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.

 

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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.