are, they’re going to win.  Not because they’re such awesome players, but because the rules are slanted in their favor.  But if you ask them why they won, what factors contributed, nine times out of ten they start talking about what a great player they are: how they made sure to buy up all the real estate they could get their hands on, for example, and managed to avoid having to mortgage anything.  Even when it’s perfectly obvious that they won because the rules were slanted in their favor, they won’t notice it, trusting instead in their own abilities and talents.

Which is why, in our lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to remember just where their harvest comes from every year.  First of all, the land is not theirs.  The land—all of creation—belongs to God.  God lets them use it, but it’s God’s land.  Their ancestors were nomads, people with no land and few possessions.  Then they became slaves in Egypt, which was pretty horrible.  The only reason they escaped was because God heard their cry and freed them.  And then God brought them to a land where they could live and farm and become prosperous.  I’m sure that especially after the first generation or so, when there was nobody left who remembered anything other than living in the Promised Land, it was tempting to believe that they had that land because they had earned it, because they were strong enough to defend it from other tribes, because they deserved it.  I’m sure it was tempting to believe that the crops they grew and the wealth they amassed were because of their own hard work, because they were good farmers.  I bet it was hard to remember that without the seed and sun and rain, their hard work would be absolutely useless.  I bet it was even harder to remember that the only reason they were able to do that hard work in the first place was because God gave them healthy bodies.

And that’s why they had a whole litany to remind them just where all the good things came from, and how much they depended on God’s good gifts.  Even when they had nothing, they had God.  When they were slaves, used and abused so that others might grow wealthy, God was with them.  It was God who saved them, it was God who brought them to their new homeland, and in their new prosperity there, it was still God who gave them every good thing they had.  Their lives, their health, their land, the sun and rain—everything was a gift from God.  Their own hard work mattered, but it was only a tiny part of the reason for the good things in their lives.  But that’s hard to remember when everything’s going well.  We blame God when things go wrong, but seldom give credit when they go right.  I don’t believe that God causes all the things that go wrong—for example, there’s no hint that the Israelites time of slavery was any sort of punishment; in the Bible, it’s not something God wanted, it happened because of Pharaoh’s fears and greed.  And even though everything was going wrong the Israelites were terribly oppressed, God was with them and God heard their cry and freed them.  God didn’t cause the evil that befell them, but God saved them from it and brought them to a place where they could grow and prosper and gave them every good thing they had.  They needed to remember that.  They needed to put their trust in God, rather than in themselves or their kings or their land or anything else.

Then we come to our Gospel reading.  When I was a kid, the story of Jesus’ temptation confused me.  Not the temptations to power in exchange for worshipping the Devil; the bit about food.  Because God wants people to be fed!  God spends a lot of time, in the Old and New Testaments, providing food for people through various miracles!  We as Christians are supposed to feed hungry people as part of our ministry.  That’s why we have food pantries and things, that’s why there are so many Christian ministries that provide food.  Jesus was hungry, and God doesn’t want people to go hungry.  So what would have been the problem with turning those stones into bread?

But the problem is, who was asking Jesus to do that?  The devil.  If Jesus had done it, he would not have been trusting God to provide for his needs.  He would have been listening to the voice that says “well, you know, the consequences of doing something wrong won’t be that bad.  After all, your goal is a good one, and what can it hurt?  Jesus would have been putting his trust in that voice, and not in his Father who was with him, supporting him and providing for him in good times and bad.  And we do that too, you know?  We have something we need, or that we think we need, and the only way we think we can get it, well, it’s not what we should be doing, but it’s not that bad, is it?  And so we do things that we think are small, but the whole point is that we’re not trusting God.  We’re not trusting God to provide, and both as individuals and as communities we go for expediency, the easy way, instead of doing the right thing.  Instead of doing the right thing and trusting that God will be with us even if there are consequences, we do things we shouldn’t—or we don’t do the things we should, because we put our faith in our own abilities instead.  Or we put our trust in our money, in our political parties, or in our leaders and bosses, or anywhere other than where it should be.

Where do we put our trust?  What is our god?  Is our trust in the Lord our God whom we come here to worship on Sunday?  Or is our trust in ourselves, or in our money, or in all the other things in the world that come to us and say “hey, I can solve all your problems, if you’ll just put me first.”

May we always put our trust and hope in the Lord where it belongs.

Amen.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-12, John 12:22-30

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

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

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

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.

God’s first covenant was with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  Then came God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where he called them to follow him and promised to be with them and their descendants forever.  Then came the covenant on Mount Sinai, where God re-stated his promise to the people of Israel, and gave them teachings and commandments to show them how they should live as God’s people.  Then last week we heard of God’s covenant with David, promising him that his descendants would always be king of Israel, a promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is of the house and lineage of David.

This week, we heard of the new covenant God proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah.  And, again, it’s good to remember the context, what Jeremiah was dealing with that prompted God giving this covenant.  Jeremiah was a prophet during a particularly terrible time.  God’s people had gone astray over and over again, sometimes worshipping idols and sometimes giving lip service to God’s word while creating a society filled with injustice and exploitation, in which the rich got richer by grinding the poor under their feet, and people hurt one another while claiming to be following God.  And God had warned the people again and again, that if they continued on in that way, he would stand aside and let them reap the consequences of their actions.  God wouldn’t abandon them, God would keep God’s promise to always be their God … but God wouldn’t protect them from the empires around them who wanted to conquer and enslave them.  By Jeremiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah was still hanging on, and the people of Judah believed that God’s covenant with David would protect them even despite their continuing bad behavior.

Jeremiah spoke the words the Lord had given him so speak, and told them that God’s love would not save them from the consequences of their actions unless they repented and turned away from their sins.  And they didn’t listen.  And so Jeremiah watched as the Babylonians conquered Judah, captured the city of Jerusalem, and took many of their people off in chains.  Jeremiah wrote two books, and the second was Lamentations, which records his grief at the destruction of his beloved country.  But even in the midst of devastation and grief, even as the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of God enslaved and removed from the land God had given them, there was hope.  Because Jeremiah knew that God always keeps God’s promises, and God would always be with them, even as slaves in a foreign land.  And Jeremiah knew that God was going to make a new covenant with God’s people.

The covenant Jeremiah records is the only one the Bible specifically calls “new.”  But what’s new about it?  On the surface, it’s a lot like covenants of old.  God will be their God, and they will be his people.  In the covenant at Sinai, God gathered the people from slavery in Egypt; in this new covenant, God will gather the people from Israel and Judah, captured by other nations.  Just like the covenant at Sinai, God will give instructions on how to live a good and godly life.  And just like the covenant at Sinai didn’t eliminate or replace the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, this new covenant will not replace or get rid of all the other covenants God made with God’s people.

