The Call of God

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

Our reading from First Corinthians this week comes from the first part of the letter.  And man, does Paul have some good words for the Christians in Corinth!  He says he is ALWAYS giving thanks for them, because of the grace that God has given them, how they have been enriched by God, in speech and knowledge of every kind.  The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them, and they were not lacking in any spiritual gift.  If you read this part of the letter, and don’t go any further, you’re left with the idea that things must have been AWESOME in Corinth.  God was working in and among them, they have all these spiritual gifts, what more could any community of faith want or need?

And then you read the rest of the letter, which is about all the problems the congregation has been having.  Factions that split the community, arguments about EVERYTHING, people taking advantage of and belittling one another, people using their spiritual gifts for personal aggrandizement rather than the good of the community and the will of God, you name it, it happened.  If there is a thing that could possibly go wrong in a Christian community, it happened in Corinth.  That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians so often—at least four times that we know of, though only two of his letters survived.  They were really messed up.  They were a problem congregation.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, they would find it.

And yet, God gave them God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  God gave them every spiritual gift and strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ.  No matter how much they squandered God’s gifts or used them for selfish ends or just … missed the point, God was with them, nurturing the faith in them and giving them every spiritual gift and everything they needed to be part of the body of Christ.  They had problems, but a lack of spiritual resources wasn’t one of them.

An even more pointed reminder of God’s gifts can be found in our reading from Isaiah.  This particular part of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile.  The nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people taken away to be slaves in other parts of the Babylonian Empire.  They had lost everything.  Many of their people decided that God didn’t care about them any more and started worshipping Babylonian gods.  Even those who stayed faithful had lost all hope.  They were as good as dead.  Everything they’d tried to build or do had been destroyed.  And yet, in the midst of that, God sent the prophet to tell them that they were not abandoned, that God was with them.  And more than that, their nation was going to be restored—the exile would not be permanent, eventually they would be freed and allowed to go home.  And more than that, God was actively working in them and through them to make the world a better place, to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  Even in the midst of slavery and exile and death and despair, God was at work.  God had chosen them, and God would redeem them out of slavery, and God would help them rebuild.

Which I think is something a lot of churches today need to spend some time thinking about, because we spend a lot of time focusing on how bad things are.  In coffee hours after church, in pastor gatherings, in committee meetings and Bible studies, you hear the same refrain.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be.  Twenty years ago, we had so much more, and we just can’t do the things we used to do.  We’re too small, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough young people, we don’t have enough anything.  We look at the numbers of people we used to have but don’t have any more, we sigh wistfully at what we could do if we had more people, if we had younger people, if we had more money, if, if, if.  And we get so focused on what we used to have, what we don’t have, that we can’t see what we do have.

And what we have is this: the grace of God.  What we have is God’s presence in us and among us.  The God who called us by name, who claimed us as God’s own children, who has been with us all our lives and was with every one of our ancestors in the faith throughout their lives, is with us still today.  God has claimed us as God’s own, God has given us spiritual gifts, God has called us to minister to one another and to the world outside our doors.

The question is, are we listening to that call?  And not to what the call was twenty years ago, but what the call is now.  Because God’s call changes over time.  The central goal of ministry—to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to bring light and healing to the world—hasn’t changed.  But the most effective ways to do that have changed.  And our resources have changed, too!  I don’t want to pretend that we are what we used to be, and I don’t want to say that we can’t grieve for what has been lost.  We are smaller and older than we used to be, and there are many things we just can’t do any more.

But the most important question as Christians is, are we listening to what God is calling us to do here, now, today, or are we so caught up in our grief that we can’t imagine what new things God is calling us to?  Can we take a clear and positive view of the gifts and resources—spiritual gifts, physical resources, and people—that we have right now, and ask what God is calling us to do with those gifts and resources?  It may be something we’ve been doing all along.  It may be something new and different.  But God is present, calling us and equipping us for ministry, just as God was present in Corinth, and just as God was present during the Babylonian Exile.

Now, if you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some things it might be.  I am not a prophet; I can’t say for certain what God’s will for us is.  That’s something we all have to think about and pray about and talk about together, trusting that God will be in the midst of our thoughts and prayers and conversations.  But here are some suggestions.

First, and most obviously, God is probably calling us to grow in faith and love as a congregation and as individuals.  There’s pretty much no time that God isn’t calling us to do that.  I don’t mean that we should be insular, caring only for what’s happening inside our own walls, and I certainly don’t mean that we should just get in a rut and stay there.  I mean that we should be actively working to deepen our relationships with God and one another.  We should be actively working to increase participation in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, confession and forgiveness.  We should be actively working to build healthy relationships with one another and with everybody around us.

Second, given that God created us for relationships and that God thinks it is not good for us to be alone, and given how fragmented our society is and how many people today are lonely, God may well be calling us to reach out to people in our community who are lonely and disconnected, and build relationships with them.  Not just so we can invite them to church, but because it is not good for human beings to be alone and God calls us to love one another.  I can’t do it by myself.  These days, people get suspicious of ministers who want to be their friends.  But just being there for people, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, can make a huge difference both in individual lives and in society as a whole.

What do you think God is calling us to do?  What gifts and talents do you see that God has given us, and how do you think God wants us to use those gifts and talents?

Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 22, 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

Paul’s letters are just that: letters.  Like all letters even today, they start off with a greeting, a salutation.  Something to open the letter and introduce the writer and what the letter is about.  I began my Christmas letters this year with a salutation of “Merry Christmas from the Washington Coast!”  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Everyone on my Christmas card list knows me, so I don’t have to introduce myself, and everybody knows what to expect in a Christmas letter, namely, a cheerful summary of everything the sender has done in the past year, wrapped up with best wishes for the holidays.  So a brief holiday greeting is all I need.  Paul’s letters, however, are a different story, especially his letter to the Romans.  Our entire second lesson, all seven verses of it, is the greeting portion of this letter.  It took him seven verses to say “Dear congregation of Jesus-followers in Rome, Hello, it’s Paul, I’m writing about Jesus the Messiah, God be with you.”

That’s a much simplified version, of course, but that’s basically what it’s saying.  Paul’s introducing himself and what he’s going to be talking about in the whole rest of the letter, and blessing the people he’s writing to.  So let’s dive into the details.  First, this is the longest salutation in any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, because it was the only one where he was writing to people he didn’t know.  Every other letter we have from Paul, he was writing to a congregation he himself had founded.  He’d go to a city, live there for a while, plant a congregation, and then move on.  He kept in touch with everyone through letters, some of which were collected in the New Testament.  In those letters he would remind people of his teachings, and address issues that had cropped up since he had left.  Since everyone in the congregation knew him, he didn’t have to give any long explanations of who he was or why he was writing.  But the thing is, the congregation of Jesus followers in Rome had been planted by someone else.  Paul had never been there.  So he wrote this letter to introduce himself and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, in the hopes that they would welcome him when he arrived.  They didn’t know him from Adam, so he had to introduce himself and prove his bona fides as an apostle, and give kind of a summary overview of his perspective on the good news of Jesus, in the hope that they would welcome him when he arrived and help support his future missionary journeys.  Because Paul hadn’t planted the church in Rome, his letter to the Romans mostly doesn’t address specific issues the Roman church was facing; instead, the letter as a whole is a step-by-step journey through Paul’s understanding of Jesus, his teachings, and what the meaning and impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection was.

Death and resurrection?  In December?  We’re less than a week away from Christmas, the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth!  We are months away from Easter!  So why are we talking about death and resurrection?  All our attention is focused on that sweet little baby who will soon be laying in the manger, and on the shepherds and wise men and angels who surrounded him and his parents Mary and Joseph, and also on details like Christmas parties, last-minute present shopping, and everything else we need to make the holidays wonderful.  But the thing is Jesus was not born just to be a cute little baby in a manger that we can feel good about every December.  The central holy day of our faith is not Christmas, but Easter.  If Jesus had never died and been raised from the dead, it wouldn’t matter that he had been born.  We talk about Jesus being the reason for the season, and that’s true, but it’s not just that Jesus existed.  It’s that Jesus came to save us and all creation from sin and death.  Christ came to the world for a purpose, and that purpose was to break the chains of sin and death and dysfunction and despair that bind us, so that we and all creation might participate fully in the abundant life God wants for us and created us to experience.  If we celebrate Jesus’ birth while ignoring what he came to Earth to do, all that is left is sentimental fluff.  And sentimental fluff is nice, but it’s not a strong enough foundation to build our lives on.

Paul was an apostle of God.  An apostle means one who is sent.  Paul was sent to share the good news, and so are we.  And that doesn’t just mean share it with people who haven’t heard it or who have heard it but don’t care.  Paul, in this letter to the Romans, was sharing the Good News with people who already knew it.  No matter how many times we’ve heard the good news of Jesus Christ, we all need to be reminded of it sometimes, or to hear a new and refreshing perspective on it.  The message of Jesus isn’t just something to hear once, memorize, and then ignore; the message of Jesus is something we should be constantly thinking about, remembering, and exploring.

That good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preached, that we still share with one another today, it didn’t come out of nowhere.  God has been at work in the world since God created the world, working to bring life and healing to a world broken by sin and death.  God has been promising that God will save, that God will redeem, that God will set free, from the very beginning.  God has been shining a light in the darkest places in the world, and in the darkest places in the human heart, since sin and death first entered the world.  Some of those promises are recorded in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.  No book could ever be long enough to record all the wonderful things God has done, but the Bible contains the stories of how God was at work in the lives of our ancestors in the faith, even thousands of years before Jesus’ birth.

