Love in Action

Easter 4, Year B, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

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

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

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

“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  Thus begins our reading from First John.  And Jesus also talks about laying down his life for us on the cross in our reading from the Gospel of John: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  This is sacrifice of the greatest nature.  Being willing to die in order to save someone else.  Imagine what the Christian community would be like if we all followed this example.  It’s a model of Christian life—and death—that doesn’t quite fit with the ways we tend to think about Christian love and generosity.

On the surface, it does.  There’s lots of talk, in Christian circles, about love.  Lots of talk about sacrifice, and service.  Jesus gave everything, so we should too.  But have you ever noticed how often that ethos of loving service and self-sacrifice ends up, in practice, turning into a bit of superficial niceness?

Jesus’ command to love and serve becomes superficial niceness through a refusal to let that love transform our hearts and minds.  It’s relatively easy to paste a smile on our face, even if that means hiding what we’re really feeling.  Have you ever done that?  Maybe you don’t agree with someone, or you’re hurt by something they said, but you want to be ‘nice’ and Christians are supposed to get along, and so you don’t say anything and smile and change the subject.  Now, that niceness right then might prevent a fight … but it also prevents the possibility of reconciliation and healing.  Maybe they didn’t realize they hurt you.  Maybe you didn’t understand where they were coming from.  Maybe, if you’d sat down and talked it out in love, you could have found common ground and a deeper mutual respect.

And maybe not. Love can’t solve all disagreements.  But there is no possibility of that deeper understanding without taking the risk of being open and loving.  That niceness may prevent an open disagreement, but it can’t bring you closer together.  In a world where our whole culture is telling us not to trust one another, to be suspicious of people who think or act or look differently than we do, being nice is at least better than attacking other people.  But it’s not going to change us or our society for the better, either.  It’s not going to overcome the gaping divisions or heal the growing wounds we inflict on one another.  Niceness puts wallpaper over problems.  Love puts in the hard work of healing.  But to love means to make yourself vulnerable, and that’s a scary thing.  So we Christians choose niceness too often.

Another way modern Christians interpret Jesus’ command to love and serve is through the pay-it-forward idea.  Which, at its heart, is a good idea.  Instead of looking at the world as a dog-eat-dog place out to get you, try to increase the amount of good in the world by doing good deeds for others without expecting them to pay you back.  As Christians, we are supposed to be doing good deeds and helping others in the name of Jesus.  But have you ever noticed how often pay-it-forward gets boiled down to simple, cheap, and easy things like “buy coffee for the person behind you in line”?  Buying coffee for others is great.  But if that’s the sum total of the way you act out your Christian love and charity, if the only times you take time, effort, and money out of your busy life to serve others is when it’s cheap and convenient, that’s pretty superficial.  It’s nothing like the deep love for one another Jesus calls us to have, the kind of love that is willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others.

Christian love is transformative.  Laying down your life for the sake of love can change the world.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for the world, and it broke the power of sin and death, opening up the way of salvation for us.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for us, and that changed the world on a fundamental level: it means that however strong the powers of sin and death may seem, they are ultimately going to lose and be defeated by the love of God.  Now, obviously, us laying down our lives for the sake of others isn’t on quite the same scale, but it can still transform the world.

Consider Dashrath Manjhi, of Bihar, India.  Manjhi was a poor laborer who lived in a small town that was 15km away from the nearest hospital … as the crow flew.  Unfortunately, there was a mountain in the way, forcing people to travel 55km to get around it.  In 1966, his wife Falguni Devi was injured and died.  Manjhi set out to prevent anyone else from dying because they could not get to the hospital.  He was a poor man, who had nothing but a hammer and chisel.  It took him 22 years, but he carved a 9m wide road through the mountain, so that now the hospital—and the city it’s part of—is easy to get to for everyone in his region.  It saved lives and opened up economic opportunities for his whole region.  His love, and his sacrifice of 22 years of backbreaking labor, changed everything.  And if you hear this true story and tell yourself “I could never do anything like that,” consider this.  How much less time do you think it would have taken if the rest of the community had helped?  If they’d all come together instead of laughing at him for being so ambitious?

