United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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.

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them.  I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.

On Tuesday, I was in Corinth.  Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times.  My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  During worship, we read this portion of the letter.  As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo.  The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left.  Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.

In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community.  Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored.  There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events.  Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite?  And have they helped you grow in status?  Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods.  It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good.  It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right.  Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.

This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth.  These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them.  They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together.  And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians.  This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions.  Who was the best Christian?  Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel?  Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough?  It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too.  It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else.  Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community.  But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing.  Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.

And so Paul called for unity.  Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose.  It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity.  Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better.  The Christian life is about following Jesus.  The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together.  The Christian life is about the cross.

Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right.  Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted.  He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear.  Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it.  And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up.  The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death.  The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done.  The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves.  We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is.  There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so.  And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create.  In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor.  God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us.  We don’t save the world—we can’t.  Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.

In a truly Christian community, there is unity.  Now, some people misunderstand what that means.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye.  In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being.  We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.

What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities.  The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world.  All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ.  The cross is who we are.  The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth.  That is where Christian unity comes from.  Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ.  Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second.  Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it.  There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ.  There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized.  There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world.  In him we live, and move, and have our being.  In him is the power of God to transform us and the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Work to be done.

Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 33C), November 13th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12:2-6, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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

 

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

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

I have a book called the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse.  It has two chapters giving a timeline of every time a large number of people thought the world was about to end, from 2,000 BC to 2005, when the book was published.  The first chapter—2,000 BC to 1900—is eighteen pages long.  The second chapter, covering only the last hundred years, is thirty pages long. We are obsessed with the end times: how is it coming, when is it coming, and what should we do to make sure we come through it.  And yet, you will note that we are still here.  Every time we humans have thought surely, the end must be nigh, we have been wrong.  This world will end one day—and be replaced by God’s kingdom—but we are terrible at predicting it.  The disciples wanted to know when it would happen, too; but the closest Jesus ever came to a direct answer was in Mark 13, when he said he didn’t know.  He was a lot more concerned about teaching us how to face difficult times.

“Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” the disciples asked.  When is the world going to end?  Let us know, so that we can prepare!  And Jesus was very insistent that we needed to be prepared, that we needed to be waiting; but he didn’t tell us what the signs were that we should be looking for.

I think the reason Jesus didn’t tell us the specific signs was that if we knew them, we’d be paying too much attention to the signs themselves and not enough to how we’re supposed to be waiting.  Let me give you an example.  In the days of Paul, a decade or two after Jesus died and rose again, people were sure that Jesus was going to come back within their lifetimes.  They were sure that the end of this world and the beginning of the kingdom of God was just right around the corner.  You know what some of them did?  They quit their jobs, spent all day every day praying and waiting passively for Jesus to show up, and they expected the rest of the community to support them while they waited.  And waited.  And waited.  This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Thessalonians: yes, Jesus Christ is coming back, and yes, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and yes, we are supposed to wait faithfully for him.  But you know what?  We’re all waiting.  While we wait, there is work to be done.  Nobody gets to say “well, I’m waiting for Jesus, so I’m just going to sit around all day waiting—the community can pay for everything I need in the meantime.”  Everyone is waiting for Jesus, and nobody gets to use that as a reason to expect other people to pay their way.  This was not a case of people being disabled and not able to work, or willing to work and not able to find jobs; this was a case of people not thinking they had to work because Jesus was coming back soon.

And those early Christians were not alone.  Every time people think the world is going to end soon, they do things like this: quit their jobs, sell their stuff, and go out to a mountain or a field somewhere to wait for the second coming.  People have done it twice that I know of in the last decade!  And each time, of course, they were wrong about the date, and then they had to figure out how start over again.  Dropping everything to wait is obviously not the answer.  Which is why, when Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, was asked if Jesus was coming back soon and what they should do to prepare, answered this way.  “If I knew that Jesus were coming back tomorrow,” he said, “I would plant a tree today.”  In other words, go on with your lives, living faithfully as Jesus taught us.  That’s how we’re supposed to respond to troubled times; that’s how we’re supposed to deal with the knowledge that the world will eventually end.  Trust in God, and live your life faithfully.