The difference, what makes this covenant new, is that it will change human nature.  Up until this point, the wickedness of the human heart that so distressed God in the days of Noah has remained.  God promises that God will always be with God’s people, and God gives instructions for how God’s people are to live, but we human beings fall continuously short.  We hurt ourselves and one another, and we twist God’s word to justify our sinful thoughts and actions.  We tell ourselves that when God commanded us to love one another, he only meant we should love people who are like us, people that we already like.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to hate and fear people who are different, because surely they are not God’s people like we are.  We tell ourselves that if someone hurts us, it’s okay to hurt them back.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to be selfish, and if others are impoverished or hurt because of it, that’s their problem.  We tell ourselves that we are good people, God’s people, and so whatever we think and do must be good and Godly, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God.  We keep breaking our promises to follow God.  That was true in Jeremiah’s day, and it is still unfortunately true today.

But this covenant that God promises through Jeremiah will be a new covenant.  God’s teachings and commandments won’t be empty words on a page that we try to ignore or weasel our way out of whenever they become inconvenient.  Instead, God’s word will be written on our hearts.  We won’t have to argue about what God means, because nobody will try to twist God’s words to their own gain.  We won’t have to tell each other “know the Lord,” for we shall all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest.  Instead of giving lip service to doing the right thing, humans will actually do it.  Instead of telling ourselves we can do everything because of our own abilities and we don’t need anyone else, we will love God and love our neighbors, and build deep and lasting and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbor.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  It sounds almost too good to be true.  And yet, Jeremiah assures us that that day is coming, for God has promised it.  We get a foretaste of that day in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We get a foretaste of God’s word in us and in our hearts by the way the Holy Spirit of God moves in us and around us, giving life to our faith and constantly bringing us back to God.  We get a foretaste of that great and wondrous day every time someone chooses love over hate, generosity over selfishness, faith over despair.  We get a foretaste of that day whenever chains are broken, oppression is ended, justice is done, and mercy is given.

Now, we see that world, that kingdom of God, only dimly and in little bits and pieces.  But when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, that kingdom will come to earth and the human heart will be made new, washed clean from all the evil that is in it.  And God’s Spirit will dwell with us, and God’s will will be written on our hearts.  And we will do the right thing not because we have to, or because are afraid of the consequences, or grudgingly, but with joy and love.  I can’t wait for that day.  And every time I see the pain in this world, my longing for it grows stronger.  That day is coming, says the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

What Forgiveness Looks Like

Lent Wednesday Worship 2017

 

Ezekiel 18:25-32, Psalm 103:6-14, Ephesians 4:25-32

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.

Of course we all know that Christians should forgive, and we all know that God forgives.  This is one of the central tenets of the Christian faith.  But when you start looking at what that looks like in practice, well, then things get a little murky.  Because in practice, we don’t always agree on what that looks like.  Is there something special you have to do or say to be forgiven?  Do you have to stop doing the sin?  And what if it’s an addiction or caused by a mental illness, and you can’t stop?  Or what if people don’t believe you’ve stopped?  Or what if you are sincere in your desire to change, and backslide anyway?  Some people would say that everything can be forgiven and there are no requirements.  Take that too far, and you get kind of a loosey-goosey nothing matters anything goes world.  Nothing matters because anything can and will get forgiven and swept under the rug.  On the other hand, some people would say that there are things that can’t be forgiven, and that there are pre-requisites to being forgiven, which quickly sets us up as judge, jury, and executioner.  Forgiveness becomes something you earn, instead of a gift given from God, and the world is divided up into “good” people who deserve forgiveness and “bad” people who don’t, and then you can do anything to the “bad” people because after all, they deserve whatever they get.  Forgiveness is a great principle, but in practice it gets very messy.

Part of the problem comes with the phrase “forgive and forget,” where once something is forgiven you’re supposed pretend it never happened.  But no matter how hard you pretend, it still happened.  Hurt was done.  Pretending doesn’t make it not have happened.  For example, if someone gets drunk and then gets behind the wheel of a car and hits someone on their way home, and kills them and totals their car, forgiving them doesn’t mean it never happened.  The victim is still dead.  The car is still totaled.  The consequences still exist—not just consequences for the person who drove drunk, but for a lot of other people.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean the consequences go away.  So what does it mean?

I think the first thing to remember is that we are not God, and this is not heaven.  We forgive because we have ourselves been forgiven and we have the example in Jesus’ love, but we don’t forgive in the same way God does.  God removes our sins from us—but we can’t remove other peoples’ sins from them.  God heals us and heals the world, and when Christ comes again all the things in ourselves and in the universe that are broken now will be healed and made better than they ever have been before.  That’s what God’s kingdom is: a place where everything and everyone is healed and whole and there is no pain or suffering.  And God’s forgiveness is an important part of what heals the world.  But we don’t live there yet, and while we can make this world better than it is we can’t make it as good as it will be when Christ comes again.  Our forgiveness and our capacity for healing are, in this world, finite.  So what does it mean to forgive in this world where consequences continue even after forgiveness, and healing can only go so far?

We forgive because God has forgiven us.  We love because God loves us, and taught us what true love really means through the life, death, and resurrection of his son.  God’s goal for us—for each one of us as individuals, for us as a community, for humanity as a whole, and for the entire cosmos—is to be made whole and life full and abundant lives.  God does not want us to be broken.  God does not want us to be in pain.  Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  But we turn away.  We hurt ourselves and others.  We break things, and people, and communities, and the fractures spread further than we know.  The easy thing to do is to respond in kind: to return pain for pain, evil for evil, hurt for hurt.  And if we can’t get back at the one who hurt us, well, surely we can find someone else to dump our pain on, until it becomes routine.  Until anger and fear and hate and resentment and malice and selfishness guide how we see the world, and each step takes us and our community further away from God’s love and abundant life.

The only way to turn away from that path—the only way to turn back towards the abundant life God gives—is forgiveness.  Not as a way of pretending the evil didn’t happen, not as a way of sweeping things under the rug, but as a way of guiding our own actions.  We can’t control other people.  All we can do is guide how we respond.  Are we going to be cruel, or kind?  Are we going to add to the pain in the world or, so far as it depends on us, bring healing?  Are we going to tear down or build up?

