The Problem of Pain

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, October 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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.

 

The prophet cries out to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

It’s one of the big problems of the Bible: why is there pain?  Why does evil happen?  Why does God not smite the evildoers of the world?  Why do bad things happen, and especially, why do bad things happen to good people?  Where is God in all the brokenness of the world?  From the third chapter of Genesis when Adam and Eve eat the apple, to the last chapter of Revelation when we hear of the righteous being saved and happy in God’s kingdom come to Earth while evildoers are kept out, the writers of the Bible wrestle with the problem of pain, and argue about it.  Deuteronomy claims that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.  The book of Job, in which an innocent man suffers dreadfully, finally concludes that mortals are too limited to understand the problem of pain.  Ecclesiastes asserts that since so much of the world—good and evil both—is temporary and ultimately empty, the question is meaningless.  Lamentations focuses more at expressing profound grief than asking why.  Revelation says that even though the evil may prosper in the here-and-now, they will not reach God’s kingdom.  Other books have different perspectives.  And people of faith, both Jews and Christians, have been continuing the conversation and talking about it and arguing about it all the time.  Theologians have a fancy word for it, called ‘theodicy.’

The thing is, though, when you’re the one in pain, when you’re the one suffering, none of these answers are particularly convincing or helpful.  Despite the platitudes and Bible verses that well-meaning people of faith are prone to spout in times of trouble, when you or people you love are really suffering, no possible answer can satisfy.  “Everything happens for a reason” is a terrible answer to someone wondering why their child has cancer, or wondering why their father molested them, and in fact is more likely to harm someone’s faith than help it.  “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle” is even worse.  First, it implies that God caused your suffering, and second, lots of people face harder challenges than they can possibly handle, harder challenges than anyone could handle.  People break under the strain of hardship and tragedy all the time, and that platitude implies that if you do, it’s your own fault for not being strong enough to take what God wants you to.  Or, to take a verse from our reading today out of context.  “The righteous shall live by faith!” as if that means that having enough faith will mean nothing bad happens to you, when what God means is that faith means trusting God is still there even in the midst of the worst the world can throw at you.

We Christians really don’t like that idea.  We’re not comfortable with the reality of suffering, we’re not comfortable with the problem of pain, we want a world in which everything happens for a reason and if you’re a good enough person, nothing truly bad will ever happen to you.  I think it’s about two things: not wanting to question God, and control.  We Christians have this idea that being pious and faithful means quietly accepting everything God does in our lives and always having perfect trust in Jesus and never doubting, never struggling, never arguing, never wrestling with anything that happens.  Our Jewish brethren don’t think that; they argue with God all the time.  And if you look at the great heroes of the Bible—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the writers of the Psalms, pretty much all the prophets—they wrestled with God.  They questioned God all the time.  They disagreed … and not only was that okay, sometimes they changed God’s mind.  Sometimes they got told they just weren’t capable of understanding, but never does the Bible say they were wrong to question, to cry out, to demand answers.  The belief that you can’t argue with or question God, or complain to God, is not just wrong, it’s un-Biblical.  When we don’t think we can question God, those questions don’t go away, they just fester deep in our soul.

The other reason we cling to a belief that we can make sense of suffering is that we want to feel like we control what’s going to happen to us.  If being good earns you good things and happiness, if suffering is caused by doing things wrong or not having enough faith, then you can control whether or not you suffer.  If you are good, you don’t have to worry.  You can pray your way out of any problem.  If your faith is strong enough, you will literally be able to move mountains, so even if you have a serious problem, your faith will be rewarded by a miracle cure.  You can figure out the divine plan, do the right thing, and any problems you suffer will be merely temporary inconveniences on the way to glory.

The problem is, life just doesn’t work like that.  While some people are fortunate enough to have their good behavior rewarded with good outcomes, not everyone is.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  Sometimes evil people cause pain and suffering for others while they themselves have a wonderful life.  Sometimes the world is simply broken by sin and death, and it’s nobody’s fault, it just is.  And even if you believe, as we Lutherans do, that God is at work even in the darkest, ugliest parts of the world, that doesn’t help much when you’re walking through one of those dark, ugly parts and you feel so alone.  Even if you believe that Christ will return and judge the living and the dead … that’s not much comfort if you are suffering from the actions of evil people and you need relief from it now.  Those platitudes about everything happening for a reason and good people getting rewarded are a way of papering over people’s suffering and making ourselves feel better about it.  It doesn’t help the people who are suffering; it just reassures the bystanders that they’ll never suffer like that, and if they did, they have a stronger faith and would be able to handle it better.  It wouldn’t crush them, only make them stronger.

And if you’ve built your understanding of God and life around an idea that if you’re good enough and your faith is strong enough, you’ll never suffer, never doubt, never have something you can’t sail through easily … then if something terrible does happen to you, you’ll have no way of dealing with it.  When you are in the deepest trouble, when you are most in need, all your certainties will come crumbling down around your feet.  There are some things so terrible that they can’t be explained.  Some experiences so shattering, there’s no possible way of making meaning from them.  And sometimes people go through things that may not be as severe, but which drag on for a soul-grindingly long time.  And even knowing intellectually that God is with you, that God will never abandon you, doesn’t help much when you feel abandoned.  The only thing you can do, when all the explanations fail, is cry out to God.

Faith isn’t about being confidently serene no matter what.  Faith is about living with God.  It’s about a relationship.  And crying out to God, complaining, lamenting, letting out all your grief and pain and fear and horror, as the prophet Habakkuk does here, as Job does, as Jeremiah does in Lamentations and the psalmist does in the psalms, that’s a part of having that relationship.  Because what kind of a relationship is it if you can’t take your fears and doubts and troubles to?  Not a very strong or intimate one, that’s for sure.  Faith isn’t about being certain, and it’s not about being safe.  It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting God is right beside you as you do it.  And sometimes that trust is small and feeble and hard to keep ahold of, and that’s okay.  Sometimes we have questions that have no answers, and that’s okay.  God knows how we’re feeling, and what we’re going through, and God is willing to wrestle with us through our doubts and fears and questions.  God has been there.  God was tortured to death on a cross; there is no grief or pain or fear that God can’t understand.  There is no place on earth so dark or twisted or corrupt that God can’t work.  I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen, but I know that God is at work in the midst of them.

And although it can seem almost impossible to imagine, one day all pain and suffering will cease.  One day, all evil will be cast out and all wounds will be healed.  One day, the dead will rise from their graves and all the living and the dead will be judged.  One day, all sins will be forgiven and every tear will be wiped away from every eye, and there will be no grief or pain or suffering any longer.  We wait for that day, and although it seems like we have been waiting forever, it will come.

Amen.

Our God is so Great

Trinity Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15

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

 

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

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

We worship one God, who is three people.  One-in-three and three-in-one.  The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—each distinct, each different, with their own characteristics, with their own role to play.  Definitely not the same person—they are definitely three.  Yet none of them are God by themselves; they are all three God together.  And if you’re confused, you’re not alone; this concept has been confusing people since the days of Jesus.

The disciple Philip once asked Jesus to show them the Father.  Jesus was a bit frustrated because he’d spent a lot of time trying to teach them that when they saw him, they saw the Father; the Father was there with him in a very tangible way.  Jesus and the Father were one—and yet, at the same time, Jesus prayed to the Father, speaking to him.  All that the Father had was Jesus’, and all that Jesus had was the Father’s—but the Father was not the one dying on the cross.  And then there is the Holy Spirit, who was present with God in creation, through whom all things were made, who was sent by Christ to guide us into truth and call us into right action and stir us up, who breaks down the walls dividing us from God and one another, comforts us in our griefs, pours God’s love into our hearts, and lives among us.  They are one God, who is three people.  And every time in the last two thousand years someone has sat down to figure out logically how it all works, they’ve either failed or fallen into heresy.

I actually find that kind of reassuring, personally.  Don’t get me wrong, I like knowing how and why things work.  But at the same time, God is greater than any mortal can understand.  If we could figure out all the whys and the wherefores and truly understand the depths of who God is … well, that would mean God wasn’t any bigger than we are.  We can’t understand all of God any more than an ant could understand all of a human being, because compared to God, we are smaller than an ant is to us.  All that we know about God, we know because God, in God’s infinite love, has chosen to reveal himself to us.  Think about that for a second: God is greater than we could possibly imagine.  But we know him.  We know him because he loves us.  Us, small, frail, limited as we are.  As the Psalmist says, “O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth.  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, what are mere mortals that you should be mindful of them?  What are human beings that you should care for them?”  Yet God does care for us.  God loves us, and so he comes to us and shows himself to us.  And God does that as three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit, who are nevertheless one God together.  It’s not something for us to be able to logically analyze.  It’s a mystery to be lived, not a question to be answered.

But most of us find that kind of ambiguity uncomfortable.  We like things to be tied up into nice, neat, easily understandable packages.  This has always been true, but it is even more true in the modern age.  Everything is designed to be concrete, easily understandable, one right answer that you memorize and move on.  Take school, for example.  For twelve years—longer, if one counts preschool—we sit our children down for hours a day and teach them the things that will be on the test.  2+2=4, water is made up of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule combined, because is spelled b-e-c-a-u-s-e, and the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776.  The whole system is designed in this way: you memorize the facts and regurgitate them for the test.  There is one right answer to each question, and anything else is wrong.  Then you take the percentage of right answers and use that to determine if the student knows enough to pass the class and move on to learning the next bit of information.  It’s very efficient, and teaches us a lot of things that are very important—but it’s not good at teaching us to deal with situations that can’t easily be boiled down to one right or wrong answer.

This is the season of graduation, when our students who have spent twelve years learning all the things we think everyone should know prepare to move on to the next phase of their lives.  And I know that when I graduated high school, brain full of information and a college scholarship waiting for me, I thought that I knew just about everything I needed to know about how the world worked.  Oh, sure, there were things to learn in college, things to prepare me for my adult career (whatever that would turn out to be), but I thought I knew about people and about life and about myself.  I thought that life was like school: you figure out the right answer—and of course there was always a right answer, and only one right answer at a time—and then you do it.  And that would lead to success and happiness, as if life were a test that I was being graded on.  I thought faith was kind of like that too: you memorized the right answers about God and the Bible and that was all you needed to know.  And since I’d been a good kid and gone to church and Sunday School and Bible School and Camp Lutherwood and Confirmation and youth group, I thought that I knew all the answers I would need.

Boy was I wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where I found that there wasn’t a right answer, only answers that were varying degrees of wrong.  There were all kinds of situations where there were many possible “right” answers.  There were times I found that what would have been the right answer for me was a wrong answer for a friend, and if I tried to insist that I knew the answers, all I did was hurt myself and my friend.  There were a lot of times where, forget having the right answers, I didn’t even know what the right questions were.  Life was a whole lot more complex and less defined than I thought it was, when I graduated from high school.  And the worst part of it was, those answers about God and the Bible and faith that I’d learned in church and Sunday School and Bible School and church camp and confirmation and youth group?  A lot of the time they just didn’t fit.  They weren’t enough.  They had answered the questions I had when I was five, and ten, and fifteen; but by the time I was twenty, twenty-five, and thirty, I had different questions.

Thank God that God is bigger than I thought he was.  The older I got, the more complicated I realized the world was—and each time I realized the world was bigger than I thought, or more complicated than I realized, God was still greater.  And God was still with me.  And those answers I learned as a child and teen weren’t enough to answer all the questions I had, but they provided a foundation for asking the new questions and guiding me to new answers.  The things I learned as a child and teen weren’t the be-all of faith development, but they provided a framework on which to grow, like the trellises my mom uses to support vegetables in her garden.

But what I learned most of all, is that the most important thing in life isn’t having all the answers.  Being right and having the right facts ready to hand is not what life is about.  Life is not about having a nice, neat, logical answer to every question—and neither is faith.  They’re about relationship.  Relationships with God, with family, with friends, with the whole community.  Life and faith are both about participating together, about forming bonds together.  The important thing about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit isn’t figuring out a logical explanation for how it all works, but realizing that it’s all about relationship.  The Father, Son, and Spirit, all different, with their own person and work, and yet participating together in a common life, filled with love and joy.  And that’s the life that we are called to participate in as Christians—by the Father’s creation, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, we are called into a life-giving and love-overflowing relationship with God and one another.  We’re given a model of what love looks like, we experience it, and we are called to live in response to that love.  Instead of focusing on giving us the right answers to deal with life’s questions, God gave us the right guiding principle: love.  As God has loved us, so we are called to love God.  As the Father, Son, and Spirit love each other, so we are called to love one another.  That love—God’s love—is what God has given to guide us through life, through all the questions, through times when there is no simple answer, through good times and bad.

We don’t understand all that God is and does; how could we?  God is greater than we could imagine.  But we don’t have to, because God comes to us, God shows himself to us, God shows us what true relationships and true love look like, and God invites us to live out that love and relationship in everything that we see and do.  May God keep us in that love and relationship all the days of our lives.

Amen.

Priorities

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 32), Year A, November 9, 2014

 

Amos 5:18-24, Psalm 70m 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

 

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. Amen.

 

I don’t know about you guys, but I went to camp every year as a child. It was a church camp, Camp Lutherwood, in the hills and forests north of Eugene, Oregon. I loved every minute of it. I loved the pool, and the creek, and the huge trees, and the hills that towered over the camp, and the cabins, and the songs, and the crafts, and the counselors, and the special activities—one year I went to horse camp, and another I went to model rocket camp. But, once I got old enough to pack my own bag, I knew one thing for certain and sure: no matter how closely I followed the packing instructions they sent out each year, I would forget something. One year, it was pajamas, and I had to sleep in a t-shirt all week. Another year, it was a flashlight.