If you find that hard, if you think “there has to be more to it than that!”, let’s remember what we know about God’s kingdom.  Isaiah describes it like this: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

In God’s kingdom, there is still work to be done.  In God’s kingdom, there are houses to be built and gardens and farms and vineyards to be tended.  Except better.  No need to worry about rent or mortgages or foreclosure; no need to worry about crops failing or hail or bad prices or any other problem.  No need to worry about failure at all.  Good communities, where people love and support one another, where everyone is welcome and everyone has a place and everyone has joy, and everyone has work to do that suits them.  No violence, no destruction, no calamity, no cheating, no fear, no anger—because no fear or anger is needed.  Only love, and joy.

And while we wait for God’s kingdom, we are called to work.  No passive waiting for us; the waiting of a Christian is active waiting.  It’s like waiting for Christmas.  We don’t just sit around, November and December; we get busy.  We bake cookies, sing carols, decorate.  We serve our neighbor.  We wait for Christmas by doing things, and in just the same way, we are called to wait for God’s kingdom by doing things.  To work for that world described in Isaiah’s vision.  We can’t create God’s kingdom ourselves, but we can make little pieces of our world a little bit more like it.  In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, so we work to feed those who are hungry.  In God’s kingdom, everything is full of love and joy, so we work to spread love and joy.  In God’s kingdom, there is work for all and all enjoy the benefits of their labors, and so we work towards the goal of just and good employment for everyone who can work.  In God’s kingdom, there is peace, and so we work for peace.  In God’s kingdom, all are healed, and so we work to heal those we can and support those we can’t.  We are called to act with justice and mercy.  We are called to love God and our neighbor.  We can’t fix everything that is broken and wrong in this world, but we can make things better, bit by bit.

That is counter-cultural.  You see, working to make the world more like God’s kingdom, is working to make the world a better place.  It’s working to change the world.  And the world doesn’t want to be changed.  Change is scary.  Change upsets the applecart.  Change means that people who are comfortable with the way things are become uncomfortable, and change means that the people in power might not be powerful any longer.  And so the world tries to prevent change.  The world wants us to be apathetic.  The world wants us to not even notice the injustices in the world, the pain and hurt we cause each other.  The world wants us to think that hurting people is normal, that pain is just the way things are, that there are winners and losers and that nothing we do matters.  If we don’t notice or care, we certainly won’t bother to do the hard work of waiting for God’s kingdom.

And if the world can’t make us apathetic, well, the next best thing is if we’re frightened and angry.  Because when we get scared, we tend to stop looking outside of ourselves.  We focus on ourselves, instead of on the plight of our neighbors.  And worse, instead of waiting and listening for God we chase after anyone who claims they can protect us.  We get angry, and we see people as threats instead of as fellow children of God.  It’s no wonder that when the disciples asked for signs of the end times, Jesus responded by telling them not to be led astray and not to fear.  Fear gets in the way of active waiting.  Fear gets in the way of loving God and loving our neighbor; we can’t love, if we’re afraid.  We can’t think if we’re afraid.  And we are called to love God, to love our neighbor, and to put that love into action.  That’s what the life of a Christian is; that’s what waiting for God’s kingdom is like.

There is destruction in this world.  There is confusion, and pain, and chaos.  There is evil.  But we hope and trust in a God who will take care of us even if this world kills us.  We hope and trust in a God who is creating a kingdom where there is no longer any death, or pain, or destruction, or evil, or fear, or hate.  Only love and joy.  That kingdom isn’t here yet, but it is coming.  May we trust in God, and wait actively for it.

Amen.

Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12

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 is the sermon I am going to preach at your funeral, but since you won’t be here to hear it, I’ll give you a little foretaste of it now.  Paul writes: “[Christ] must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”  Death is the enemy of all living things.  Death is the last, great enemy of God.  And death will be destroyed.  In his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set in motion the complete, total, and utter destruction of death.  Death is a dead man walking.  Death doesn’t get the last word.  Death is going down.

