Fruits of the Spirit: Communication

Pentecost, Year C, June 9, 2019

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:14-17, John 14:8-17

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

Video of sermon on Facebook

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.

One of the cool things I’ve seen done at Pentecost is to have the Acts reading read by people in different languages.  After all, that’s what the story is about: the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in tongues, which here means the ability to speak new languages they’d never learned.  A bunch of hicks from Galilee, who spoke Aramaic and a smattering of Hebrew and barely enough Greek to ask for directions suddenly found themselves speaking not only fluent Greek, but also Latin, Farsi, Arabic, Luri, Akkadian, Luwian, Hittite, Berber, and possibly a few other languages as well.  Because they spoke all of these languages, they were able to spread the Good News of Jesus by telling all these different people about him and what his life, death, and resurrection meant for all of creation.  It was a great miracle that brought many people to Jesus.  And, so, we commemorate and re-enact it by reading the story in many different languages, whatever languages people in the congregation speak, often multiple readers in multiple languages at the same time.  I’ve heard this passage read in Greek, Arabic, Norwegian, Swedish, German, French, Spanish, Asante, Swahili, and others, whatever language they could find someone to speak.

They don’t even have to speak the language well!  Sometimes you can get someone fluent in a particular language, but a lot of the time it’s somebody who hasn’t spoken that language since college, or since their grandparents died.  As long as they can read aloud in that language, they’re good, even if they don’t remember the language well enough to understand what they are reading.  Nor do they have to be understood by the congregation: I’ve most often seen this done in congregations where most of the members spoke only English, or maybe had a little bit of another language but not enough to understand the reading.  Even when a large portion of the congregation is fluent enough in a particular language to understand the reading in that language, there are often multiple languages being read, so that nobody can understand any of them.  It was always fun, and memorable, and cool.  And it can be a good way of lifting up the gifts and heritages of many people in the congregation.  And it’s a reminder that no matter what language you speak or where you are from, the Gospel is the same for everyone and we are all brothers and sisters in Christ no matter where we’re from, what language we speak, or what culture we’re from.

Those are all good messages, but unfortunately they miss the point of the story.  See, the story is not about the languages themselves, the story is about communication.  In order to tell people about the love of God in Christ Jesus, you have to speak their language.  You have to communicate.  You have to be able to tell the story and its meaning in ways that people can understand.  And it’s not enough to just get the bare bones of the story across; you have to be able to tell the story in a way that they can connect to it.  This is not about people stumbling through a language they barely know; this is about being fluent enough to really connect with people.  This is not a story about lifting up a few languages from the sidelines and giving ourselves a pat on the back for how diverse we are.  This is a story about God’s people learning to communicate with those who are different from them, and being sent out into the world to do so.

After Jesus’ resurrection, his followers were doing basically the same thing they’d done between his death and resurrection: staying within their own group, often indoors, where it was safe and everybody knew and loved Jesus.  They stayed with places and people they were familiar with, comfortable with.  People like them, people who didn’t need the whole story explained to them, people who understood what they’d been through.  They went back to fishing.  They stayed in the upper room.  Despite Jesus telling them repeatedly to go out into the world and spread the Good News, they stayed where they were and shared the Good News with people who already knew and appreciated it.  It was safer, and it was easier.  If it had been up to them, they would have stayed right where they were, and their group would never have grown, and eventually they would have died off.  Maybe they would have succeeded in passing it on to their kids, and it would have become one more minor sect of Judaism.  Who knows.

But God didn’t leave it up to them.  God sent the Holy Spirit to them roaring like a freight train, and he literally set them on fire for Jesus.  And God gave them the ability to speak to all of the people in the crowd outside their doors.  God drove them outside their comfort zone and gave them everything they needed to tell their story—God’s story—in whatever way their audience could hear it best.  And because they were speaking the languages people knew, because they were not just speaking but communicating, other people heard the Good News and turned to Jesus.  That miracle—evangelists knowing the language of the people they’re trying to reach without having to study—has never been repeated.  But it was the foundation of the Christian church as more than just a handful of Palestinian Jews.