Now, a flashlight is a very important thing at camp. Oregon is further south than North Dakota, so our summer days aren’t quite as long as they are here. By the time evening campfire was over and it was time to go back to our cabins for the night, it would always be dark, and we would have to walk through narrow forest trails, down the gully and up the other side, in the dark. There was a lamp by the dining hall, but it would only light the way if you took the long way around by the gravel road, which we never did. Then we would gather our things from our cabin and make our way across the back field to the bathrooms, where we would brush our teeth and wash up and get ready for bed, and then trek back to the cabin. And that year, I was out in the tent cabins which didn’t have electricity—after dark, the only light we had was our flashlights. You can see why not having a flashlight was A BIG DEAL.

So, I get why the five foolish bridesmaids were freaked out that they didn’t have enough oil. Been there, done that. And I also get why the wise bridesmaids didn’t want to share the oil, because it wouldn’t have been enough. I mean, say I’d had a flashlight without batteries in it. If one of my friends had given me half her batteries, then neither flashlight would have enough batteries to work. And that doesn’t make any sense.

What I don’t get is this: why didn’t they share the lamps that had oil in them? I mean, yeah, sure, it’s better to have your own lamp or flashlight, but I know from experience that one flashlight can be shared between two girls, and things will work out just fine. Because that’s what we did, that year I forgot my flashlight. I paired up with one of the other girls, and we kept close together after dark. Even walking through a dark and scary forest at night, and then rooting around in your bag to get your toothbrush and soap and washcloth and stuff, you can share one flashlight between you. It may take a little longer, it may be less convenient, but there will be enough light. You don’t have to have enough oil for both lamps if you can use one lamp for both of you.

And, sure, the wise bridesmaids didn’t offer to share the lamps. They probably should have, but they didn’t. But on the other hand, the foolish bridesmaids didn’t think to ask, either. Getting light from someone else wasn’t enough. They needed their own light. So they went out in search of the oil they needed to make it. And because they were out getting supplies, they missed the bridegroom, and weren’t let back in to the wedding party.

That’s a crucial point, there. They weren’t let back in. You see, they were already there, in the house, waiting for the bridegroom to come. They left, before the party started. And here’s the thing. The bridegroom didn’t say to them, “hey, you need oil for your lamps, or you can’t come to the party.” Nobody said that. Nobody said they had to have lamps at all. I bet you that at a party, the guy throwing the party would have enough supplies so that everyone could have a good time. I bet you there were lamps full of oil in the house just waiting to be lit. Sure, having their own lamps might have made things a little brighter, but every party I’ve ever been to the host has made sure they had more than enough of everything to take care of their guests. And if something runs out, well, the party continues without it. Because the important part of a party is the people, gathered together to have fun. All the other stuff, from food and drink to decorations and party games, you plan it and get more than you think you need and if you run out—or if you forget to get something—you figure out a way to deal with it, or you shrug your shoulders and get back to the party. If people are having fun together, you can get by without whatever it is that you’re missing. And if people aren’t having fun together, well, whatever’s missing probably wouldn’t have changed much anyway.

The foolish bridesmaids don’t seem to have figured this out. They made sure they looked right, that they looked like they were prepared—they brought lamps with them, and until it was time to light the lamps, they looked no different than the wise bridesmaids. If everything had happened like they expected—if the bridegroom had come during the day when they thought he was coming—they would have been fine. But he didn’t come until it was night, and then everyone could see that their lamps were just for show. And they didn’t want to look foolish, carrying around lamps that weren’t lit. Maybe they thought the bridegroom would only let them be bridesmaids if they had their lamps lit. Maybe they were afraid of what people might think. Maybe they didn’t trust their host to take care of them and provide enough lamps to see by. Maybe they thought that since their fellow bridesmaids couldn’t share the oil, they wouldn’t share the light from their lamps. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, they couldn’t enjoy the wedding and the party without their own lamps. Having enough oil of their own to have their own light was more important to them than the wedding. So they left to get some. And the bridegroom came while they were out knocking on the door of the shopkeeper to sell them oil in the middle of the night. While they were out running around town in a panic about not having enough oil, the wedding happened, and the party started. And they missed it.

So my question is, what’s the lamp oil in our lives? What is it that we think is more important than anything else? The thing that will send us panicking out to get, the thing that distracts us from the coming of Christ? What’s the thing we think we can’t possibly do without, the thing we think we need more deeply than anything else? The thing we don’t trust Jesus to provide for us? Think about that, for a second. I would bet you that most of the people here have something they think they need more than Jesus, when push comes to shove. You might not put it quite that directly—I bet you if you had asked those bridesmaids, they wouldn’t have said they needed oil more than they needed the bridegroom, but their actions proved it. Oil was a higher priority for them than the bridegroom. They might have said they needed the oil to properly welcome him, but they were so busy trying to get it that they missed him completely.

Even if you think you put Jesus above everything else in your life, do you really? Think about how you act. Think about what you do. Think about where your priorities prove about you. Here are some things that people tend to put as more important in their lives than anything else, things that distract themselves from Jesus Christ. One of them is money. Money is a big one, it’s something that a lot of good Christians spend a lot of time pursuing and not a lot of time using as God might want, which is why we don’t like talking about it in church. But there are a lot of other things on that list, too. How about power? Respectability? Land and crops? Technology? Fashion? Romance? Something else? These just scratch the surface. There are so many things that we put first in our lives, sometimes without even realizing it.

We are saved by Jesus Christ, and invited to the party. We are all bridesmaids at the great wedding feast of our Lord. God calls all people to himself, good and bad, rich and poor, male and female. We don’t have to do anything to earn that invitation, for it is freely given to everyone. But we can leave the party. We can pursue things we think we need, ignoring everything that God gives us. We can put our priorities in things that don’t matter in the end, just as the foolish bridesmaids did. May we learn from the lesson they teach, and follow Christ no matter what.

Amen.

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

 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.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times.  The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing.  The Scientific Revolution was just getting started.  The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up.  The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East.  During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna.  And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in.  The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change.  In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.

It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength.  In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil.  What a comfort!  No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us.  No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us.  We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.

But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same.  It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same.  God is always the same, but we are not.  Martin Luther found that out.  You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before.  One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins.  They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven.  They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it.  But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.

This was a big deal!  This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear!  And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places.  It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray.  We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.

Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened!  They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word.  Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives.  They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another.  And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out.  They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It had an impact on their lives.  Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived.  It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained.  It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith.  But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too.  It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level.  It changed how families lived together.  It changed the position of women in the community.  It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society.  Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before.  Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.

That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before.  We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out.  And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian.  This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before.  In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation.  They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing.  We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners.  We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed.  As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit.  We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.

It’s hard.  It’s hard, because the world is changing.  It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God.  Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble.  Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation.  Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness.  Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.

But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Increase Our Faith

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 27), October 6, 2013

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:1-10

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen

Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

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

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

Jesus said “If the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”  And the disciples said, “Lord, increase our faith!”  Who hasn’t said that, at one time or another, when faced by something that seems impossible?  Who hasn’t heard the call of God and said to themselves, “God can’t really mean that … and if he does, there’s no way I can do it!”  Or sometimes—and this is the one I struggle with—“Wow, God, I really don’t want to do that.  If you’re serious, you’re going to have to give me more faith.”

The most recent occasion I thought that was when I was interviewing for this call as your pastor.  I’d just spent several years in Pennsylvania for seminary training and work, and I was really looking forward to being closer to home.  I dreamed of being called to a church in the mid-Willamette Valley in Oregon, even though I knew how unlikely it was.  I’d been assigned to the Midwest, and had been searching for a call here for almost a year at that point, and I was really hoping that meant I wouldn’t find a call in the Midwest and could possibly find one in Oregon or Washington instead.  And then I interviewed here, and I could feel it.  This was where God was calling me to be.  Underwood North Dakota, not the Pacific Northwest.  There was something about the people I met here that I could feel a connection to, a call.  It was something I hadn’t felt at the other interviews I had done.  “Lord,” I prayed, “please, please, please, call me to Oregon.  But if that’s not your will, strengthen my faith to help me live away from home.”  I didn’t want to do what God was calling me to do!  I wanted to go home!  And I thought, if God would just give me more faith, that would make it easier to do what God wanted me to do.

The disciples were in much the same spot.  God was telling them something they didn’t want to hear.  Jesus had just spent a lot of time telling a series of parables, some of them confusing ones. Jesus then turned his attention to the disciples, and lectured them on forgiveness.  Now, forgiveness can be one of the most difficult things Christians are called to do.  It can be relatively easy to forgive people we like, people we think deserve to be forgiven.  It’s a lot harder to forgive people we don’t like, people who don’t deserve to be forgiven.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “forgive them, and if they lapse back into that same sin you’re off the hook.”  No, Jesus says to forgive them as many times as they need forgiving.  I have to tell you, there have been many times in my life that I didn’t want to forgive!  So I can sympathize with the disciples.  “Lord,” they say, “increase our faith!”  Yes, forgiveness is hard, and we don’t really want to do it.  We know we can’t do it on our own; we need your help.  So if you’ll just increase our faith, that’ll make it so much easier for us and we’ll be more likely to actually do it.

Wouldn’t that be nice?  If our faith was so strong, so robust, that even doing things we didn’t want to do became easy?  Wouldn’t it be nice if our faith was so strong that we never had to struggle to do what God asks us to do?  Wouldn’t it be nice if we never wonder why things look bad?  If even the disciples struggle—if even the disciples felt they needed more faith—what hope have we?  It seems like being a faithful follower of God would result in an easy life; it seems like being a faithful follower of God should mean it would be easy to do what God wants.  If only.  The disciples asked for stronger faith.  So do we.

But Jesus doesn’t give them faith.  He says, “if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  Now, it’s not as clear in English as it is in Greek, but this is not a harsh rebuke.  Jesus isn’t saying the disciples don’t have faith—he’s saying they do.  There are two basic kinds of “if” statements.  Some aren’t true, for example: “If I were president, I would make Congress come to some sort of reasonable compromise and pass a budget!”  Now, I’m not and never will be President, so that is not a true statement.  Then there are “if” statements that are true, for example, a sports commentator beginning a prediction with “if I know these two teams …”  The commentator, of course, does know the teams—that’s what he’s basing his prediction on.  In English, it’s hard to tell the two kinds of “if” statements apart.  But in Greek, they’re actually not phrased the same.  Jesus isn’t saying “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed” to imply that they don’t have faith; he’s implying that they do have enough faith already!  A lack of faith is not the problem.  The problem is, they’re not using the faith they have.  And they have a funny idea of what faith is.

Then Jesus goes on to talk about the role of a slave. And the role of the slave is to do what the master tells him to.  It doesn’t require superhuman strength, or superhuman trust in the master.  All a slave has to do is keep plodding on and following orders.  The slave doesn’t have to like those orders; the slave doesn’t even have to understand them—the slave just has to keep on keeping on.  That’s what the disciples aren’t getting.  We are not the master; we don’t decide what the tasks are, or what should happen.  We don’t even get to choose what our reward will be.  We just have to keep following our master’s voice even when it’s leading us to do things we don’t want to do—like forgive people we don’t like, or move away from home.

Sometimes, faith means trusting that God is at work in the world even when it doesn’t feel like it.  That was Habakkuk’s problem, in our first lesson.  Habakkuk was a faithful man who could see injustice and violence all around him.  He could see all the evil things in the world, and he wanted to know why God allowed it.  He wanted to know why bad things happened to good people.  But God reassured him: even in the midst of all the darkness and trouble, God was there.  The world’s evils would not have free reign forever.  God is still present, even when things look bleakest.  And the evils of the world will not have the final say.

I can understand why Habakkuk wondered about God; there are evils today, too.  There is injustice today, too, and you don’t have to look very far to see examples of it.  There is violence and murder; there is exploitation and callousness.  There is senseless feuding that shuts down the possibility of meaningful discussion and resolution.  Yet now as in Habakkuk’s day, God is present with us.  Faith means living in this world full of conflict and violence and injustice, and trusting that God is at work.  Faith means acknowledging reality while hoping for a better tomorrow, and it means participating in God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation even when we would rather hold on to our resentment and hurt and suspicion.  Faith means never forgetting whose we are and whose vision we follow.

Faith is not a magical cure-all, and it doesn’t make life’s problems vanish. Faith, sometimes, is putting one foot in front of the other and trusting that God will not steer you wrong.  Faith is trusting that God will give you what you need, even if that’s not what you want or would have chosen.  I would not have chosen rural North Dakota, if it were up to me; but now that I’ve been here for almost a year I have to admit that God knew what he was doing when he brought me here to be your pastor.  This has been a good place for me to learn and grow, and I hope it will continue to be for some time to come.  I hope I am a good pastor to you and I hope I have helped you all learn and grow in your faith, as well.  I have found that all the time I was praying for more faith, God had already given me what I needed.  And many of the gifts God gave me weren’t anything about me at all—your faith and love have been part of what allows me to make a home here, and do ministry here.  I didn’t need more faith; I just needed to get on with putting that faith into action and trust that God would be present.

We live by faith.  It isn’t always easy, and it doesn’t always take us where we want to go.  Sometimes, it feels like we just don’t have enough.  Yet God is always with us; and even when we feel we don’t have enough faith, we have more than we think.

Amen.

The Freedom of a Christian

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 13), July 7, 2013

1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21, Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62

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.

Last week we took a break from our study of Galatians to celebrate Augustana’s 100th anniversary.  It was kind of appropriate, because it means that we study this part of the letter—in which Paul talks about Christian freedom—on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, when we celebrate America’s political freedom.