I know a number of people who were abused as children.  In some cases it was simple neglect.  In others, complex emotional manipulation.  In others, physical abuse.  There are a lot of reasons for it: some of the abusers had been abused as children themselves and just didn’t know healthy ways of treating their children.  Other abusive parents just didn’t want children in the first place and probably should never have had them.  Other abusers were just plain cruel, or self-centered, or in a few cases had untreated mental illness.  And our society hates to admit that sometimes people abuse or neglect children in their care.  We assume it can’t be true unless there is incredibly blatant evidence hitting us in the face that can’t possibly be explained away any other way.  And so, most of the time, we blame the victim.  They must just be a bad kid.  And how ungrateful they are that they don’t want to spend time with their parents!

The abuse survivors have to live with the consequences of others’ actions: not just the actions of the abusers, but of everyone around who looked away or assumed that everything was fine.  Years of trauma that have caused anxiety, PTSD, and a variety of psychological problems.  Many of them—quite justifiably—hate and fear the ones who harmed them so deeply.    People say, “oh, you should forgive them and mend your relationship!”  But if the abuser continues the same behaviors, there is no way to mend the relationship without opening the door to further abuse.  Even when the abuser really has changed, the damage done may be great enough that no relationship in this life could ever be healthy.  So the most loving thing to do may be to say “I forgive that person.  I don’t hold any bitterness about their actions in my heart, I’m not brooding over what they did to me, but I can’t be around them.”  The most loving and forgiving thing may be a clean break that allows people new space to grow in.  It’s not necessarily “nice,” and it certainly isn’t forgetting what has been done.  But it is a way that opens space for building up new lives, new hopes, new grace.

God loves us always, unconditionally.  But God hates the way we hurt ourselves and each other.  Through our actions and inactions, we add to the pain in the world, the suffering, the malice, the grief.  There will come a day when all that is broken will be made whole, when all pain and suffering will be healed, when all tears are wiped away.  That day will come when Christ comes again.  Until that time, we are called to live in love and forgiveness.  We can’t fix all the broken things, but we can open up space for love and kindness to grow.  Even when a relationship can’t be repaired, we don’t have to carry the bitterness with us in our hearts.  Sometimes forgiveness means trying again; sometimes forgiveness means learning to move on.

Amen.

 

Telling the Truth

Ash Wednesday, 2017

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, O Lord.

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

Ash Wednesday is a day for telling the truth.  Not the shiny, pretty lies that we want to hear; not the pretty surface the world wants to see, but the truth.  And the truth is, we are sinners.  God created us to be good, but we have turned away and gone astray.  There is goodness in even the worst of us, because God’s good work can’t be completely broken … but there is also sin in even the best of us.  Some of that sin we choose; some of that sin we learn from those around us; some of that sin we inherit from the general sinfulness of humanity.  In one of the creation stories in Genesis, God creates us out of the dust of the earth, molding us like a potter molds a vessel.  Then God breathes life into us.  Then we don’t trust God and turn away from him.  And sin breaks into our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and all of creation, bringing death and pain as its constant companions.  And so we will someday die, and whether we are buried or cremated, our mortal remains will eventually crumble to dust, the same dust God originally created us out of.

Now, our reactions to the great truth of our sinfulness vary.  Some of us deny it; some of us would be gold-medal contenders if “self-justification and excuses” were an Olympic sport.  We’re not really sinners, we think; we haven’t done anything that bad.  If you find yourself thinking this, I would suggest taking a good, hard look at yourself.  Would your spouse agree?  How about your kids, your parents, your friends—your enemies?  How have your actions and inactions caused pain for yourself and others?  How have your actions and inactions increased pain and hate and fear and suffering in the world?  I guarantee you, that no matter how good you think you are, you have done things that have added to the suffering in the world, and you have failed to act when you could have brought healing or hope.  We all have.  And most of us avoid this truth with self-justification and self-righteousness.  Some people can even take a bad thing and talk about it as if it were something good!  Parents who abuse their children, for example, often believe that they are helping their children—toughening them up, say, or getting rid of whatever traits they don’t approve of.  But whatever form the self-justification and denial takes, it prevents us from dealing with the reality that every single one of us is broken and sinful, and that even the best human society is riddled with sin and brokenness and darkness.

But denial and self-justification isn’t the only response to the truth of sin.  Some people take it far too much to heart.  People who have been abused are often manipulated into believing that they are worthless because of their sin and thus deserve whatever abuse is heaped upon them.  People with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses often believe that their sins are so deep and dark that they can’t ever be redeemed or loved.  Even small mistakes—even things that aren’t mistakes at all—are seen as huge gaping chasms isolating and dragging them down.  They know the truth of their sin so well that they cannot see that there is a truth greater than sin, and that is the love of God.

We are broken, sinful creatures, every single one of us, and that is the truth.  We make the world a darker, more painful place by our actions, by our words, and by the things we leave undone and unsaid.  This is the truth.  Little by little our sins add up, increasing the death and pain in the world.  This is the truth.  But there is another truth, deeper and greater than this one, and that is the love of God.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, not even ourselves.  Not even our brokenness, our pain, our sins.  Nothing in all of the universe can stop God from loving us.  Even as we sin, even as God hates all the ways we destroy ourselves, other people, and all of God’s creation, God does not stop loving us.  God will always love us, even while he condemns the things we do to ourselves and others.  God’s love is stronger than God’s condemnation; God’s forgiveness is greater than God’s judgment.  God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.  This is the truth that we cling to as Christians; this is the truth that caused God’s Son to be born as a human, to die for our sake, and to rise again in glory, so that we might be saved.  We tell the truth about our sins not to revel in gloom, or to prey on people with anxieties, but so that we can understand what God has done for us—and why it was necessary.

Our sins are many.  They harden our hearts, they blacken our hearts and souls and minds.  They lead us astray, sometimes convincing us that their path is the path of righteousness.  Our sins have caused us and others real pain, real suffering, real death.  We cannot sweep this under the rug, and we shouldn’t try to.  Because when we acknowledge our sin, God relents from punishing.  When we acknowledge our transgressions, God who is faithful and just forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.  When we admit the darkness in our hearts and lift them up to God, God creates in us new hearts.  But that cleansing, that washing, those new hearts can’t come as long as we deny that we need them.  We can’t be reconciled to Christ if we already think we’re in good with him, but the second we admit our need, change becomes possible.  Salvation becomes possible.

We are dust, and to dust we shall return.  We are sinners, and we will someday die.  Yet we are also beloved children of God, who loves us, forgives us, and reaches into our graves to give us new life in his kingdom.  This is most certainly true.

Amen.

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.