Jesus’ birth didn’t come out of nowhere.  The message Jesus came to preach is consistent with the messages God had been giving God’s people since the very beginning.  Although Jews and Christians have come to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures very differently, Jesus and Paul and the rest of the apostles and the entire early Christian Church constantly and consistently looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for guidance and support.  In fact, any time in the New Testament where someone talks about scripture, they’re talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament was in the process of being written and didn’t exist yet as a finished book.  Paul and the rest of the early Christians looked back at Scripture and saw all the ways in which Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, fit within the story the Scriptures were telling.  Among other things, Jesus had been raised and adopted by a man of the house of David, the lineage the Messiah was going to come from.  You sometimes hear Joseph described as Jesus’ stepfather, because of course we know that Jesus was God’s Son.  But the thing is, Joseph claimed Jesus and named him and raised him as his own, and in the ancient world that was at least as important as a modern adoption.  Joseph wasn’t “just” anything.  Joseph was Jesus’ dad, and in that way Jesus became part of the great covenant with David and David’s heirs.

But the covenant was only the beginning.  Jesus came to bring life, and to bring it abundantly.  Through his teachings, through his healings, through his miracles, and most especially through his death and resurrection, Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom of God.  Jesus called all things and all people to himself, and through our baptisms we are tied to that death and resurrection.  The renewal of the world is coming.  The re-birth and re-creation of all the cosmos and all people in it, is coming.  Abundant life free from sin and death is coming.  And it is coming through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

And while we wait for that great and glorious day, we are called to belong to Jesus Christ, and to put that allegiance higher than any other.  We are called to be faithful, to be obedient to God’s will, and are sent out to share that good news with one another and with all the world.  To all God’s beloved in Rome and Chinook and Naselle and across the world, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Being Part of the Community

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019

Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

 

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  This is a principle that has been used by both the far right and the far left at various points in the last few centuries, ignoring its context both in the community of Thessaloniki to which it was written, and in the larger canon of Scripture.  On the right, people use it as a justification to defund social programs, on the reasoning that poor people are poor because they are lazy and not working and therefore should not receive help without elaborate and ever-increasing bureaucratic hoops to jump through to prove they’re worthy of being helped.  On the left, socialists and communists have both used this as an organizing principle for communes.  On both the right and the left, people use it as an excuse to judge and exclude people and to avoid helping those in need, which is not what the passage is about.

First, let’s look at the larger context of Scripture.  The Bible is filled with commands to help those in need, from beginning to end.  We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, seek justice for the oppressed, lend to any in need (without collecting any interest in return), and in general make sure that everyone in society is getting what they need to live.  And we’re supposed to take special care to make sure that the most vulnerable people in society—widows, orphans, strangers, etc.—aren’t being taken advantage of or forgotten.  Passages about these obligations are all throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  God loves all people as his children, and desires all people to have a share in the abundance of God’s good creation, and part of our calling as God’s people is to see that that happens.  This passage is the only passage in the entire Bible that says or even implies that there is a limit to that.  Are there scammers who only want to prey on peoples’ generosity?  Of course there are.  But most people who come looking for help genuinely need it.  And it is possible to weed out most of the scammers without placing too much of a burden on those in genuine need.  If someone needs help and you can’t help, that’s one thing.  If anyone is using this passage as a reason for why they shouldn’t help, or why they should assume anyone asking for help is on the make, they’re proof-texting.  They’re skimming the Bible for verses that support their desires, rather than letting themselves be shaped by the whole scope of Scripture.

Second, let’s look at what was specifically happening in the Christian community in Thessaloniki at the time.  Like all Christian communities of its day, the congregation in Thessaloniki was small, a few households gathering for worship and service together in a large pagan city.  Most of them were poor, slaves and laborers and the like.  They were a small group in a hostile world, and they could only survive if they trusted one another and worked together for the common good.

And they believed that the Second Coming was imminent.  They believed that Jesus was due back any day, which would of course lead to massive changes as the heavens and the earth were made new and the dead were raised and the living and the dead were judged.  Therefore, some did what lots of Christians have done when they thought Jesus was coming back soon: sat around waiting for it to happen.  And no matter how much time passed, they were sure it was just around the corner so there was no point in participating in the work of the community.  Sitting and waiting for years is a problem for two reasons.  First, obviously, it puts an unfair burden on the members of the community who are doing all the work.  Secondly, however, Jesus didn’t ask us to be idle.  Jesus gave us work to do.  We are called and commanded to love God and love our neighbor, and not just in some vague feeling way.  We’re called to put that love into action.  And you can’t do that if you’re just sitting around waiting for Jesus.  They were so excited about Jesus returning that they were neglecting pretty much all of Jesus’ teachings about how to live.

But it gets worse.  They weren’t just sitting around waiting and doing nothing and being a burden, they were interfering with the work of the people who were doing the work.  They were showing up to events, not lifting one finger to help, and complaining that the people actually doing the work weren’t doing it the right way.  It’s not just that they weren’t helping; they were getting in the way of people who were helping, and interfering with the work God was calling them to do.  This is not about whether we should feed the hungry or whatever.  This is about saying that people who do nothing but get in the way of the community’s goals shouldn’t get the benefits of being a member of the community.  Paul doesn’t say we should throw them out or be mean to them, but we don’t have to bend over backwards for them, either.  And, most importantly, Paul points out that regardless of when Jesus comes back, we have work to do in the meantime.  Work that God has called us to do in the here and now.  The Christian life is not about passively waiting for Jesus to come back and fix things.  The Christian life is about loving God and our neighbor, and serving as God’s hands and feet in the world.  We have work to do.

But if you’re sitting there feeling guilty that you haven’t done enough, let’s remember that God’s view of what’s important doesn’t necessarily match human views of what’s important.  And that’s especially true when it comes to work.  Our culture has a very skewed and unhealthy view of work.  Work is seen as one of the highest moral goods.  People who can’t work—people who are old or disabled or mentally ill—are seen as burdens.  They have less value.  And actually the whole idea of people having a value at all is messed up.  We see people with price tags.  If they can’t do something or make something, if they need help, then they are worth less than people who can produce more.  And we have internalized that so much we don’t even realize how toxic it is.  I can’t count the number of elderly or disabled people I have ministered to in my life who were absolutely convinced that they needed to apologize for existing.  Who were absolutely certain that their whole reason for existence was about what they could do or contribute, and so when they couldn’t do as much they should just die.  Or who believed that it was better to isolate themselves and endure easily correctable pain and suffering and loneliness than to reach out and ask for even simple help.  One of our society’s greatest sins is that we teach people to believe that.  It causes so much unnecessary suffering.

God calls us to work not because work is some great moral virtue, but because it takes work to see that all God’s children receive God’s love and grace and abundance.  The work is not the point.  The love and grace and abundance are the point.  The work is just the process used to share that love and grace and abundance.  And focusing too much on visible results can distract us for that.  God created human beings so that relationships are one of our fundamental needs, as important as food and water, more important than shelter.  Love is one of the deepest needs we have.  Being known and cared for is one of the most important things anyone can have.  And you don’t need to be physically active to build a meaningful relationship with someone.  You just have to care about them, and listen to them, and be there for them, and give them opportunities to do the same for you.

If you can help with the physical work, you should, whether that’s quilting or cleaning the gutters or doing shifts at the warming center in Astoria or whatever other work God puts in front of you.  But if you can’t, or if you can do less than you used to, that dos not make you a burden or an idler or lazy.  If all you can do is show up and talk with people and care about them, that’s important work too.  And if you can’t show up because you are ill or injured, you are still a beloved child of God.  You are not a burden.  Your importance to our community and to God has nothing to do with how much work you do.  It’s about relationships and sharing God’s love with one another and the world.  That is the greatest work we have as Christians: to love one another.  May we all share in that.

Amen.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 17, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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

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

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.  We recite these words in church almost every Sunday we gather … and when we don’t, we usually recite the Nicene Creed instead, which says basically the same thing.  In so doing, we join a Christian tradition stretching back to the very earliest days of Christianity, when all new converts to the faith memorized and studied the Apostles’ Creed, the teaching of the Apostles distilled into its purist form.  We believe in the Resurrection.  We believe that Christ died, and descended to the place of the dead, and that he was resurrected.  He rose from the grave not just in spirit but in body.  In flesh and blood.  And we believe that when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, all the graves will open and all those who have died will be raised.  All people will be resurrected, not just Jesus, and enter God’s kingdom in bodies purified and made whole by God.  Resurrection happened first for Jesus Christ, but it will come for all of us.

At least, that’s what’s in our faith statements.  How many Christians actually believe it … I don’t know.  We tend to think of heaven as some ethereal place,  spiritual, not physical.  Lots of Christians believe that when you die your spirit goes to be in heaven with Jesus, leaving behind all fleshly matters.  It’s a very old way of thinking about things, and it comes straight out of pagan Greek philosophy.  And it’s what Paul was arguing against in our reading from Corinthians.  “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”  In a nutshell: Salvation comes from Christ, who died and was raised from the dead and in so doing destroyed sin and death.  If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and all of Christian teaching is false.  You can’t have just one resurrection, in Paul’s view.  Either resurrection is impossible, and nobody has ever been raised or ever will be; or resurrection is possible, and Christ was raised from the dead, and we, too, will be raised from the dead some day when Christ comes again.  As Christ was raised, so too will we be.