Now, there are basically two kinds of freedom.  One, which is where freedom starts, is freedom-from.  Freedom from slavery.  Freedom from oppression.  Freedom from sin.  Freedom from foreign domination.  It’s about breaking away from what holds you back.  It’s a negation of what came before, a break with the past.  It’s about cutting away bad things.  So, for example, on July 4th, 1776, America declared its freedom from Great Britain.  That didn’t say much about what America was going to become, what they were going to do once they were free.  The Declaration of Independence is a simple statement that England couldn’t order America around any longer.  Freedom from.

Most political freedoms are like that.  So, for example, the Bill of Rights establishes a whole set of freedoms for American citizens by saying what the government can’t do.  The government can’t establish a state religion.  The government can’t search your property without a warrant and probable cause.  And so on and so forth.  Nothing is said about what citizens should do with the freedom granted them; nothing is said about how society should be organized to help people live free and good lives.  It’s about freedom from tyranny, even the tyranny of our own government.  Negative freedom, freedom from, is about stopping bad things.

But once the old chains have been broken, that’s where positive freedom starts.  Freedom for something.  Freedom to do something.  For example, the freedom to marry the person you choose.  Freedom to come together without fear.  Freedom to build a better life.  Once you’re not being held back, what new thing becomes possible?

Christian freedom is ultimately freedom for something.  Christ’s death and resurrection has broken the chains of sin and death, but our freedom is not merely about no longer being slaves.  Christian freedom means that we don’t have to worry about going to hell for our sins, but that doesn’t mean we should use that as an excuse to go out and do bad things just because we can.  Christian freedom isn’t just freedom from punishment.  It’s freedom to build a better life.  Once we are free, then we are free to become the body of Christ.  We are free to follow the spirit.  We are free to love God and one another.

In fact, love is one of the hallmarks of being free in Christ.  We don’t have to be bound by fear and jealousy and anger and hate and all the other things that trap us and hold us down.  We don’t have to give in to a world that tells us it’s all about climbing the ladder even if it means stabbing people in the back to get ahead.  We don’t have to give in to a world that says that your worth depends on how much money you have in your pocket, how cool your smartphone is, how many people follow you on Facebook and Twitter.  We don’t have to give in to a world that says what you look like is more important than who you are.

We have a better option.  We have something to move towards.  And we have the Holy Spirit to help us grow in the freedom of Christ.  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We live in a world where too often people use their freedoms to do bad things.  They use their freedom of speech to attack and defame.  They use their freedom of religion to turn Jesus into a weapon against their enemies.  They use their freedom to bear arms to murder people.  But what would the world be like if we all used our freedom to be guided by the Spirit?  What would the world be like if we used our freedom to love God and love our neighbor, rather than as an excuse for selfishness?

Christians aren’t always very good at using the freedom God has given us.  The disciples give a perfect example of this in today’s Gospel lesson.  Now, Jews and Samaritans were enemies, who didn’t even talk to one another if they could help it.  They didn’t live in the same towns or drink from the same wells.  There were ethnic and religious differences.  Jews and Samaritans worshipped the same God, but Samaritans worshipped at Mount Samaria instead of in Jerusalem, and Samaritans only accepted the first five books of the Bible.  And anyone who’s watched the news of places torn by such division knows the kinds of violent actions and retaliations that can erupt in places with such dislike across ethnic and religious boundaries.  Jesus, however, had broken that barrier: he was just as welcoming to the Samaritans as he was to his fellow Jews.  For Jesus, the ethnicity of his followers didn’t matter.  He loved them all, and he had come to save all of them from their sins, whether Jewish or Samaritan or Greek or anything else.  He broke the walls of hate, so that they could establish new relationships.  He broke the cycle of discrimination and retaliation.  He loved them all, and taught them to love each other.  The disciples—all Jews—had grumbled about it, but gone along.  And then, in today’s reading, they came to a Samaritan village.  And because they were heading to Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, the Samaritans weren’t willing to welcome them.  And you can see what the disciples really thought about all those Samaritans Jesus had taught.

They’ve rejected Jesus!  The disciples’ first response is unlike any other time someone rejected Jesus.  When one of their fellow Jews didn’t like Jesus, they shrugged and went on.  Now, however, it’s a Samaritan village that’s rejected Jesus!  You can practically see them chortling with glee and rubbing their hands.  “Lord,” they say, “obviously, this love stuff isn’t working.  Can we smite them now?  Can we?  Can we?  Hellfire and brimstone Jesus, and we’ll make them pay for turning us away!”  But Jesus rebuked them, and so they left in peace and went somewhere else.  I’ve often wondered what Jesus said to them.  I imagine it was something along the lines of “Way to miss the point, guys!  I’m trying to break the chains of hate, fear, jealousy, and strife, not make them stronger!”

The early Christian communities misused their freedom, too.  Paul warned both the Galatians and the Corinthians about not letting their freedom be used as an excuse for bad behavior and infighting.  And Christians today often misuse that freedom, as well.  Some Christians today, like the Corinthians and Galatians, use the freedom given to us in Christ to justify all kinds of self-indulgence and wrongdoing, ignoring the way such behavior hurts themselves and others.  Others follow the example of the disciples, and use their faith as an excuse to attack people they don’t like, people who are different than them.

Loving people can be hard, particularly when you don’t like them.  Loving people can be especially hard when you don’t agree with them.  And the more you focus on your own wants, your own fears, your own hates, the harder it is.  In fact, there are some types of love that we simply can’t come up with on our own.  There are some types of love that can’t be achieved without the help of the Spirit.  I don’t know anyone who’s ever been able to love their enemies, without the Spirit’s help.

But if we open ourselves up to the Spirit, anything becomes possible.  If we open ourselves up to the Spirit, and allow ourselves to love God and our neighbors, joy follows.  Peace follows, the kind of peace that the world doesn’t understand and can’t take away no matter what.  Patience and kindness, the generosity that opens the way for growth and new life, faithfulness that builds relationships, gentleness, and the kind of self-control that says “Sure, I could do that—but my own personal gain is not worth the harm that it would do to others.”

Christ frees us from sin and death, but that’s only the beginning of what it means to be a Christian.  The freedom that Christ gives opens us up, and gives us possibilities we could never have dreamt of when we were slaves to sin.  The Spirit brings gifts that lead to life and hope and love, for us and for all people.  May we use the freedom God gives us to grow in faith towards God and in fervent love to one another.

Amen.

Putting On Christ

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year C, June 23, 2013

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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

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

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

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Galatians.  Next week, we’re going to take a break for Augustana’s 100th anniversary before finishing up this sermon series.  To recap what’s happened so far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: The Galatians had started to value human traditions as the way to prove themselves followers of God, and Paul tries to set them straight.  He reminds them that no human tradition, no matter how good, can take the place of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  No amount of following the rules and toeing the line will save us; only Christ can save us through his life, death, and resurrection.  Paul reminds us that the true Gospel, the Good News that Jesus came to give us, can change our lives as it changed his; the Good News that Christ called Paul to preach is the same Good News that we hear today.  Even in the midst of a world that is broken by sin and death, Christ is with us.  The faithfulness of Christ transforms us, gives us hope in the midst of all our brokenness, gives us faith in God and in one another.

Paul expands on that idea in today’s reading.  First he goes back to the law.  Now, when Paul talks about the law, he’s not just talking about the rules and regulations the government sets up to manage everything from traffic lights to taxes to elementary education to international treaties.  Paul is talking about religious laws—or, perhaps teachings would be a better translation—that govern everyday life.  He’s talking about everything from the Ten Commandments on down, all the things that faithful followers of God are supposed to do.  That’s the law he’s talking about, the law that he says imprisoned us and was our disciplinarian until faith came.

Disciplinarian, imprisoned—those aren’t very nice terms.  But the Law that Paul was talking about, that was part of ordinary religious observance!  We still teach and hold up some of those laws today as good and beneficial.  I just got through teaching the 7th Grade Confirmation students about the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone on which the rest of the Law is built.  I think we can all agree that following the Ten Commandments and other such religious teachings is a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have such a moral code.  So why is Paul so hard on the Law?  Why doesn’t he seem to like it?

I think an analogy with secular law is in order here.  You see, the legal system can’t make anyone good.  All it can do is punish you for being bad.  If you step out of line, you are punished.  And fear of punishment may stop people from doing evil or immoral things, but it won’t make them a good person.  I mean, it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.  All it means is that you’re not a criminal.  There are a lot of people out there who have never broken a law in their lives who are still thoroughly nasty people and miserable excuses for human beings.  I could name some, and I bet you could too.  And while the law tries to promote good behavior, all the incentives in the world can’t change a person’s nature.  You can donate to charity in order to get the tax write-off, and it still won’t make you a generous person, if all you’re doing is the minimum needed to reduce your tax obligations.  Don’t get me wrong, having laws is a good thing.  Restraining evil is a good thing.  Working together for the common good in the form of roads and schools and other necessities is a good thing.  But it can’t save anyone, and it can’t make people better.  And, sometimes, bad laws get made, laws that hurt people; sometimes good laws get interpreted in bad ways, to hurt people.

Religious law is the same way.  It can restrain evil, and it can regulate our life together for the common good.  But following all the traditions and teachings and rules can’t heal anyone’s brokenness or save anyone’s soul.  It can’t transform us; it can’t make us children of God; it can’t make us brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when we start focusing too much on our laws, when we make our traditions the arbiter and central point of our Christian faith, it’s all too easy to forget about the one thing that really can save and transform us: Jesus Christ.  It’s easy to get so focused on what we’re doing, that we can’t see what God has done and is doing for us.  And from there it’s a short step to interpreting God’s law through our own prejudices.  That was the Galatians’ problem: it wasn’t that the laws they were following were bad in themselves, but they were starting to put more trust in those laws than in Christ.

When we were baptized, we became children of God.  When we were baptized, we became united with Christ’s death and resurrection.  When we were baptized, we were washed clean.  When we were baptized, we were transformed.  That’s the core of the Gospel; that’s the core of what it means to be a Christian.  All the laws and traditions in the history of the world are less important than that simple fact.  Laws and traditions can’t save us; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t transform us into children of God; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t heal our brokenness; Christ can.

We have put on Christ.  We still live in a world broken by sin and death.  We ourselves are broken by sin and death, and will be until Christ comes again.  That brokenness divides us, separates us from one another and from God.  And yet we are clothed in Christ’s love, forgiveness, and righteousness.  And that makes a difference.  We are called to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to see one another through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to act out of love, not out of fear of punishment. We live in a world that is and always has been fragmented by tribe and race and creed and gender and class and sexuality and age and politics and a thousand other things.  We live in a world where people pay attention to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it.  And we often fall short of our calling and fall prey to those divisions and temptations.

In Paul’s day, the most fundamental divisions were cultural divisions between Jews and Greeks, economic and class differences between slaves and free people, and gender divisions between men and women.  Those divisions were codified and reinforced by secular laws and customs, and also by the way religious laws and customs were interpreted.  And those divisions were getting in the way of spreading the Gospel, because people were paying more attention to those divisions, to the rules that kept people separate, than they were to the Good News that frees us and unites us all as children of God.  But as Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, Christ brings all people together—and our baptism in Christ is more important than anything that separates us, more important than any tradition or rule that holds us apart.

It’s easy to be blinded by all of society’s rules and prejudices.  It’s easy to use those rules as the basis for our actions, rather than our faith in Christ.  And it’s easy to let our understanding of God’s law be twisted and shaped by our prejudices and divisions, rather than by the light of Christ.  But the truth is, what we share in Christ is more important than any human division could ever be.  When you look at another human being, you see someone for whom Christ died.  Even if it’s someone you don’t like; even if it’s someone you think you have nothing in common with.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the basis of our relationships with all people.

Through our baptisms we have been saved, redeemed, made children of God and united in Christ.  That is who we are.  That is more important than any human division.  That is more important than any rule or tradition.  It is Christ who saves us, all of us, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what group we belong to.  It is Christ, not our ability to follow the laws, not our traditions, not our ability to interpret the teachings.  It is Christ who makes us children of God, who forgives us and saves us no matter how many times we fall short of God’s glory.  That is the Good News, and it is Good News for all people.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

“Who, me?”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:21-30

 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

A pastor preached a moving sermon on the gifts of the Spirit.  After church, as people were shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out the door, one of the members of the church stopped to chat for a bit.  Now, this member had been on the fringes of the congregation for some time.  He attended worship sporadically, and he didn’t participate in any event or ministry of the church besides Sunday morning worship.  “Pastor,” he said, “that was a great sermon.  Thank you so much for preaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and how people should figure out what gifts God has given them so they can use them in ministry.  I could name a couple of people in this congregation who really needed to hear that!”  And off the man went, whistling, secure in the knowledge that while other people had gifts they should be using, he didn’t need to think about it.

No, that hasn’t happened to me, despite preaching on the gifts of the Spirit two weeks running, but many of my friends have a story like that.  It seems to be very easy to assume that God only gifts other people, that God only calls other people, so we can go on with our comfortable lives.  Even when we do accept that God is calling us, too often we try to argue with God, and claim we couldn’t possibly do whatever it is we’ve been called to do.  “Who, me?” seems to be the most common response, followed by a list of excuses.

I know I did.  When God started nudging me in the direction of ministry, I didn’t even believe God actually intervened in daily life.  I believed in God, sure, I just didn’t think he was doing anything in the world these days.  I didn’t believe he could possibly be calling me to ministry, and I sure didn’t want to be a pastor.  I wanted to be a science fiction author, or maybe an editor at a publishing house.  I could also see myself as a historian or an English professor.  I tried to ignore that sense of call as long as I could, but eventually I had to give up, and so I went to seminary.