The Spirit blowing through

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

 Genesis 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-15, 13-17, John 3:1-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

On Prayer

Lent Wednesday 1–Prayer

March 12, 2014

 Psalm 28, 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28, Matthew 6:7-13

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.

Imagine a family where the parents and children never talk.  The father gives long pronouncements on how the children should act, but never asks about what’s going on in their lives.  The children, in turn, only talk to the father when they need to borrow the car keys or want a new cell phone.  It’s not a very healthy family, is it?  The relationships between the father and the children are pretty weak.  The father doesn’t know what’s going on in his children’s lives, and the children know even less about their father.  They may love one another, but when trouble strikes, it’s going to be very hard for them to work together as a family.  And even when times are good, it will be very easy for them to drift apart without even realizing it because there just isn’t that much holding them together.

For many people, that’s what their relationship with God is like.  They’ll sometimes listen to God’s Word in worship, but they don’t really respond to it, and their prayers are mainly a laundry list of what they want or need in their life.  If they’re generous, they’ll pray for other people’s needs, too.  And if God is listening to their prayer, he’ll respond by granting their wishes.  If God doesn’t respond, then he must not be listening.  When you think about it, this kind of an attitude reduces God to one big vending machine up in the sky: you punch in the combination for what you want, and he gives it to you.  It’s not about building a relationship; it’s not about walking with God through the joys and sorrows of life, it’s about getting God to give you stuff.

But listen to the words from our reading from First Thessalonians.  Paul is concluding his letter with a bunch of general advice on how to be a Christian community.  There’s lots of stuff about how to build right relationships—respect the leaders, help the weak, always seek to do good to one another, greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss: it’s all about relationships.  And prayer is part of that!  “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”  Instead of just giving God a laundry list of things that need fixing, thank God for what you have, and rejoice with God and your fellow Christians.  And pray without ceasing—in other words, prayer isn’t just something you do right before bed and when things are truly dire, prayer is part of every breath you take and everything you do.

Consider the Lord’s prayer, the model of how to pray that Jesus gave to his disciples.  We recite it every week in church.  Think of it like a framework for prayer.  You start off with the address—hey, God, how are you?  And, by the way, the word Jesus uses, it’s not a formal word like “Father.”  It’s more like “Daddy.”  It’s not about calling on some distant father-figure, but rather about a close and loving relationship.  Then you move on to talking about God’s kingdom and God’s will—basically, what God is doing in the world.  Then you move on to your own concerns, not just what you want but everything that’s going on in your life—your need for daily necessities, the times you’ve messed up, the times you’ve done good, the concerns you have about your life, the temptations and the evils.  Then you bring the focus back around to God for a little bit, before ending the prayer.  When you think about it, it’s a lot like a conversation.  If you recorded one end of a conversation over the phone, it would probably sound a lot like that.

How many of you have seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof?  It’s a movie about a devout Russian Jew named Tevye and his family.  Tevye narrates the story partly through his conversations with God.  God doesn’t answer back verbally; there’s no dramatic voice from heaven.  But Tevye keeps up a constant stream of commentary: what he’s thinking, his joys, his hopes, his fears.  All directed towards God.  Of course, God knows what’s in Tevye’s heart already … but speaking those things to God helps Tevye build a relationship with God.  It is definitely a relationship.  Tevye may not always understand why God allows some things to happen, but Tevye knows God intimately and has confidence that God knows him just as well.  God isn’t just an afterthought of Tevye’s routine, or a vending machine to be manipulated.  God is a real presence in Tevye’s life, because Tevye is paying attention to God, and Tevye has confidence that God is listening whether Tevye’s requests are answered or not.  Tevye is sharing all of his burdens and joys with God, and in so doing he leaves space for God to be in his life.  And it doesn’t just affect Tevye; Tevye’s faith and love ripple out through his family and his community.

What would it be like if we all prayed that way, without ceasing, confident that God listens to us?  If we truly brought all our joys and hopes and fears and concerns before God, and not just our requests?  If we built a relationship instead of just treating God like a vending machine?  I think our faith would be stronger, and our love for God and one another would be stronger, too.  I pray that we may all learn to pray as Jesus taught us.

Amen.

Faithfulness and Temptation

Lent 1, (Year A), March 9, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5:12-19, Matthew 4:1-11

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

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

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

I’m going to blow your mind.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  The tree that Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating?  It was probably not an apple tree.  No matter what you learned in Sunday School, the Bible itself does not say what kind of fruit the tree bore.  You can go ahead and check, but nowhere in the Bible does it say what kind of tree it was or what kind of fruit it had.  The earliest people we know of who speculated on what kind of a tree it was thought it might be a fig tree.  Others speculated that it was a grapevine or a citron tree, or possibly even a pomegranate.  Calling it an apple tree came much, much later.

And that’s not the only thing we think we know about this story that’s wrong.  Sexual sins have always been very high on the list of sins good Christians tend to be horrified by, so generations of people have read this story and gotten fixated on the innuendo: the first thing Adam and Eve did after eating the fruit was to notice they were naked and make clothes.  So sex must have been the first sin!  There’s a whole line of thought in some branches of Christianity that sex is inherently sinful and that’s how sin is passed from one generation to the next: because we are created through sex, which is sinful, therefore we are sinful.

But that’s not actually what the first sin was.  Back up a bit: the serpent said “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  And what’s Eve’s thought process?  The fruit looks good, and it makes people wise!  She wants to know good and evil.  She doesn’t want to depend on God, she doesn’t want to be sheltered and protected, she thinks that once she knows the difference between good and evil she’ll be like God and be able to do what she wants.  We don’t know what Adam was thinking—this is one of the few places in the Bible where we get the woman’s perspective and not the man’s—but he was right there next to her the whole time she was talking with the serpent and deciding to eat the fruit.  And he never said anything, never argued or questioned anything, so we can assume he was thinking pretty much the same thing.

Of course, the problem that Adam and Eve didn’t realize is that knowing the difference between good and evil doesn’t mean you’ll do good and turn away from evil.  There are a lot of people who know that bullying is wrong, but they do it anyway.  There are a lot of people who know that stealing is wrong, but they do it anyway.  There are a lot of people who know that adultery or murder or rape or lying are wrong, and do it anyway.  In fact, everybody does things that they know are wrong.  Even “good” people do things that we know are wrong.  And good people are better than anybody else at justifying themselves and coming up with some excuse why what they’ve done isn’t really wrong at all.  “I deserved it,” or “it doesn’t really hurt anybody,” or “it was their own fault, really.”  Just like Adam and Eve thought “I’ll be wiser, and God won’t be too mad.”