In the fallen world we live in now, death comes everywhere life does.  And death is constantly fighting to destroy life.  There’s a reason we call it a “battle with cancer”—when you have cancer, you are directly fighting the old enemy, death, which is trying to drag you down into its clutches.  But death comes in many other forms, too.  From hunger to heart attacks, depression to drunk driving, brutality to blood clots, abuse to addiction, death comes in many different forms, some of them obvious and overt and some of them subtle and insidious.  And sometimes death wins!  Each one of us will die in the end, and be laid in the grave.  But when Christ comes again the graves will be opened, and we will rise as our Lord did, and death itself will be destroyed.

Christians talk a lot about sin, but if you ask people—even many Christians!—what sin is, or what makes something a sin, you’ll get a lot of different answers.  And many of those answers will be incomplete, and some of them will even be wrong.  For example, a lot of the time people will say something along the lines of “sin is stuff that God doesn’t like.”  But the obvious question, then, is why God doesn’t like it.  And the reason that God doesn’t like some behaviors, the thing that makes them sinful, is that they hurt people.  They add to the destruction and death in the world.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul pointed out that the wages of sin is death.  Sin leads to death.  And people assume sin leads to death because God doesn’t like those thoughts and behaviors and so he punishes them.  No!  It’s the other way around!  God doesn’t like them because they lead to death!  God loves all his children, all living creatures, and God wants us all to be happy and healthy.  But there are some things we do, as individuals and as groups, that hurt people.  Those behaviors add to the destruction in the world.  And it may be our actions leading to our own death, but all too often it’s our actions leading to other peoples’ death.  Our sin hurting ourselves and others.

A specific action or thought may not cause a death right then and there.  But sinful thoughts and actions add to the unpleasantness of the world.  Lies, jealousy, theft even on the pettiest level, abuse, neglect—they all add to the general harshness and evil in the world.  They make violence and neglect seem more normal.  They make the world a worse place.  They make it harder to live in.  They make people more likely to lash out at others, they make people more likely to kill, or just shrug and stand aside while others kill.  And so we get shocking crimes committed at a few people’s initiative, lots of people’s blessings, and everyone’s passive acquiescence.  All these sins, large and small, they add up.  They create conditions that make death more likely—the death of hope, the death of love, the death of the soul, the death of the body.  And death is the enemy, our enemy and God’s enemy.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humans have been constantly adding to the death in the world.  And sometimes we do it obviously, by directly killing people.  Sometimes we do it indirectly, by causing or allowing the conditions that lead to death.  Sometimes we do it by creating a world and society where exploitation and violence and strife and oppression and greed and all the worst parts of ourselves are seen as normal, and sometimes even explained away as good.  We have been digging our own graves ever deeper.

But through the grace of God, those graves will not swallow us up forever.  Death is not the end of the story.  You see, God so loved the world that he sent his only son, Jesus Christ our Lord, to destroy death.  God sent Jesus into the world to shake things up and overturn the whole system that leads to death.  By dying for us and then rising from the grave, Jesus gave a knockout punch to death that will destroy it forever so that it can’t ever enter the ring again.

Now, we still die.  Because the destruction of death will not be complete until Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  You know how sometimes someone gets hit on the head but they think they’re fine until a few hours later, when they collapse and it turns out that blow to the head caused a fatal aneurism, but it just didn’t rupture right away?  That’s death, right now.  Death is walking around this world thinking it’s the king of the hill, but its time is numbered.  Because in his death and resurrection, Jesus has dealt death the fatal blow.  Death is a goner, it just doesn’t know it yet.  And yeah, death can rage.  Yeah, death can do a lot of damage in the here-and-now.  Yeah, death can make life here on earth really nasty for a while.  But when Christ comes again, death is gonna be toast.