This story asks us two questions: who are the people right outside our doors that we should be reaching out to, but aren’t?  And second, what do we need to learn to be able to communicate with them?  Like those first Christians, we are awfully comfortable inside our own walls, talking with the people who already know and love the Good News of the Gospel.  We are very comfortable talking with the people who already speak our language.  We are very comfortable talking with the people we already know, the people who are like us, the people that we understand and who understand us.  But God did not give us the Holy Spirit just so we could stay comfortably inside our doors talking with people who already believe.  God sent us the Holy Spirit so that we could go out into the world, so that God would be with us always, everywhere, so that we can have courage and participate in God’s work in the world.  God called us to love all people, not just the people like us; and it’s hard to love people you don’t know and never spend any time with.

As we reach out and build new relationships with the people outside our doors, a new problem crops up: communication.  Unlike at the first Pentecost, most of them know at least the bare bones of Jesus’ story, but they’ve never seen how that story connects with their own lives.  We may speak the same language, but we use it differently.  Words like sin, salvation, redemption, justification, grace, righteousness—all those nice churchy words that mean so much to us, are not part of their vocabulary.  To a lot of non-churchgoers today, the word “sin” doesn’t mean much besides “a word that self-righteous jerks use to bash people they don’t like.”  But sin hasn’t disappeared just because the word isn’t used by the general public.  If you translate the concept of sin into words they’re more familiar with—brokenness, selfishness, violence, being twisted—people get what you’re talking about, even if they’ve never been to church in their lives.  Because they’ve seen all those things, and the damage they do.  The Holy Spirit led the first followers of Jesus to speak other languages so that they could spread the Good News; it’s calling us to find new ways to communicate with people in our community who share our language but have never connected with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  May we, like the people at that first Pentecost, follow the Spirit’s call.

Amen.

Lit Up By The Spirit

Pentecost, Year B, May 20, 2018

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, Romans 8:22-27, John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

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

 

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

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

One of the interesting things about the story of Pentecost is what came before it.  Jesus, after his resurrection, appeared to the disciples and the rest of his followers several times.  He reassured them, he comforted them, he ate with them … and he told them to go out into the world to share their faith.  He told them that he wouldn’t be with them personally, but he would send the Holy Spirit to them, to help them and guide them and inspire them along the way.  And then he ascended into heaven, after telling them again to go into the world and spread their faith.

What are the disciples doing, a week later, on the day of Pentecost?  Why, sitting together in a room, just like they had been on Easter.  What weren’t they doing?  Going out into the world and sharing their faith as they had been commanded.  Now, they hadn’t been idle.  They’d done some necessary things, like sorting out leadership and sharing the stories of Jesus in the group to build the faith of the people who were already Jesus’ followers.  This sort of preparation and planning and sharing is very necessary to success.  But the problem was, that’s where they were leaving things.  They had the Word of God.  They had the preparations and infrastructure.  And what were they doing with it?  Sitting on their butts where it was comfortable and safe.  Not following Jesus’ commands to go out into the world and share the good news.

And then the Holy Spirit came.  It burst into their room, lit them up, and sent them out.  In fact, if you notice, there is no transition between being in the room and being out among the crowd.  The Spirit comes in, and suddenly they’re somewhere else.  It makes me wonder if the transition was so fast, so confusing, that they simply didn’t remember it well enough to tell the story, afterwards.  Sometimes life is like that when things happen quickly, especially if the Spirit is involved.  When I entered the process of becoming a minister, it was like that.  I remember knowing God was calling me to ministry and stubbornly not wanting to do it.  I remember filling out paperwork and meeting with the Synod committee.  But even at the time, I didn’t remember actually making the decision.  I don’t remember when things changed from “I’m not doing this” to “I’m doing this.”  I didn’t see any fire or wind, and I didn’t suddenly start speaking in other languages (which might have been helpful when it came to learning Greek and Hebrew).  But the Holy Spirit came, and set my feet on a new path, one I’d been resisting even as I did things that prepared for it.