What a relief it was to hear all the stories of how my classmates got there—I wasn’t the only one who’d tried to get out of a call to ministry!  We sat around in a circle and heard story after story about arguing with God, story after story filled with doubts and plans that got derailed.  Then, in class, as we studied the Bible and the history of Christianity, I noticed more stories about people who were called to a ministry they didn’t want to do and didn’t feel qualified for.  Yet God called them despite their objections, and gave them the gifts and support needed to perform the ministry to which they were called.

Jeremiah was one of them.  Like Moses before him, Jeremiah’s response to being called as a prophet was to say he couldn’t possibly do it.  He was too young.  He wasn’t a good enough speaker.  Who would listen to him, anyway?  Yet God had an answer to every one of Jeremiah’s objections.  “Don’t say you’re too young,” God said, “just go where I tell you.  I’ll give you the words you need, and I’ll take care of what needs to be done.”  God dismisses Jeremiah’s objections, because in the end, it isn’t really about Jeremiah at all.  It’s about God, and what God is doing through Jeremiah.  The words aren’t Jeremiah’s: they belong to God, just as Jeremiah himself does.  Jeremiah may be young and untried, but God will give him the gifts he needs to do the work God has called him to do.

Prophets and pastors aren’t the only ones who don’t expect God’s call and try to avoid it when it comes.  I’ve only been working in ministry full time for a few years, but in that time I’ve seen many cases of ordinary church-goers who’d been given gifts, but didn’t even realize it.  I’ve seen ordinary people sitting in pews just like you are today, who think God may be calling them to something, but dismissed it out of hand.  They were too young, too old, too rich, too poor, too busy, too proud, too humble, not good enough, not eloquent enough, not brave enough, not big enough.  Who were they to think that God might have a job for them to do?  Besides, if God really wanted something done, why hadn’t he asked someone else to do it?

The thing is, though, nobody is good enough, on their own, to do God’s work.  Nobody, on their own, has enough gifts.  Nobody, on their own, knows what really needs to be done.  Nobody, on their own, has all the right words.  Everything that we have, everything that we are, comes from God.  Our Lord created us, formed us in our mothers’ womb.  He was with us every step of our lives and he is still with us, today.  And God has lots of plans for each and every one of us, and gifts to give.  The question is, how will we respond?  Will we hear that call, and will we use those gifts for the work God has given us?  Or will we say, “No, I couldn’t possibly do that, God must be wrong”?

I don’t know what God is calling each individual person here to do.  I don’t know what gifts God has given to members of this congregation.  I don’t even know what God is calling this congregation to—after all, I just got here myself.  But this I can tell you: God is calling us to minister to one another, to our community, and to the larger world, and God is giving us the gifts we need to do so.

Have you ever felt a pull you couldn’t explain?  Have you ever seen a problem and thought, “Somebody really should do something about that”?  Have you ever had people around you say, “you know, I think you could be great at that!”  Those might be signs that God is calling you.  It might be something big, or it could be something as small as sending a card to someone who is sick.

So how do we know whether or not we’re being called?  And how does God give us the gifts for ministry?  The first step is always prayer.  Prayer for guidance, for strength, for wisdom, for courage.  Prayer should be the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we do at night.  And in that prayer, we should leave room for God to speak to us.

The second step is looking around and seeing what resources God has given us.  Part of the way God equips us for ministry is through the church around us.  Regular worship attendance is a large part of it; regular worship strengthens our faith and deepens our connection both to God and to the body of Christ which is the church.  Worship helps nourish our souls just as food nourishes our bodies.

But besides worship, God has given us many things to prepare us for God’s ministry that we don’t always take advantage of.  Bible study, particularly in groups, can help deepen our understanding of God’s Word.  (Augustana will be having an evening Bible study on the first Monday of the month at 7 PM, starting tomorrow.  Birka’s will be the third Sunday at 6:30.)  When we read God’s Word and discuss it, we learn more about how God is active in the world around us and in our lives.  Camp is one place where our faith can be strengthened and our skill at talking about our faith can be helped.  The Synod has regular events to help people learn and grow in their faith.  For example, there will be a Global and Local mission event in Bismarck on February 22nd and 23rd.  And the GIFTS program has regular sessions to help people’s understanding of Scripture and worship grow.

These are only a few of the things God uses to equip us for the ministries God has called us to.  Yes, our lives are busy.  Yes, God’s call is sometimes daunting.  But God has provided all that we need to answer that call, and will continue to provide.

Good News in a Broken World

3rd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

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

 

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

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

 

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us the first act of Jesus’ public ministry recorded in Luke.  Jesus goes to his home town, Nazareth, and participates in regular Sabbath worship.  He reads a short passage from Isaiah, sits down, and says the prophecy has been fulfilled.  What an announcement!  As sermons go, that’s pretty short.  Only one sentence.  (Sorry, but mine’s going to be a little longer than that.)  Yet Jesus’s sermon is so short because the prophecy from Isaiah says it all.  It perfectly encapsulated what Jesus’ ministry on earth was about.

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit came down like a dove to him.  The Holy Spirit was with him, as he began his ministry, and there in Nazareth he proclaimed what his ministry was about, what God’s kingdom is about.  Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and God’s abundant grace for all.  That’s what Jesus is all about.  That’s what God is all about.  That’s what life is like in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.

Good news for the poor: not a handout that feeds them for a day, but dignity and respect and a world in which they can earn enough to support their family.  Release to those who are held captive, whether that captivity is of body or mind.  There are all kinds of captivity.  Prisoners in jail are captives, yes, but so are those trapped by the cares of life that are grinding them down.  People in abusive relationships are captives, too.  And the longer you’re trapped, no matter what’s holding you down, the harder it is to even imagine what it would be like to be released.  What a relief to hear that you are free!  And blindness comes in all forms, from the physical to the spiritual to the intellectual.  Trapped in a dark world, what a joy to finally see the light.  Oppression comes in many forms, some blatant, some subtle.  To all people weighed down in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus comes bringing news of freedom.  Jesus comes proclaiming God’s love and grace.

Jesus comes to tell people that they have not been forgotten, and they have not been abandoned.  God wants us to be happy, and healthy, and free.  God wants us to live abundant lives filled with love and faith.  We live in a broken, sinful world, with all kinds of things that trap us and weigh us down.  We live in a world full of bad news and injustice.  It’s easy to take it for granted, to take it for normal, to assume that that is what the world is supposed to be like.  But that is not the life God wants for us.  Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim Good News to all, but especially the ones who are most in need of it: the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, the trapped, all those who suffer.

And that’s not all.  Jesus didn’t just tell people the good news.  Jesus came to make the Good News a reality, to start the process of creating the kingdom of God, the place where sin is forgiven, brokenness is made whole, and where there is abundant life and freedom for all.  That kingdom isn’t here yet—it won’t be until Christ comes again—but it will come.  That is the deepest, truest reality of the universe.  In this world we live in, we see and experience so much pain and loss and brokenness.  But we know that it will not last forever, that the Good News is true, that all the world will be redeemed and healed and made free.  We have heard the words of Jesus, we have the Spirit in us, and we wait.

Last week I talked about the gifts of the Spirit.  These are all the talents that God gives to all of us.  Everything from the ability to teach or preach to the ability to heal or lead or follow—all are gifts of the Spirit.  All are given by God.  But why does God give them?  What are they for?   When the Spirit comes to us, what is it moving us to do?  The interesting thing about the Spirit is that if you look at the times the Spirit appears, it points to Christ.  The Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration, when God the Father claimed Jesus as his Son and told the Disciples to listen to him.  The Spirit appears at Pentecost, sending the Disciples out into the world to tell the crowds about Jesus.  The Spirit still points to Christ today, showing us the way to Christ.

In the Spirit, we were all baptized into the body of Christ.  We are Christ’s body in the world.  And what was Jesus Christ sent to do?  As he told the people of Nazareth, he was sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and to tell God’s grace to all people.  Jesus was sent to proclaim the coming kingdom, and to bring it to all, so that they could see and hear and feel God’s presence with them.  Jesus came to help people live in the reality of the world to come.

We, too, are called to live in the reality of the world to come.  We are called to be the body of Christ in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet and ears and eyes and mouth in the world.  We aren’t just here to think about Jesus for an hour a week.  We aren’t just called to remember him fondly.  We are called to live our lives in response to the Good News that Jesus came to bring.  Now, we can’t create God’s kingdom or make it come more quickly—only God can do that.  But we can live lives that point to that coming reality.  We can follow the Spirit which leads us to Christ, and with the Spirit’s help we can live lives that point to Christ and the Good News he brought.  We can live in the light of Christ.

None of us can do it alone.  We are all members of the body of Christ, but not one of us is Christ alone.  We all have different skills, different passions.  We have all been called to different ministries by the Holy Spirit.  But those ministries all work together to proclaim the Good News in word and deed.

As Paul says, no part of the body is complete in itself.  Hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, and all the other parts.  Each one is needed, each one has its own task and its own gift.  We may like some parts better, and we may think some parts are prettier and more valuable, but all are needed.  All have been given gifts by the Spirit, and all are needed.

There are many divisions in our world.  Money, race, gender, politics, sexuality, religion.  You’ll find those divisions within the church as well as outside of it.  It’s very easy to let our differences and disagreements take center stage.  After all, they touch on fundamental issues.  But there is one thing more fundamental still: our lord and savior Jesus Christ, whose body we are.  Despite all the divisions and brokenness, we are called and gifted by the Spirit, beloved children of the Father, saved by the Son.  Despite all our divisions and the brokenness, we have heard the Good News of Jesus, the news of freedom and light and renewal and healing.  Despite all our divisions and brokenness, we are called to be the body of Christ in the world, to live in the light of God’s grace and show God’s love to the world.  May the Spirit which points to Christ guide our thoughts and our actions.

Amen.

The Gifts of the Spirit

2nd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 21st, 2013

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

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, O Lord.

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

The Christians in Corinth had a problem.  Well, actually, they had lots of problems.  All the time.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, to misinterpret its meaning for the life of the community and the individual, Corinth found it.  Consistently.  Repeatedly.  Corinth was Paul’s problem child, always trying and failing, consistently missing the point.  Paul’s pattern was to found a church and then move on, keeping in touch with his congregations through letters, some of which now make up part of the New Testament.  We know Paul wrote at least four letters to Corinth, though our Bibles contain only two.  Four letters.  To the best of our knowledge, that’s more letters than he wrote to any other congregation.  And these weren’t short letters, either.  No, each letter had many, many issues to deal with as Paul tried to keep the Corinthians on track.

There were divisions in the church in Corinth, caused by theology and gender and money and sex and eating habits and anything else you can think of.  They cheated and sued one another at the drop of a hat.  From what we can tell, they used the Gospel as an excuse for doing anything they wanted, no matter how destructive of themselves or others.  They doubted the resurrection.  They held grudges.  They boasted in their own wisdom.  They gave lip-service to God without following through.  Their divisions and rivalries twisted their worship of God into a way for the powerful to have fun and exclude the powerless.

Paul addressed all these issues, and more.  But while Paul sometimes gave practical advice of what to do and what not to do, what actions should and shouldn’t be taken, Paul realized that there was a deeper spiritual dimension to the Corinthians’ problems.  They acted as they did because, on a fundamental level, they didn’t get what the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus meant.  They didn’t understand what was important about the gifts the Holy Spirit had given to them.

1 Corinthians chapter twelve starts off Paul’s explanation of the deeper things they’re missing.  Chapter eleven ends with instructions on how to celebrate Communion the right way, with love and unity for the whole congregation.  In chapter twelve, Paul starts talking more generally, about gifts the Spirit gives; in the second half of the chapter Paul will speak about how even with our different gifts we are all members of the body of Christ together.  Chapter 13 is the climax of this section of the letter, the great love passage that we hear so often at weddings, in which Paul overflows with emotion in describing what love—the kind of love that will allow them to overcome their differences—truly is.  Only the love of God and one another that will allow them to make right use of the gifts of the Spirit.  Only the love of God and one another brings any meaning to their existence.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the section we read today.  It’s about gifts, and unity.  First off, Paul assures us that there is a clear way to tell if people are working with the Holy Spirit.  The only way anyone can say that Jesus is Lord is through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Faith is a gift of the Spirit, in the midst of doubts and divisions.  You can’t reason your way to a belief in Christ.  And no matter how much you disagree with someone, if they believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, God is working within them.  In other words, no matter if you disagree with them—even if they’re wrong on major issues like the ones that divided the church in Corinth—you can’t exclude them or ignore them.  You can’t just wrap yourself in a comforting certainty that you’re right and they’re wrong so you can ignore or attack them.

I know there have been times when I have listened to a Christian I didn’t agree with and wanted to completely shut them up so no one could be led astray by how wrong they are.  And they may have been wrong—but they still had the Holy Spirit in them.  You can’t say: “I like that person, and I like how they think and what they do, so they must be real Christians working with the Spirit.  But that person over there, I really think he’s a jerk and he’s wrong about everything and so therefore he must not really be a Christian.”  No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  And if they have the Holy Spirit, they are members of the body of Christ and of the community.  They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We may not like them, but we do have to love them, and treat them always as the children of God they are.

Next, Paul turns to the gifts given by the Spirit.  And they’re all different!  Nobody gets exactly the same gift as anybody else, but they’re all important.  Paul only describes general categories; the Spirits gifts are far more wide-ranging than the few examples that Paul gives.  The ability to preach is a gift of the Spirit; so is the ability to teach.  Healing, faith, wisdom and knowledge, all of these and more are gifts of the Spirit.  In some people they’re easy to spot: the people who lead worship, who teach Sunday School and lead the women’s group and the youth group, it’s easy to see and value the gifts the Spirit has given them.  But those aren’t the only gifts in the congregation, and the ones who are already in leadership aren’t the only ones with the gifts of the Spirit.