Consider Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran woman from Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa.  Her country was torn by religious, ethnic, and political turmoil that caused a civil war.  She started working with a church group to help people heal from the trauma of war, and from there she started gathering women from all sides of the conflict and bringing them together to work for peace.  They prayed for peace in churches and mosques, they talked to everyone who would listen, and through their tireless efforts the war was ended.  After the war, they continued to work for reconciliation and peace, bringing people from all different backgrounds together and helping them rebuild their lives.  Gbowee and her followers were tireless in their actions to bring both justice and mercy to a country that was desperately in need of both.  They gave counseling and support to women who had been raped and abused, they gave counseling and job training to young men who had grown up fighting, they insisted that the re-united country build a sustainable future which had room for everyone in it.  They did it out of love for their fellow human beings and hope for the future, and in so doing they transformed Liberia and are bringing peace and stability to the neighboring countries.

Consider Bikers Against Child Abuse.  They’re a motorcycle gang whose goal is to protect victims of child abuse and help them feel safe.  When a child has been abused, they volunteer their time to act as bodyguards as long as the child needs them, to help them understand that their abuser can’t hurt them any more.  It helps children who have experienced the worst things a child can start to feel safe again and heal.  They give of their time and attention so that the most vulnerable children can know the life-giving and positive love that God wants for them.

Consider the Community Cupboard of Underwood.  Before we started it, I knew there were people who were poor and hungry in our community.  But I was surprised, as we started up and learned more, at how many of them there were.  How many people in our community have trouble affording enough food to feed themselves and their families.  But by coming together as a community, now there is help for people who need it.  And we’ve helped with other things, too—helping people find housing they can afford, or household goods, or clothing they can wear to work and not feel ashamed of.  It’s taken a lot of time and effort and resources, and nobody could have done it alone.  But together we’ve improved the lives of people living right here in Underwood.  Out of love for our fellow people of Underwood, a whole lot of people have laid down their time and money, and made our community better.

Hate can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to destruction.  Fear can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to defensiveness.  Self-righteousness can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to judgmentalism and legalism.  The only thing that can transform the world for the better—the only thing that can make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom—is love.

Jesus Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life for our salvation, and the salvation of the world.  He chose to do what was hard, and painful, because he loved us.  And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us.  Most of us won’t be called to die for someone else, but laying down your life can take many forms: laying down your time, your attention, your money.  And sometimes it’s hard.  But imagine what the world would be like if we all took that command to love seriously.  If we all were willing to lay down our lives, and all that entails, out of love.  May we all learn to follow Jesus’ example.

Amen.

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Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW.  If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans.  All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway.  This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.

Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything.  She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness.  I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful.  But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.

We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day.  And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular.  “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like.  Why doesn’t God like them?  Because they’re sins.  Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world.  And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors.  Sin is the thing that breaks relationships.  Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous.  Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way.  Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.

The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter.  Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness.   To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another.  But you can’t have fellowship while sinning.  Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive.  Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”  And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us.  It means all children of God.  If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness.  If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.

One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.”  It’s a sin full of self-justification.  When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish.  You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled.  You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic.  And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally.  We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.

That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom.  God is love, as John tells us over and over again.  That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors.  Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds.  It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is.  But that’s why Christ gave his life.  That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean.  We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.

While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time.  Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors.  Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail.  But God is faithful even when we are faithless.  God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.

God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen.  We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today.  After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love.  And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed.  They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community.  Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after.  This is a pattern we see often in Christian history.  The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end.  And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community.  No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.

How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently?  I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave.  We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.

The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us.  The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic.  The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.

Amen.