Christ has been raised from the dead, and Christ is the first fruits of those who have died.  Christ’s resurrection is not a one-off event, it’s the first sprout in the field, poking up above the earth.  The rest, all those who have died, will rise when Christ comes again.  All those who now sleep in the earth, and all those who will die and be laid to rest between now and the second coming?  They will rise again from the grave just as Christ did that first Easter.  We will rise again.  The tomb will open for us just as it did for Jesus.  And on that day all people, living and dead, will be judged, and God’s kingdom will be established here on earth, and we will all be changed.  All of the chaff in our souls will be sifted out and burned, leaving only the good wheat.  Evil will be gone.  Death, the last great enemy, will be destroyed.  A new heaven and a new earth will be created, where all the things that led to death—all the sins that caused pain and suffering—will be gone.  There will be no more mourning or weeping, only joy and laughter and delight.  There will be no hurting or destruction.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like an ox.  There will be only life, no more death, because Christ will have destroyed death forever.

That’s what Easter means.  That’s what the resurrection is all about.  We don’t celebrate the resurrection just because Christ rose from the grave.  I mean, that’s awesome, don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but by itself that would still leave us mired in a world of death.  We celebrate Easter because of what it means for us.  We celebrate Easter because it has fundamentally reshaped the world, and so death does not get the last word.  We celebrate because we know that Christ is only the first fruits of the dead, that we ourselves will be raised from the dead when Christ comes again, along with all our loved ones and every human who has ever died.  And then, at that point, death will be no more, and pain will be no more, and all the things that make our lives miserable in the here and now will be destroyed.  Utterly, completely, and totally destroyed by God, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  No more death, only life.  A life better than you and I can imagine.

We are children of the Resurrection.  We know that no matter how much death rages around us in the here and now, we don’t have to fear it because it will be destroyed and we will be raised with Christ.  All the fears and pains of the world, they’re only temporary.  We don’t have to be afraid of all the things the world tells us to be afraid of.  We are free, free to spread love in a world drowning in death.  Free to spread hope in a world drowning in fear and cynicism.  Free to live, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

When the Light Breaks In

Lent Wednesday 1, February 17th, 2016

Isaiah 42:5-9, Psalm 119:17-24, Acts 26:4-18

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

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

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

I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. We romanticize light, and sight. Oh, how wonderful to be able to see clearly! Oh, how precious is the light, particularly when all else is dark! And certainly that is true. But we don’t like to admit the downsides of seeing, and the light. We don’t like to talk about the consequences of seeing clearly, the difficulties and hardships created by stepping from darkness into light. And we like to assume that we can already see, that we are already walking in the light. (It’s only other people who need to be enlightened—after all, we see clearly—don’t we?) But the story of Paul tells a different story. Because even people who are walking in darkness assume that they are walking in the light. They assume they can see, when they’re blinded by their own assumptions and prejudices. The first step is recognizing that you are blind, and most people don’t want to admit it even when it’s true! Seeing is hard. Stepping into the light is difficult. And it can have severe consequences! But it’s still worth it.

Take Paul. Paul was a fairly high-status guy. He was a noted religious leader of his own people, the Jews, and he was a well-educated, well-connected citizen of the Roman Empire, respected by Gentiles, as well. He was fairly well-to-do, he could afford to take time off to travel, and wherever he went, whether in Jewish or Gentile communities, people respected him. He was devoted to God, a man who dearly loved reading the Scriptures and praying and worshipping God. He was truly a righteous man. And so, when he learned about a group of his fellow Jews who were worshipping God in a new way, who were saying things about God that were different than the things he had been taught, he assumed that they were wrong. Because he was a righteous man! He was faithful! Therefore, he could see what God wanted, and anyone who said differently was blinded by darkness. And so he set about persecuting those people who were trying to say new things about God. He had them thrown out of the synagogues, and he had them killed. Because he knew best. He could see clearly what God wanted. He was a child of the light, and they were trying to spread darkness.

Except that he was wrong. Those people who were trying to say something new about God? They were Christians! They really did have something new to say about God, because God had revealed himself to them in a new way through Jesus Christ. They had the light of God. Paul was the one who was walking in darkness. Paul was the one who couldn’t see the truth right in front of him. Paul was absolutely, totally, and completely wrong. But the biggest problem wasn’t that he was wrong, it’s that he was so sure he was right that he didn’t listen to God trying to correct him. Ordinary channels didn’t work. Paul was so certain his vision was right that he refused to see what God was doing. God had to physically strike Paul blind, and appear to him in a vision, for Paul to realize that he was spiritually blind. And then, when his eyes were physically opened, his spiritual eyes were opened as well.