To get why this is so important to Paul, you have to understand a little bit about the way Jewish people think.  In Greek, as in English, there are separate and distinct words for body and soul, because we think about them as two separate things, as if human beings are ghosts who just happen to walk around in meat suits.  In Hebrew, however, there is no word for soul that doesn’t include the body as well.  When you read an English translation of the Old Testament, and you see the word “soul,” the actual Hebrew word is usually “נפש” which means your whole self, personality and body and spirit and heart and guts and all the things that make you who you are.  The word most Old Testament translations give as “spirit” is “רוח” which literally means breath.  The Holy Spirit, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is literally God’s breath.  In Genesis, God breathes on the primordial chaos and the world comes into being.  There is a connection between the spiritual and the physical.  One cannot exist without the other.  There is no concept in the entire Old Testament of a spirit or soul separate from a physical body.

Because of this, physical things matter.  Evil and sin come through physical means—eating the forbidden fruit—and are manifest in all the many ways human beings abuse one another and themselves.  But you can’t ever forget that all good things come through physical means, too.  The Garden of Eden was a physical place.  It was a garden, filled with plants and animals, in which humans and God walked side-by-side.  The Old Testament is very earthy.  Condemnation is being trapped in a world where humans hurt one another and where the soil is rocky, thin, and full of weeds.  Blessing is a world where humans reconcile with one another and the soil is fruitful and easy to work.  Creation, like humans, may be marred by sin and death, but first it was a good gift from God.  And, so, it is not just souls that need to be redeemed, but bodies too, the whole self, and all of creation.  And that is what Jesus Christ came to do.

On the other hand, the Greeks hated the physical world.  Or, at least, they didn’t trust it.  Pagan philosophers as far back as Plato (and possibly even earlier) had decided that the realm of spirit and the realm of flesh were two completely separate things, and obviously anything to do with the flesh or the physical world or the body was inherently bad and disgusting.  This is why they believed rich people were better than poor people—work required physical effort, and doing things, and that was degrading.  The only good things in the world were sitting around, thinking deep thoughts, and contemplating art.  And so when Paul converted Greek people, they brought with them this idea that there is a separation between body and soul, and that flesh is inherently bad and spirit is inherently good.  Some of them even thought that Jesus hadn’t been a real flesh-and-blood human being at all, just a divine spirit sent to bring enlightenment.  (This is a heresy called Gnosticism.)  Even the ones who accepted that Jesus had been human before his death often thought that Jesus hadn’t really been resurrected, he’d just appeared to have a physical body, and that when Christians died, they would be freed from the prison of flesh and brought into a realm of spirit.  Which, uh, isn’t that far from what many Christians today believe.

And then we come again to Paul: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died, and one day we too will be raised.  We are not ghosts piloting meatsuits, we are whole people—body, mind, and soul—and Christ came to save all of us, body and soul together, along with all of creation.  God created the world to be good—God created us to be good—and even the worst that sin and death can do doesn’t change the fact that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  God has been at work in the world since the very beginning, bringing light and truth and calling people to live in the world according to God’s good plan.  God has been working to bring life and healing and renewal and reconciliation even in a world that keeps turning away, and God keeps calling us to participate in that work.  And one day, when Christ comes again, all will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.  All that is broken will be healed, all that is destroyed will be made whole, all of creation will be made new.  The work that God keeps beginning in us will be completed.  And we will see God face-to-face.

Bodies matter.  The more we learn about the way bodies and brains work, the more connected we realize they are.  Our bodies influence our brains in a multitude of ways great and small, and our brains influence our bodies just as much.  Those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood human nature far better than the Greek philosophers did.  When we focus too much on the spirit alone, we forget about the body, and we forget about the world we live in.  We pray for peoples’ souls while ignoring the ways in which their bodies are suffering.  We are flawed, sinful, fleshy people living in a flawed, sinful, fleshy world.  We live in a world in which sin and death have done unbelievable damage to people and communities and to creation itself.  But we believe in a God who triumphed over sin and death, a God who will make all things new, a God who became flesh and blood like us, who died and rose again, and who will raise us to life again.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

On the Resurrection of the Dead

Ask most people what happens after you die, and they say “you go to Heaven (or Hell).”  As in, your soul goes to either Heaven or Hell, and leaves your body behind.  Ask them about the Resurrection, and they talk about Jesus.  Christians, according to popular Christian understanding, don’t get bodily raised from the dead like Jesus did; their souls (and not their bodies) go to Heaven.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says.  Now, granted, the Bible never lays out a clear timeline for the end times; most of what it says about the and of the world is told through parables, metaphors, dreams, and visions instead of laying out plain and simple what’s going to happen.  But some things are pretty clear and universal throughout Biblical passages on death and what comes next and the end of the world:

1) There is no hard-and-fast separation between body and soul.  That was a pagan philosophy that got grafted in later from the Greeks in the early church.  In the Old Testament, whenever you see the word “soul,” it’s a mistranslation, because there isn’t a word for what we think of as the “soul” in Hebrew.  The Hebrew word nefesh means something closer along the lines of everything that makes you you–personality, spirit, and body, all rolled into one.  It’s your essence, your core, your being, and your physicality is included in it.  In the New Testament, well, pagan Greek philosophy separated out the physical and the spiritual, so Greek does have a word (psyche) for soul-separate-from-body.  But Jesus was a Jewish man talking (mostly) with other Jewish people, so on the rare occasions he uses that word he’s probably meaning the Hebrew concept of nefesh instead.

The word that gets translated as “Spirit” is ruach in Hebrew, or pneuma in Greek, both of which literally means breath.  (In English, it comes from the same root word as “respiration” and “inspiration.”  Spirit is life force, but it’s inherently physical.  Only living bodies breathe.

In the Biblical worldview, we are not, never have been, and never will be free-floating souls who happen to have a physical body to wear around temporarily.  We are whole, body, mind, heart, and spirit together as one.  (I will note that the more scientists learn about the body and mind, the more obvious it is that the two are connected and intertwined in all sorts of ways we hadn’t understood until now: those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood more about the human condition than Greek philosophers did.)

2) Jesus is not the only one who will be resurrected.  The sequence of events is not “Jesus died to save us from our sins, so when we die our souls will go to heaven.”  The sequence is “Jesus died to save us from our sins, and because we are tied to his death and resurrection, we, too, will one day be raised from the dead.  When Christ comes again, the graves will open, and all those who have died will rise again, and all the living and the dead shall be judged, and there will be a new heaven and a new earth and God’s kingdom will be here on earth.”  What exactly that looks like, what the exact timeline will be when Christ comes again, all the other stuff (trials and tribulations, etc., etc.,) that’s pretty hazy and contradictory.  What is perfectly clear every time the subject is discussed is the fact that the dead will be raised–not just spiritually, but physically–and then all people will be judged.

What happens to us in the between-time–the time between when we die and the general resurrection of the dead–is not so clear.  The Bible simply isn’t very concerned with it.  There are hints here and there, and mostly they seem to imply that we are asleep or unconscious in some way, waiting for the day of resurrection.  Sometimes (as in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man) they do imply that our souls are either in Heaven or Hell while we wait.  But mostly the answer is “we die and are dead until Christ comes again and raises all the dead.”

Why, then, do modern Christians focus so heavily on “soul going to Heaven/Hell” that we forget about the Resurrection of the body?  Well, first, lots of people today (even practicing Christians) haven’t spent much time studying the Bible, and so most of what they believe on the subject they get from pop culture, just assuming that movies/television/comedians/authors in the general culture know what they’re talking about and that they are accurately portraying something Biblically-based.  Second, the early church (the first few centuries after Jesus’ original followers died out) was dominated by Greeks, and they had all been raised with pagan Greek philosophy, and so they interpreted a lot of the Bible through that lens.  So, among other things, a split between body and soul was injected into Christian beliefs, even though the Bible doesn’t have such a split.  Third, during the American Civil War, there was a spiritual crisis.  It was the first time that such a high percentage of the population died so far from home, with no bodies to bury that the family could ever see.  This really changed the way Americans talked about and thought about death, and there is a really good book-turned-documentary, Death and the Civil War, that explores this.

So now that I’ve written almost 800 words explaining all of this, I can get to what I really wanted to talk about.  I was reading Richard Hays’ commentary on First Corinthians in the Interpretations Bible Commentary series, specifically the section about 1 Corinthians 15.  In that passage, Paul confronts people (Greek former-pagans, who believed in an immortal soul that was completely separate from the physical body it was housed in) who didn’t believe in the resurrection.  Well, they believed that Jesus had been raised, but didn’t believe in the general resurrection to come, i.e. that when Christ comes again he will raise all those who have died.  And Paul is vehement that this is a problem: you cannot separate out Jesus’ resurrection and our resurrection.  If resurrection is not possible for us, then Jesus could not have been raised either.  If God can raise Jesus bodily from the dead, God can raise us bodily from the dead, as well; and because God has raised Jesus from the dead, God will raise us also.  If you don’t believe God will raise us bodily from the dead, according to Paul, you are calling Jesus and all the disciples liars.

Hays brings up how the earliest Christians interpreted this passage (page 259).  In particular, he quotes the words of St. Justin Martyr, a second-century Christian and church leader who was one of the first great Christian writers after the New Testament was finished.  In one of his debates, Justin talks about “godless, impious heretics” who “are called Christians … and say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven.”  St. Justin Martyr considered this absolute heresy, and said of such people: “Do not imagine that they are Christians.”

Um.

Wow.

That’s, uh, that’s pretty direct and straightforward, with not much wiggle room.  And when you read Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, he, too, has no wiggle room.  According to both Paul and Justin Martyr, you cannot be a Christian if you think your soul goes to heaven without your body.  You can only be a Christian if you believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection.