Every single person here today has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit.  Every single person here, no exceptions.  If you believe that Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit dwells within you, and the Spirit never comes empty-handed.  But here in American churches, we don’t tend to be very good at identifying the gifts the Spirit gives.  We think as if the pastors, the teachers, the leaders are the only people who have gifts.  Often times, we don’t even look to see what gifts are in our congregation and our community, or in ourselves.  If there’s a hole that needs to be filled, a job that needs to be done, we take any warm body we can guilt into filling it and shove them into it.  Instead of trusting that the Spirit will give the gifts needed for ministry, we focus on plugging holes.

Sometimes we acknowledge the gifts, but don’t use them.  We think we’re too busy.  We fill our lives with all kinds of activities and entertainment, and use that as an excuse to ignore the gifts God has given us.  Now, these things we choose to focus on, our activities and our entertainments, aren’t bad in and of themselves.  Many times they are a blessing for us.  But they become harmful if we treat them as if they’re more important than our calling as Christians.  They can be corrosive to ourselves and our community if we let them draw us away from God.  We are not given gifts to let them sit on the shelf.  We are given gifts so that we can use them.

One last thing.  These gifts the Spirit gives are not primarily for the blessing of any one individual.  Paul says that the Spirit is given to each for the common good.  Everyone comes to the table with different gifts in different strengths—no one person can do it all, and no one person should do it all.  Each and every person has something to contribute, something that God is calling them to do in our life and ministry together.  We minister to one another for the sake of the Gospel, not for the glorification of any individual.

It’s almost time for the annual meeting.  As we look back on the year that has just passed, and look towards the year to come, ask yourself what gifts God has given you for ministry.  How can you share those gifts with the congregation and the community?  May we be inspired to share our gifts, this year and always, so that together we can be the Body of Christ in the world, full of love for God and each other.

Amen.

The Hard Work of Waiting

Advent 1, Year C, Sunday, December 2nd, 2012

Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, John 18:33-38a

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR

 

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

 

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

 

Stores are decked out for Christmas, radio stations are playing Christmas carols, people are putting up Christmas trees, there’s a crèche out in the narthex … and in church we’re reading about the end of the world again.  Somehow, it doesn’t really seem to fit into the season.  Today is the beginning of Advent, the season of preparing for Christmas, and yet you wouldn’t know it from today’s Gospel lesson.  We’ve been talking for weeks about the end times, and while that may be appropriate for the end of the church year, it seems somehow odd for the beginning of it.  Particularly when we’re getting ready to welcome a new baby into our midst—Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem.

Yet Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is not the only coming of Christ we need to worry about.  In Advent we prepare not only for Christ’s coming at Christmas, but also Christ’s coming again.  We welcome not only the baby Jesus in Bethlehem who was born two millennia ago, but also the Christ who will come again in glory.

Advent is a time of waiting.  It is a time of preparation.  Advent is a time to remind ourselves that we as Christians live caught between the already and the not yet.  Already, because Jesus Christ was born two thousand years ago, taught, died, and rose again.  Not yet, because Christ’s promise of the Kingdom will not be fulfilled until he comes again.  And so all of the Christian life is, in that sense, a time of waiting; Advent is the time of year that reminds us what we are waiting for.

And that’s why today’s lesson is assigned for the first Sunday in Advent.  If I asked you what Jesus said in today’s Gospel reading, I bet I know what you would say.  For most people, what sticks out in their mind is the negative stuff: fear and trembling, distress among the nations, the need to escape, etc.  We hear about the Son of Man coming in a cloud and our mind goes right to thinking about judgment, hell, and damnation.  Some people hear and are afraid that they will be among those judged harshly.  Some people hear and think how unbelievable and out of touch Christianity is.  And some people hear and seem to get positively gleeful about all the sinners in the world who are going to be judged harshly, who are finally getting their comeuppance.

And yet, that’s not what Jesus was talking about at all.  Listen closely: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  And again: “The kingdom of God is near.”  And again: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  And again: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down.”  And again: “Be alert at all times.”  Jesus is not focusing on what’s going to happen, or when, or to whom.  Instead, Jesus focuses on the waiting itself.  How are we going to wait for what we know is coming?

What’s our response going to be?  Will we cower in fear, seeing the troubles around us?  Will we let the bad things in our lives and in our world weigh us down so much that they’re all we can see?  Will we hunker down with a bunker mentality, shutting out all the world’s problems out of fear?  Will we ignore the troubles around us and be caught off guard when Jesus comes, surprised that Jesus actually did what he said he was going to?  Will we distract ourselves with the minutia of life?  Will we accept that the way things are is the way they will always be, and forget the promise of the Kingdom of God?

Waiting isn’t easy.  Any child on Christmas Eve, waiting for Santa Claus, could tell you that.  I don’t think anyone in the history of the world has ever been happy when told they have to wait.  Waiting is boring.  And our society doesn’t make it any easier.  Our culture is increasingly based on speed, on response times, on getting things immediately.  If you want it, buy it, even if you can’t afford it, and pay it off later.  Stores start putting out Christmas displays earlier each year, so no one has to wait for Christmas fun.  If you have free time, find something to do: a TV show to watch, a website to surf, music to listen to, a text to send.  We spend incredible amounts of time, money, and energy to avoid having to wait for anything.  Last night I went to see A Christmas Carol in Garrison, and I had ten minutes between when I got seated and the beginning of the program.  A whole ten minutes to wait?  I got out my smart phone and checked FaceBook, and then played a game.  When they flickered the lights because the show was starting, for a second or so I was annoyed because I had to stop the game.  For that second, the thing I had used to distract myself from waiting was more important to me than the thing I was waiting for.  Here’s another example:  I have a friend who will drive blocks out of her way to avoid hitting red lights.  She’ll take a longer route to avoid having to sit and wait.  In the end, she’ll spend more time avoiding the wait than she would have spent actually waiting.  She’s not alone—I bet a few of you here have done that sometimes.

The thing is, sometimes waiting is good for us.  The anticipation can heighten our desire for the thing to come.  And waiting can help to focus on the goal, the end point, The time in between can give us an opportunity to get ready.  When a couple finds out they’re expecting a child, the nine months a pregnancy lasts gives them time to arrange things—get supplies, make space for the baby, figure out how to rearrange their lives without the baby actually there to demand their attention.  Can you imagine what it would be like for a baby to be born at the same time its mother figures out she’s pregnant?  How hard it would be to do everything at the same time!

But even when it’s necessary, even when it’s good for us, waiting is hard.  The longer the wait, the easier it is to lose focus, to wander off in search of something new, to decide we didn’t really need it, anyway.  So it’s no wonder that Jesus took pains to tell his disciples how they should wait for him to come again.  First, we should remember that there is something to wait for.  Christ will come.  Second, don’t be afraid.  When Christ comes, he comes for the redemption of the world.  Jesus Christ comes to save.  So stand up and hold your head high, even though the world around you may be trembling in fear.  Trust in God’s Word; no matter what else changes (and things will change), God’s Word will remain.  Don’t get dragged down by the cares of the world.  No matter how bad it gets it’s not the end of the story, because something new is coming.  And always, always, remember to pay attention, and look for the signs of God’s kingdom which is close at hand.

Advent is a season of waiting, of preparing, not just our homes and our trees but our lives as well.  Advent is a time to remember that we don’t just celebrate the birth of a baby two thousand years ago in Bethlehem; we celebrate the Son of Man whose work is not done yet.  Advent is a time to remember that we have our feet in two worlds, the world around us and the kingdom to come.  Advent is a time to remember that we are always waiting, and a time to focus on the one we are waiting for, who comes to save.  May we wait with hope for the coming redemption.

Amen.

Anointing the Messiah–Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha

Anointing The Messiah—Mary and Jesus

A Lenten Monologue based on John 12:1-11

You know, people have always thought I’m a little odd, even my family.  Oh, Martha and Lazarus love me, but I can’t count the number of times they’ve said to me, “Mary, get your head out of the clouds, you’ve got to be practical about things.”  Martha, in particular, focuses on her daily tasks: making sure all the chores are done, that everything is just so.  She doesn’t spend time wondering about much beyond our home, our little village of Bethany, and our friends.

I work hard, too, but work isn’t all I think about.  I pray, and read the Scriptures, and I also pay attention to the stories of the world outside our village.  I love Martha, but her world was always a little bit … small.  That is, until we met Jesus.

Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God come into the world.  Nobody knew that when he first came to our village, not me, not Martha, and not Lazarus.  We thought  he was just a travelling teacher—there are so many of them around these days.  Everyone has their own idea of what it means to follow God’s commands, and sometimes I think we spend more time arguing about the details than we do actually listening to God’s word and following it.

Most of our village elders are Pharisees.  They do many good things: they teach the Scriptures to our children, they help us to keep God’s commands even when they come into conflict with Rome.  The Pharisees help us keep true to our faith and our traditions, but they are so rigid sometimes!

Then there are the chief priests, secure in the Temple with all their riches.  They only accept the five books of Moses, and they don’t believe in the Resurrection.  But there is so much suffering in this life—even good people suffer.  How can God be just if the only result of goodness is suffering?

Then there are the Zealots, who believe God is calling them to raise an army and throw out the Romans, as if Israel’s politics and national leadership were God’s only concern.  Others, like John the Baptist, turn their back on society and go out into the wilderness.

And all of these different groups say that their way is the only way to follow God, and that everyone else is mistaken and God will punish them for it.  Each group believes God will send his Messiah, his anointed one, to prove them right and make society into what their group believes it should be.

Yes, there are a lot of travelling teachers these days, each spreading a slightly different message.  I’ve listened to so many.  I always hoped to find one with some deeper message than just “I’m right, and the others are wrong,” something that would truly bring hope to my people.  And I was always disappointed—until Jesus came.

Jesus … I don’t know how to describe him.  He looked ordinary, but there was something about him.  And he said a lot of things that were similar to what other teachers said, but at the same time, it was so different.  He talked about the Kingdom of God, not just as a way to throw the Romans out, or restore the kingdom of our ancestor David, but as a way of life.

He talked about living life with joy, putting trust in God at the center of everything.  He said that God is here, now, with us, all around us, even when we can’t see him.  He talked about all the things we do and have and think that get in the way of our relationships with God and one another: our money and possessions, our social class, our prejudices, our fears.  There’s a better way, he said, a way that brings life for all, instead of suffering and death.  Instead of focusing on our fears and using our rules to try and control the world, we should let our love for God and for one another guide everything we do.

It was so wonderful to sit at his feet and learn—and that was another difference between him and all the other teachers.  They only let men learn from them, and only men who are upstanding pillars of the community, because they are afraid to tarnish their reputations if people who aren’t good enough come to them.  But Jesus welcomes everyone: man and woman, adult and child, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, sinner and saint, all are welcome.  So for the first time in my life, I could learn directly, instead of eavesdropping and pestering my brother Lazarus to share what the teachers say.  It made me feel whole, like God truly loved me, for the first time in my life.

Jesus didn’t stay long, of course, but he kept coming back.  He always keeps traveling to spread his message—God’s message—as far and wide as he can.  And then my brother Lazarus got sick.

I was scared.  There was nothing we could do.  It came so suddenly and he just got worse and worse.  We sent for Jesus, because he’s healed people before.  But even though he was only a day’s walk away, he didn’t come until after Lazarus was dead.

I was furious.  If he was so close, why hadn’t he come sooner?  Why had he let Lazarus get sick in the first place?  Even if Jesus couldn’t heal Lazarus for some reason, why hadn’t he been there to mourn with us, like the rest of our family and friends?  I couldn’t stand to see him.  When we heard he was coming, Martha went out to greet him, but I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  I stayed at home and cried.

I didn’t want to see him, but Martha came and got me, and there was something in her face: something had happened.  I’d always thought she was too caught up in the mundane details of daily life to pay much attention to what Jesus taught, but she knew something then, that I didn’t.  I got up and went with her to the tomb.  Jesus ordered them to open it, and called for Lazarus to come out, and he did!  Our brother was alive!  It was a sign of God’s power and a wonder greater than I could have imagined.  Martha and I were so happy to have our beloved brother back with us.

I had prided myself on my wisdom and learning and faith in God, but I realized that Martha had trusted Jesus more than I did.  Just like the priests and the Pharisees, I had been trying to fit Jesus’ teachings into what I already knew, while Martha had seen that Jesus was so much more than that.  I had believed that resurrection was possible, or I thought I had, but I’d never dreamed I would see it become reality.  It opened my eyes to just how great God’s power is.  I don’t understand it.  I don’t think anyone could understand it, or predict it.  But it’s true and I rejoice because of it.

Things are tense, now.  A lot of powerful people don’t like Jesus, because he challenges their control.  When you are so important, it’s not easy to accept that God is greater than you are.  The priests and the Pharisees didn’t like Jesus before, but after he raised Lazarus from the dead, they hate him.  The priests are trying to claim that Lazarus wasn’t really dead, and there are all kinds of rumors about power struggles in Jerusalem.

Things are always tense as Passover approaches.  Our Roman overlords don’t like a religious festival that celebrates God saving us from slavery.  But this year, things are worse.  I’m afraid of what will happen next.