The first sin happened before they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The first sin happened when Adam and Eve decided that their own judgment was better than God’s judgment.  They listened to the serpent instead of to God.  They took power for themselves that wasn’t meant for them, power they couldn’t handle.  And human beings have been doing it ever since.  We trust our own judgment instead of God’s.  We put God to the test.  We ignore God in favor of our own desires and our own ideas of what things should be like … and then we wonder why the world is so screwed up.  We face temptation every day, and sometimes we give in and sometimes we don’t, but we miss the bigger picture.  We say, “God is my copilot!” as if that’s a good thing.  “Oh, some turbulence ahead, better turn things over to Jesus.  And then, when the turbulence is over, I’ll take the wheel again, Jesus, you can just sit back and relax.  I know what I’m doing and where I’m going.”  What we should be saying is “God is my pilot.”  We human beings keep trying to steer our own course.  We keep thinking that if we’re just smart enough, good enough, we can make ourselves and our world perfect.  We can fix it.  All we want God for, is backup.

In the millennia since Adam and Eve first ate the apple we’ve had countless proofs that we’re wrong.  We fall short every day.  Even when we genuinely do our best, we fail to see the consequences of our actions.  And all too often, we don’t do our best.  We let our pride, our selfishness, our laziness, our fear, our hate, our jealousy, and our prejudices get in the way of doing the right thing.  Yet still we keep trying.  We keep trying to do it all our way, on our own, digging ourselves ever deeper into the hole that Adam and Eve started.  And the consequences of that first sin keep spiraling ever outward, not just in human beings but throughout the whole world.

God would be well within his rights to look at us and turn away.  To say, “you’ve made your bed, now you must lie in it.”  But he didn’t.  He didn’t turn away from the world after it was broken by human sinfulness.  Instead, he came up with a way for the world to be reconciled to God.  A way for the deep wounds caused by our sins to be healed.  And that way comes through Jesus Christ, God in human form, truly God and truly human.  Just as Adam and Eve’s actions created a breach that caused all of humanity to be separated from God, Jesus Christ came to heal the breach so that all of humanity could be reconciled to God.

You can imagine that the devil wasn’t pleased by this turn of events.  It’s no wonder that he came to tempt Jesus, to try and turn him away from his path.  And that’s the story we hear in our Gospel today.  It’s important to remember that the temptations we face are not like the temptations Jesus faced in today’s Gospel lesson.  Sure, we’re sometimes tempted to do bad things for food or power, but they’re not exactly on the same scale as the temptations Jesus faced.  Jesus is truly human and truly God at the same time.  It’s not about the fact that he’s hungry.  It’s not about the fact that he’s been living rough for forty days.  It’s about power and authority, who has it and who’s going to have it.

Listen to the similarity of the tempter’s words to the serpent’s words in Genesis.  “Did God say that?  Really?  Why would God say that?  Let’s test it and see.  You know that nothing that bad would happen.  You can do it!”  In both cases, the tempter calls God into question.  “God won’t kill you for eating the forbidden fruit—he’s just trying to scare you because he wants to keep you ignorant and dependent on him.”  “You don’t need to go through this whole messy ‘human life’ thing, Jesus, going hungry and everything, and you certainly don’t need to do anything as unpleasant as dying.  Why bother?  Between your power and mine, we can whip the whole world into shape.  Just say the word, and I’ll lay the world at your feet.  You can do anything you want with it, as long as you look to me and not to God.  Surely that would be an easier way to save the world than this whole crucifixion thing.”

When Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, they didn’t know what they were doing, but even so, they thought they knew better than their Creator.  They didn’t understand what the consequences would be.  Even we don’t fully understand what the consequences were; there is so much about the brokenness of the world—so much of our own sinfulness—that we take for granted and count as normal.  Jesus knew better; Jesus knew that the tempter’s words may sound sweet, but that the price would be too high.  Jesus knew that a quick and easy ‘fix’ would not solve the world’s problems. Jesus knew that the fate of the world was at stake, and that only through rebuilding our relationship with God—the relationship destroyed by our insistence that we know better than God does—would heal the world’s brokenness.  So he said “no” to the tempter.  With the fate of the world at stake, Jesus turned away from temptation and towards God’s redeeming love.

We are children of Adam and Eve.  We fall short of God’s goodness and love; we listen to the tempter instead of God.  We take quick and easy paths; we think that we can handle things on our own.  But God loves us anyway.  God loves us even though we turn away from him.  God loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake, to save us from ourselves.  And it is through that love, through Jesus’ faithfulness even to death, that our sins our forgiven and we are made whole.  Jesus stands firm and ever-faithful, even when we stray.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Why we do what we do

Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Psalm 51, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6

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.

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your father in heaven.”  Wow, what a text to read on Ash Wednesday!  After all, here we are to practice a piety that can only be seen by others.  We’re here to get ashes put on our foreheads, and we ourselves can’t see it.  Only other people can see it.  And here we are, reading a passage from the Bible where Jesus says, practice your spirituality in private, where people can’t see you!  It’s kind of ironic.

Jesus’ objection isn’t primarily about other people, though; it’s about us.  It’s about the reasons why we do what we do.  I’m sure you all know people who act all pious, all high-and-mighty, just because they want other people to think they’re a good Christian.  I know people who give money—and then trumpet it for all to hear, because they want everyone to know how generous they are!  I know people who go on lots of spiritual retreats—and then talk your ears off about how enlightening it was, so that you’ll know how spiritual they are!  It’s not the giving or the retreats that are the problem, though; it’s the reason they’re doing it.

It’s like people who buy big books just so they can put them on their coffee table so people will think they’re smart.  If you buy a book just to put it on display, you may indeed get people to think you’re smart … but that doesn’t mean you actually know anything more than you did when you bought the book.  So, Jesus says, if you pray long public prayers to prove you’re a good Christian, you may succeed in getting people to think you’re a good Christian … but it doesn’t impress God, because God knows darn good and well why you’re doing it.  If you give lots of money and make sure everyone knows it, yeah, people will think you’re very generous … but God will know you’re only doing it to score points.  And while it will score you points with your fellow human beings, it won’t score you points with God.

You see, for God, why we do things is almost as important as what we do.  God is more concerned with inward truths than public show, and unlike humans, God knows the inward truths of our souls even more than we ourselves do.  God wants us to pray because we love God so much we desire a deeper connection with him.  God wants us to give because we love others so deeply that we long to help them any way we can.  God wants us to read our Bibles because we long for God’s Word.  God wants us to fast because we long to purify our hearts and minds and bodies.  God doesn’t want us to do these things to score points, and he doesn’t want us to just do them by rote because they’re expected—instead, God wants us to use these tools to do what he gave them to us for: to draw closer to God and to one another, to build ourselves up as God’s children.