The True Love of God

Ash Wednesday, Year B, February 14, 2018

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 103:8-18, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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

 

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

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

Our culture has a fairly shallow view of what love is, have you ever noticed that?  We elevate romantic love as the most important, as if the love of friends and siblings isn’t also deep and true, and then we reduce romantic love to that overwhelming first flush of feeling, as if the commitment of living your life together isn’t just as important a barometer of the depth of love.  And every Valentine’s Day, we celebrate love … with clichés and mass-produced cards and candy.  And then we judge relationships based on the ‘specialness’ of that one day’s plans and gifts.  It’s not that candy and flowers and dinner and such are bad, but when we’re talking about love, they only just scratch the surface of what love is.  And sometimes, we use the word “love” when we really mean uglier things, like obsession or jealousy or abuse or selfishness, using the word “love” to paper over and excuse terrible things we do to one another.

As Christians, we are supposed to learn what love is from the love of the Lord our God.  We should not let the world’s shallowness dictate our views of love.  We should not let the way the world twists things to shape how we understand love.  We should learn how to love from our creator, redeemer, and friend.  God, who in the Old Testament is often described as “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,” as the prophet Joel tells us in our Old Testament reading.

What does that mean?  ‘Gracious’ is not a word we use often, but it means a kind of generous compassion, a good will towards someone even if they are not worthy of it.  Merciful we know, it’s about forgiveness and bringing relief from something unpleasant.  Slow to anger, well, there are some people who think of God as some frowning, hotheaded tyrant just waiting to smite anybody who slips.  But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  God is like a parent who has set boundaries but tries to guide and discipline his children without punishing them, using harsh measures only as the very last resort.

You can see that in Joel’s words.  In Joel’s time, God’s people had turned away from God.  They had abandoned his ways, and pursued selfishness and injustice, bigotry and greed.  Instead of the merciful and just society God had shown them how to create, they had set up a system in which the rich prospered and everyone else suffered.  People cared only for their own good, and let others suffer.  In other words, they were acting exactly the opposite of the love God had shown them and called them to live by.  And how does God react?  He pleads with them to return to him, to follow his example to live in love, so that they can avoid the consequences of their actions.

More than anything, God wants all people to live together in harmony.  God wants us all to follow his example and be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  God does not want love to be a surface thing, a thing of presents and dates, but rather the core of how we treat ourselves and all of humanity.  All kinds of love—the love of family, the love of friends, romantic love, love for strangers and those who are different than us.  God wants good will and compassion and mercy to form the basis for us as individuals and as a community and as a species, because in that way each and every one of us will be free to grow and prosper and blossom as the good people God created us to be.

When God punishes, it’s always because we have forgotten that love.  We human beings have an awful tendency to hurt one another, to let selfishness or fear or anger or hate or jealousy or pride dictate our actions, and then justify our actions with all sorts of different ways.  We hurt others, and tell ourselves they deserved it.  We do bad things and then tell ourselves that we’re really good people, so we must have been right.  We look away when others abuse people, and then blame the victim.  We bully people and say it was just a joke, or they’re just too sensitive.  We shrug uncomfortably when someone’s partner manipulates and beats them, and then say it’s okay because he loves her and he didn’t really mean it.  And it’s not just atheists who do this: we do it, too.  We, the good, God-fearing people, have fallen so far short of who God calls us to be.  We make a mockery of the healthy, life-giving love that God calls us to live by, and in so doing walk further and further away from God’s presence, and increase the destruction and violence and death in the world.

But even as far from God as we stray, even despite the violence and destruction we allow and condone, God will not let us go.  God sent God’s only Son to save us from our sins, to save us from the unholy, hate-filled mess of a world we have created for ourselves.  God loves us so much that he was willing to die for us, in the form of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  God loves us so much that he will never stop calling from us to turn from our sins, receive God’s love, and live.  This Lent, may the love of God fill our hearts and minds.  May God create in us clean hearts, ready to love as God has loved us.

Amen.

