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.

Strength in Love

Lent Wednesday 4, March 9th, 2016

2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Psalm 28, Acts 16:11-15

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.

How many of you think you make decisions rationally, based on facts and logic?  Most people think they do, except for a few big types of decisions.  We all want to think that we do the smart thing, the right thing, the decision that any unbiased observer would think was right.  We like to think we use our head to make the decisions—large and small—and as a culture we tend to dismiss and belittle those who are too swayed by emotion—particularly the softer emotions.  Bleeding hearts, sentimental, emotional, emo, these are not seen as good things.

And yet, scientists tell us that even when we think we are at our most rational, our decisions are based mostly on our emotions.  Someone you don’t like comes up and invites you to an event—you don’t like them, your heart is against them, you decide not to go, and then you come up with reasons why you can’t come.  It looks like rain.  You have other plans.  You’re just too tired.  If a friend had given you the same invitation, your heart would have been more open.  You might have decided to go, and your brain would have come up with reasons to justify your heart’s decision.  Sure, it’s cloudy, but it probably won’t rain after all.  And the other plans can be put off.  And you’re not that tired.  In both cases, your heart made the decision, based on how you felt, and then came up with reasons to justify your decision.  And then you believe you made the smart choice, the right choice, the logical choice, when it wasn’t really your heart making the decision.  Our hearts guide our decisions, and this is the case whether our hearts are hard or soft, closed or open.  Which means that if our hearts are going to be leading our lives, they are really important, for us and for our faith and for the world around us.

So what kind of hearts does God want us to have?  Does God want us to have open hearts, closed hearts, soft hearts, hard hearts, loving hearts, angry hearts, fearful hearts?  God created us each to be different and unique, which means that there are a wide variety of hearts.  But there are very few people in the Bible whose hearts are described as “hard” or “closed,” and pretty much all of them are like Pharaoh in the Exodus—the villains who try to work against God.  In our reading from Corinthians, Paul says that his heart is open and asks the people of Corinth to open wide their hearts, as well.  Open hearts is a good thing, the Bible says, and closed hearts are bad.  Why?  Well, I think it’s because if we close our hearts to our fellow human beings, how can we open them for God?  If we close out our neighbor, or even our enemy, we are dangerously likely to close out God, as well.  Remember that God’s heart is always open to us, no matter how many times we cause pain, no matter how many times we stray.

There’s a stereotype of people who are soft-hearted, that they’re weak, that they’re easily manipulated, that they’re stupid, that they just don’t understand reality.  The world is a hard, cruel place, full of evil and hate and pain, and common wisdom is that people who are too kind, too loving, are just denying reality.  But that’s not the kind of open hearts Paul is talking about.  After all, Paul had been around the block many times.  He’d started out with a hard heart himself, persecuting Jesus’ followers, before his conversion on the way to Damascus.  And then, after that, as an apostle he had been imprisoned, beaten, tortured, he had faced conspiracies and con artists, injury and illness, greed and hate and fear and anger.  In his service to the Gospel he had seen all the ugliness the world had to offer … most of it bent on making him hurt.  He was not a bystander to the cruelties of the world.  He had inflicted them when his heart was hard, and he had suffered them when his heart was opened.  Paul had been on both sides.  And he knew that an open heart was better.  A heart like God’s was better.

Paul endured afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, and hunger.  Yes, he knew all the evil in the world, but he also knew that it was better to meet it with an open heart than a closed one.  Better to respond in love, and open a space for the healing of the world, than to respond with a closed heart and compound the pain.  So Paul responded with purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God.  And because he was open, God could work in his heart, and through him, God could touch other hearts, like Lydia’s heart, like the Corinthians’ hearts.  Because his heart was open to God and to all the world, God could work towards the day when pain and evil and hard hearts are gone forever.

Our hearts guide our thoughts, our hearts guide our actions, our hearts can open us up to God and to the world, and our hearts can isolate us.  Our hearts can lead us to heal people, and our hearts can lead us to hurt people.  May God open our hearts, and live in us, that we may know the riches and comfort of God’s love.

Amen.

When Love is Most Needed

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, January 31st, 2016

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.

This passage from First Corinthians is one of the favorite and most famous passages of the Bible—and rightly so! Not only is it the heart of Paul’s message in this letter—and in many other letters—it also sums up the theme of much of Jesus’ teachings and several other New Testament writers. Jesus’ last commandment to us, for example, is to love one another. And in the letters of John we are told, repeatedly, that God is love, that God’s very core is love, that love is the center of who God is and who we are called to be as God’s people. So this passage, as Paul talks about what love is and what love looks like, is extremely important theologically. But that’s not all! It’s also beautifully written so that it is easy to understand and beautiful to listen to. It sounds like poetry. It’s important, and it’s gorgeous.