Most American Christians today do not believe in a bodily/fleshly resurrection for anyone except Jesus.  They believe that your soul goes to heaven (or hell) without your body.

I am not sure what to say, except that we obviously need more Christian education and Bible study about this.

I’d like to share some words of Hays’ own (page 277), on why this is such an important point:

Paul saw that underneath all the dismaying problems of the Corinthians lay one massive theological fallacy: they denied the resurrection of the dead.  And by doing that, they denied the importance of the world that God created.  They denied–whether they meant to or not–that these flawed bodies of ours are loved by God and will be redeemed.  And therefore–whether they meant to or not–they denied that what we do with these bodies is of ultimate significance in God’s eyes.  So they lapsed into confusion, both moral and theological.

Modern American Christians tend to focus on the “spiritual” aspects of faith and ignore much of the practical aspects, reducing discipleship to merely agreeing with certain beliefs.  And when we do talk about physical bodies and morality, we tend to focus on sex.  Which is important, but still only a small part of what we do with our bodies.

What would a Christian ethic look like if it were based on the idea that the physical–bodies, creation, all if it–matters?  If we really took seriously the idea that God’s saving work isn’t about destroying this fallen world and rescuing the souls of believers from it, but rather focused on the Biblical idea that God in Christ is reconciling the world to himself?  That the coming kingdom is based not on the destruction of the old world and the old bodies, but rather on their recreation and resurrection?  There are lots of Christian theologians and writers who have talked about these subjects over the last century or so, I’m not saying anything new … but unfortunately, none of those people have moved the needle very far on what the average Christian-in-the-pew thinks.

Much food for thought.

Seeing Gifts Through God’s Eyes

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 21, August 27, 2017

Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

 

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.

Paul talked about spiritual gifts a lot.  Three times in three different letters, including our second reading from Romans, he talks about the gifts of the Spirit, and how each person in the community of faith has different gifts, and all are needed.  And each place he lists off the gifts of the Spirit, it’s different.  No two lists are the same.  This is because the Spirit gives lots of different gifts to lots of different people, depending on who they are and what the needs around them are.  There is no way that anybody could ever put together a list with EVERY gift the Spirit gives, because the Spirit gives a lot of gifts.  And if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “oh, that must be wonderful to have a spiritual gift, but I don’t have any, I’m too ordinary,” or “too boring,” or “too sinful,” I have news for you.  God has given you spiritual gifts.  You may not recognize them; you may not be aware of them; you may not be using them.  But you have been given a spiritual gift just the same.

I think this is the reason Paul starts this section by talking about being transformed by God, instead of conforming to the world.  Because the world tells an awful lot of lies about gifts of every kind, but especially about spiritual gifts.  The world tries to tell us things that aren’t true about God, about ourselves, and about each other.  And if we believe these lies, we can’t possibly know what God is doing in us and in the world around us, because we can’t see anything or anyone clearly.  In order to know what is good and right, in order to know who we are and who God is, we have to let God transform us from who the world wants us to be, to who we were created to be.

The first lie the world tells us is about money.  And the lie is, that money determines how important or good something is.  Think about it: we judge things—even moral things!—by their worth.  We talk about our “values”—that’s an economic term.  Now, there’s a lot of problems with letting money determine how important or good things are, but when it comes to spiritual gifts it’s a huge problem because it tells us that gifts are only important if we can profit off of them.  Have you ever noticed that?  Gifts that you can make money off are valued; gifts that you can’t exploit for profit aren’t.  We spend a lot of time these days helping young people figure out what their gifts are, but not for spiritual purposes, for career planning.  So we know all about how to build a career off of peoples’ gifts, but not much about identifying spiritual gifts for use as Christians.  And if you have a gift and choose to use it in ways other than making money, people shake their heads.  For example, I enjoy writing.  I do it as a hobby.  I can’t tell you how many people have told me that if I’m not trying to get published—if I’m just doing it for my own enjoyment and my friends’ enjoyment—that I’m wasting my time and talents.

But a lot of the gifts God gives can’t be monetized.  They can’t be profited from.  And those are some of the most necessary gifts of all.  You’ll notice that compassion is one of the gifts that Paul names in our passage.  So is generosity.  You can’t make money off of either of those, but think how terrible the world would be if there was no compassion, no generosity.  It would be a pretty dark, grim place.  These are only two of the gift that are absolutely vital to both the Christian community and the world in general, that no one can put a price on or profit from.  If you’re only looking for things that society values, things that will help make money or build a career, chances are, you’re not going to see the gifts that God has given you.

The second lie that the world tells us is that gifts are extraordinary, and that only some people get them.  That most people are boring and normal, and if you don’t have the kind of special talent that makes someone sit up and take notice, you have nothing to offer.  The world divides people into winners and losers, the beautiful few who have what it takes and make it to extraordinary heights, and the ordinary schmucks who just don’t make the grade.  Some people succeed, and others are failures.  Some people matter, and some don’t, and you want to be one of the ones who matter, don’t you?  So work hard, and maybe you’ll be one of the winners instead of one of the losers.  And if you don’t have what it takes to be one of the winners, well, then you just don’t matter.

But that is a lie, because everyone matters, to God.  God does not see winners and losers, important people and schmucks.  God does not care whether anybody wins or loses, whether anybody succeeds or fails.  God loves each and every one of us.  God cares for each and every one of us.  And God gives gifts to everybody, including the people the world labels as failures or losers or just too ordinary to pay much attention to.  And so a lot of God’s gifts get overlooked because they’re too ordinary.  And yet, all of those ordinary things: building lives, and homes, and taking care of people, and seeing that the necessary work gets done, sometimes that too is a spiritual gift, just making sure that the people who need to get taken care of get taken care of.  Seeing that when work needs to be done there are people to pitch in to do it.  That, too, is a gift from God to make the world a better place.

And the third lie the world tells is that gifts should be used for the individual.  If one person has a gift, it should be used for their own betterment.  It’s all about individual growth, individual prosperity.  But if you’ll notice the gifts Paul lists, none of them can be used for just one person.  Teaching, ministering, generosity, leading, giving, being compassionate—these are all gifts that require relationships.  You can’t teach if there’s no one to learn.  You can’t lead if there’s no one to follow.  You can’t minister if there’s no one to minister to.  These are all gifts that require relationships.  And Paul talks about these gifts in at the same time as he uses the metaphor of the body to describe the Christian community.  When God gives us anything—spiritual gifts, wealth, health, anything—he doesn’t give it to us to hoard.  God gives us gifts to share, to spread around, so that all people may experience God’s blessings in many and various ways.

We all have gifts from God.  Some of them are obvious, and some are not.  Some are valued by the world, and some are not.  Teaching is a gift—and not just one given to professional educators, either.  Being generous is a gift.  Being compassionate is a gift.  Encouraging people is a gift.  Persistence is a gift—just being able to put one foot in front of the other, doing the job God puts in front of us, that’s incredibly important.  A willingness to help others is a gift.  The ability to build relationships and communities is a gift.  But as long as we’re listening to the world’s lies, and seeing with the world’s eyes, we won’t see God’s gifts for what they are.  We’ll ignore them, or devalue them, or just plain not see them.  And our world will be a darker and a colder place because of it.  God gives gifts to each one of us.  Every single one of us has gifts from God.  The trick is learning how to see them, to use them, for the good of all God’s people.  And to do that, we have to listen to God, and not the world.  May we be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can see God’s gifts for what they truly are, and put them to use as God calls us to do, for the building up of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

Freedom in Christ

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 13

July 2, 2017

Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42

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.

There’s something ironic about talking about slavery on the Fourth of July weekend, don’t you think?  The Fourth of July is a holiday devoted to freedom.  Liberty!  Getting to make our own rules and laws instead of having to do what someone else tells us to!  Woohoo, isn’t it awesome to live in the land of the free and the home of the brave!  Let’s remember all of the reasons it is AWESOME to be an American, starting with the fact that we are free!

Except that, uh, we aren’t.  Or rather, we are politically free.  But there are deeper forms of slavery than just the external political reality.  Addiction, illness, dysfunctional or abusive relationships—all of these can enslave us just deeply as any external political force.  And of all the possible things that hold us in bondage, sin is the worst and the most deeply twisting.  Sin corrupts us so that we choose to do things that will hurt ourselves and others.  Sin corrupts us so that we don’t even see the problem.  It’s not just that sin makes us do bad things; sin makes us think that they’re the right things.

For example.  Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  There are no qualifiers to that, no limitations.  It’s not “we should love our enemies until they do something really bad, and then it’s okay to hate them.”  It’s not, “say you love your enemies while plotting to hurt them.”  It’s not, “love some of your enemies and hate the rest.”  It’s not even “be superficially nice to your enemies while fuming internally about them.”  No, all of those would be a lot easier than what Jesus really tells us, which is to love our enemies.  Period, full stop, no limitations or exclusions apply.  No loopholes to weasel out of it.  Love your enemies.