Lent is a time with many pious traditions, and many churches and communities and families have their own practices.  Ashes on Ash Wednesday; fish instead of meat on Fridays; giving up chocolate or candy.  But how often do we do these things just because that’s what we’re supposed to do?  I know that when I was a teenager, my family didn’t really have a tradition of giving up anything for Lent, and I decided to start just because it sounded cool.  I didn’t know why people gave things up for Lent; I just know that some religious people did, and I wanted to be one of them.  And I liked talking about it—oh, no, I can’t have chocolate, I gave it up for Lent.  That was pretty much all I got out of it, the first several years I did it.  I got to feel pious, and I got to make sure people knew I was committed to Jesus so much I’d even give up chocolate for him.  It didn’t change anything in me; it didn’t bring me closer to God, and it certainly didn’t bring me closer to anyone else.  It didn’t deepen my faith, and it didn’t deepen my understanding.  It just made me look good.  When you get right down to it, it was pretty empty.

As I got older, I realized that my giving up chocolate was empty.  Now, I could have just stopped doing it and assumed that giving stuff up for Lent was meaningless, and rolled my eyes at the people who did it.  Because I know a lot of people who do it for the same reasons I was doing it, and get nothing out of it.  But I didn’t.  Because there are a lot of other people for whom giving stuff up for Lent is a deeply spiritual experience.  There are people whose Lenten practices have helped their faith to grow and mature.  So what’s the difference?  I spent a long time studying and searching for the answer.

It turns out, there are two major things that turn ritual into deep experience.  The first is attention.  If you’re just doing something by rote and not paying attention, chances are you’re not going to get much out of it.  You have to take time and energy and focus on your actions.  We don’t give stuff up so that we can look holy—we give stuff up so that we have roadblocks in our daily life, time when we would normally break out the candy or turn on the television but instead take time to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  You have to take the time to open yourself up to God, to see what God is trying to teach you.  If you take that time to contemplate and pray and listen to God, then all of a sudden giving something up for Lent can change from an empty gesture to something full of meaning.

But not everybody responds the same way to the same spiritual disciplines.  For some people, fasting—giving up something they cherish—is deeply meaningful.  For others, it isn’t.  For some people, adding in extra prayers or extra time reading their Bibles is more important than fasting.  And for others, time spent in service and charity is the most meaningful thing they can do during Lent.  But no matter what spiritual practices you choose to follow for the next forty days, they will only be effective if you give them your whole heart and attention, and open yourself up to the lesson they teach.

So tonight, as we receive the ashes, take time to think about it.  Clear your mind of all your daily concerns, all the nagging things that draw your attention to the world outside.  Remember who you are, and whose you are.  Remember that you are God’s beloved child, whom Jesus Christ died to save.  Remember that we are all sinners, and that the wages of sin are death.  Remember that the only way through death and into life is through Jesus Christ, but we can’t get there on our own.  Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Amen.

 

It Starts Out With A Parade

Palm Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Luke 19:28-40, Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 23:1-49

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 starts out with a parade.  Crowds cheer, people wave, everyone has turned out to see Jesus, the one they hope will be the good king, the Messiah, that God has promised them.  They hope he will throw out the Romans.  They hope he will throw out the Roman occupying army.  They hope he will feed them.  They hope he will heal them.  The disciples hope they will see more deeds of power from Jesus—a show, to prove they’ve picked the right teacher to follow.  We’ve all been to parades.  We’ve all had fun at them, watching the spectacle, and afterwards we often have some kind of celebration afterwards to keep the excitement going.  It’s a party!  It’s a break from normal, boring life!  In Jesus’ day, in a world without sports teams, movies and television, the internet, a parade would have been a huge thing.  A holiday, even if only for an hour, from the workaday world.  But this parade is different.  This parade doesn’t lead to a barbeque, or a picnic, or a Thanksgiving dinner.  This parade leads to the cross.

Our modern parades take a lot of stage management: closing off streets, setting up the order entries move in, regulating the people who sell food and water, and, for larger parades, television coverage.  Individual parade entries take lots of effort to arrange—costumes, vehicles, music, prizes to give away.  This parade took stage management, too.  Notice how carefully Jesus sets the whole thing up.  He tells his disciples where and how to get the donkey he’s going to ride, right down to the words they say.  This parade was not an accident.

None of the things that happened to Jesus in his last week were an accident.  Not the parade on Sunday, not the last supper with his disciples where he instituted Communion and commanded them to love one another, not his arrest in the garden nor his trial nor his execution.  At each step along the way, Jesus knew what was coming.  He prayed to be spared, in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he went forward to his death anyway.

Other people were managing things, too.  Notice how deftly the authorities arranged things.  Jesus was a threat to their power, an agitator who stirred up the crowds and threatened the status quo, so they got rid of him.  They knew he was innocent of the charges laid against him; everyone from Pilate to the centurion at the foot of the cross to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus knew that he was innocent, that this was a miscarriage of justice.  Yet still they went forward, more concerned with preserving their own power and authority and privilege than they were in seeing justice done.

Such injustice is still found in our world, today.  Turn on the news and you will hear stories of corruption and injustice all around the world, from political and religious leaders.  You’ll find it in small local groups, and in nations, in corporations and in churches.  All too often we put our own interests above doing the right thing.  This world is broken by sin and death.  Check any news source, and you’ll find it.  Listen to children talk about being bullied at school, and you’ll hear it.  Watch adults jockey for power and position and you’ll see it.  People put a lot of time and effort into running things for their own advantage, and all too often they don’t see or care what consequences those actions have for others.

Thank God that we’re not the only ones planning things.  Thank God we’re not the only ones at work in the world.  Thank God that our sinfulness, our brokenness, is not the end of the story.  God is at work in the world.  God chose to send Jesus into this world, knowing the cost and the consequences.  And so when Jesus came to Jerusalem one last time, when he told his disciples to go fetch a colt for him to ride, he knew what would happen.  He knew that the crowds that followed him would be the final straw for the leaders who saw him as a threat.  He knew that they would not rest until he was dead.  And he knew that, through his death, he would bring life to all people, healing for our brokenness and forgiveness for our sins.

Let us pray.  Everlasting God, in your endless love for the world you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross.  In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Amen.

A world of abundance

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C, March 17th, 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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.