We use it in a lot of different contexts, and that’s a good thing! Most commonly these days, it’s used at weddings. I’ve preached on it at weddings myself! It’s such a rich text for a wedding sermon. The problem though, is that we tend to pull this text out only on happy occasions. At weddings, for example, we can normally assume that there’s a lot of love going around, and that everyone is happy. The couple is coming together in love for their spouse, and the community is coming together in love for the couple getting married. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s joyful, and it’s really easy to love. But what happens next? Is married love always that easy? Throughout the years you are together, does your heart always overflow with love for your spouse? I’ve never been married, but in even the happiest and most loving of marriages, things aren’t always that easy. Like any relationship, there is conflict. There is disagreement. There are times when you don’t feel the love, and you don’t want to feel the love. And that’s true of marriages, but it’s also true of other kinds of relationships—parent and child, friendships, congregations, community relationships. There are times when it is easy to love, and there are times when it is not.

And this passage was not written for the easy times. It was written for the hard times. The congregation in Corinth that Paul was writing to was terrible. They had all kinds of factions. They fought like cats and dogs. They had incredible spiritual gifts, and they wasted them. They played power games. They played status games. They played holier-than-thou. They used the language of the Gospel to advance their own selfish agenda. They let the richer and more powerful members dominate the poorer and less-well-connected members. And they had genuine theological disagreements, and disagreements about worship, that threatened to tear their congregation apart. They were a mess. There were a lot of gifts, but there was also a lot of selfishness, a lot of manipulation, a lot of fear, a lot of anger, a lot of things that shouldn’t ever happen in the body of Christ. I don’t know why they treated one another that way. Maybe it was selfishness; maybe it was fear lashing out; maybe it was some other reason. They did not love one another, and they had a lot of reasons why not. Some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were petty and selfish—hurt feelings and the like—but some of the reasons they didn’t love one another were actually pretty good reasons. Because let’s face it, most of them weren’t very lovable. I’ve seen congregations fight—I could tell you stories about congregations I’ve known and some I’ve worked at that would curl your hair—but I’ve never seen a congregation as screwed up and un-loving as the congregation at Corinth apparently was. And for that I thank God.

And it’s to that congregation, that mess, that pile of unloving and unlovable manipulative jerks, that Paul writes this great ode to love. Jesus told us to love one another, John the Elder told us that God is love, but here Paul explains exactly what that love should look like. I suppose it’s because everyone else knew what it meant. The Corinthians didn’t. They needed to hear it more than anyone else.

Here’s a question for you: is love a noun or a verb? I mean, is love a thing—a feeling—or is it an action, something you do, a choice you make? We tend to think of love as a feeling, a noun. But in this passage Paul talks about love like it’s a verb. It’s something you do, not something you are or feel. Love is how you act. It’s how you treat people—even those who don’t necessarily deserve it. Love is choosing to be patient, even when you don’t want to be. Love is choosing to say the kind thing instead of the cutting remark. Love is choosing to be happy for someone rather than envious of their good fortune. Love is choosing to forgive instead of cherishing up every resentment and waiting for an opportunity to strike back. And sometimes you may feel like doing all those things, and it will be easy. But sometimes you won’t, and that’s when love—the action of it—is most important of all.

Because when you get right down to it, nothing else matters. Love was Jesus’ commandment to us, and love is God’s very nature. We can have everything else going for us—all the spiritual gifts (which the Corinthians had, remember!), a huge membership, a beautiful building, huge amounts of charity, and if we don’t treat one another with love, none of the rest of it matters. If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but don’t have love, I’m just tooting my own horn. If I have prophetic powers and can speak God’s word and a faith deep enough to move mountains, but I don’t have love, I’m nothing. If I give away everything, but don’t have love, that gift is worthless. And I’m sure you know people who are like that. People who have never done anything seriously wrong in their whole lives, who give big amounts of money and time to a lot of good causes, who are smart and do all the things they should, and are still miserable to be around because they’re acting out of self-righteousness or obligation instead of love. I know a man like that, and I am so incredibly glad I now live half a continent away from him, because underneath all those pious good-works, he was one of the most resentful, malevolent people I’ve ever known in my life. He had everything going for him, and he did all the things he should do, and on paper he looked like a great guy.  But he had no love in his heart and he never acted out of love, either, and so he was miserable and made everyone around him miserable, too.

In my time here at Birka Lutheran Church, one of the things I’ve been most impressed by is the community you have formed, the way you love one another and the way love isn’t just a word or a feeling, it’s the way you treat one another. I’ve seen it in the way you choose to be understanding rather than judgmental of one another. I’ve seen it in the way you come together to do things, and help one another out whenever there’s a problem. I’ve seen that love in a hundred different ways, not just from one or two people but from many. It has made worshiping with you and ministering to and with you and participating in your events a joy and a pleasure for me, and I think it’s the reason why visitors often come away feeling like Birka is a special place. It’s not just the beauty of this place, it is the love found in the community of faith here.