Charlottesville: what comes out of a person

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 20

August 20, 2017

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

 

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

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

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

Most Jewish people, in ancient times and today, follow religiously-mandated dietary laws called kosher.  Kosher laws can be complicated, but they were also strict, and they set Jewish people apart from their neighbors.  These dietary regulations were commanded by God in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.  Some of them have to do with humane slaughter of animals.  Some have to do with avoiding foods that would spoil easily without refrigerators and thermometers.  Some are about cleanliness.  Some of them are cultural.  But all of them were and are important to Jewish people.  First, because God commanded them, and second, because they are a part of their culture.  Scandinavians eat Lutefisk.  Latinos eat tacos.  Italians eat pasta.  Jewish people eat kosher foods.

In Jesus’ day, this was especially important, because they had been conquered by a series of empires (the Roman Empire, most recently) that wanted them to stop being Jewish and become just like everyone else.  Keeping kosher was a way of saying to the oppressive Roman government that they were most certainly NOT going to give up their own ways just because the Emperor wanted to.  They were NOT going to stop eating kosher, and they were NOT going to stop circumcising their baby boys, and they ABSOLUTELY were NOT going to start worshipping Roman gods.  Period, end of story.  They were going to stay faithful to the one true God, no matter WHAT the larger culture tried to get them to do.  And part of that meant eating right.

It’s no wonder that a lot of people got mad when Jesus said that there were some things more important than keeping kosher.  He never says that it’s BAD, but that if you’re looking at what things are important parts of being faithful to God and living how God wants you to, the things you say and do are more important than the things you eat.  The things you put in your mouth—the things you eat and drink—aren’t as important as the things that come out of your mouth—the things you say, the things you think, the things you do.  If your heart and mind are corrupted, it doesn’t matter if you’re eating all the right things.  And if your heart and mind—and your words and actions—are in the right place, then how important is it, really, if you’re not eating right?  He never says that dietary concerns are bad or wrong, just that instead of policing what people eat, we should be paying attention to the sorts of things we ourselves are thinking, saying, and doing.  And people got mad at Jesus because of it.

Now, I bet some of you are sitting there shaking your heads over how crazy those Pharisees were to care so much about some silly dietary laws.  But have you considered modern gentile dietary rules?  Seriously?  All the different rules and diets and fads and things?  Organic, whole foods, raw foods, gluten-free, Vegetarian or vegan, GMO-free or GMO-laden, free-range vs. factory farms, low sodium, low fat, calorie counting, the whole shebang?  Paleo, Atkins, South Beach, detoxing cleanses, I could go on and on.  Some of them have good science or medical necessity behind them.  Some of them, like gluten free, are necessary for some people and not harmful for others.  Some of them have significant points both in their favor and against them.  Some of them can actually damage your health if you do them too long.  People defend their chosen food theory with religious fervor.  And there are often ugly racist or classist undertones to it, too.  For example, there are a LOT of articles and think pieces and blog posts out there about how OF COURSE poor people could afford to eat organic, or whole foods, or whatever other diet of choice the author recommends, if only they weren’t lazy.  A quick look at the prices of different foods in any grocery store will show just how wrong this is, but that doesn’t prevent people who’ve never been poor from spouting off about it.

When you compare them to our modern American gentile wackiness about food, Jewish kosher rules start to sound pretty reasonable.  I mean, at least their rules come from God and not from some quack trying to sell a product or get famous or set trends!  But at the same time, thinking about all of this makes Jesus’ point even clearer.  We spend A LOT of time and effort thinking about the right things to eat, and the things to avoid eating, and angsting over the right things to eat.  What would we be like if, instead, we put that time and effort and consideration into the things we say, or don’t say, and figuring out the right thing to say?  What if we stopped judging people by superficial things like what they eat, and started paying attention instead to what kind of a person their words and actions show them to be?