And once Paul’s eyes were opened, there was a cost. Because seeing was only the first step—once he could see, truly see, what God wanted, he had to do it. And what God wanted led him into danger and trouble. God wanted him to preach what he had learned, which led him into direct conflict with all the friends and religious leaders who were just as blind as he had been. They all liked the way things were; they didn’t want to change. So when Paul changed, they stopped supporting him and started persecuting him. And secular leaders, too—both Roman magistrates and the Jewish King, Herod Agrippa—they didn’t like Paul’s new work, either. You see, the early Christians followed Jesus in building communities where all were equal in God’s eyes, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Gentile, male and female. This threatened the social order, the way things existed. It threatened the secular leaders’ power. So they persecuted Paul, too, for teaching those things.

By letting God open his eyes, and by following God’s call, Paul had to face up to what he had done. He had to realize that he had imprisoned and killed people. He had to admit that he was terribly, horribly wrong. And that wasn’t all. By acting on the light God shone into his darkness, Paul lost all of his power. He went from respected leader to outcast, he was thrown in prison on many occasions, he was endangered regularly, he faced many hardships, and, in the end, he was killed. His life would have been easier and safer, if he’d continued on in the darkness. Because once he started walking in the light and exposing the darkness around him—darkness in the religious institutions, darkness in the secular social order—those forces of darkness started trying to shut him up by any means possible. Yet Paul said—repeatedly!—that it was all worth it. That he had more joy, and hope, and love, in the light than he had ever imagined possible when he walked in darkness.

And that’s often true today. Yes, the light is better. Yes, being able to see truly is better. Joy is only possible in the light. Love is only possible in the light. Hope is only possible in the light. But there are consequences. Because when you can see—when God opens our eyes—then we can’t ignore the darkness around us and in ourselves any more. And admitting the truth about ourselves is hard. Even harder is the fact that when we act on that light, when we reflect God’s light into the world, when we challenge the forces of darkness, they fight back. And that darkness isn’t just in the secular world, but sometimes in the church as well. The darkness is easier, safer. But the light is better. The more we reflect God’s light, the less darkness there is in the world and in the church, and the better everything gets. May God open our eyes, and lead us into his light.

Amen.

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.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 26), Year A, September 28, 2014

 

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 25:1-9, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

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

 

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

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

Have you ever noticed that the cross is everywhere these days? It gets slapped up on billboards arguing for one political position or another. People wear it all the time as jewelry—even people who never go to church or do anything religious will wear it. If you google “cross” online, you’ll see lots of beautiful shining pictures like this one. Light, beauty, respect, worship. Those are all things we tend to associate with the cross. And almost every Christian organization, building, group, book, or artwork is going to have a cross on it somewhere. Like a brand logo in advertising. This is who we are.

Glorious glowing cross
Glorious glowing cross

Which is why people today tend to be so surprised that during the first three centuries, Christians did not use the cross as an emblem. At all. If you go to the Middle East and go to the oldest Christian churches still standing, there are no crosses anywhere. If you go to the catacombs, the underground burial chambers where Christians buried their dead and worshiped in secret from their persecutors, there is a lot of art on the walls. You’ll see murals of worship, of Bible scenes, of saints and angels. But you will not see any crosses anywhere until the fourth or fifth century.

We tend to think of the cross as power and salvation, but we forget that the cross was a torture device.A gory crucifix

A method of execution reserved for the worst of the worst. No Roman citizen could be crucified; that punishment was reserved for foreigners and slaves. And the kind of foreigners and slaves that the Romans most hated, to boot: the ones who were a danger to the existing social order. The ones who challenged the authorities. Revolutionaries, violent bandits, slaves who rebelled. The lowest of the low and the worst of the worst. That was the kind of people who were killed on crosses. It was a long death, slow and painful and public. In those first few centuries, when crucifixion was still a regular punishment meted out by the Empire, Christians didn’t need to paint it on walls. They’d all seen it done to people, every agonizing and horrifying moment of the hours (and sometimes days) it could take to die on a cross. It was not a symbol of glory and power and beauty. It was a sign of weakness and horror.