Over the last two months, however, that love has been a little scarcer than usual. And I think it’s because of fear; fear of what will happen to Birka, fear of what will happen to this community that we love and this place that we love if we close, fear of what will happen if we don’t. People have said unkind things; they’ve assumed the worst possible motivations—I’ve been guilty of that myself, a time or two—they’ve lashed out at those who think differently; they’ve circled the wagons into a kind of “us vs. them” mentality. Not all the time; there has also been understanding and kindness and patience even in the midst of disagreement. There have been times that love flowed freely, but there have also been times that love was awful thin on the ground. And I understand, because this is a huge thing we’re going to be deciding today, something that will deeply affect each and every one of us no matter what the outcome is. When you’re making such huge decisions with people you don’t agree with, when other peoples’ actions can have such a huge effect on your own life, it’s hard to love them. It’s hard to show that love, it’s hard to be patient, it’s hard to be kind. It’s one of the hardest things I can imagine. And yet, in times of trouble and crisis and division, that’s when Paul’s words are most needed. That’s when love is most needed.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease. People die. Congregations die. Countries die. Communities die. Whether Birka closes next year or fifty years from now or a thousand years into the future, it will die eventually. So will Augustana and every other congregation in the world. The one thing that will never die, the one thing that saves us, that calls us, that brings us together, is the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God’s love will never end. Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Let us pray. Lord Jesus Christ, you called us by name and made us your own. You called us here to the prairie together for over a century, and you have given us your love in all that time. Your love has flourished in us and among us. As we discuss this and make this decision today, help us to feel your love. Help us to remember that we are all here because we love Birka, and help us to speak and act in love even in the midst of our disagreements. Guide us in your truth and in your love, and abide with us, now and forever.

Amen.

Faith and Talents

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33), Year A, November 16, 2014

 

Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 123, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

 

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.

Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than any other single topic besides the kingdom of God? It’s surprising, but true … particularly considering how many churches I could name where the pastor only talks about money once a year, when they’re doing the church budget. The rest of the time, money gets talked of in “spiritual” terms. In other words, it’s not really about money at all—it’s about faith, or it’s about power, or about honor, or something else. Now, all those can be legitimate ways of reading the text—after all, Jesus used money as a metaphor a lot. Like in our Gospel reading today, a ‘talent’ in the ancient world was a unit of money, about 15 years wages—say, around half a million dollars, in today’s terms. Jesus is telling a parable, a story designed to illustrate a point, and he uses money because how you handle money—what you spend it on, what you save it for, says an awful lot about your priorities. Like, a deadbeat dad may say he loves his kids, but if he’s going out partying instead of paying child support to help raise them, it’s pretty obvious that they aren’t very important to him. And if you say you feel sorry for people who are hungry but you don’t give to food pantries, or donate to ELCA World Hunger, and vote against government food assistance programs, you obviously don’t care that much. If you say you love God, and you don’t pay any attention to spending your money in ways God would want you to, well, that says something about you as well.

So here’s the parable. A man, going on a journey, summons his slaves. He doesn’t say how long he’s going to be gone or where he’s going, but he needs someone to take care of his household. So he divvies it up: five talents, about $2.5 million, to one slave; a million to another, half a million to the third. This is a huge windfall. A gift like very few people get, ever. And he just hands it over. No detailed instructions, just “here, it’s yours to take care of, you can handle it, I trust you.” And then he goes away. If it were you, if you were one of those slaves, what would you do with the money?

Two of the slaves get to work. They say to themselves, “Hey, my master gave me a lot. What can I do with lots of money?” You can tell where their priorities are, because you can see what they did with the gift they were given. They went to work, and they made a lot of money. Huge amounts of money, way more than anyone could reasonably expect. Now, remember, in those days you couldn’t just put a chunk of money in an index fund at the stock market like you can today. In our world, if you have money to invest, and you put it in an index fund for a long time—say, twenty years—you’ll get an average of about a 7% return. They couldn’t have done that back then—and, in any case, even today there’s no investment that will give you a 100% return, which is what they got. No, to get that kind of return, you have to be more active. You’d have to do something like start a new business that does really well, or find someone with a great idea for a new business and give them the money to start it. In other words, you have to pay attention to your community: what do people need that they don’t have, and how can I help them get it? Then, you have to be willing to work hard, and with some luck, you can get an incredible return. That’s what the first two did.

The third didn’t. There were so many things he could have done with that gift, and he didn’t do any of them. He didn’t do any work himself. He didn’t invest it. He didn’t look for some way to use it as his master might want. He didn’t give it to one of the other two to manage. He didn’t even put it in a bank. He dug a hole and put it in the ground and forgot about it and went on with his life. The other two guys were working, they were using what their master gave them, they were thinking about how he would want them to use what he gave them. Even though the master wasn’t there with them, their relationship with their master was guiding their lives, and guiding what they were doing with his gifts. The third guy, on the other hand, well, he didn’t seem to care about his master one way or the other. Out of sight, out of mind. Or maybe he just thought, “well, the other guys got more than I did, and one talent isn’t enough to do anything with.” He ignored his master’s gift and anything his master might want, and called it good enough. He was too busy with all the other stuff in his life to care much about his master’s wishes.