Have any of you had an experience like that?  A time in your life when God set you on a path you hadn’t expected?  Or maybe one that you hadn’t wanted, but that turned out to be the right one for you?  God’s call isn’t just a matter of ministry.  God sends the Spirit into us to guide us in many ways, both within church and outside of it.  Some of you who are being Confirmed today, or who will be graduating in a week, you might not have experienced this yet.  But I’m pretty sure that some time in your life, you will.  Your lives are just beginning, and so far there’s been a lot of preparation, a lot of study, a lot of getting ready.  Some of you have plans for your future, some of you don’t, but you will each and every one of you find there are times in your life when God has a different plan for you than you expected.  It may be something big, it may be something small, but you will find yourself someplace you never expected to be.  But you won’t be alone, no matter what else happens, because the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Acts reading, the Pentecost story itself, the Holy Spirit is very impressive.  It is fire and wind and inspiration and it literally sets the disciples on fire for the Lord and sends them out on the wind to minister to people from every nation in the world.  And there will be times in your life, we pray, when you will get fired up like that.  When your faith will be strengthened and you can’t not follow God’s call, whatever that may be in your life, and it leads you to be and do things you never dreamed, to places you might not have chosen on your own but which will nevertheless be good for you.  It may be as obvious as Pentecost, or it may be a bit subtler, but it will be amazing and probably a little scary.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our Gospel reading, the Spirit isn’t as showy, or as wild, but it is just as strong.  Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit as an Advocate, who will speak in our favor and defend us and support us, who will help us know the truth even when the world tries to confuse us or just doesn’t understand.  And there will be times in your life when the Spirit will be your Advocate.  There will be times when you will be confused.  There will be times when the world’s ideas of right and wrong are just not true.  There will be times when the right thing to do may not be obvious, and times when you will be tempted to do things you know are wrong.  There will be times when you need your faith encouraged and supported in the midst of a world that doesn’t understand.  And we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you in those times of trial, advocating for you and strengthening you and showing you the right thing to do and say, and giving you the courage to face the world with faithfulness and goodness.  And again, it may not be obvious when you’re going through it that the Holy Spirit is there; sometimes, when you are going through hard times it’s difficult to see God’s presence in you and around you.  But the Holy Spirit will be with you.

In our second reading, from Romans, the Spirit is a comforter in times of trouble.  Saint Paul describes the whole world as groaning in labor pains, with the future Kingdom of God on its way but not here yet.  Like a woman in labor, we know that something good is coming … but there is pain and hardship before it can get here.  In this life, there is pain and sorrow and grief.  There are hard times.  There are people who hurt others, or allow others to be hurt through inaction.  There are all kinds of evils.  And sometimes it seems so hopeless we don’t even know what to pray for.  But even in the midst of that we have hope, because the Spirit is in us, and we know that God’s kingdom of peace and love and joy is coming even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t imagine that anything good could possibly come out of a world as messed up as this one.  There will be times when your life will suck.  Times when you will suffer.  Times when hope seems foolish.  But we pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you then.  That it will wrap its arms around you and hold you tight, and know the longings of your heart, even when you feel too bad to express them.  Even when you are at your very lowest ebb, when you are weak and beaten up by the storms of life, the Spirit will be with you, supporting you, working on your behalf.  The Spirit will know all the darkest places in your heart, all the times when you feel like just giving up, and it will be with you.

You are going out into the world in new ways.  Some of you are graduating and leaving town for further schooling or work.  Some of you are staying here and continuing to grow in our midst, but you will be making promises and taking responsibility for more of your own faith development.  But no matter what stage of life you are in, or where you are going, always remember this: the Holy Spirit will be with you.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Where the Spirit blows

Pentecost, June 8, 2014

Acts 2:1-21, Psalm 104:24-34, 1 Corinthians 12:3-13, John 20:19-23

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.

I have a confession to make. I have never seen the Holy Spirit manifest as tongues of fire, and I have never heard anyone speak in tongues. Nor have I ever participated in the kind of mass spiritual experience described in our lesson from Acts, in which thousands of people come to the faith. When I hear of miracles, my first reaction is often skepticism, and when I go to a worship service full of people waving their arms and jumping and dancing and shouting “Amen!” as they feel moved during the service, I feel uncomfortable. And since this is a common attitude for Lutherans and other mainline Christians, I bet there are many of you out there who would agree with me.