But hating them feels so good!  And if they DESERVE to be hurt, if they’re bad people or sinners or have done terrible things, then SURELY God would agree that it’s okay to hate them!  There are people in this world who are really, truly, awful people, who have hurt and killed and done terrible things.  Who need to be stopped from hurting anyone else.  But it’s not our job to hate them, and while it’s our job to protect people in danger, it’s not our job to plot vengeance.  But it’s so easy to convince ourselves that God surely wouldn’t mind, just this once.  Or even that God would want us to hate them.  And then, once you’re used to explaining away or ignoring God’s commands to love, well, lots of other things can be explained away or ignored, too.  And pretty soon, we’ve developed a whole series of justifications to make ourselves believe that God approves of everything we do.  The temporary benefits blind us to the fact that sinfulness is drawing us further away from God.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks a lot about sin, and about slavery.  For Paul, sin isn’t just individual acts.  Sin is the whole way of thinking that draws us away from God.  Sin is not something we do, it’s something we are, something that guides and controls everything about how we see the world and ourselves, how we see God, how we see our fellow human beings.  While people can choose whether or not to commit individual bad acts, we can’t choose our state of being.  I can choose, for example, whether or not to lie in any one given situation; that’s a choice I can make.  But I can’t choose whether or not to be a sinner.  The only thing that can free me from slavery to sin and death is the saving action of Jesus Christ our Lord.  As baptized children of God, we are freed from slavery to sin!

So the questions the Romans wanted to know is, now that we’re free from the power of sinfulness and have been forgiven and redeemed by Jesus, does that mean we can do anything we want?  Does that mean that we can commit any individual sin we please, and it’s fine, because Jesus saved us?  It would be very convenient if that were true.  But that way of thinking is the first step away from God, back down into that mindset where we can hurt ourselves and others as much as we please, as long as we come up with a good enough excuse for it.

Paul puts it this way.  Yeah, sure, you’re no longer slaves of sin, and that’s awesome!  But that doesn’t mean we have no responsibilities.  The fact that we have been forgiven doesn’t mean we get to choose our own way: we are still in the power of the one who created us, the one who redeems us, the one who guides us through life.  We are still slaves.  Except that we are now slaves of God.  And while being a slave of sin leads only to death and pain (of ourselves and others), being a slave of God leads to love and abundant life, in this world and the next.

Now, wait a minute, hold on, I can hear you saying it.  We’re free!  God freed us through Jesus’ death and resurrection!  And that’s true.  We are free.  But there’s different kinds of freedom.  There’s “freedom from,” which means that we are free from the things that used to restrain us.  It’s the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom: nothing to hold us back, baby!  No consequences, no restraint, we can do ANYTHING WE WANT.  Which, uh, yeah, sure, you might be free to do anything you want, but there’s a lot of stuff you still shouldn’t do, right?  The more you focus on freedom from restraint, the more it leads you to doing dangerous and destructive stuff just because you can.  Yeah, maybe it’s allowed … but that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The other kind of freedom is the “freedom to.”  The freedom to do the right thing.  The freedom to heal.  See, when you’re chained up in bad ways, when you’re hurt, the chains themselves hurt you even more.  If you’re in an abusive relationship, for example, even the good times in that relationship keep you from healing because they keep you in that spot where your abuser can hurt you the next time things get bad.  And abusers keep you from forming healthy relationships with other people, too.  Only when you are free can you heal.  Only when you’re free can you start to build healthy relationships.  Only when you are free can you start to make good choices that lead to a better life.  And that’s the kind of freedom that God gives: the freedom to heal, and the freedom to do the right thing, and the freedom to build healthy relationships with God and with other people.

So why is Paul calling that freedom in Christ, that freedom to heal and build relationships, slavery?  Partly, it’s to remind us that the freedom of a Christian is not a license to misbehave.  It’s not the Spring Break in Cancun kind of freedom.  The freedom of a Christian comes with responsibility, to do the right thing, to spread the love of God, to work for peace and justice and healing.  We are not freed to do whatever the hell we want.  We are freed to serve God.

But calling our service to God “slavery” is also a way of reminding us that God has to come first.  In his explanation of the first Commandment, Martin Luther points out that having no other gods before the Lord our God isn’t just a matter of not being a Buddhist.  See, our ‘god’ isn’t just the one we name in our prayers and come to worship occasionally.  Our ‘god’ is the number one priority in our life.  Everything else that we do, everything we say, flows from our number one priority.  Is our priority making money?  That’s our God.  Is our priority our kids’ sports?  That’s our God.  Is our priority being liked?  That’s our God.  Is our priority our political ideology?  That’s our God.  Once we set something as the most important thing in our life, we start to shape our life and our thoughts and our hopes and dreams and fears and everything about us.  We put ourselves in service to things, we enslave ourselves, without ever consciously realizing what we’re doing.  We make chains for ourselves.  And some of those things may be very good things!  But if we build our life around them, it will be warped and constraining and lead us to places we do not want to go.  That’s why the first commandment is to put God first.  Because if we put anything else first, it will become our god and it will warp us in its service.

Even love of country can be an idol, if we let it.  I love America.  I am proud to be an American.  I am so grateful to God that I was born here, and while other countries are nice to visit, America is and always shall be my home and beloved native land.  But when we start to say “America first,” when we lift our love of country to the highest place in our hearts, that is idolatry.  Because the highest place in our hearts should belong to God.  God is the only one that can give life and hope and healing and growth.  God uses many channels to give God’s gifts—family, friends, job, country, community—but we must always remember that they are God’s gifts, above all else.

We have been freed from slavery to sin and death by Jesus Christ our Lord.  That means we have a choice.  We get to choose what our priorities will be, what we will hold highest in our heart.  But when we put anything but God in that first place, we become slaves to that thing.  God leads to life, and healing, and right relationships.  May we always hold God first in our hearts, and follow him.

Amen.

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.

Third Sunday after Epiphany, (Year A), January 26, 2014

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1, 4-9, 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.

When we read the letters of Paul in the Bible, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they are letters.  They’re full of weighty theological matters about the nature of God, the nature of community, and what it means to be a Christian.  But they’re also letters about specific people and circumstances.  Paul was an itinerant preacher who traveled around preaching the Gospel and planting churches.  He made his living by making tents and awnings, and spent his evenings preaching and teaching.  When he had a church established in a town, he would pack up his belongings and move on to another city to set up his business and his ministry all over again.  Even though the churches he started were pretty self-sufficient by the time he moved on, they would still write to him for advice.  We don’t have copies of the letters they wrote to him, but the letters Paul wrote back were preserved and circulated to other churches, and eventually ended up in the New Testament.  First Corinthians is one of two letters Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth.

The Christians in Corinth were divided by a lot of issues, which should sound pretty familiar to us today.  They were divided over theology, over how to handle church meals, over where people sat in worship, and over matters of sexual morality.  How many churches today are fighting over what they believe, or about how to interpret the Bible, or about potlucks and soup suppers?  And there are certainly a lot of churches divided today over disagreements about sex and morality!  The Corinthians were also divided along gender lines and class lines and ethnic lines.  And how many churches today are divided between men and women, or rich and poor, or by ethnicity?  How many churches are there where only a certain type of people are welcome?  We have a lot in common with the first Christians who gathered in Corinth, and looked to Paul for guidance.

We don’t know exactly what questions they asked, but I wonder if they were surprised by how Paul responded.  Because, you see, he didn’t start by addressing any of the issues that divided the Corinthians.  He didn’t start in by talking about who should sit where during worship, and he didn’t start in by talking about sexual morality.  He didn’t start out by addressing the role of women, or the economic and ethnic issues that divided them, or even how to interpret the teachings he had handed on to them.  Instead, he started by reminding them of the most basic foundation of their faith, the one point on which all the Gospel rests: the cross of Christ.  He’d address all the other issues over the course of the letter, to be sure, but he starts with the cross of Christ.  Because the cross is why they’re there; the cross is what brings all these people together.

It’s what brings us together, too.  The love of God, poured out for us on the cross through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  No matter what we disagree on; no matter what disputes and disagreements arise, the cross is the core of our faith and our community.  Now, there are a lot of people who don’t like thinking or talking about the cross, even among Christians.  It’s pretty gory, and it can be depressing to think about Jesus death and the reason Jesus died.  To remember that we are sinners.  Have you ever noticed that there are a lot more people in church on Easter Sunday than on Good Friday?

And for people who don’t believe, well, the whole idea of the cross just doesn’t make sense.  There are a lot of people who believe that Jesus was a moral teacher with a lot of good ideas, but the idea that salvation can come through something as barbaric as a crucifixion, well, that they just can’t swallow.  It sounds like foolishness to them.  I remember one Christmas day when I was in seminary, a couple of my cousins sat down with me after dinner and tried to convince me not to become a pastor.  “After all,” they said.  “It’s not like faith and religion make a difference to anybody.  If you want to help people, become a social worker.  If you like Jesus’ teachings, you can still share them.  Why would you want to become a pastor?”  The very idea of God being born in human flesh, and then dying to save a sinful, broken world, was unbelievable to them.  Foolishness.

And yet, in that act of weakness and surrender, when Jesus gave up his life for the very people who rejected and tormented him, God’s power shone forth.  In that act of darkness, in that murder of an innocent, the light shone forth.  In the cross, the gates of Hell were shattered and the chains that bound us were destroyed.  In the cross, God saved the world.  In the cross, the kingdom of heaven comes near to us and the seeds of that kingdom are planted in us and in the world around us.  Paul explained it this way in another letter he wrote: “God demonstrates his love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Christ chose to die for us even though we are sinners, even though we are broken, even though we could never deserve it.  Christ chose to die for us out of the greatest love there is, and that love was powerful enough to remake the world.  That love, poured out on the cross, broke the chains of sin and death and made us free in Christ.

We are here today because of the love shown on that cross.  We are here because experiencing the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ turned his disciples from timid followers who scattered at the first sign of trouble into faithful and courageous men and women who were open to the Spirit’s presence and spread God’s Word.  We are here because throughout the two millennia since then, countless billions of people have heard and been changed by the story of God’s love that comes through the cross, and have known the power of that cross to guide and save them through good times and through the deepest persecution.  We are here because we, too, have seen God’s power in our lives, the power of the one who came to save us by offering his life as a ransom for ours, who calls us by name and asks us to follow.