So the master comes back! And the first two slaves show their master what they’ve done with his great gift, and the master is happy. “That’s awesome! You’ve done such a great job, I want you to keep on doing it, but here’s some more stuff to take care of, too—we can work together. I love you and I love what you’ve done.” And the third slave goes out, digs up the hole he put the half a million dollars in, and hands it back. Complete with an excuse: “I was afraid to lose it!” he said. “I know you’d punish me if I wasted it, and I know you can be really harsh and strict, so wasn’t it great of me to keep it safe?”

And the master was not happy, to say the least. First off, it’s not true—if the guy was worried, why didn’t he put it in a bank? It would have been almost as safe, and there would have been at least some return. Second, this description of the master as harsh and fearsome doesn’t match with what else we see of the master. We know he’s a generous guy, giving the money to his slaves to take care of. And when he comes to settle up with them, his first impulse is to praise them and celebrate. Third, the master doesn’t seem to care about how much the return on investment is—he doesn’t say, “that’s awesome that you doubled my money, so I’m going to give you a bonus!” No, he says instead, “it’s awesome how faithful you were.” The two faithful slaves, they trusted that their master was going to come back, and they kept working. They’ve been participating in their master’s work this whole time, so they will keep on doing it now that he’s back. That’s what the master celebrates: their faithfulness, not their profits. I mean, the profits are great, but they’re not what he master cares about. The third guy, he hasn’t been participating in his master’s work. He said he was going to, and he was given resources to do so. But he didn’t. He stuck the gift in a hole and forgot about it, and then tried to blame his master for doing so. Needless to say, the master was not impressed, and sent him packing.

So the question is, how are we managing the talents God has given us? We’re like the slaves in the parable, given great riches by our master. Sometimes those riches are in the form of wealth—and anyone who doesn’t think we’re wealthy here in North Dakota, remember that there are places in the world where people live on annual incomes of $300 or less. And many of those people who live on $300 or less still find the time and money to help one another within their community. Sometimes the riches God gives are in the form of relationships, the love and support that helps us grow and thrive and survive in times of trouble. Sometimes those riches are in the form of talents in our modern definition, things we’re good at that can make the world a better place. Sometimes those riches are in the form of opportunities God gives. Sometimes those riches are in the form of physical and mental health. Sometimes those riches are in the form of intelligence or street smarts. But whatever the riches are that God has given you, the question is, what are you doing with them? What are we doing with them?

Remember that the profit God wants isn’t money. What God wants us to do with his gifts is to spread God’s love. God wants us to spread healing, and wholeness. God wants us to spread community and hope. God wants us to grow, and God wants us to help others grow. God wants us to participate in his work of building up his kingdom in this world. God wants us to have a share in his joy, and to share that joy with one another.

It’s not always easy. It would be so much easier to put God’s gifts in a drawer or a hole in the ground and go on with what we want to do. It would be so much easier to say, “Others have more money, time, talents, treasures, let them do the work.” It would be so much easier to be the third guy and ignore the master and the gift both until he comes back to ask us in person what we did with it.

It’s easier to be the third guy. But it’s better by far to be the first two—to take the gift and use it, to spread it around, to participate in God’s work, and to enter into God’s joy.

Amen.

Which Commandment?

Reformation Sunday, October 26, 2014

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, Matthew 22:34-40

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.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Of all the many things that we believe, teach, and do, what’s the core? What’s the guiding principle we should live our lives by? What is the absolute most important thing God calls us to be and do? This was a question in Jesus’ day, because as any good Jew knew, there were over six hundred commands and teachings, and so a guiding principle was important to help keep you on the right track. And sometimes we Christians shake our heads at how legalistic the Jews were—couldn’t they see that faith was more important than works? And yet, we can be pretty legalistic ourselves. Just think of all the things that we argue about, things that various Christian churches hold up as the most important, guiding principles they hold. Issues about sexuality and marriage and divorce are pretty common. So are ideas about hell—as in, if you don’t believe the same way we believe, that’s where you’re going. Then there are all sorts of rules, spoken and unspoken, about gender and race and class and birth control and education and economics and political beliefs. And sometimes, Christians in this country act as if those rules are the most important thing about being a Christian.

Even if you try and say, “Forget about the nitpicking, all that matters is that you have faith,” you’re probably going to run into problems. How do you define faith, how much is “enough,” and how do you get saved and what does it mean to be saved? Do you need to be born again, do you need to have the right kind of faith with the right kinds of Bible interpretation? Should you be baptized as an infant or as an adult? These are all things that Christians in America think are important, but we don’t agree on how we interpret them, let alone which ones are the most important. We spend an awful lot of time arguing about these sorts of things. So, although we have differences in what we count as commandments in the law, this is still an issue we face today: which of the teachings is the greatest? What is the guiding principle we should be living our lives by?