A week ago, Nazis and Klansmen and other white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville.  They waved torches and chanted Nazi slogans calling for the death of Jewish people, Black people, and any other people they didn’t like.  They did kill people, both cops and a counter-protestor.  Anybody who’s been paying attention for the last decade should not have been shocked.  White terrorism—where white supremacists use violence to try and intimidate or control people of color—has been on the rise.  White supremacist groups have gotten very good at recruiting people through internet forums and websites, indoctrinating them into their violent and evil beliefs.  And, for the most part, people have excused them.  “I’ve known him all my life, he’s a good person, he doesn’t really mean it,” they say.  Or, “well, maybe they shouldn’t have said that, they went too far, but maybe there was a little bit of truth hidden in there somewhere.”  It started out as talk, and ended with people dead.  And after members of their group murdered people, the leaders of the movement celebrated it!  They told their followers that it was a good thing, and that those who disagree are cowards and enemies!  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

With many of them, it probably started out half-joking, or just to shock people, or they didn’t really mean it and were only saying it because they joined a community where other people said it.  But when you say something long enough—when you listen to other people saying it long enough—you start to believe it, even when you know it’s not true.  This is how propaganda works.  They chose to listen to hate.  They chose to believe that other people were silent or making excuses for them because those other people agreed with them.  They chose to speak hate to one another and to others.  They chose to let it seep into their hearts and defile them.  And then they chose to act on it, and kill people.  “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

I’ve heard other people say that the other side is just as bad.  But this is a false equivalence.  The Nazis and the Klansmen and the White Supremacists and all the other members of the so-called alt-right believe some people should be killed simply because they exist.  They believe, teach, and say, that Jewish people and Black people and others are not people and should not be allowed to exist.  There is a HUGE difference between saying that some people should be murdered simply for existing, and someone else responding that it is utterly unacceptable to say that.  And there’s also a HUGE difference between attacking anyone who is different, and standing up to those who attack others.  In legal terms, we have a right to free speech—but that right does not cover inciting violence.  And attacking someone as the Nazis did is illegal, but defending yourself or others is not.

On a moral and religious level, no one who spreads hate can call themselves a Christian.  In the creation story we learn that all people—of all races and tribes, male and female, every single human being who ever existed—is created in the image of God.  In the Old Testament laws, we are repeatedly commanded to ensure that the most vulnerable people—especially those who are different from us—are protected and receive just treatment, and failing to do that is the thing the Prophets were most often sent to chastise people for.  Jonah was sent to preach to a people he hated, but God reminded him that even Jonah’s enemies were God’s beloved people, too.  In the Gospels, Jesus healed all people, regardless of ethnicity; he preached to all, he ate with all, he loved all, he died for all.  And he told his disciples that the truest mark of a Christian is love.  Saint Paul tells us that all human divisions are irrelevant to God, and that without love, everything else is irrelevant.  Saint John tells us that love is the core of God’s nature, and that if we cannot love people we cannot love God.

All too often, people say things they know they shouldn’t, because everybody around is saying or doing it.  Or we stay silent when somebody else says or does something wrong.  It’s hard to speak up, particularly when it’s someone you know.  And we tell ourselves that it doesn’t matter, because it’s just words.  But when we stay silent while others spread hate or violence, we are complicit in what they do.  We allow their hate to shape us.  We allow it to seep in to our hearts and minds, and then sometimes we start to believe.  And even when that doesn’t happen, when we stay silent or make excuses, other people think the hateful words that have been said are okay.  That hate is normal, or even good.

Words are important.  Words shape the way we think, which in turn shapes how we act and how we live. What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  So watch your words.  Spread love.  Stand up when others spread hate.  Let the love of God that is in Christ Jesus live in your heart and mind.

Amen.

Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 12, June 25, 2017

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69:7-18, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

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, O Lord.

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

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus talks about one of the things Christians like to talk about least.  Conflict.  Disagreement.  Division.  The hardship that comes from following Christ.    But whether or not we like to think about it, the sad reality is that it happens all too often.  When there is conflict or disagreement, Christians tend to respond theologically in one of two ways.  That is, if you ask us what God thinks about conflict and how that should affect us, all too often you’ll get one of two answers.  One is to say, well, God is love, therefore God doesn’t want us to fight, therefore we should just be nice.  The other reaction is to say, well, I know what God wants and therefore anything I do is following God’s will.  I don’t think Jesus likes either option.