So when Paul says that Christ became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—that’s something. Being willing to die is one thing; it happens. Good people and bad people alike are willing to die for loved ones and for principles. Being willing to allow yourself to be tortured to death … that is another matter entirely. And that’s what Jesus did. Let’s be quite clear on that. Jesus was not just another human. He was human and God together. He was the Word who blew over the waters at creation, and the one who walked on the waters of the Sea of Galillee and calmed storms with a word. If he had not allowed himself to be handed over, tried in a kangaroo court, whipped, paraded naked through town, and nailed to a cross, it would not have happened. But Jesus loved the world so much that he was willing to die for it. And not just die, but die horribly, in a long, drawn-out, ugly death. He loved us that much, so much that he would let that happen to save us.

In our second reading, Paul asks us to have the same mind as Christ Jesus, the same attitude, the same love. To turn away from selfish ambition and conceit, but act with humility and for the good of others.

Humble Pie

Now, humility, that’s a loaded word. And it’s a word that can be used like a weapon. For a lot of people, humility is different for the powerful and the powerless. Powerful people give lip service to humility with false modesty while regarding themselves as better than others. Meanwhile, when people lower down on the totem pole dare to speak up for themselves, to protest when they are hurt and abused, they get told they should be more humble. Submit to authority, no matter what. Not because they need to be humble, but just to shut them up and keep them from bothering people. An abusive husband may talk about how women should be humble, but what he really means is that he wants his wife to just take anything he dishes out. Needless to say, that is not the kind of humility that Paul is talking about.

Paul describes Jesus as humble, but I don’t think the chief priests and the elders would have described Jesus as humble. They wanted him to submit to them. Instead, Jesus submitted to God, which meant standing up to them. In our Gospel lesson today, they came to him to challenge his authority. You see, they were the ones who were supposed to have all the authority in society, and particularly religious authority. They were the ones who set policy, the ones who decided religious doctrine, the ones people came to for advice and judgment. And here was this Jesus dude, this ignorant backwater hick from Nazareth, of all places, who not only had huge crowds come listen to him preach, who could not only do miracles like heal people and feed thousands, he came into the Temple in Jerusalem and upset the apple cart. Literally. Well, it wasn’t an applecart, it was the stalls of the moneychangers and merchants who set up to do business in the outer courts of the Temple and disrupted the worship of those who came to pray.

“Who do you think you are?” the chief priests asked him. “What gives you the right to come in here and criticize us and disrupt things?” They wanted Jesus to back down and apologize. They wanted Jesus to bow to their authority. They wanted Jesus to be humble—by which they meant subservient to them. And if he wouldn’t do what they wanted, well, there were ways to deal with troublemakers. Just after this conversation, they decided that he was too dangerous to live, and began trying to arrest him. If Jesus had backed off and apologized, he would probably not have been crucified. But this is Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is humble, but Jesus’ humility is about submitting to God, not to humans. The way the chief priests run the Temple works—for them. They were very good at keeping things running smoothly and business going on as usual.

The problem was, that very business got in the way of people worshipping God. It drew people away from God, and so it had to go. So Jesus would not back down. Jesus would keep on saying what the people in power didn’t want to hear because they needed to hear it, even if that meant he was going to suffer. And he was going to allow himself to be crucified, to be handed over to death, because he loved all of creation, from the rocks to the stars to the animals to the people of every tribe and race and class and nation, so much that he was willing to die to fix what we screwed up. He was willing to suffer in agony if that was what it would take to open up and expose the sinful, broken nature of the world so that we could be healed.

Jesus’ humility led him to allow himself to suffer for the sake of others; it also led him to stand up and speak out and take action for the sake of others. It’s a humility based on love, on choosing to do the right thing even if it will cost you. That’s what the cross is. And that’s the kind of humility that Paul wants us to have. The same mind that was in Christ Jesus, God in human form, who poured out his life to save us. Paul wants us to have the humility to follow God, whether that means standing up to people or sacrificing for the sake of others. It’s not humility for the sake of humility, it’s about doing the right thing, even when that’s hard or painful. It’s about making love—love for God and love for all the world—be more important than our own ego. It’s about letting God work in us and through us even if it’s not convenient, even if it hurts. That’s what the cross means.