If you were here Wednesday night, you would have heard another story of a woman anointing Jesus with oil.  And, like the story in today’s Gospel, those watching were not happy about it.  In the story from Luke that we read on Wednesday, the Pharisees were upset because Jesus was allowing such liberties from a sinner.  In today’s story from John, Judas was upset because the money that could have been given to the poor was spent on useless luxuries.

Both objections are very common-place ones, that we have all probably thought or felt at one time or another.  As for the woman in Luke, that sinner, well, there are people in the world who are untrustworthy and just seem to be worse than anyone else.  Even if you forgive their sins, if you allow them into your fellowship, you run the risk of being hurt or injured by them again.  And you run the risk of being tarred by the same brush.  And you run the risk of other people being led astray, because surely, if what that sinner did was so bad, you wouldn’t be letting them participate.  So letting in sinners is risky business.

As for the extravagance of Mary’s perfumed oil, well, any time you talk about money in a religious context, two subjects come up: maintaining the building, and giving to those who are in need.  Because obviously, Jesus wants us to love others with deeds as well as with words.  There are so many needs in the world, so many people who need help, whose lives can be dramatically improved with a few gifts.  And there are so many passages in the Bible that talk about justice for the poor, about providing for those who are worse off than you.  If you see someone in need, you’re supposed to help.  And that perfumed oil was about a year’s salary for a day laborer—that was a serious extravagance!  What a difference that money could have made in the lives of so many people!

So it’s hard not to be sympathetic to Judas and the Pharisees.  Yes, inviting in sinners and welcoming them is risky.  Yes, that perfume Mary used was very expensive, and think of all the good that could have been done with it!  Any half-way rational person who knows the Scriptures would have pointed it out as well.

And yet.  And yet, Jesus rebukes both the Pharisee and Judas.  They have the details correct, but they have completely missed the big picture.  They are focusing on the little stuff: how we should handle ordinary daily life.  And they are so focused on that, on keeping on with their ordinary lives, that they completely miss that things are not ordinary.  They completely miss that their handling of the details is getting in the way of the big picture.

Yes, we can’t just ignore sin, and sometimes we need to speak up about sinners.  Yes, we should love the poor, and work to bring justice and abundant life to all people.  But that must always, always be done in the light of Christ.  All of our lives as faithful followers of Jesus Christ need to focus on the big picture of who Christ is and what Christ has done for us, as part of God’s plan for us and for all of creation.

God created the world, and God created it to be good.  God created all of humankind to be good.  God created the world abundantly, a world stuffed to the gills with wonderful things.  God created a world in which there is more than enough to go around for all.  But humans sinned.  Humans sin, and that sin has broken all of creation.  Instead of love, there is oppression and hate.  Instead of abundance for all, there is scarcity and hoarding.  Instead of building one another up, we tear one another down.

We have fallen from what God wants us to be, but God has never stopped seeking us out.  God comes to us where we are and forgives our sins, and lifts us up out of the holes we dig for ourselves.  God’s goal isn’t just to patch over the holes.  God’s goal isn’t just to save the nice people and forget about the rest.  God’s goal isn’t just to put a fresh coat of paint over the decay.  God isn’t just trying to fix a few things here and there, measuring out justice like a teaspoon and mercy by the cup to people dying of thirst.

No, God is creating something new.  God is doing a new thing.  Now it springs forth, do you not see it?  God is restoring the world, recreating it through the life and death of the Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  From the cross of Christ flows forth love and mercy and forgiveness and renewal like water from a fountain in the desert.  That love and mercy and forgiveness and justice overflow all the boundaries we humans would set for them.  From the cross of Christ flows forth the kind of abundant life God wants for us and for all of creation.

That spring of life that comes from God refreshes and renews us, but it hasn’t yet filled the whole world.  The new thing God has done in Jesus Christ has begun, but it has not finished.  The new creation will not be here until Christ comes again.  Until that time, we live caught between the old, sinful, broken world, and the new creation God brings.  We live caught between our old, sinful, broken selves and the new, forgiven and whole selves God is creating in us.

The question is, what are we going to do in the mean time?  How are we going to live our lives?  Are we going to put our confidence in our old selves, in the old broken world that we see around us that we understand all too well?  Or are we going to put our confidence in the resurrection?  Are we going to seek the power of Christ’s resurrection, or are we going to stay in the muck and mire that drags us down and traps us in sin?  Are we going to remember that Christ has made us his own through our baptisms, has claimed us and redeemed us, or are we going to focus on the broken world around us?

If we are going to press on towards the goal of Christ, if we are going to live in the power of the resurrection, that means we have to change how we see the world around us.  We have to look and see the abundance of God’s mercy not just for us, but for all people.  We have to remember that our God is the god of abundance, not scarcity.

The Pharisee from Wednesday night’s lesson was offended that Jesus forgave a sinner and accepted her gift.  Yet we know that all human beings are sinners, and that Jesus came to save all of humanity.  We know that forgiveness is a gift for all, because Jesus died for all.  And yes, we are called to speak out against sin—but we must always remember that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that God loves every single one of us, no matter how far astray we go.  Jesus didn’t come to Earth to condemn people or exclude them, but to seek out all the lost, all the sinners, all who have gone astray.  The Pharisee focused on the details of the sin, but not on the big picture of God’s mercy for all.

Judas in today’s lesson was offended that Mary’s perfume was used so extravagantly.  It could have been sold, and the money used for the poor!  We are told by the Gospel writer that Judas used to steal from the common purse, giving him an unsavory motivation for his anger.  But many good Christians who don’t steal from the offering plate would agree with him.  Hungry people could have been fed with that money!  Sick people could have gotten medicine!  But Jesus said that Mary was in the right. Now, obviously, Jesus who spent so much time feeding hungry people and healing sick people approved of giving to those in need.  The problem isn’t wanting to help people.  The problem is the mindset of scarcity.

God created a world with abundance for all.  Yet we believe, deep in our heart of hearts, that there isn’t enough.  So we hoard what we have instead of sharing it, and some people have far more than they need, and others have nothing.  Did you know that the world produces enough food every year to feed every person alive today?  Yet people die of starvation because they cannot afford food, or cannot get to it.  God created a world with enough abundance to provide for the needs of all, and we remain trapped in our belief in scarcity.  There is enough for all; there is enough to provide for the poor and to give extravagant gifts of love to God.

We see brokenness and sin around us every day.  We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world afraid of not having enough.  We know that God is doing a new thing; we know that salvation and new life comes through Christ Jesus.  We know that even death itself will be swallowed up in the power of Christ’s resurrection.  We know that we, too, will be raised, and we know that God’s kingdom of abundant life and love and mercy will come.  Yet like the Pharisee, and like Judas, too often we muddle along in our every-day concerns, instead of knowing Christ and experiencing the power of his resurrection.  May we learn to press on towards Christ, and to see the world through his eyes: sinners forgiven, justice for the oppressed, and abundant life for all.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus.