But I’ve learned from Lazarus’ resurrection.  I know that Jesus is the Messiah, and I know that he is more powerful than death itself.  He is the Resurrection, and the life.  What can the leaders of the Temple and the Romans do to him?  Jesus doesn’t look at things the way we do.  He’s not afraid of death, it’s almost like he’s waiting for something more important.  And Jesus’ plans aren’t like our plans, and even when I don’t understand them, they work out somehow.

Jesus came back last night, a week before Passover.  I was glad to see him, safe for at least one night.  I’ve heard so many rumors, I’m afraid.  But my love for Jesus is stronger than my fear.

I don’t know what will happen, but I know that Jesus is the LORD, the Messiah.  I wanted to put that knowledge into action.  Messiah means ‘anointed one.’  You see, back in the days of old, kings and priests and prophets were anointed with oil to symbolize God’s choice to make them his own.  Nowadays, we only anoint those who die, but it used to be a sign of life, a sign of God’s favor.  And I know God favors Jesus.  So I went out and bought oil, a perfume made of pure nard, a whole pound of it—it was very expensive, but it was worth it.  I wanted people to see Jesus like I did, I wanted them to know that he was the Messiah, the chosen one of God.

I brought the perfume in and knelt at Jesus’ feet.  I rubbed the oil on him and wiped the excess away with my hair.  I think Martha might have been embarrassed, it was so extravagant and impractical and unusual.  Nobody really knew what to say.  Judas, he’s one of Jesus’ followers, mumbled something about how expensive it was and how we should give it to the poor.  For a second, I thought Jesus would agree with him—after all, Jesus always wants us to help one another, particularly those who can’t help themselves.  But Jesus didn’t.

Jesus said something very strange: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial,” he said.  “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

I don’t know what’s going to happen.  I hope Jesus doesn’t die, or that the one who raised my brother from the dead can raise himself as well.  I hope that people come to their senses, and follow Jesus’ way of truth and love, instead of the way of hate and power-struggles.  But I know that whatever happens, God is here, with us.  I trust in him.

The Boy Who Shared His Lunch

Last night, at the Wednedsay Evening Lenten service, a child of the congregation and I performed a dialogue/skit that I wrote about the boy who shared the loaves and fish (John 6:1-14).  Here is the script.  Like everything on this blog, it is licensed under a Creative Commons license.  This means that you can use it for any purpose besides to sell it, as long as you credit me and link back to this blog.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The Boy Who Shared His Lunch

Jacob enters, carrying a basket

Salomé: Ah, Jacob, my son, there you are!  It’s getting late, I was wondering when your cousins were going to bring you home—how was your day?

Jacob: It was wonderful, mother!  I had so much fun—it was a lot nicer than spending all day mending and cleaning fish nets!

Salomé:  I know, but the taxes on fishing are so high—everyone in our family must work.  There is no time for play, if we are to feed ourselves and meet our obligations.  Soon, you too will be out with your father and uncles and cousins, fishing, while your younger brothers mend the nets.  You should be grateful we could spare you for a day to go do something fun!

Jacob: I know, and thank you!  It was wonderful!  Such a beautiful day.  We walked for miles, and the sun was shining and I’ve never been so far from home! I don’t think Matthew and Jonah had ever been that far, either—we got lost.  But there were so many other people going to see the teacher, we could follow them, and so we got there in the end.

Salomé: I know this traveling preacher is a popular fellow, but times are hard—so many people are losing their land and becoming tenant farmers these days, I’m surprised anyone could spare the time to go and listen.  How many were there?

Jacob:  Lots!  If they were all fish, it would be more than our whole family could catch in a week!  There were all kinds of people.  I saw some people dressed in finer robes than I’ve ever seen, and others dressed in rags. And people in between—I saw fishermen, farmers, day laborers, craftsmen.  I didn’t know that many people lived in all of Judea.

Salomé: This teacher must be something special, then.  What was his name again?  Where is he from?

Jacob: His name is Jesus, and he’s from a town called Nazareth.  I think his family are craftsmen, but most of his followers are fishermen.

Salomé: I know—it was such a scandal when Zebedee bar-Jonathan’s son’s left their family to follow that preacher.  Of course, all parents dream of their children being pious and learning the Scriptures, so it was an honor that they were chosen … but they left in such a hurry!  And they were two of their family’s hardest workers.  Without their help, their family almost couldn’t pay for their fishing license!

Jacob: I can see why they followed him, though—when he talks, it sounds like he’s talking right to you, even if you’re on the edges of a big crowd!  There were a lot of people who were sick or had demons, there, and he healed them all!  One woman fell down in fits, and shook a lot, and Jesus spoke to her and she stopped.  Then there was a blind man, and Jesus touched him and he could see!

Salomé: Well, that’s worth travelling all day for, I must say.  But you and your cousins weren’t sick.

Jacob: Oh, but it was wonderful to see.  And he talked.  I didn’t understand everything he said, but I would have listened to him forever.  He talked about treating people with respect and honor, and following God’s commands, and being generous instead of stingy, and caring for all people, even those who aren’t part of your family.  He said we should love everybody, because we’re all God’s children.

Salomé: Very true!  The world would be a better place if more people thought like he did.Was there anything else?  Did he talk about Rome?  Did he talk about King Herod?  He’s one of us, he knows how hard times are.  Why, with the taxes on fishing, we barely make enough to feed and clothe ourselves, slaving away all day every day except the Sabbath.  The tax collectors cheat us and live in mansions while we can barely keep a roof over our heads, and the soldiers mock us and beat us, and our own king spends more time bowing to Rome than to God.  If this Jesus is a man of God who can work miracles, surely he can throw out the Romans!  If he can gather crowds like that, he should be able to raise an army, too.  I heard people talking in the marketplace that he’s the messiah, King David’s heir come to restore the kingdom of Israel.

Jacob: He didn’t say anything about that.  I know my cousins were disappointed.  But I liked listening to him anyway.

Salomé.  Well, maybe he’ll start talking about rebellion later.  I’m glad you had such a good day—there’s still some light left, you can do your chores.

Jacob: I have a present for you, mother!

Salomé: What is it?

Jacob hands her his basket

Jacob: Bread!  So you won’t have to bake tomorrow.

Salomé: Jacob!  There is so much bread here—where did you get it?

Jacob: From Jesus!  There were so many people in the crowd who had no money, and no food.  Thank you for packing us such a nice lunch, it made me sad to see all the people there who didn’t have anything.  My cousins made me carry our food, all five loaves of bread and two fish.

Salomé: They did, did they?  Three men and one boy, and they make the boy do the work?  I’ll have to talk to their mother!

Jacob:  I don’t mind, because it worked out for the best!  Jesus was sorry for all the people with no food, so he sent his disciples over to ask me if I would share.  They weren’t very nice about it; I don’t think they wanted to have to ask a kid for a favor.  But I said yes, because Jesus had just been talking about being generous, and I knew I would have food here when I got home if I was hungry.  My cousins didn’t like it, but I was the one who had carried the food, and so I thought it only fair that I get to decide.  And Jesus thanked me!

Salomé: An important man like that, bothering to notice a child?  And thanking him, no less?  This Jesus is certainly unusual.

Jacob: I don’t think Jesus cares about who is rich and powerful and who is not—I think he only cares about who needs him.  And the hungry people sure needed him!  Jesus took the bread and the fish—all five loaves and two fish—and blessed them, and told his followers to pass them around for everyone to share.  And he told everyone to take as much as they could eat, but not to hoard it to take home, because he wanted everyone to be fed.  And they did!  And when everyone had eaten, there were twelve baskets full of leftover pieces of bread!  They gave me one of them to take home to you as a thank you for giving the original loaves and fish.

Salomé: He fed the whole crowd with just the lunch I packed for you and your cousins?  That is truly a sign and a wonder!  Did anyone else bring food from home that they shared?

Jacob: I didn’t see any, but I suppose it’s possible.  I bet those rich people had food with them.  And a lot of the craftspeople and farmers and fishers probably brought lunch, too.  But that still wouldn’t be enough to fill all twelve baskets of leftovers!

Salomé: No, it wouldn’t.  Well, no matter how much food he started with, it was certainly a miracle.  Not just the bread and fish being enough for the whole crowd, but that people shared—with times so hard, people look out for their own family first and anyone else a distant second.  You would think they would eat their fill and keep the rest for their families.

Jacob: But they didn’t, everyone shared with everyone else!  Just like Jesus asked them to.

Salomé: That was a miracle!  And you were the first to share, Jacob.  Because you were generous, you participated in one of God’s miracles!  You helped people who were poor and hungry.  I’m so proud of you!

Salomé hugs Jacob

Jacob: Does that mean I don’t have to do my chores tonight?

Salomé: Sorry.  There’s still a lot of work to do, and everyone must help.

2012 Lenten Devotional Calendar and other resources

Lent is a season in which we practice giving up something important in order to refocus our lives on God.  By fasting from certain things, we practice dying to ourselves.  And by refocusing our lives, living to God, we intentionally choose things that help us become the kind of people God desires us to be.  This calendar suggests daily practices for fasting-from and living-to during the Lenten season.  It is suitable for both adults and children.  (Adapted from the Mars Hill 2012 Lenten Calendar and other resources.)

Lenten Calendar 2012

My friend Ariel Ertsgaard, a youth and family minister, has a reflection on Lent and some tips for experiencing Lent with children.

Doctor Chuck DeGroat, a psychologist and pastor, has a reflection on lamentation–mourning, weeping, crying out to God–that I found very thought-provoking in this Lenten season.  From Kleenex Theology to Messy Spirituality: The Biblical Invitation to Honest Lament.

Walter Brueggemann, a great modern theologian, speaks on a similar note about pain and art and being honest with God and one another in Schooled In Denial. (Note that this is part of a longer video; the link is to a clip from it which is available for free.)

Sorry, you messed up–you made a disciple

As I was studying in preparation for sermon-writing, I came across this story and just had to share it with you:

William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells of getting a telephone call from an irate parent:

“I hold you personally responsible for this,” the father told him.

“Me?” the campus minister asked.

“Yes, you. I send my daughter off to college to get a good education. Now she tells me she wants to throw it all away, and go off to Haiti as a Presbyterian mission volunteer! Isn’t that absurd? A B.S. in mechanical engineering from Duke, and she’s going off to dig ditches in Haiti.”

“Well,” said Willimon, in a feeble attempt at humor, “I doubt the engineering department taught her much about that line of work, but she’s a fast learner; she’ll probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months.”

“Look,” interrupted the father, “this is no laughing matter. I hold you completely responsible for her decision. She likes you. You’ve filled her head with all those pie-in-the-sky ideas!”

“Now look,” said Willimon, trying to keep his ministerial composure. “Weren’t you the one who had her baptized?”

“Why, yes,” the father replied.

“And didn’t you read her Bible stories, take her to Sunday school, send her off on ski trips with the Presbyterian Youth Fellowship?”

“Well, yes, but …”

“Don’t ‘but’ me. It’s your fault she believed all that stuff, that she’s gone and thrown it all away on Jesus — not mine. You’re the one who introduced her to Jesus, not me.”

“But all we ever wanted was for her to be a Presbyterian,” said the father, meekly.

“Sorry. You messed up. You made a disciple.”

Quoted from http://www.sermonsuite.com/free.php?i=788028710&key=Qnwtmy4zd5shlppQ.  Googling revealed a few variations on the story, but I liked this one the best.

The Perils of Doing the Minimum

Pentecost 22A, Sunday, November 13, 2011

 

Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18
Psalm 123
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

What cheerful readings we have today!  The prophet Zephaniah starts us off with a passage about the day of the Lord—a day when the Lord will come in wrath and destruction.  “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.”  Zephaniah’s words are pretty harsh: blood shall be poured out like dust, and flesh like dung.  One might expect that with such harsh penalties, God would be moving against the really wicked people: murderers, rapists, pedophiles, idolaters, and the like.  But that’s not the case.

The ones God is condemning in today’s reading haven’t done much of anything bad … but they haven’t done much good, either.  They’re the ones who rest on their dregs—the people who are complacent, who coast through life, who do the minimum and play it safe.  God is condemning those who say in their hearts, “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  In other words, what those people were saying was that they didn’t believe God could—or would—act in the world.  They didn’t believe God really mattered in how they lived their day to day lives.  “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.”  That’s something people might say today!  Let’s be honest with ourselves: how many of us know people who think like that?  How many of us have thought things like that ourselves?

It’s pretty easy to go through life like that.  Comforting.  You can coast through life, get by with resting on your dregs, and doing the minimum.  After all, if God doesn’t care enough to act, why should you?  Why spend the extra effort to do something awesome instead of something ordinary?  Why take the risk of standing up and pointing out the evil and broken things in the world?  Why not just go along to get along?  Why not just take the easy way out and let someone else do the hard work?

The Parable of the Talents is also about someone taking the easy way out.  This parable is told in the middle of a group of four parables about the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven.  So, again, we’re talking about the coming of the day of the Lord.  And again, the Parable of the Talents has a harsh condemnation of someone who takes the easy way out.

A master entrusted his servants with money before leaving for a long time.  A ‘talent’ was an amount of money worth somewhere between 15 and 20 years worth of wages for an ordinary person.  That was a huge gift—extravagant, awesome, and far beyond anything the servants could earn.  Now, in those days they didn’t have much of a financial system.  They didn’t have reliable banks, or a stock market.  In fact, the prudent thing to do with money was to bury it—that way, it wouldn’t get stolen and you’d have it when you needed it.  And that’s just what the servant who was given one talent did: he buried it.  Nothing bad was going to happen to that money—but nothing good could be done with it, either.  The servant was safe, he thought—he’d done the minimum.  He could rest comfortably in the knowledge that he’d done his part.  The master’s angry response seems a little harsh.  After all, the servant didn’t lose or damage the gift; he didn’t do anything really bad, he just didn’t do much good, either.