We put crosses on billboards and on jewelry, we get them tattooed on our bodies, we put them in our churches and on our walls at home. We share pictures of them on Facebook. But are we willing to walk in the way of the cross? Are we willing to take on pain for the sake of others, and are we willing to stand up and speak out for the sake of others? Are we willing to seriously let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus? Thanks be to God for his work in us, which helps us to walk with Jesus.

Amen.

An Easy Yoke

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 14), Year A, July 6, 2014

Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67, Psalm 145:8-14, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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.

Jesus said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Isn’t it lovely? We take our burdens to Jesus, and he will give us rest. Wonderful. Who wouldn’t want that?

The problem comes when you examine it a little more closely. We lay down our own burdens at Jesus’ feet, and he gives us rest from them: but he also gives us his burden, his yoke. Yes, it’s easy and light, but still. We don’t see yokes often in our daily lives, so it’s easy to romanticize this saying, a lot easier for us than for people who used them in daily lives. Consider this woman. She needs water for her household: for cooking and cleaning. But without indoor plumbing, she has to go and get it and carry it back. So she has two buckets, hung from a yoke. This is so she can carry more weight than if she were just carrying two buckets in her hands. It’s easier to walk with the weight, too, without the buckets banging in to your shins the whole way. But still, water is heavy. And two bucketfuls of water isn’t that much. She’ll probably have to go back and get more. Sure, a yoke makes her task easier, but it’s still a heavy, hard thing. Wouldn’t it be nicer if Jesus had just left out that part?

A historical re-enactor carrying two buckets on a yoke over her shoulders.

When I was a child, I worked for my parents at their photography studio. I started out doing basic janitor chores for $1 an hour—vacuuming, taking out the trash, that sort of thing. It was work that needed to be done, and I was part of the family so I needed to help out with the family business just like farm kids help out with chores around the farm. It teaches responsibility, it helps out the family, it’s good experience later in life. But here’s the thing. I didn’t like doing those chores—in fact, I hated them. I would much rather have been reading or playing with my best friend Chrissy who lived only a block away from the Studio. But those chores needed to get done and I was the one who had to do them. So I’d get to the studio after school each day and hide with my books, trying to get out of doing my chores. Or I’d try and figure out some way so that it would look like I had done my chores without having to actually do them.

There really isn’t a way to do that with the trash; either it’s been taken out or it hasn’t. Vacuuming, however. Vacuuming is harder to tell. I mean, if there’s big dirt or stuff on the carpet, then you can tell, but otherwise, you may not be able to tell until it gets really bad. Particularly on the kinds of carpets that are designed not to show stains and stuff, which the studio had. So I had a bright idea! I’d just pick up the little debris that was visible to the eye, and call it good. I wouldn’t have to vacuum. I could get out of doing my chores. I could fool my parents into thinking I’d done what I was supposed to do. Awesome! Except for the fact that I had to keep looking over my shoulder to keep my parents from seeing what I was doing, and I had this fear of getting caught hanging over my head. I knew it was wrong, but I did it anyway. And also, crawling on the floor to pick up the dirt wasn’t fun, either. But I told myself that, hey, it was better than doing the vacuuming!

Of course, it didn’t take my parents long to figure it out. My dad saw me crawling along the floor, picking up dirt and little bits of garbage. “You know,” he said, “It takes a lot more time and effort to do that than it does to actually vacuum. If you’d just done what you were supposed to do, you would be done by now.” And I was all, but I hate vacuuming, and this way I don’t have to! “Do you like crawling along the floor picking up dirt better?” Dad asked. “Vacuuming is easier, does a better job, and gets done quicker.” And you know what? He was right! When you stop and think about all the stuff I was having to do to get out of doing what needed to be done, I was doing more work, a worse job, and having to spend more time and energy dealing with it than I would be if I just did what I was supposed to do. But I didn’t want to admit that. I didn’t want to do the right thing. I just wanted to get out of a chore I hated, and I didn’t pay any attention to the costs of my actions. I focused on the wrong thing, and it led me to make some stupid choices.