Paul knew that that power—the Word made flesh, the Love that conquered death and hell—is the ultimate reality for Christians.  It’s the center.  It’s the heart.  Everything we do and everything that we are should flow from that reality.  Every other issue we as Christians face must be guided by the light of the cross.  Everything, from morality to social justice, from theology to worship, from how we handle the problems with the roof to how we handle church potlucks to how we treat people, everything begins and ends with the cross on which Christ died.

It’s easy to forget that, as we go about our busy lives.  Even in church, sometimes, it’s easy to get distracted by the business and politics of running the church and forget about why we’re here.  It’s easy to get distracted by important issues like morality (or the lack of it), or by church attendance, or by our own internal disputes.  And those things are all important!  But more important still is our faith in Jesus Christ, who loves us and calls us to follow him, who died for us on the cross, who transformed us and saved us.  We may disagree on many issues—Christians have been disagreeing for two millennia, since the very beginning!—but we must never forget what brings us together.

Amen.

The Freedom of a Christian

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What difference does the cross make?

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 11), Year C, June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-21, Psalm 32, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

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.

In the last two weeks, we’ve looked at the opening chapter of Galatians.  Paul was upset with the Galatians because they were starting to use human traditions to run their church and determine who was faithful to God, instead of depending on God’s grace and love.  They were looking for salvation in their own works, rather than in God’s grace.  Paul then talked about how God’s Word had come to him, and how it had changed him and sent him out to tell people about God’s love.  Now we come to one of the core parts of Paul’s theology: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

For Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ was at the heart of the Christian experience.  The death and resurrection of Christ was what made it possible—what made it necessary—for people of all backgrounds to come together in a community of faith.  The death and resurrection of Christ is the central event when binds all God’s children together.  We have all been crucified with Christ.  The old ways of doing things—the old ways of looking at the world—have all been superseded by the work of Christ in the world.  We have been changed right down to the very core of our being by Christ’s faithfulness in dying on the cross.

Have you ever seen the movie Pay It Forward?  It’s a very good movie, about a little boy named Trevor, his mother, and his teacher.  The teacher gives all his students an assignment for extra credit: to think up ways to make the world a better place.  Trevor’s idea is to do trying to make the world a better place by doing good deeds, and then challenging each person he helps to do something good for someone else.  Now, it would be really easy for such a movie to be saccharine, overly sweet, showing everything becoming miraculously better.  Pay It Forward doesn’t do that; instead, it confronts the brokenness of the world head-on, showing the ugly realities of addiction, abuse, poverty, bullying, all the many ways in which the world is a broken, sinful place.  It shows all the many ways people hurt one another and fall back into old, bad habits even when they try to do their very best to be better people.  And it does it without becoming overly cynical, either.  The world is still as broken at the end of the movie as it was in the beginning—and yet, Trevor’s actions and his words, his trust and his hope have had a deep and profound impact on the people around him.  The world may be the same, but they are not the same.  They have been transformed, and are better people for having known Trevor.  They’ve seen the world differently; they’ve learned to see themselves and everyone around them differently.  They have learned to open themselves up to possibilities, to step beyond the fears that cripple them.

I think that story gives us a glimpse of what Paul’s getting at here.  The world is a broken, sinful place.  All human beings are broken, sinful people.  Addiction, abuse, poverty, bullying, and injustice affect more of us than we’d like to admit.  And even if you are lucky enough not to directly suffer from any of these, there are so many other ways the brokenness, the sinfulness, of the world can affect us.  There are so many ways our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, can affect others.  No matter how much we try to be good, no matter how much we try to overcome our own faults, no matter how much we try to change the world for the better, we are only a drop in the bucket.  There is pain in the world.  There is pain in us.  And our own ability to do the right thing simply isn’t enough to stop the pain.  And yet.

And yet, we are in Christ and Christ is in us.  Jesus Christ, God who took on human flesh and walked among us.  God who knows our pain, our brokenness, because he shared it.  Jesus spent his time on Earth healing the sick, comforting the brokenhearted.  Jesus never turned away anyone: not the worst sinners, not the self-righteous ones who thought they had no need of forgiveness.  Jesus Christ knows our suffering because he shared it.  And despite our brokenness, despite our sinfulness, despite everything we do to hurt ourselves and one another, Jesus loves us anyways.  Jesus Christ loves us so much that he was willing to die for our sake, to save us and this broken world we live in.  Jesus Christ loves us so much that he was willing to die to heal our brokenness.  And that love, that death, transforms us.

Christ calls us to him on the cross.  He calls us as we are, with all our brokenness, all our faults, all the bad things we have done and all the good things we have failed to do.  We die with him, on the cross; we are crucified with him.  And when we rise with him, we are made new.  We are made whole.  We are redeemed, forgiven, saved, not through any merit of our own but through Christ’s faithfulness and love.

One of the key phrases of Galatians is “faith in Christ.”  Now, that translation is actually somewhat misleading; the Greek phrase that Paul uses doesn’t really have any good way to be translated into English that will capture the whole meaning.  You see, the same words, “πίστεως Χριστοῦ” can be translated in two different ways.  They can mean “faith in Christ,” as in, we have faith in Christ, but they can also mean “the faithfulness of Christ,” as in, we are justified by the faithfulness of Christ—Christ’s faithfulness to us and to the will of the Father.  We are justified—we are made right with God—through Christ’s faithfulness, and through our faith in Christ.  The life we now live comes through faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.

The world is still a broken place.  It will not be healed until Christ comes again.  There will continue to be sin in the world; addiction, fear, hate, jealousy, poverty, bullying, all the evils in the world will continue to affect us until Christ comes again.  Being Christian doesn’t mean we are magically free from all the pain in the world; it doesn’t mean we’ll be rich and successful and have everything go our way.  It doesn’t even mean that we will never sin again.  We still have to deal with the reality of the world.

What Christ’s death and resurrection means is that we do not have to face that world alone.  What Christ’s death and resurrection means is that Christ is with us—in us and around us—every step of the way.  We still struggle; we still fall short of what God has called us to be; we still sin.  And yet we have been transformed by Christ.  We have learned to see the world differently; we have learned to see ourselves differently.  We are not just sinners; we are not just people suffering in a world of pain.  We are people loved and chosen by God, who have seen the profound difference that love makes.  We are people who have learned to open ourselves up to the possibilities that God offers, to step beyond our fears and our doubts knowing that we don’t do so alone.

Our actions and words can’t magically fix all that is wrong with the world.  Our actions and words can’t even fix ourselves.  And yet, we have seen the difference that love makes.  We have seen the difference that Christ makes, in ourselves and in our lives.  We know that pain and brokenness don’t get the last word; we know that in the end, God’s love will make all things new.  And we know that while we wait for Christ to come again, we do not wait alone, for Christ lives in us and we live in Christ.  We don’t do good works to try and fix the world or to earn our way into God’s good books.  We help one another, we love one another, because Christ loves us and wants us to spread that love.  We let Christ shine through our words and our actions because we know Christ.  We have faith in Christ’s faithfulness and love for us.  We pay that love forward so that all will know the transforming power of Christ’s love.

Amen.

The Good News We Don’t Expect

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 10), Year C, June 9, 2013

1 Kings 17:17-24, Psalm 30, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 7:11-17

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.

Today is the second of our six-week study of Galatians.  Last week, we heard why Paul was so mad at the Galatians: they had started putting their own actions, their own ability to follow the traditions of the faithful, above trusting in God’s Grace.  They were turning away from the true Gospel—the Good News that God has saved us—and turning to a false gospel.  This false gospel focused instead on their own ability to do the right thing.  The false gospel was all about works righteousness: if you do the right thing, you will earn God’s love.

This false gospel sounds very logical, very believable.  There’s just one problem with it: that’s not God’s message.  That’s not the Good News that Jesus was sent to bring.  That false gospel is not the Word of God that turned Paul’s life upside down and inside out, and it’s not the Word of God that is still active in our midst today.

Paul grew up in a very faithful family.  He’d spent a lot of time studying the Bible, the Scriptures.  He knew all the things God had asked of his people in the past.  Paul knew all the right things to do to be a faithful follower of God.  He knew all the right prayers, he knew how difficult passages of Scripture should be interpreted.  Paul could probably quote the Bible backwards and forwards.  In every way that humans could measure, he was as perfect a follower of God as anyone could possibly be.

The problem was, he was so sure that his interpretation of the Bible was right that it never occurred to him that God might not agree with him.  It never occurred to him, as a young man, that God might do something different, something new.  And Paul focused so much on doing all the right things and proving himself righteous, that it never occurred to him that God might not think that Paul’s actions were enough to get him in God’s good books.

And so, when Paul heard about people who claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God sent to save God’s people, he was offended.  Jesus had spent time among sinners!  With people who didn’t follow the rules and do everything as good as Paul did, who couldn’t quote Scripture chapter and verse!  Now, any self-righteous person will tell you that obviously God can’t love sinners.  Sinners are people who do things God doesn’t like, so obviously God should spend more time and attention on the righteous people!  It sounds logical, right?  So, if Jesus spent time with sinners, Jesus must not really be from God.  I bet you there are Christians who would think that same thing if Jesus were to come back today.  And, as if that weren’t enough proof that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah, Jesus had died.   Obviously, Paul thought, God would never let his chosen king die.  Particularly not in such a horrible, horrible manner as crucifixion.  It just wasn’t possible.  And because Paul was so sure about all that, so sure he knew what God wanted and how God’s Word was to be interpreted, he persecuted the followers of Jesus.  Because God forbid they lead anyone astray!