In Martin Luther’s day, this, too, was an issue. The Christian church of his day had oodles and oodles of traditional teachings, laws, and regulations that they said you had to follow. In order to be a Christian, in order to be saved, you had to do certain types of good works, and confess your sin, and do penance to make up for all the things you did wrong, and if you didn’t think you were worthy of praying directly to God you could pray to a saint who would then supposedly talk to God on your behalf, and there was this whole huge list of things you had to do to be a good Christian. And Martin Luther tried so hard to follow every teaching to do everything right, to be perfect, and the harder he tried the more he realized that there was just no way he could possibly do everything right, and so he spent a lot of time looking through his Bible trying to figure out what to do. What’s the center? What’s the core? Which commandment is the greatest?

After reading his Bible cover to cover many times, and spending many hours in prayer and in discussion with other monks, Martin Luther found was that it wasn’t about the law at all. It wasn’t about legalism, or doing the right thing, or figuring out how to be perfect. Because, in point of fact, humans aren’t perfect. We’re mortal. We mess up all the time. As Saint Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. If we base our faith, our relationship with God, on trying to be perfect and follow all the rules perfectly … we’re going to fail. We can’t do it on our own. All of our arguing, all of the rules we think are so important, well, even when we’re right those rules won’t keep us from straying. And we’re not always right. Sometimes we interpret God’s will wrongly, and then all our rules do nothing but lead us further from God.

Martin Luther, like so many people of his day, was deeply afraid of Hell. He was afraid of not measuring up to God’s goodness, of being found unworthy and being condemned because of his sin. In the 1500s, when Martin Luther lived, people had a much deeper and more visceral fear of Hell than most Americans do today. The Church had spent centuries teaching people an elaborate system for earning their way into God’s good books, with dire threats of Hell for anyone who didn’t measure up … except there was no way to really know whether you measured up or not, so a whole lot of people lived their lives with a kind of general anxiety about whether they’d done enough. So when Martin Luther read today’s passage from Romans and realized what it meant, he was stunned. The Church was wrong. If God’s forgiveness is a gift, if God’s gift of forgiveness is given to everyone regardless of what they’ve done or haven’t done to deserve it, then the whole system the Church taught was wrong. Nobody needs to earn God’s forgiveness. It’s a gift, given out of love. People were trying to earn what God had already given them for free. This was a revolutionary idea, and it led to changes in Christianity and in Europe that Martin Luther could never have guessed at. Holding on to that central idea of forgiveness and grace helped lead people from confusion and fear into a deeper relationship with God. It led to the Reformation—a re-forming of peoples’ hearts, minds, faiths, and lives.

This may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t see Reformation as a one-time thing. They knew that humans would continue to go astray, that we would sometimes put our own priorities in place of God’s priorities, that we would follow the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it. So the church should always be re-forming, always striving to renew itself, always asking “Is this what God is calling us to be and do?” And I think that we live in a world with as much need to ask that question as people in the 1500s. We live in a time of change. Whether you are for it or against it, the world is not the same as it used to be. And change comes more slowly here in North Dakota than it does other places, but it’s coming even here. Some of the change is good, and some of it is bad, and all of it affects the world we live in, that our children will live in a generation from now. How we react will shape that world. Which rules and traditions and ways of life will we keep? Which ones will we modify, and how? Which ones will fall by the wayside? Which of the commandments and teachings we live our lives by is the greatest? What’s the core guiding principle that God wants us to use as our compass point on the journey of faith? What is God trying to re-form us around?

A lawyer asked Jesus this question: “Which commandment in the tradition is the greatest?” And Jesus replied: ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ Love God, and love your neighbor. All of the commandments, all of the teachings and traditions, all of them grow from this root. So everything we do, everything we teach, and everything we are should be centered around these two principles. Love God, and love your neighbor. If you hold to that in your heart and in your actions, you can’t go too far wrong. No matter what the issue is—sex, divorce, gender, race, oil, poverty, foreign policy, human trafficking—if we let our love for God and for our neighbor come second to our opinions, we have broken the commandments. If we let our interpretation of God’s Words hurt our neighbors and cause us to dislike or fear them, then we have broken the commandments. But if we act in love, love of God and love of our neighbors, then we are faithful to God. That’s the great litmus test. That’s the standard by which we are judged. May we always live according to the love God has given us.

Amen.

Seeing through God’s eyes

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 20), Year A, August 17, 2014

Isaiah 56:1, 6-8, Psalm 67, Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32, Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

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.