The belief in the niceness as the central Christian virtue leads us to try to paper over problems or ignore them, because they feel threatening, like a sign that our community isn’t Christian enough.  The problem with this is that it doesn’t allow for healing or growth.  Problems fester and grow instead of being dealt with.  The loudest voices get heard, and the others are shut up because they threaten the status quo.  Which is great if you’re one of the loudest voices, but not great if you aren’t.  Some people’s needs get met, while others get trampled on in the name of unity and community.  The least powerful people are forced to sacrifice so that the most powerful will be comfortable.

The belief in self-righteousness, on the other hand, leads to really nasty fights because of course if God is on your side than whatever you do is justified, and your enemies are evil, horrible people.  So you can be just as much of a jerk as you want, and it’s justified.  You can be as nasty as you want, and you are in the right because God is on your side.  There are a couple of problems with this one.  First, sometimes we’re wrong.  It’s actually pretty easy to convince yourself that God thinks the same way you do, instead of conforming your heart and mind to God.  I’ve seen far too many people—from a wide variety of backgrounds, education levels, and political orientations—use the Bible and God’s will to back up and support what they already think, instead of truly following Jesus.  The second problem with this kind of self-righteousness is that the God who commanded us to love our enemies is probably not going to look too fondly on the sort of scorched-earth tactics this kind of belief tends to lead to.

Conflict can happen for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad.  Sometimes everybody is just being a selfish jerk, or refusing to listen and think about anything other than themselves and the way their community sees the world.  Sometimes conflict happens because petty disagreements and old grudges keep getting brought out in new forms.  In these cases everybody just needs to take a step back and learn to listen to other people and be reconciled.  But sometimes conflict happens because of a deep conflict between God’s ways and the ways of the world.  In our Gospel reading Jesus says that we’re going to go through some of the same things that happened to him.  Just as Jesus got into conflicts with a wide variety of people, if we are truly his disciples, we’re going to have conflict too.  So what was Jesus doing that got people to react?  Why did some of them hate him and plot against him?  Why was this a concern here, in the tenth chapter of Matthew?  Let’s back up and see what Jesus has been doing.

Matthew chapters five through seven is the sermon on the mount, one of Jesus’ greatest times of teaching.  He starts off by saying that God especially loves the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers, all the ones who get trampled on by the world.  In other words, God loves the ones that society would rather ignore or shut out.  Then Jesus talks about relationships, friendships and familial relationships and marital relationships, and how important reconciliation and forgiveness are.  Then he talks about loving your enemies.  Then he talks about doing good and religious works in private, so no one can see you doing them.  And Jesus finishes up by reminding us that we should always be relying on God, not on our own ability to make things turn out the way we want.

This is all really difficult stuff.  He’s telling anyone who will listen that what you look like in public—what the world thinks of you—is irrelevant.  God doesn’t care about who has power and who doesn’t.  God cares about people, even the least important and most despised people.  God loves everyone, good and bad alike.  God cares about how we treat one another.  Especially when we have nothing to gain by doing the right thing.  Especially when we will suffer for doing the right thing.  Because there are always people and forces in society who like to divide people into the ones who matter and the ones who don’t.  The ones who deserve good things and the ones who don’t.  The saints and the sinners.  And when you start building bridges with the people that society doesn’t like, well, society generally doesn’t take it very well.  It’s a recipe for conflict.  And when you truly trust in God’s abundant blessings to provide, you’re a lot less likely to buy in to the rat race that tells us that to get ahead we have to keep others behind.  That’s a threat to all the people who profit on the rat race.  In order to follow Jesus’ words in the sermon on the mount, you have to pretty much ignore everything the world teaches about power and weakness, about love and hate, about money, about religion, about what matters and what doesn’t.

Then after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spends chapters eight and nine putting his words into practice.  He heals people, casts out demons, forgives sins, and eats with all the people society wants to exclude.  And the Pharisees are outraged!  The Pharisees, by the way, are the local leaders of society.  They’re the movers and shakers in each little town, they’re the deeply faithful people who go to worship every week and study the Scriptures and spend lots of time and effort trying to be as faithful as possible.  They deeply hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness and mercy … but only on their terms.  They want God’s healing and forgiveness to overflow … but only for the people they believe deserve it.  They want society to be healed and reconciled … but only the parts of society they approve of.  They want to experience God’s miracles … but only in the times and places that fit their ideas of when and where God should act.