In the last few days, we’ve seen a graphic real-world example of the consequences of that attitude.  Jerry Sandusky, a respected and influential member of the Penn State athletic faculty and a leader in a great charity, allegedly raped several boys over the course of several years.  I am sure we are all praying for the health and well-being of his victims.  But Sandusky could only commit his crimes because the people who knew or suspected what was going on, did little or nothing to stop it.  Joe Paterno heard the allegations back in 2002; others witnessed abuse starting (as far as we know) in 1998.  We all know that Coach Paterno is a good man, who has done many great things both on and off the field.  But in this case, he, like several others, did the minimum he was required to do by law: he reported it to his superiors at Penn State.  When the school administrators did nothing, he didn’t pursue the matter.  It was someone else’s problem.  And because all of the people who knew about or suspected the abuse took the easy way out and did the minimum, it went on for years.

Taking the easy way out can be very tempting, and there are so many excuses.  The people in Zephaniah’s day took the easy way out because they didn’t believe God cared.  The servant in the Parable of the Talents took the easy way out because he was afraid of failing.  And a wide variety of excuses and explanations have been offered for the people who knew or suspected about Sandusky’s actions.  We look at the excuses other people give and we see them for the flimsy things they are.  But what about ourselves?  Are we just coasting through life, making excuses for resting on our dregs?

In the Parable of the Talents, there were two other slaves.  They also received extravagant gifts from the master, but instead of taking the easy way out they used those gifts the master had given them.  They took those talents out into the world rather than hiding them away.  Our translation calls them “good and trustworthy,” but that phrase could also be translated “happy and faithful.”  They lived their lives in hope and joy, rather than in apathy, fear, or cynicism.  What would our lives be like if we did the same?  What would our world be like?

God has given us many blessings.  The Lord God Almighty created us, and the whole world around us, everything that is, seen and unseen.  All the good things that we have come from God.  Jesus Christ came to save us from our sin, giving us the gift of salvation which we could never have earned.  Jesus lived, taught, suffered, died, and rose again that we might have life, and have it abundantly.  He came that we might become children of the light, rather than children of darkness.  The Holy Spirit is our comforter, our advocate.  The Spirit is with us always, inspiring us with God’s wisdom and grace.

God didn’t give us all these things so that we could bury them in the ground, take the easy way out and do the minimum.  God gives us these gifts so that we can enter into God’s joy.  God gives us these gifts so that we could use the blessings we have received to bless others.  God gives us these gifts so that we can be the body of Christ in the world.  May we receive God’s gifts with joy and faithfulness, and use them for the building up of God’s kingdom and the blessing of God’s people.

Amen.

On true love

Pentecost 12 (Year A), Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

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

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

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

As some of you know, I have two younger brothers.  The youngest is sixteen years younger than I am: we didn’t really grow up together.  But the middle brother, Nels, is only four and a half years younger than me.  In general, Nels and I had a very good relationship growing up … except for Saturdays.  Saturdays, we didn’t get along.  You see, our parents own their own business.  When we were growing up they worked almost every Saturday during their busy season.  Nels and I would be at home alone together, and since I was the elder, I was in charge.  There were two things we had to do every Saturday: we had to eat a good lunch—not just snacks, but a nutritious meal—and we had to clean the bathrooms.  Dividing the labor was where the trouble began.

The first part was easy.  Cleaning toilets kind of grossed me out, but they didn’t bother Nels.  And Nels could never quite get the mirrors spotless enough to pass Mom’s inspection.  So Nels did the toilets, and I did the countertops, sinks, and mirrors.  So far, so good.  The conflict arose when we got to the bathtubs.  You see, one of the bathtubs was easy to clean.  The other was not.  The other bathtub was stained, and showed dirt and grime, and required a lot of scrubbing to get it acceptably clean.  So that was the battle each week: who would clean which tub?

Being the one left in charge, I was the one who got to decide.  My decree was that the fairest way to do it would be that the one who finished cleaning their assigned part of the bathrooms first got to choose.  It was a fairly safe decision for me, given the differences in how Nels and I approach tasks.  When I start, I tend to work hard and constantly until I’m done, so that I can get on to doing something else.  Nels, on the other hand, is more of a daydreamer.  He worked slowly, with frequent breaks.  Despite the fact that I had more surface to clean, I don’t think Nels ever finished cleaning the toilets before I was done with the counters, sinks and mirrors.  Which meant that I always got to choose, and of course I always chose the easier tub to clean.  You can see how I thought that division of labor was perfectly fair.  After all, I was the harder worker, surely that deserved a reward.  But you can also see why Nels did not agree.

And it didn’t stop there.  We had a deal that we would trade off making lunch every week, but I’m not that fond of cooking.  So I would sometimes try and get Nels to do it, even if it was really my turn.  After spending quite a long time cleaning—remember that Nels was not a fast worker—and having to clean the harder tub, Nels would come out into the living room only to be confronted with his older sister asking him: “Isn’t it your turn to make lunch?”  I’m sure you can imagine the squabbles and hurt feelings between us.  Many Saturdays followed that pattern.  We got along fairly well the rest of the time, but on Saturdays, we fell back into the same unhealthy pattern.  We never tried to fix it, do things differently, to find a way to work together in love.  We just did the same old thing, and fought the same battle over and over again.

I think both Paul and Jesus would have a lot to say about that.  In our reading from Romans today, Paul writes: “The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  The commandments our parents gave us for Saturday mornings were given in love.  We were commanded to eat nutritious meals so that we would grow up healthy and strong.  We were commanded to clean the bathrooms so that we would learn responsibility and so that the whole family would have a clean place to live.  Both commandments were given for our good, and for the good of the whole family.  But we did not follow them in love, and so they only caused turmoil and arguments.  And because the guidelines I developed to tell us how to follow those commandments were based on my own selfish desires rather than love of my brother, they caused trouble and pain.

Have you ever had a similar time in your own life?  A time when commandments and rules that were designed for good were used instead to hurt?  It’s something I’ve noticed humans are particularly prone to.  God’s commandments were given in love.  They are designed to help us live good and faithful lives, abundant lives rich in grace and mercy.  Instead, through our own sinfulness, we make them into burdens.  Instead of helping us to love God and one another, we interpret the laws so that they work to our own advantage, even at the expense of our neighbor.  We use laws and rules as weapons.  We use them to separate ourselves, keep ourselves apart, rather than as ways to help us live together in love and harmony.  We keep the letter of the law and ignore the spirit.  We let division and selfishness rule instead of love.

Love is not always easy.  There’s this idea, in America, that love should be effortless, and if there’s a struggle, that it’s not really love.  I think that’s one reason there are so many divorces, these days.  Couples start out in harmony, but the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.  Eventually there comes a time when things get hard, when they disagree.  Some of them decide that since it isn’t easy—since it requires work to get through whatever the trouble is—that it means they’re not really in love any more.  People do the same with friends.  There’s a disagreement, a problem of some kind.  Someone’s feelings get hurt.  And instead of working through it, the friendship is abandoned.  There’s a saying that love means never having to say you’re sorry.  I think that’s wrong, because even when we love people, we sometimes hurt them through selfishness or carelessness or honest disagreement.  I think that love truly means being willing to admit when you’re wrong, to apologize, and work together to rebuild your relationship.  And love means being willing to forgive even when you’ve been hurt.

We as Christians should know this well.  God loves us so much that he is willing to forgive us no matter how we hurt him.  As Paul said earlier in Romans chapter 5, “ God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  God loves us even when we sin, so much that he gave his only son to die for us, to save us and make us whole.  In return, God asks only that we love one another as God has loved us.  Because as Paul says, all the commandments can be summed up with one word: love.  Even when we hurt one another, even when we go astray, we are still God’s beloved children, brothers and sisters in Christ and members of Christ’s body.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus gives instructions for times when our love for one another has fallen short.  Matthew 18 has a practical step-by-step guide on how to resolve disagreements.  First, go to the person who hurt you, or who has a disagreement with you, and trying to resolve the trouble privately.  Don’t complain to your spouse, your sibling, your parents, your children, your neighbor, your best friend, the church secretary, or the pastor.  If you have a problem with someone, Jesus says, you should talk to them about it directly and see if that solves the problem.  How often do we do that?  Too often, we vent at someone else about our problems and so make the whole thing harder to resolve.  By going to others instead of the one we’re mad at, we start to form factions and further divide the body of Christ which is the church.  We may feel better, more in the right, but that self-righteousness comes at a price.  Nothing is resolved, and the same pattern plays out on a larger scale.  The love that should bring us together is sacrificed on the altar of our resentment.  We repeat our mistakes, we make the hurt grow bigger.  We fail to love one another as God loves us.

If one-on-one discussion of the trouble doesn’t work, Jesus says, bring in two or three witnesses.  Now, he doesn’t mean gang up on someone.  These witnesses should be impartial people to help mediate and settle things and provide an unbiased account.  Only if that doesn’t work should the matter made public.  And it shouldn’t be made public through rumors, innuendo, or gossip.  Instead, there is open communication so that everyone knows the full story and the community of faith can judge rightly.  You see, each of these steps is designed to be fair, so that the truth may be spoken and relationships may be mended.  These steps are designed to help us work through our disputes so that a loving relationship may be restored.  It’s not an easy process, nor is it one that comes naturally to most people.  But if used with love and compassion it is the best way that broken relationships can be made whole.

The problem, of course, is the same one Nels and I had on Saturday mornings.  The command is given in love and designed for our good and wholeness, but we take it and use it in such a way that it brings dissent, instead of love.  We get so focused on what we want, on how we can get our own way, that we don’t even see how we hurt one another.  We use the rules God gives to break people down, instead of build them up in love.  We live by our own way, instead of God’s love.

“The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Sometimes, that kind of love is harder to fulfill than any rule or regulation could be.  All too often, we fall short, and fulfill the letter of the law by breaking its spirit.  All too often, we act out of selfishness or anger instead of love.  Thank God, that Jesus loves us, and forgives us no matter how often we go astray and completely miss the point.  May the love of Christ dwell within us, that we may learn to show that love to one another.

Amen.

Farewell Sermon–Planting Seeds

Pentecost 6 (Year A), Sunday, July 24, 2011

1 Kings 3:5-2
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

When you think of Jesus teaching, what’s the first thing to come to mind?  The parables.  Usually, they’re a bit longer than the parables of today’s lesson, which are only a verse or two apiece.  The word “parable” comes from a Greek word, “parabolh.,” which literally means “to throw alongside.”  And a parable is a story that makes a point indirectly, by going alongside it and using metaphors and analogies to paint a picture.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus throws a lot of ideas about the Kingdom of Heaven out to his listeners.  I think it shows at least one reason why Jesus used parables so often to teach people.

How do you talk about the kingdom of heaven—God’s kingdom, where righteousness, mercy, peace, and love flourish and sin is no more—to people who have only ever lived in this broken, sinful world?  How do you describe the joy of salvation?  I don’t know that any human can possibly understand—I mean really understand—what the kingdom of heaven is like until we experience it.  God is so much greater than we are; God is greater than we can ever know.  It stands to reason that God’s kingdom would be, as well.  In the Bible, the kingdom of God is almost never described directly.  Instead, we are told of the kingdom in parables, visions, dreams—things that inspire us to imagine greater, to expand our ideas what God’s reign means.  In today’s lesson Jesus throws several parables to us, and in these parables we get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like.  I’m going to focus on just one of today’s parables.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  A mustard seed starts really, really small, and inconsequential, and unless you know what it is you’d never believe that such a huge bush—almost a tree—could come from it.  Likewise, the Kingdom of Heaven grows out of things that seem small and unimportant.  Now, remember the Gospel lessons for the last two weeks, the Parable of the Sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares?  Those come right before today’s Gospel reading, and the crowds that Jesus was preaching to here had just heard those two parables.  I don’t mean to imply that there’s a literal one-to-one correspondence between the various parables; after all, they are metaphors.  But these parables are related.  They work together, like different chords in a song or different colors in a painting.  So when you hear Jesus talk about seeds here, you should remember that in those two parables the seed that is sown is God’s Word, and in this lesson the seed grows in us to produce God’s Kingdom.

God sows the seed of God’s word in us, and it grows in us to produce God’s kingdom.  Isn’t that amazing?  The kingdom of heaven won’t be fully realized until Christ comes again, but at the same time, the seeds of that kingdom are in our midst, oftentimes so small we don’t even realize what they are.  Maybe that seed is a smile or an encouraging word when we’re feeling down.  Maybe that seed is what motivates you to get up and spend an afternoon helping someone that needs it.  Maybe that seed is something that makes you question your prejudices.  Maybe that seed is praying with your family.  Maybe that seed is reconciling with someone you’ve had a fight with.  Maybe that seed is a thought you’d never considered, before, that gives you a different perspective.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the cares of the world, in our own hopes and fears and desires, and let that blind us to the seeds of God’s kingdom in our midst.  We all have a lot of ideas about what life should be like, and how we want our life to go.  And conventional wisdom has a lot to say about what our goals should be and how we should live our lives.  But God’s wisdom is very unconventional. God’s wisdom places justice and mercy above social climbing.  It places generosity and hospitality above accumulating riches.  It places love above all.

God works in our world, in our communities and in our hearts, planting seeds.  Seeds of generosity, and mercy, and justice, and love.  Sometimes they bear fruit in our actions.  But even when they don’t, God keeps sowing seeds, knowing that some will grow until they become great trees.  Remember the parable of the sower, where the seed is spread around on all types of soil, the good and bad alike?  God gives the gift of the Word generously to all.  Whether or not we respond, God is there for us, giving us the precious gift of the seeds of his kingdom.