Our Gospel reading for today is a hard one. It goes against everything Jesus says and does elsewhere in the Gospels, and it goes against a lot of things in the Old Testament. For example, in our first lesson from Isaiah, God tells the people that not only will he save the outcasts of Israel—the people who are already part of God’s people but who aren’t allowed to participate for whatever reason—God will also save the foreigners, people outside of Israel. God tells his people that the day of salvation is coming, and in the meantime they should maintain justice and remember that God’s promise was for everyone who believed, not just a chosen few, not just the insiders. That’s God’s goal, God’s mission: to save everyone. As for the New Testament, Jesus spent a lot of his time with the poor, the outcasts, the sinners, the foreigners, the ones outside the boundaries. The sort of people that good Jews were not supposed to hang out with. He healed everyone who came to him for healing, no matter who they were or where they were from or what kind of people they were. Everyone, Jew or Gentile, sinner or saint, male or female, was healed. Jesus welcomed everyone even when it was going to get him in trouble. He did it when it was going to make his mission harder, when it was going to make the rich and powerful among his own people turn their backs on him and attack him. He did welcomed everyone even when his own disciples, his closest friends, were urging him not to. Because he saw through God’s eyes and knew that everyone was a child of God. Jesus opened his arms to everyone, no matter who they were or where they came from, no exceptions. He welcomed everyone. He poured out his life and died for everyone. He rose for everyone.

Except for the story told in this reading. In this reading, a foreign woman—a Canaanite, one of Israel’s ancient enemies—comes to him on her knees to beg healing for her daughter. This is the only time Jesus ever met someone in need of healing and tried to avoid healing them. And Jesus not only says “no,” he calls her a dog. Say what? This does not sound like Jesus at all. Remember, dogs were not considered man’s best friend in the ancient world. Dogs weren’t the family pet that everyone dotes on. Dogs were the dirty unclean things that ate all the disgusting stuff that people threw out. Calling someone a dog was a much worse insult for them than it is for us. This does not sound like God’s mission of salvation and healing and justice and reconciliation as proclaimed in both the Old and New Testaments. This sounds like ordinary, everyday human bigotry, preventing Jesus from spreading God’s healing and God’s Word. If the encounter ended there, with the disciples ignoring her and Jesus calling her a dog, do you think this woman would be very likely to become a follower of God? No. It’s a lot more likely that she would have gone home and told everybody about how horribly that Jesus guy treated her. She came for healing, and he insulted her and sent her away. Instead of spreading faith, that would spread disbelief. That would get in the way of God’s mission of justice and salvation.

To me, the problem with Jesus’ first response to the Canaanite woman is that it’s human. Too human. Humans like to draw nice neat categories—us vs. them. People who matter vs. people who don’t. The disciples do it all the time. When other pious Jews (their own people) challenge them, the disciples want to go along with them even if that goes against what Jesus is trying to teach. But the disciples consistently tried to avoid, discourage, or even attack non-Jews or people of low social status. When a Jewish town rejected Jesus, they just left quietly. When a Samaritan town rejected Jesus, the disciples wanted to call down hellfire and brimstone and destroy the town and everyone in it. Because, you see, the Samaritans weren’t members of the “in” group. They weren’t the children of the house of Israel, even though they claimed to be and worshipped the same God. They were the ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And the Canaanites, too, were ancient enemies of the people of Israel. And, here’s the thing: you and I? We’re not children of the House of Israel, either. Not in the sense that Jesus means here. The children of the House of Israel are the Jews. When Jesus calls the Canaanite woman a dog because she’s not Jewish, we’re all included in that. We like to think of ourselves as the children, the insiders, but we’re not. We’re the dogs, in this metaphor. The nasty, dirty, smelly animals, rooting around in the garbage.

This is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus shows any kind of ordinary human prejudice. The only time he falls into the “us vs. them” mentality that humans do every day. And I think it’s because of who and what Jesus is. We tend to focus on his divinity: Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is God, the Word that was in the beginning with God, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end of all things. We tend to forget the fact that Jesus was also truly human. He was fully God, but he was also fully Human at the same time. He had to be. He could not have saved us if he hadn’t been. Like us, Jesus was human, a person of flesh and blood just like any of us. It was through his humanity, through becoming one of us, that God was able to reach out and join us to himself. It’s through Jesus’ humanity that we are united with him, and through Jesus’ divinity that we are pulled from brokenness and death into life.

Part of being human is being limited. Finite. Not knowing all the answers, and making mistakes because of it. There are only a handful of times in the Gospels that Jesus shows us his limits. Later on in the Gospels, when he speaks of the end times, his disciples will ask him when the Day of the Lord will come, and Jesus says he doesn’t know, that only the Father knows. I think this is another time when Jesus’ humanity shows through. Jesus grew up Jewish, amid the same prejudices that his disciples did. Prejudices against Canaanites, for one. And here he is, face-to-face with a Canaanite for the first time, and the prejudice comes out without thinking about it. But when she challenges him on it, he backs up. He realizes that those prejudices are wrong. He knew he was sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but he apparently hadn’t realized that he was sent to all lost sheep, everywhere, of every tribe and nation. He realizes that all people are God’s children, not just the people he is a part of. He praises her great faith—greater than the disciples, whose faith is always pretty low. He gives her what he wants. He stops seeing her through the prejudices of his culture and starts seeing her through God’s eyes. And ever after, he gives his time and healing freely to all people. Not just the children of the house of Israel, but all people, Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, clean or unclean, sinner or saint. To people like us, and to people not like us. To insiders, and to those we want to keep out in the cold.