This may be why we don’t pay as much attention to the Holy Spirit as we do to the Father and to the Son. Today is Pentecost, which in some Christian traditions is the third holiest day of the Christian year, behind Easter and Christmas. We do celebrate this day more than ordinary Sundays—We dress up! But we certainly don’t plan the service as carefully as we do Christmas and Easter, and people don’t tend to plan big family celebrations for Pentecost Sunday. We don’t expect it to be a big day, just like we don’t expect the Holy Spirit to be a major factor in our lives.

That’s okay, though, because the first followers of Jesus weren’t expecting the Holy Spirit, either, and it came just the same. Imagine the disciples. Jesus had died and was risen again, but they were quite comfortable in their meeting rooms behind closed doors. They were a small group: twelve men, about that many women, a few other miscellaneous people. Outside their doors were the people who had killed Jesus and would be quite willing to kill them, too, if they started making waves. Since Jesus had showed up after the Resurrection, they weren’t quivering in fear, but they weren’t going out and shouting their story to the rooftops, either. They were comfortable. Secure. Happy. They’d been praying, and they’d been talking and retelling the stories about Jesus. But they didn’t know what was coming.

And what came was the Holy Spirit. It dragged them out into the square, and it inspired them to speak, to tell the story of Jesus. Because what God needed then was for the story to spread beyond their walls, beyond their small group. God needed them to spread the word, and so he sent the Holy Spirit to empower them. Empower—it sounds like such a “new-age” word, a word of psychologists and social theorists. Yet that is literally what the Spirit does: it puts power into people. Power to do God’s will—and the skills needed to do it.

I would bet anything you want to name that, had the full planning of the missionary work been left up to those first followers, it wouldn’t have looked anything like this. “Well, we can only talk to the other Jews, because we all know Hebrew and Aramaic. A couple of us know Greek, they can speak to any God-fearing Greeks we find. But there’s no point in seeking out the foreign Jews who don’t speak Hebrew anymore, because we won’t be able to speak with them. We just don’t have the gifts.” That’s what they would have said. “Who can we put in charge?” they would have asked. “Who’ll be the spokesman?” If anyone had suggested Peter, they would probably have laughed. Let’s remember that Peter wasn’t his real name; his parents had named him Simon. Peter was a nickname, and it meant “Rocky.” Peter was a real rock, all right; solid, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth type who would not win any contest of smarts or charisma. Peter’s most common contribution to the disciples was to get things spectacularly wrong so that everybody else had an example of what not to do. He got several things right … and always followed up his good ideas with something boneheaded. Peter, good ol’ Rocky, as the public face of the organization? Rocky as a preacher? Naaaah. He just didn’t have what it takes.

Many churches, if you give them an idea of something they could do, some new ministry they could try or people they could help, will respond with reasons why they can’t. “We couldn’t possibly do it! We don’t know enough, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have anybody who could or would do that …” And I bet you the early church would have been no different. After all, what happened on Pentecost is a lot bigger than starting up a food pantry or sending people out to build handicap ramps or do a mission trip.

And yet, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit empowered them. The Holy Spirit swept into their lives like a rushing wind, and they listened to it. They might not have chosen the things the Spirit empowered them to do, but they listened when it came to them. They followed where it led them, and they all—particularly Peter, good ol’ Rocky—used the gifts it gave them to do the ministry it called them to do. I bet it was scary. I bet it was nerve-wracking, to get out there and trust that the Holy Spirit was going to give them the ability to speak in new languages. They could have said no, but they didn’t. They could have said, “My it’s windy today! Better close the windows tight!” and kept on praying, in their back rooms. But they didn’t. They realized it was the Holy Spirit, and they followed it. And the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to do what needed to be done.