When Jesus doesn’t fit into their nice, neat, orderly lives, they get angry.  When Jesus doesn’t fit into their expectations, when he teaches about loving everyone—and then goes out and actually does it, forgiving sinners and eating with them!—they can’t stand it.  When Jesus casts out demons, therefore, they say it’s a trick, and he does it because he’s a demon.  We don’t like to remember it, but the deepest resistance to Jesus came from the people who should have been his most ardent followers, the ones who had spent their lives honestly seeking God but who balked when he didn’t look like what they expected.  And if people balked at following Jesus when they saw what it was really like 2,000 years ago, we shouldn’t be surprised if we have conflict today when we try to follow Jesus.  And some of that conflict is going to come even from deeply faithful people who disagree about what it means to put God’s word into action.

But let’s notice what Jesus is doing and what he’s not doing.  He’s preaching the Gospel, but he’s pairing it with actions.  He talks about God blessing the poor and meek, and then he goes and heals and feeds them, giving them tangible blessings.  He talks about forgiving people, and then he goes out and forgives sinners and eats with them.  He talks about the importance of right relationships, and then he goes out and builds relationships with people that society tries to exclude.  This is not about proving his point or rubbing his opponent’s noses in all the ways they’re wrong.  This is about putting God’s love into action.  The haters are gonna hate, but we don’t have to become haters in response.  We don’t have to be afraid of them.  The same God who sees each sparrow is watching over us, too.

We have a mission.  That mission is not to attack people we don’t like, or to prove how great of a Christian we are, or to preserve the political power of Christianity, or to be nice no matter what.  That mission is neither to give unity through superficial niceness nor to self-righteously destroy those who disagree with us.  That mission is to spread the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  It’s to tell people that God loves them and forgives them, that God brings life and healing and freedom, and then show them what that love and forgiveness look like.  And sometimes showing people love and forgiveness is going to bring us into conflict.  And that’s not going to be fun.  But that is the mission Christ calls us to.  That is the mission Christ died for.  That’s the mission of the cross, the mission that brings salvation and the only life truly worth living.  Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake will find it.  May we find the life that truly matters in Jesus.

Amen.

Love in Action

Maundy Thursday 2017, April 13, 2017

 

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, O Lord.

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

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Maundy comes from an old Latin word, “Mandatum,” which means “command” or “order” or “rule”—it’s the same root that gave us “mandate.”  And we call today Maundy Thursday because, in the night in which he was handed over to be crucified, as he gathered with his disciples and shared wine and bread and washed their feet, Jesus gave them—us—a commandment.  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”  And he keeps coming back to it.  We’re only reading a short portion of Jesus’ final words to his disciples as recorded in John; he keeps talking for another three chapters.  And while he talks about a lot of things, he keeps coming back to love.  Love one another.  Love as I have loved you.  Love so that your joy may be full.  Love.  Love.  I give you a new commandment: love one another.

Except, the problem is, it’s not a new commandment.  If you flip back in your Bibles to the Old Testament, you will find commandments to love all over the place.  The book of Leviticus is a collection of laws; in it God commands us both to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to “love the foreigner living among you as yourself.”  Deuteronomy also commands us to love the foreigner.  When Jesus told the lawyer that all God’s commandments and all the words spoken through the prophets could be summed up as “Love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” this was not an innovation.  This was exactly what God had been telling people, in Scripture and through preaching and prophecy and every method available, since time immemorial.  So what the heck does Jesus mean by saying it’s a “new” commandment?  “Love one another” is not new.  It is as old as the hills.

