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.