That’s why God was so pleased with Solomon in our first lesson today.  Solomon could have asked for anything.  Take a few minutes, and consider what you would ask for if God came to you and offered you anything you want.  Would you ask for a better job?  A nicer home?  Would you ask to be more popular?  There are a lot of things that tempt us.  I’m sure Solomon was just as tempted as you or I would be.  But Solomon realized that all the things the world values most are ultimately unimportant next to God’s word.  Solomon could have asked for anything, and what he asked for was the wisdom to do the task God had called him to do.  Solomon asked for the seed of God’s kingdom to be planted in him, so that God’s will could be done and God’s kingdom could grow.

It’s not always easy to keep our focus on God’s kingdom rather than our own desires.  Even Solomon, for all his God-given wisdom, faltered and went astray.  He let his desire for women and his hunger to become an international power lead him away from God’s will and into idolatry.  His desire for riches and huge building projects led to heavy taxes and forced labor, and to the splitting of his kingdom in half after his death.  It’s easy to look at Solomon’s life from a safe distance and disapprove, but not so easy to realize when we’re going astray ourselves.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve let our desires and our fears rule; I know that’s true for me.   And yet, no matter how far we go astray, God is still with us, ready to forgive and bring us back.  Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—not even our own sinfulness—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  No matter how far we go astray, God never stops planting seeds.

God is planting seeds today.  One of the seeds God is planting is the baptism of Josey Louise.  In baptism God claims us as his own, and connects us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Josey Louise may be small, but like the mustard seed she will grow in God’s grace beyond anything we can imagine for her now.  God is coming to her today in the midst of this congregation, through water and the Word, to plant the seed of God’s kingdom within her.  God is planting today, and God will keep planting, and nurturing, and watering, and fertilizing, until the harvest comes.  We don’t know when the harvest will be, but we know that we are safe in God’s hands.

God tends the seeds he plants in many ways.  Sometimes, we are the tools God uses to nurture and guide the seeds that God has planted in our community.  That’s one of the reasons the whole community participates in baptism: it’s not just between Josey and God, or even between Josey and her parents and God.  We are all called, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to nurture and support Josey, her parents, and her godparents, in their life of faith.  We are called as Christians to be brothers and sisters to one another, in love and grace.  We are called to help one another grow in Christ, to help one another be good soil, to help one another seek the pearl of God’s wisdom and not the empty promises of the world’s riches.

Saint Luke is a very nurturing family in Christ.  I know, because you have helped me grow this year that I have spent as your Vicar.  I have been so blessed by your love, your support, and your example.  I have learned and grown so much in my time here, and I could not have done it without you.  Thank you so much for all that you have done for me.  I hope and pray that you will continue to be a nurturing environment for the seeds God plants in this congregation, in this community, and in the whole world.

Thanks be to God, the sower of the seed, the maker of the pearl, the giver of true wisdom, the guide and companion along life’s journey.

Amen.

Being Called

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A), Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

“You will receive the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Today is Confirmation Day here at Saint Luke’s.  In just a few minutes we’re going to call forward the youth being confirmed, and pray that the Holy Spirit strengthen them as it did those early Christians in our first lesson.  Confirmation is sometimes called “Affirmation of Baptism.”  It’s a longer term, but it’s pretty descriptive of what Confirmation actually is.  You see, “affirmation” means “to say yes.”  The Confirmation students are here today to say Yes to their baptisms, to say Yes to God’s call.  When the confirmands come up before the congregation, they repeat the promises their parents and godparents made at their baptism.  Confirmation is when a young person says that yes, I am a Christian, and this is what I believe.  From this point on, these young people choose to be Christians.  They’re not just here because their parents say so.  When they come forward, we will be repeating parts of the liturgy of baptism, except this time they will be making the responses, not their parents.  It’s an important milestone, and I hope and pray that they will have the courage and faithfulness to follow through with it all the days of their life, even in a culture that is increasingly secular-oriented.

Yet, in a larger sense, what we are celebrating today is not our ability to follow Jesus, but our Lord’s ability to call us to him.  You see, whenever we reach out to God what we always find is that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  God created us, and even when we were dead in sin, God loved us and promised us that he would always be with us.  God came to us as Jesus Christ, our Messiah, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life.  God loves us still, even when we go astray.  God loves us when we convince ourselves we already know what God wants, even without bothering to listen to him.  God is with us still, calling us and all people to him, helping us hear his word and respond to it.

That’s what happened in today’s first lesson, when Peter was preaching to the crowds after Easter, telling them about Jesus and what his death and resurrection meant.  The crowd heard the message, and the Holy Spirit was working—they felt it in their hearts.  Peter was there because the Holy Spirit led him to be there, and he could preach such a stirring sermon because the Holy Spirit filled him.  After all, Peter spent pretty much the entirety of Jesus’ time on Earth getting things wrong and messing up.  But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter found the voice and the wisdom he needed to preach God’s word.  The crowd received his preaching and were moved by it because God was working within them, too, because the Holy Spirit was calling them.  God was working there.  God had already reached out to them and called them through the promise of Jesus, and they responded to that call and were baptized.  Their sins were forgiven, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They learned what it meant that Jesus, crucified and risen, was Lord and Messiah.  They learned to hear God’s call and respond to it through lives of faith.

Whenever we reach out to God we always find that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  That’s what happened in today’s Gospel reading, too.  On Easter Sunday morning, two disciples were travelling to a village called Emmaus.  We don’t know why.  In fact, we don’t even know where Emmaus is—there are several different villages near Jerusalem that might be it.  What we do know is what happened on the way.  Jesus came to those two disciples, and they didn’t recognize him.  They were too caught up in what they thought they knew about what had happened to see what had actually happened.

Has that ever happened to you?  Have you ever been too sure of something to see the truth, even when it’s staring you in the face?  As Cleopas and his friend found out, it can be easy to get trapped by what you think you know.  We are told that they were already disciples—they had walked with Jesus, they had heard him preach, they had heard him tell them about what was coming, and then when it actually happened, they still didn’t understand.  Jesus Christ is Lord of All, the Messiah, God’s Son sent to forgive our sins, reconcile us to God, and teach us how to follow God’s Word.  They saw it, but they didn’t understand it.  On their own, even as first-hand witnesses they couldn’t figure out what it meant for them or anyone that Jesus had died and rose again.  But God had called them, and God had promised them, and God was helping them learn how to see him even through their confusion and doubt.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus walked with them, kept them company, taught them, and ate with them.  When at last they were ready, when they had heard him and he’d explained to them everything that had happened so that they finally knew the truth, that’s when they realized it was Jesus.  That’s when they realized that he had been with him all along, that their hearts had been burning within them.  They were trying to understand what God had done and was doing, and when they finally saw God, they realized that God had been with them the whole time and they just hadn’t realized it.  They had been reaching out to God, and found that God was the one helping them do it because God was already with them.

Do you know what else is really cool about the story of the walk to Emmaus?  It’s a story about Communion!  Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to eat.  And it’s through that meal that those disciples see Jesus.  In the same way we gather around a table today for communion, and find that Jesus is present through bread and wine, which he makes into his body and blood.  In this story, the pattern of Christian worship is established that we still follow today: the disciples come together, they hear God’s word, they share a meal in which Jesus is present, and they go out to spread the Good News.  Our worship service works in the same way.  God gathers us in, teaches us his word, shares a meal with us, and then sends us out into the world to live as faithful Christians and to share the Good News of God’s love in word and deed.  And when we come seeking God, we find that God has already sought us out, helping us to hear his word and live as his people.

It’s that process of learning to see God reaching out to us that brings us here, today, for confirmation.  God reaches out to us in the same way through our baptisms.  That’s why we baptize babies as well as adults: in baptism, God is reaching out to claim us as his own, so it’s not dependent on our ability to choose.  We have already been chosen, each one of us.  We have already been called.  The question is, will we respond to that call?  Will we live lives conformed to Christ, in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism?  Will we live among God’s faithful people, listen to God’s Word, share his supper?  Will we proclaim the Gospel through word and deed, and follow Jesus’ example of service, justice, peace, and love?  Will we respond to all the many ways God reaches out to us and calls us to follow?

The young people who come forward for Confirmation today are here to say yes, they will.  They’re here to promise God and this congregation that they will listen to God’s call, that they will follow in the way of Jesus.  In return, we need to help them—and each other, and everyone we meet—along that path.  God is calling us, all of us, to follow him, and God gives us his Holy Spirit to give us strength, and wisdom, and understanding, and most of all, to give us joy in God’s presence, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Let us pray that all people will hear that call and respond.

Amen.

Remembrance

Maundy Thursday

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm 116

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

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

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

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

Have you ever wondered what the word “Maundy” means?  I know I did before I came to seminary, and someone asked me that question just a few weeks ago.  “Maundy” comes from the old Latin word “mandatum,” which has also provided another word in English—mandate.  Mandatum means command.  During the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  Remembering Jesus, remembering the Lord’s Supper, means remembering this commandment, as well.  Remembering means loving one another.  It means acting out that love—God’s love for us—in everything we say and do.

“Do this in remembrance of me.”  “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.”

In both our first and second readings, remembrance is a strong theme.  We are commanded to remember what God has done, both in the Exodus that freed the people of Israel from slavery and in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  But what does it mean to remember?  Does remembering just mean to take ten minutes during Communion every Sunday morning to think about Jesus, before going back to our everyday lives?  Does it mean putting a few lines in our prayers and songs about God setting people free?  I don’t think so.  I think it means more than that.

For the Jews—and remember, Jesus and his disciples, everyone present at the Last Supper, were Jewish—remembering isn’t just a matter of thought.  Remembering is something you do, it’s how you act.  Remembering is how you respond to things that have happened.  Remembering means responding to God’s love and to all the things God has done for us.  Remembering means proclaiming the truth of what has happened for all the world to see and hear.  Remembering is how the past becomes a present reality.  Remembering is a way of life.

When God tells the Hebrew people to remember the Passover, the Exodus hasn’t happened yet—they were still in bondage, waiting for God’s saving actions.  And on the night of the first Passover, God bought their freedom in blood and pain and set in motion the actions that brought them out of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land.  So every year they celebrate the Passover and remember that God freed them, that God promised them new life and God kept that promise, that the God they worship is the God who brought them out of freedom and is still keeping promises to them.  The Exodus isn’t just something that happened three thousand years ago to their ancestors.  The Exodus is something that happens now, to them.

As Christians, we should understand that, because the Supper of Our Lord isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago to twelve guys in Jerusalem, it’s something that is happening, now, to us.  In the night in which our Lord Jesus was betrayed, the crucifixion hadn’t happened yet, the resurrection hadn’t happened yet.  The whole world was still in bondage to sin, waiting for God’s saving actions.  And on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples and told them to remember him.  He was betrayed, he was crucified, and in his sacrifice God bought our freedom from sin with Jesus blood and pain.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection we are brought from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from brokenness into wholeness, from isolation into relationship with God and with one another.

So on Maundy Thursday, and every Sunday throughout the year, and at other occasions, we celebrate Communion and remember that God has freed us, that God has promised us new life and God has keep that promise.  We remember that the God who brought the Israelites out of slavery, the God who sets people free, is the God who has set us free, as well.  We remember that the God who promised freedom to the people of Israel, the God who promised us his love before we even knew him, is still keeping those promises today.  The Last Supper isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago.  The Last Supper is something that is happening here, to us and to all of God’s people, tonight and every time we come together to celebrate Communion.  Christ is truly present with us now, in bread and wine, just as he said he would.  When we eat this bread and drink from this cup, we know that Christ is in them, just as he said he was.  Christ comes to us in bread and wine, something we can feel, taste, smell.  When we come together around the Lord’s Table, we know that we gather together with all Christians of every time and every place, those who have gone before us and those who will come after us.

Remembering Jesus isn’t just thinking about him every now and then.  Remembering affects everything we do and say.  Remembering is taking Christ’s presence here in this meal and in our lives seriously.  Remembering means taking Jesus’ last commandment seriously, too.  Love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Jesus showed us what that meant when he washed his disciples’ feet.  Think about that, for a minute.  You know how much sweat and dirt builds up on your feet over the course of a summer day when you’re wearing sandals?  Think about how much worse it must be, how much more filthy, when the only paved roads are just cobblestone—and even those are few and far between.  When even many indoor floors are made of packed dirt.  When your only mode of transportation is your own two feet.  When you’re in a desert area so there’s very little rainfall to wet everything down and everything is dry and dusty.  Think about just how gross those feet must have been.  Think about how nice it must feel to have had them cleaned.

Washing those feet couldn’t have been pleasant.  It’s not something anybody would want to do, normally.  But Jesus didn’t do it because he had to, he did it because he loved them, and because he wanted to show them what love is.  Love isn’t just thinking nice thoughts about someone.  Love is helping someone even when it’s not nice, or pleasant, or fun.  Love is being willing to serve not because you have to, or because you’re not worth anything better, but because you want to.

That’s how Jesus wants us to love one another.  That’s how Jesus wants us to remember him, and that’s how he wants us to show the world that we are his.  Jesus wants us to remember him by putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak—by loving one another as God has loved us, and putting that love into action.  Jesus wants us to remember him by knowing that when we share this meal, and when we put his love into action, he is there with us.  When we gather together for worship and communion, we proclaim our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who died that we might have life and have it abundantly.  When we are sent out into the world to share God’s love through serving one another and all of God’s creation, we proclaim our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who gave his life for us because he loves us, and wants us to truly love one another.

Amen.