Jesus the Mother Hen

Second Sunday of Lent, Year C, February 24, 2013

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35

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

 

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

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

How many of you, when asked to draw a picture of God, would draw a hen?  Anybody?  Probably not.  That’s how Jesus describes himself in our Gospel reading, but it doesn’t really fit the way we think of God.  Most of you, when asked to draw a picture of God, would probably draw a picture of an old white man in a bathrobe with a halo sitting on a cloud.  If we all got together and shared our pictures of God, there would probably be a few shepherds, too; and maybe a flame or a fire to represent the Holy Spirit.  Some of you would probably think of Christ on the cross.  But nobody would think of a hen.

Human beings think in metaphors and images; inside our heads, most of us don’t think literally.  That’s why metaphors and symbols and stories are so powerful to us.  So it’s important to think about what images we have in our heads about God, particularly when we come across an image in the Bible as surprising as this one.

Many of our pictures of God portray him as mighty and triumphant.  God the Father, seated on his throne; Jesus Christ, in glory, with a halo.  If it’s not a triumphant portrait, it’s impressive in some other way: the strength of Jesus’ devotion, or the depth of his agony on the cross.  When we talk about God, we use words like awesome, everlasting, eternal, savior, almighty.  Big words, with big meanings.  And certainly, our God is an awesome God.  Our God is greater than we could possibly imagine.  We use those images because they are true and good, and they are used many times in the Bible.  They fit.  They feel right.

But then we come to a reading like today’s Gospel, where Jesus describes himself as a hen.  A hen?  Hens are, to put it plainly, not very impressive creatures.  Hens are common, ordinary, small.  They’re useful, but they’re not smart or cute.  But they are very maternal, very protective of their children, and I think that’s why Jesus used that metaphor.

Hens always keep a sharp eye out for danger, and they spend lots of time and energy making sure their chicks get enough to eat.  They worry about the safety of their chicks constantly, so much that we call anyone who’s protective a “mother hen.”  When anything’s wrong, they call their chicks back to them and hide them away under their wings or in a nest.  They use their own body to shelter their chicks from bad weather, and keep them warm and dry and safe as they grow.  And when there’s a fox or other predator around, a mother hen will try to draw it away from her chicks even if that means she becomes the fox’s next meal.  A mother hen will die for her chicks, to keep them safe.

Jesus, of course, died for us, just like a mother hen.  He knew there was a fox about; he could have avoided that fox if he wanted to.  But like a mother hen puts the welfare of her chicks above her own safety, so Jesus put our own good above his own.  He faced suffering and death for our sakes, and for the sake of the whole world.  Jesus knew what he was getting into; Jesus chose suffering and death so that the brokenness of the world might be healed.  Jesus chose to go to the fox so that we his chicks would be saved.

That’s the other part of the mother hen metaphor, you see; it means we’re the chicks.  We’re the ones the mother hen worries and frets over, checking to see if we’re safe and nearby.  We’re the ones the mother hen takes care of and provides for.  We’re the ones sheltered safely beneath the mother hen’s wings during a storm.  Of course, the difference between human beings and chicks is that when the mother hen senses danger and calls her chicks to her, they come a-running.  The chicks trust the hen to look after them, to know when something is wrong even if the chick doesn’t know what it is.  That’s something human beings aren’t so good at.  We like to wander off on our own, ignoring the call of warning that there is danger nearby.  We think we can weather the storms of life without sheltering wings.  We think we can outwit or avoid the foxes in the world—and sometimes, we convince ourselves that the foxes are actually pretty good friends.  We tell ourselves we don’t need someone to provide for us; we can take care of ourselves.  We don’t want to be chicks.  We don’t want to be helpless or defenseless.  We don’t want to depend on someone else to take care of us and keep us safe.  And sometimes, we’d even rather be foxes ourselves.

Jesus was traveling around Judea, healing and teaching, when he got word that Herod the King wanted him dead.  He could have avoided Jerusalem, and I’m sure his disciples wanted him to do just that.  But while Herod might have been a danger to some of God’s children and even to Jesus himself—in Jesus’ metaphor, a fox—Jesus knew that Herod wasn’t the only danger.  Herod was just part of the brokenness and sinfulness of the world.  Herod was a symptom of the problem, not the disease itself.  Jesus could have avoided Herod, but that would only have left humanity vulnerable to all the other foxes in the world, including the ones inside of us.  The only way to truly keep us safe—safe forever, not just from any one fox or any one storm—was to go to Jerusalem, to walk knowingly to his death, and to sacrifice himself for the sake of the world.

We hear God calling us to safety, to shelter, and all too often we ignore it.  Jesus knew that, and knew it all too well.  He knew he was going to die for people who would reject him, who would wander off, who just wouldn’t listen, and he did it anyway.  “How often have I desired to gather you together as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings!”  He laments our unfaithfulness, our failure to hear and follow God’s Word, and he goes anyway.  He knows we are not worthy of his sacrifice, he knows we fall short, and he goes anyway, because he loves us.  There is nothing we can do that will cut us off from God’s love; there is nothing that will make God stop loving us enough to die for us.  No matter how far astray we go, Jesus will still be calling us to him like a mother hen gathers her chicks.  It’s not a glamorous image; it’s not powerful or awe-inspiring or impressive. But it expresses God’s care for us better than anything else.

In today’s psalm, the psalmist speaks of his trust in God.  The psalmist speaks eloquently of God’s shelter, of seeking refuge in God during the storms of life.  The psalmist knows that God will always be there for him, and that he can trust God no matter what happens, no matter what troubles he faces.  Even in the middle of his enemies, the psalmist never loses his trust in God’s saving power.  There is nothing to be afraid of, since God is his stronghold and his light.  Like a chick listening for the mother hen’s call, the psalmist knows that he is not alone, that he is safe.  The psalmist doesn’t have to worry, or stress about the future, because God will take care of him.  The psalmist doesn’t have to be afraid, for he knows that God is with him, and he knows that to the very depths of his soul.

What would life be like for us, if we could feel that assurance?  What would life be like for us, if we took God’s promises of life and love seriously?  What would life be like if we truly acted like chicks, and listened for God’s call, and trusted God to shelter us through the storms of life?  God is waiting for us with arms wide open, wings spread to keep us safe from all that threatens us.  May we trust in God’s love, and listen for God’s call.

Amen.