Maybe the new bit is the second part: not just “love one another,” but “love one another as I have loved you.”  Love one another as Jesus loves us, with Jesus’ example for a guide.  So then the question becomes, how does Jesus love us?  Well, for one thing, Jesus’ love for us has no limits.  Jesus does not merely love the people who love him, or who are good enough, whatever that means.  No.  Jesus loves everyone.  Jesus loves sinners—which, you may remember, is all of us, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

Jesus loves all people, everywhere—including people like Judas who are in the very process of betraying him.  How do we know that Jesus loved Judas?  Because Judas was there, at this meal.  Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray Jesus, was going to hand him over to be crucified.  Jesus knew what was in his heart.  And Jesus, knowing all of this, washed Judas’ feet with the rest of the disciples.  Jesus, knowing Judas was actively working against him, acted like a servant to do a dirty, gross job like foot-washing, even for the one who was his enemy.  And, more than that, Jesus gave Judas his own body and blood.  When he blessed the bread, and gave it to his disciples, and told them that it was his own body broken for them?  Judas was there.  Judas received Jesus’ broken body just the same as all the rest of the disciples did.  When Jesus blessed the wine, and gave it to them and told them it was his blood, poured out for them and for all people for the forgiveness of sins?  Judas received the cup just the same as everyone else.  Jesus offers his body and blood to everyone, even Judas, even the one who is betraying him right then and there.  And he does it out of love.  That’s what Jesus’ love looks like.

To love one another as Jesus has loved us means we can’t draw lines about who is in and who is out.  It means we can’t make distinctions between who deserves God’s love and who doesn’t.  Because Jesus loves everyone, and Jesus died for everyone.  Jesus may not like what we or anyone else have done, but that does not stop Jesus from loving.  There is nothing, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Nothing we do or fail to do, no matter how much it pains Jesus, can ever make him stop loving us.  Which means that if we are to love as Jesus loves, then we have to love everyone, no exceptions, no matter who they are or what they have done.  We don’t have to approve of their life or like everything they do—I’m sure Jesus did not like what Judas was doing—but we do have to love them.  There is no excuse.

The second question is, what does it mean for us to love people as Jesus loves us?  Jesus showed his love in a lot of ways: feeding people, healing people, building relationships with people, but the greatest and most dramatic way he showed his love was by dying for us.  Now, obviously, most of us are not called to that extreme of self-sacrifice.  So how are we supposed to love people?

Let’s consider our reading from Corinthians.  Now, we only heard just a small part of the letter, where Paul tells the story of Jesus’ last supper.  But the Corinthians were a problem.  They had the Gospel, and the believed, but they didn’t know how to live it out.  They didn’t understand what the radical love of Jesus Christ meant for them and their community, so they just kind of went along acting like everyone else in society did.  Which, among other things, meant that they didn’t worship together and celebrate communion together.  What happened was that the rich people who didn’t have to work showed up early in the day with all the food, and had a great time eating and drinking and discussing Jesus’ words.  Meanwhile, the people who actually had to work would get there in the evening, worn out, just in time to get the crumbs of the meal and maybe sing a hymn or two as all the “important” people were leaving.  I’m sure that the people who were able to be there all day would have said they loved their poorer brothers and sisters, but it wasn’t their fault those others had to work, and why should their own feast and study be curtailed just because some people couldn’t make it?  They would have said that they loved their poorer brothers and sisters in Christ, but their actions did not show it.

And so Paul spent a lot of time, in his first letter to the Corinthians, explaining what Christian love looks like in practice.  And one of the things it means is that you can’t just dismiss other peoples’ needs because they are inconvenient to you.  Christian love means that all are welcome at Jesus’ table, not just in theory but in practice.  And for people to be welcome means that everybody’s needs need to be taken into account.  Not just the people we like, not just the people whose needs are convenient, not just the people whose needs are similar to your own.  We are all part of the body of Christ.  We are all people for whom Christ died.  We are called to love one another as Christ has loved us, and that means that we can’t just give lip service to our love for one another.  We have to actually put it into action.

Love in action is what the Christian life is all about.  God saves us because he loves us, and in response he asks us to love one another.  God’s love is deeper and wider than we

Amen.

Our God is so Great

Trinity Sunday, May 22nd, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.