But as it turned out, Paul didn’t know what God wanted.  He was wrong.  God loves sinners just as much as he loves everyone else—in fact, we’re all sinners.  Everyone, even people who think they’re as righteous as Paul thought he was.  God loves us anyway!  And God could and did send a Messiah who loved sinners so much he was willing to die for them.  And God could and did work through that death, bringing life to all the world!  You see, what God wanted wasn’t self-righteous fanaticism.  God didn’t want people who knew all the right things to do and so never depended on God.  God didn’t want people who could quote the Scriptures and then use that knowledge to confirm what they already believed.  God wanted people who would listen—truly listen—and be open to the redeeming love of God.  God wanted people to trust that he could and would save them.  And God wanted people to be open to the transforming, life-changing love that God has for all the world.

God revealed all that to Paul.  God showed Paul how wrong he had been, by revealing himself to Paul through Jesus.  God loved Paul even though Paul was dead wrong.  God loved Paul even though Paul had paid more attention to his own understanding than to what God was doing around him.  Now, Paul was a pretty stubborn guy, who was so certain he knew best that he went around attacking the followers of Christ, but God was able to get through to him even so.  Paul didn’t come to know Jesus through Paul’s own merit.  Paul didn’t come to Jesus because he found him and decided to follow him.  No, when Paul heard about Jesus he wanted to stop all of Jesus’ followers!  Paul didn’t listen to Jesus’ moral teachings and decide he had it right; Paul didn’t hear about the miracles and decide that Jesus must be powerful and able to help him.  Nothing Paul did brought him to God—and, in fact, the things that he thought God wanted him to do took him further away from God!

Paul came to know Jesus because Jesus came to him and sought him out.  Paul came to know Jesus because of the grace and love of God, which came to him even though he had done nothing to deserve it, nothing to earn it.  And through that grace and love, through the way God revealed God’s self to Paul through the Son, Jesus Christ, Paul realized that he had been totally wrong.  Paul had been working directly against God!  And yet, God loved him anyway.

That changed Paul’s whole life.  Before coming to know Christ, Paul could never have imagined what God would have in store for him.  Paul had had his life planned out, but God had other plans for him.  And those plans were to spread the story of God’s grace and love—the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ—to all people.  The Good News is that God loves you no matter what.  The Good News is that we are tied to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord, and the sin and brokenness of the world don’t get the final say.  We don’t have to worry about being good enough for God; we don’t have to worry about getting all the traditions right.  We don’t have to worry about being perfect.  We don’t have to be afraid of failing.  All we have to do is trust in the grace and mercy of God, the God who created us, who saves us from sin and death, the God who is always working in us and around us.  All we have to do is let God’s love work in us and through us.

That is Good News, the best news the world has ever had.  That’s the message that God gave Paul to tell the whole world, and it’s the message that God gives us to tell the whole world.  That message sent Paul out through the Roman Empire, telling people about Jesus Christ.  Instead of staying close to home, Paul found himself traveling far and near, talking with people he would never have dreamed of talking to, people who looked differently and dressed differently and spoke a different language and ate different foods.

The message of salvation—the Good News that God had revealed to Paul through Christ Jesus—was a message that resonated with everyone.  It spoke to them.  And it wasn’t Paul’s own gifts for preaching and teaching that did it, either.  The message God gave Paul was greater than he was, greater than I am or you are, greater than anyone who’s ever told it.  That message is something you can’t reason out logically, or prove in a court of law.  It doesn’t depend on anyone’s skill at preaching, and it doesn’t depend on an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holy Scriptures.  Sometimes I hear people say, “I can’t come to Bible study!  I don’t know enough.”  Or, “I can’t share my faith with anyone, I don’t know enough.  Christianity is too big and complex for me to share with my neighbor.”

The Reverend Doctor Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, wrote a thirteen-volume work about theology.  It’s pretty intimidating to think about.  But when someone asked him what the core of the Christian faith was, it didn’t take him long to reply: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  You know that message, and I know it.  The children in our pews today know it, too.  It’s not hard.  Jesus loves me.  That is the core of the message that God revealed to Paul, which changed Paul’s life.  It’s the core of the message Paul told the Galatians and all those to whom he brought the Gospel.  And it’s the core of the message that God has given to us, the message we are called to share with the world.  That message—that Gospel—is the power of God coming to be with us.  That Gospel is the true glory of God.  But like all love, to have any worth it must be shared.  So, like Paul, we are called to share God’s love and grace with the world.  To trust that God’s love will guide us, even if it leads us to places and people we would never have imagined.  May we feel the power of God’s love revealed to us through Jesus Christ, and may we share that love with the world.

Amen.

The Rules We Make

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9), Year C, June 2, 2013

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43, Psalm 96:1-9, Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10

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

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

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

For the next six weeks, we’ll be hearing a lot from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  It’s one of the more important books of the Bible, for it proclaims the heart of the Good News.  There are few other places in the Bible where the Gospel is laid out so clearly.  While many books tell the Good News, Galatians explores what this means for us, and for our journey of faith, in clear and compelling words.  We won’t be reading the whole letter in church, but I highly recommend you read the book for yourselves, and consider what Paul’s words mean for you as we explore the highlights together in worship.  Today we start with the beginning of the letter.

In ancient times, people customarily began letters with a section of thanksgiving.  People from Egypt to Palestine to Greece regularly started out their letters by thanking whatever God they believed in for the person they were writing to.  Paul was no exception.  No matter how messed up the congregation he was writing to was, he found something positive to say about them, some way to lift up what God was doing in their midst.  All of his letters start out by thanking God for the congregation … except his letter to the Galatians.

You can imagine what it was like for the Galatians.  They gather to hear a letter from the man of God who brought them to Christ.  They expect that, even if things are happening that he doesn’t like, he will start off by giving thanks for everything they’re doing right.  Instead, Paul starts by scolding them: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ!”

What had they done to deserve such censure, such attack?  I highly doubt that they thought they were doing anything wrong!  Some new teachers had come, fellow Christians, with a lot of new rules to add to what Paul had given them.  The new teachers were Jewish Christians, who had grown up following the Jewish laws such as circumcision and dietary laws, and wanted the Galatians to do the same.  After all, both Jesus whom they worshipped and Paul who had brought them to the faith were themselves Jews, who were circumcised and kept the Jewish Laws.  Circumcision was a physical symbol that you belonged to God.  If a man was circumcised, he was a faithful follower of God.  If he wasn’t circumcised, he was an outsider, not a true follower of God.  Circumcision was the mark of a Jew—it had been for centuries the thing that set followers of the One True God apart from all the other so-called gods out there.  So shouldn’t these new followers of God do the same?  It all sounds so nice and logical.  A good way to prove that even though they started off as outsiders, non-Jews, they are now on the inside track to faithfulness.

Paul heard about what they were doing, and he hit the roof.  This was worse than anything any other group had done, even worse than the Corinthians and their divisions and immorality.  Why?  Because in putting their trust in circumcision and belonging to the “in” group, the Christians in Galatia were starting to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in Christ.  They were trusting to tradition rather than to the will of God.  They had been freed by the Gospel, but they went right out and began their new life in Christ by hedging themselves in with new laws.

The Galatians weren’t alone in this tendency, of course.  Humans throughout history have preferred to put their trust in their own actions, rather than in God.  It seems that every time God’s Word comes to us, we celebrate it … and then go right on depending on our own actions rather than on God’s saving grace.  God gives us a precious gift in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That gift is given for the salvation of the world, and it is greater than anything we on our own could possibly do.  Yet still we look for ways to do it ourselves, rules and laws and traditions to follow that will save us, instead of trusting in God’s love.  For the Galatians, and for many of the first Christians who came to Christianity from the Jewish faith, those rules and traditions were centered in circumcision and dietary laws. But it seems like every generation builds up its own lists of things people must do to be saved.

In the 16th Century in Germany, at the height of the Reformation, one of the things that Martin Luther hated most about the Roman Catholic Church was the way it had created so many obligations for the faithful.  In order to get to heaven, you had to pray the right way at the right times, confess your sins and do the proper penance, fast from certain foods at certain times the church specified, and follow many other rules and guidelines set down by the church.  Now, I think we all agree that praying is a good thing!  All Christians should pray.  And confessing your sins and being forgiven is also a good thing, and fasting can be a very effective spiritual discipline.  None of the things the Roman Catholic Church required were bad by themselves: what was bad was that they said you could only be saved if you did all those things the way the Catholic Church told you to.  Instead of relying on the grace and mercy of God, they taught people to rely on their own ability to do the right things.  So, the Reformers—the first Lutherans and Calvinists and Anabaptists—quite rightly told the world that salvation didn’t depend on all the rules and rituals the Roman Catholics required.

But, a generation or two later, some Reformers had started their own lists of things people had to do to earn their salvation.  Different things than the Roman Catholics, of course, but they still drew people away from relying on God’s grace.  So the reformers had to fight the same battle over again, teaching people to rely on God’s grace instead of their own actions.  How’s that for irony?  It seems like we humans would rather do anything rather than rely on God’s promises and love.  We know that there are things that can help us be faithful to God, things that can help us grow in our love for God and our fellow human beings.  Prayer, reading the Bible, acts of fellowship and charity, all can help us grow spiritually.  All can help us follow God more closely.  But our salvation doesn’t depend on them.  What are some of the things we Christians today hold up as essential for salvation?  What things do we tell ourselves we have to do to be saved?