What prejudices do we have that are blinding us to God’s mission for us? What prejudices do we use to divide people into us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders, people worthy of God’s love and God’s message, and people who aren’t? It might almost be easier to list what prejudices we don’t have. Race, color, gender, sex, politics—Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in America. We’re like the disciples, who think God’s message is only for the good people like us who deserve it. Who think God’s justice is only for the good people like us who deserve it. When I was thinking about prejudice this week, there were several examples of it happening right now that jumped right out at me.

One is the refugee children on the border. Children are coming to our country, fleeing for their lives. Yet because they are from another country, and they don’t speak our language or look like us, there are a lot of people who want to send them home where they will almost certainly be killed. They’re the dogs who we think don’t even deserve the scraps off of America’s table. Then there’s Ferguson, Missouri. A week ago Saturday, a white cop shot and killed an unarmed black teenage boy in the back for walking in the wrong place. When the police wouldn’t release any information or even apologize to the boy’s family, the black community protested and held candlelight vigils, demanding justice. The cops—almost all of whom are white—showed up with machine guns, snipers, armored vehicles, and tear gas. As one former member of the 82nd Airborne division put it, “We rolled lighter than that in an actual warzone.” Pictures coming out of Ferguson look more like the streets of Egypt or Syria than the US, except instead of Islamic fundamentalists vs. ordinary people, it’s white cops against black community members who just want to know why their child was murdered. How much of God’s work do you think is being done in Ferguson right now? Can you hear people asking for help and healing and justice, and being insulted instead?

Here in North Dakota, I most often hear prejudice about Native Americans and oil field workers. People gossip about all the bad things they do, and ignore the good parts. We talk about their flaws, but don’t acknowledge the struggles and hardships they’re dealing with. We don’t reach out to them; we don’t welcome them; and we don’t invite them to church with us. It’s us-vs.-them. The children of God vs. the outsiders. And, like Jesus in the Gospel lesson, our first instinct is to exclude them. We think to ourselves, it’s not fair to take the children’s food—our food—and throw it to the dogs. And so human prejudice prevents the spreading of God’s justice, God’s healing, God’s love, and God’s Word.

May we, like Jesus, learn to see with God’s eyes instead of our own prejudices. And may we learn to give God’s love, God’s healing, and God’s Word to all people.

Amen.

The Love Mandate

Maundy Thursday, (Year A), April 16, 2014

Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14, Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, John 13:1-17, 31-35

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

 

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

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

“This is my commandment, that you love one another, that your joy may be full.” I learned that song in Sunday School as a child. It’s taken from John’s Gospel, not very long after our text. The Gospel of John devotes several chapters to Jesus’ last teaching for this disciples. And the command to love one another is repeated over and over throughout. In fact, the name for tonight’s service, “Maundy” Thursday, is taken from an old Latin word for command: “Mandatum,” from which we get the word “mandate.” Jesus’ last command, his last mandate, was to love one another as he has loved us. On the night before he died, in the last meal he shared with his disciples, the theme was love.

Of course, the theme for all of Holy Week is love, when you get right down to it: everything happens because of love. God so loved the world that he sent Jesus to save us. Jesus loved us so much that he died for us. That’s the greatest kind of love there is. Being willing to sacrifice for the sake of someone else. And that’s the kind of love Jesus wants us to have for one another.

Sometimes we think of love as something selfish. Think of someone who is jealous that their boyfriend or girlfriend has other friends. Or a dog who doesn’t like you paying attention to someone else, and so shoves his nose in between the two of you. Sometimes, for some people love drives them to hurt the ones they claim to love. There are a lot of abusers who use love as an excuse for their actions. And there are a lot of people who talk a lot about love without ever showing that love in their actions. But these are all examples of a love that is twisted and broken by sin and the powers of this world. Yes, even love can be twisted by sin. The kind of love Jesus was talking about is just the opposite.

Jesus’ love is all about service. That’s what the foot-washing is all about. Jesus shows his love for his disciples by doing something for them that’s a little bit icky. Jesus’ love is not about himself. It’s not selfish in any way, shape, or form. Jesus’ love inspires him to consider other peoples’ needs. In Jesus’ day, they walked everywhere, and they wore sandals instead of shoes. So peoples’ feet got really dirty and smelly, even when you were trying your best to stay clean. So in a rich household, a good host would send a slave to wash his guest’s feet. The host wouldn’t wash the feet himself—washing peoples’ feet is kind of gross. But he’d send a slave to do it. Jesus didn’t send a slave, he did it himself. Why? Because he loved them, and he was willing to do something uncomfortable and gross to help those he loved.