Humans do this all the time, and often on a much bigger scale. We often know what we should be doing, but we don’t want to do it. We find all kinds of reasons why we shouldn’t have to. Even when, in our heads, we know what to do and what not to do, all too often we find ways to let our heart overrule us. Or when our hearts burn within us to act, we step back and let our minds come up with all the reasons why we shouldn’t. And when we don’t do the right thing, we hurt ourselves and others, so we feel guilty, so we find reasons why it’s not our fault, reasons why we did the right thing, reasons why it wasn’t really hurting anyone, reasons why other people are so unreasonable for expecting anything different. And it builds and builds and goes round and round chasing its tail, and each sin leads us deeper into the next, and on, and on.

That’s what our second reading is about. Paul is talking about sin, and how it dominates our lives. For Paul, sin is not just an action, something we do or don’t do. Sin is a state of being: it’s how we are. It’s the whole big muddle of how we keep screwing up, even when we know better. We do something wrong, so we feel bad, so we try to justify ourselves, so we dig the hole deeper and do more bad things trying to get out of doing what we know we should, and on, and on. It’s an endless cycle, like a rat in a cage, running in a wheel and getting nowhere. If you listen to the way Paul uses language in this passage, he really evokes that feeling of spinning your wheels. Listen: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Three sentences later: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” Two sentences later: “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Do you feel how repetitive this is, how he keeps circling around? It’s that feeling of dread and futility you get when you know you’re screwing up and you know you’re not going to change. That’s the burden of sin. That part of ourselves that keeps us running on a hamster wheel to nowhere, hurting ourselves and others in the process, focused on the wrong things and blinding ourselves to the true cost of our actions and inactions.

Woman on a hamster wheel

Finally, Paul stops dead in his tracks. He can’t do this on his own. He can’t break the chains of sin. He can’t pull himself up by his bootstraps. He can’t stop the cycle, and he can no longer pretend that things are okay. The burden is too much. “Wretched man that I am!” he says. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Because Paul can’t do it. But he knows, if he gives his burden to Jesus, if he trusts Jesus Christ to help him, he’ll be saved. Jesus can break the pattern. Jesus can stop the cycle that goes nowhere. Jesus can give him rest from the pointless and heartbreaking hamster wheel. Jesus can take his burden, the burden of sin that does nothing but pull Paul down and chain him to futility, and replace it with something lighter. Something that matters. Something good.

Consider the woman with the yoke. She’s a re-enactor, showing what life was like in Colonial Williamsburg. They didn’t have indoor plumbing, and they didn’t have pumps. But people still needed water, so it had to be carried from the well to the house. This is a true and deep need. Water is a source of life. By carrying the water, she is helping herself and others in her household. If you have a hard job to do—a job that needs to be done—you want to do it well and as quickly as possible instead of wasting your time trying to get out of it. The yoke helps. The strain of the water’s weight is transferred to her shoulders, instead of her hands. She won’t bruise her shins with the buckets bouncing off them. She can carry more, and carry it faster, meaning the chore of getting water takes less time, and her body will hurt less than if she’d carried the buckets by hand. She’s doing the right thing and it’s easier because of the yoke.

That’s the kind of yoke Jesus is talking about. The kind of yoke that makes a job go better. As followers of Jesus, there are a lot of things we are called to do that we wouldn’t necessarily want to do. They’re the right thing, but they seem harder. Like forgiving someone we don’t like, or welcoming someone who’s not like us, or helping someone when we’d much rather do nothing. All the things that we know are right, that need to be done, but don’t want to do. Jesus’ yoke helps us to do them. Jesus’ yoke makes them easier. Jesus’ yoke makes the burden lighter. Jesus breaks the burdens and chains that keep us doing pointless stuff that hurts ourselves and others, and Jesus replaces it with a yoke that will help us do the right thing, and do it better than we could without Jesus. He brings rest that truly satisfies, and work that accomplishes good things.

Thanks be to God. Amen.