We human beings were created by God to be good, but we became broken by sin and death.  So no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, we fall short of the goodness that God created us to be.  We do the wrong things.  We convince ourselves that we know best, and that we’re doing just fine on our own.  We tell ourselves that our sins don’t matter.  We blind ourselves to the suffering of our neighbors, and sometimes we even add to it.  And then we look at a world that has been broken by sin and death just as we have, and think we can fix it all.  We come up with rules and traditions to help us come closer to God, and then we pay more attention to those rules and traditions than to God’s call.  But no matter how helpful our rules and traditions may be, they can never take the place of God’s love.  We cannot be saved by our own actions and words, because our actions and our words are just as flawed as we are ourselves.  No matter how self-sufficient we would like to be, we depend on God’s love and grace for every good thing in our lives.

Our salvation depends on the love of Christ Jesus, who came to this earth and was born as a baby, truly human and truly God, both human and divine in one person.  For God so loved the world that he came to us as one of us, taking on human frailty and weakness.  Jesus taught people about God; he showed them the love of God in word and deed.  He healed the sick and the broken.  He ate with sinners and tax collectors, with the outcasts, the ones society cast out, and he forgave them their sins and loved them.  And when the authorities felt threatened by his radical generosity, he died so that all the world might be saved from their sins.  For God so loved the world that he would let nothing come between us—not sin, not brokenness, and not death.  Jesus Christ was willing to die for us.  And now, because of God’s saving actions, there is nothing in this world—not life, not death, not rules or rulers, not angels or demons, nothing we do or fail to do—can separate us from the love of God.  Salvation is not something we do; the Good News is not just another set of rules.  Salvation is something that God does.  The Good News is that God loves us no matter what, that no matter how much we fail or go astray, God will still keep coming to us with the gift of his precious love.

Amen.  Thanks be to God.

A different kind of “success” story

The Sixth Sunday After Easter, Year C, May 5, 2013

Acts 16:6-15, Psalm 67, Revelation 21:10, 22-22:6, John 14:23-31

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

We have this picture in our heads of what a successful life following Jesus will look like.  We have this picture in our heads of what a faithful ministry looks like.  And it goes something like this: because we are faithful to Jesus, and Jesus blesses us, everything should go right.  All ministries undertaken in Jesus’ name should prosper, and prosper immediately, or else something is wrong.  If we are unsuccessful, either in our ministry to others, or in our ordinary life, something must be badly wrong.  If there are arguments within the congregation, something is badly wrong.  Either Jesus is not with us, or we are not being truly faithful.  And if something is that badly wrong, well, you might as well give up.  We often think that the opposite is true, too: if a church has lots of members and lots of money, then they must be truly good followers of Christ.

And then we come to today’s reading from Acts.  Now, most of Acts tells the kinds of stories one might expect: awesome preaching, crowds of thousands converted to Christianity at a time, heroic saints suffering trials and persecution for their faith and being vindicated by God.  The sort of grand, larger than life things that we don’t often see in our daily life, the kind of thing we feel should always be the result of good ministry and the preaching of the Gospel.  Today’s reading, however, tells a different story.  In the midst of all this success, in the midst of grand deeds and epic stories, Paul and Timothy have a few setbacks.

Just before today’s reading, Paul had been at Jerusalem with Barnabus, pleading with the elders of the faith to allow Gentiles to become Christians.  Up to that point, Gentiles—that is, non-Jews—had only been allowed to be followers of Christ if they converted to Judaism and adhered to the entire Jewish law in addition to the teachings of Christ.  This made sense to the first Christians; after all, Jesus and all his early followers had been Jewish, and followed those laws, so surely Jesus would want all his followers to do the same?  But those laws included a requirement that all males be circumcised, and also included stringent laws about what you could and couldn’t eat, and how your meat had to be slaughtered and how all your food had to be cooked.  For people who didn’t grow up with such laws, who lived in places where there weren’t many Jewish butchers and stores, such requirements were a burden that prevented them from following Jesus.  Paul had gone to Jerusalem to request that those who weren’t Jewish be spared such a burden, that they might find it easier to come to Christ.  The Council of Jerusalem had, with the help of the Holy Spirit, agreed to Paul’s reasoning.  So he travelled around to Gentile Christian communities to let them know the good news.

But things weren’t all rosy.  Paul had a sharp disagreement with one of his fellow missionaries, Barnabus, which resulted in the two of them parting ways.  They’d been together for some time at that point; Barnabus and Paul had been through a lot together, and had been very successful.  But they had an argument, a big enough one that the two went their separate ways.  Paul chose two other companions, Silas and Timothy, and tried to continue on with his missionary work.  But almost immediately, they faced setbacks.

They were in the Syrian region and travelled through what is now Turkey, but the Holy Spirit forbade them to speak the word in Asia.  We don’t know how the Spirit did that; maybe they tried and failed.  Maybe they couldn’t muster up anything to say.  Maybe they had a bad feeling about it.  We do know that prohibition from speaking the Word in Asia wasn’t permanent, because several of the churches that Paul founded and wrote to were in that region of Asia—including the Ephesians, the Colossians, the Galatians.  In fact, Paul had planted some congregations there before heading to Jerusalem for the Council meeting.  Asia had proved to be a fertile mission ground in the past, but it just wasn’t working now.  So they tried to go north to Bythinia, on the northern edge of what is now Turkey, and again God prevented them.  Having crossed Turkey from South to North, they head West, hoping that something will change and they can achieve the same successes Paul had had on previous missionary journeys.

When we look at it on a map, it doesn’t look like much.  By modern standards, Turkey is not that big a country.  A few hour’s drive in a car will get you pretty much anywhere you want to go.  But they didn’t have cars, back then.  They didn’t have police to keep the roads safe.  If you wanted to get anywhere, either you rode a horse or a donkey or you walked.  And Paul would not have been able to afford a horse or a donkey, and there wasn’t really a central church body that could have bought him one.  So Paul and Timothy and Silas would have been walking with everything they owned on their backs.  What takes us hours of relative comfort would have taken them days.  And unlike modern missionaries, Paul was not a professional church leader.  He did not get paid any kind of money to spread the Gospel; he was a tent-maker, who supported himself by his work.  He’d set up shop in a town, working and talking about Jesus with his customers, and on the Sabbath he’d preach, and between the contact he made while working his day job and the people who listened to him preach, he would soon have a new congregation meeting in somebody’s house.  Then, once the congregation was going strong, he’d move on to another city.  But if the Spirit was telling him to keep moving, he wasn’t going to be doing much work.  Money would have been getting tight.

So imagine what it would have been like.  Think of how frustrating that must have been for all of them.  They’d been on the road, walking, for such a long time.  They’d been trying to do God’s will and spread God’s Word, and had been stymied at every turn.  They were a long way from home among people who didn’t speak the same language or eat the same food.  Tired, hungry, low on money, far from home.  And they had nothing to show for it.  Not one thing.  Not one person given the gift of faith in Christ Jesus.  Not one community brought together around the love of God.  Nobody saved, nobody healed, nothing at all in reward for their efforts.

And then something strange happens.  Paul had a vision that they were called to Macedonia, which is in the Northern part of Greece.  Now, Greece isn’t part of Asia, as Turkey is; it’s part of Europe.  Paul and his companions hadn’t intended to go to Europe.  They were trying to do God’s work in Asia, where God had called them before, where they’d had such great success.  But that wasn’t where God wanted them anymore, and it took some wandering around to figure out what God was calling them to do next.  Once they got there, things didn’t go according to plan, either.  Usually, Paul would set up a booth and start working in the market-place, and go preach in the synagogues or wherever people gathered in the city.  This time, something drew him and his companions someplace else: outside of the city of Phillipi, to a group of women gathered for prayer.  God was calling them there, because there was a businesswoman named Lydia there, who heard the message and was baptized, along with her household.  And she helped them in their mission, giving them a place to stay and other resources they needed for ministry.

Paul’s mission to the Gentiles in Europe was not a perfect success story.  It started out with failure: the failure of their preaching in Asia.  It started out with conflict, as Paul broke from his long-term partner in the Gospel, Barnabus.  It started out in confusion, as they wandered around trying to figure out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t perfect.  It wasn’t an overnight success.  And I would bet you anything you please that Paul and Silas and Timothy were discouraged and disheartened as they tried to figure out what to do next.  But even in that confusion and discouragement, through failure and conflict, God was with them, calling them to where he wanted them.  It wasn’t anywhere they’d planned to go; it wasn’t anything like what they’d done before.  And if you took a look at them wandering around aimlessly trying to figure out what God was calling them to do, they would have seemed like the opposite of the success stories we associate with following Christ.  But following God through that period of wandering brought them to a new place, a good place for ministry, a place hungry for the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.

God calls people in all kinds of ways, and God calls people and communities to do all kinds of things that they wouldn’t have dreamed up on their own.  Sometimes there are failures along the way; sometimes there are periods of aimless wandering.  Something that looks barren and fruitless on the surface can lead eventually to new life in Christ—if we follow Christ through the disappointments and failures to the goodness he promises us.  That can be so difficult; it’s a lot easier just to live on past glories and continue doing the same thing we’ve always done; it’s even easier to fall into doom and gloom and spend all our time wondering what’s wrong.  But imagine what would have happened if Paul and his friends had given up and gone home.  Imagine what would have happened if they’d stayed in Asia because that was where they’d had good success in the past.  Imagine what would have happened if they’d stuck to their standard pattern of mission-work in the city center instead of going outside to meet Lydia and the women with her.  Imagine what would have happened if they hadn’t been open to the Holy Spirit calling them to do something new.  May God grant us the strength to follow their example.

Amen.