Think about what parents do for their children. There’s a lot of things parents do for their children that are not fun at all. Changing messy diapers, taking care of them when they’re sick, cleaning up all kinds of really nasty messes, tending wounds and fishing toys out of toilets—these aren’t fun, but they need to be done. Nobody does them because they like doing those things. And most parents do them out of love. They love their children, so they are willing to do messy, icky things that otherwise they would never do. That love isn’t just words. That love is shown in everything parents do for their children.

That’s the kind of love that Jesus showed when he washed his disciples’ feet, the kind of love that is willing to sacrifice to benefit others. It’s a love that is shown in actions. It’s not just talking the talk, Jesus’ love walks the walk. And washing his disciples’ feet is just the beginning. Jesus is going to show his love for the entire world by dying. He loves us all—every last, sinful, one of us. And because he loves us, he’s willing to die for us. Not because it’s fun, not because sacrifice is good on its own merits, because we need it. It’s something we can’t do on our own, something we would die without. And Jesus loves us, and he can save us, so he does. Even if it means his own death.

But even dying for us, to save us from our sins, isn’t the only thing Jesus’ love means. Jesus doesn’t just want to free us from sin and death. That’s huge, but Jesus’ goal is bigger than that. Jesus’ goal isn’t just to change what happens to us when we die; Jesus’ goal is to also change how we live. Jesus loves us, and he wants us to be happy. He wants us to be healthy. And in order for us to be healthy and happy, we have to love one another. We have to live lives filled with joy, with relationships that build us up and spread God’s love to every corner of the globe. We have to be willing to open ourselves up to the kind of love that is bigger and more powerful than sin, the kind of love that is more powerful than selfishness, more powerful than hate, more powerful than jealousy, more powerful than fear. In order to live the kind of life God wants for us, we have to love God and one another deeply and truly. So Jesus spent his last night before his death teaching us about love.

It wasn’t the only time Jesus talked about love, or showed what love meant. Jesus talked about love a lot. And he spent his life acting on that love. For Jesus, love was stronger than anything. Love was stronger than politics, stronger than proper behavior. Love was stronger than religious rules, stronger than gender or race. Love was stronger than money, stronger than fear. If there was a chance to show love for someone, Jesus took it. Whether that was healing them, eating with them, accepting them, forgiving them, Jesus always chose to love people. No matter who they were or what they had done. That was actually a lot of the reason the authorities didn’t like him: he showed love to people they believed to be unworthy of it. If Jesus saw someone who needed help, he showed them his love by helping them. Even when it was messy. Even when it broke the rules. Even when they didn’t deserve it. Even when it would cost Jesus.

The disciples had seen this, but they hadn’t really understood it. Jesus had one last night to teach them, to teach us, about what it means to love people as God loves us. So he wrapped a towel around his waist and washed his disciples feet, and commanded them to love one another as Jesus had loved them. “This is my commandment,” Jesus said, “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

We talk about what it means to be a disciple, what it looks like to follow Jesus. Well, Jesus tells us quite clearly here what the core of a disciple’s life is, and it’s love. The kind of love Jesus has for us. The kind of love that doesn’t ask “are you worthy?” but rather “how can I help?” The core of discipleship isn’t memorizing scripture, and it isn’t perfect morality, and it isn’t worship or any of the common things we think of. Don’t get me wrong, scripture reading and worship and how we live are important parts of the life of a disciple. But they support a life of discipleship, they’re not the core. The core is love. If we love one another as Jesus loved us, we are truly his disciples.

If we love one another, we are closer to the kind of life God wants for us. We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world of extreme poverty and extreme riches, a world of hate and violence and fear. We live in a world where most people would rather turn a blind eye to the injustice and abuse around them than lift a finger to help. We’d rather point fingers than fix things. As Paul put it, we have all sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God. And the only way that’s ever going to be healed is through love. Through the love of God, poured out through Jesus on the cross. And through our love for God and one another, poured out in our words and our actions.

So Jesus commanded his disciples, commanded us, to love one another. He showed what that meant through washing their feet, and he showed what that meant again by dying for us all, to save us and redeem us and heal us. Unlike the disciples two thousand years ago, Jesus is not going to walk into the room to teach us this lesson and show us what love is. But Jesus is still with us here and now. Because washing feet and talking about love isn’t the only thing Jesus did that night.

The other thing Jesus did was to share a meal with his disciples. He took the bread, and blessed it, and gave it to all to eat. And the wine, also, he gave them. And he told them it was his body and blood, given to save sinners, and that he would always be present in it. When we eat the bread and wine, we eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood. We hold in our hands a tangible proof of how much Jesus loves us, we smell it and taste it and feel it. Jesus’ love fills us, and inspires us. May we let Jesus show us how to love one another as he has loved us.