I’ve never seen tongues of flames; I’ve never seen people speaking in tongues. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen other gifts of the Spirit. Because even though we don’t pay much attention to the Spirit, it is here among us, blowing. It is here among us, empowering. It is here among us, equipping us for the ministry that God is calling us to. Which may not be the ministry we’re expecting. But whatever God is calling us to, God is also giving us gifts to handle.

The Spirit gives many gifts. Saint Paul lifts up a few of them in his letter to the Corinthians. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing both spiritual and physical, prophecy, discernment of spirits, interpretation, miracles … these are all gifts of the Spirit. But do we notice them? Do we acknowledge them as such, or do we dismiss them? A lot of times we take the gifts of the Spirit for granted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with Christians over the years where someone pointed out a gift they or their church had, only to hear them dismiss it in the next breath, find some reason why it wasn’t enough, wasn’t what they needed, wasn’t useful for the ministry of the church. Unless there are bolts of lighting and literal tongues of fire, we don’t tend to notice these gifts of the Spirit for what they are. At the Synod Assembly last weekend, I heard several pastors get up and talk about great things happening in their congregations. And although they were all good pastors whom I respect and admire, it wasn’t the pastors’ actions that were making things happen. It was the congregations, who were willing to respond when someone pointed out what gifts the Holy Spirit had given them. They noticed the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they listened to where the Spirit was calling them, and it has led them to do some amazing things.

Something else to notice from Paul’s account in Corinthians is that nobody gets all the gifts. Everyone has different gifts, and quite often they go together: someone gets knowledge, and someone else gets the wisdom to know how to use that knowledge. Someone gets the gift of tongues, and someone else gets the gift of how to interpret it. It’s only when you start putting those gifts together—when people come together to form the body of Christ—that things start to happen. It can’t be just one or two people—no matter how talented and dedicated. It has to be the body, together, using the gifts the Spirit has given for the common gift of ministry.

When the Spirit came to them, those first Christians were ready. They went where it sent them, they realized the gifts the Spirit had given them, and they used those gifts as the Spirit called them to. And because they did, the Spirit did great things through them. May we, too, learn to hear the Spirit’s call and follow where it leads.

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.

Wherever the Spirit blows

Pentecost, Year C, May 18, 2013

Genesis 11:1-9, Psalm 104:24-35, Acts 2:1-21, John 14:8-17, 25-27

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.

Boy, we had a lot of wind this week!  A lot of wind.  I was down in Bismarck on Tuesday, and I could see the stop signs and street lights waving in the wind.  It was a novel sight for me—back home in Oregon, I would never have seen metal poles anchored in concrete move.  But here in North Dakota, when the wind gets whipping around, it happens.  Wind here is such a dramatic metaphor for the Spirit.  You see, the Holy Spirit and wind are alike in a way.  You can’t see wind, just as you can’t see the Holy Spirit.  But you can sure see what it’s doing.

Before Jesus was crucified, he told his followers what was coming.  He would leave them, and he would send them the Holy Spirit.  Now, the disciples were very worried.  They didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them; they couldn’t imagine that anything which resulted in Jesus dying might work out.  They were afraid of being without Jesus.  They were afraid of what might happen when they no longer had Jesus there to tell them what God wanted and guide them in God’s way.  So Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father, and Jesus responded by saying they’d seen the Father—because after all, the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit are all one.  So, since they know Jesus, they know the Father as well, and the Holy Spirit.  And once Jesus was gone, he would send them the Holy Spirit to be with them always, so that God would still be with them even if Jesus was no longer physically present for them to see and touch.

This made the disciples nervous, and I can understand why.  When Jesus was right there with them, it was easy to feel the presence of God.  They could see him, touch him, sit down and have a meal with him and talk about who God was, what it meant to be God’s people, and what God was calling them to do.  This “advocate” Jesus told them of, this “Spirit,” that’s a lot more difficult to see and feel.  And it’s a lot easier to misunderstand.  Just like with the wind, you see the Spirit’s effects, and not the Spirit itself.  If you’re looking out a window and see a stop sign shaking, it could be the wind—or it could be an earthquake.  Or there could be construction guys using heavy equipment nearby.  You have to make a judgment call—which is it?  And for me, at least, I haven’t lived in North Dakota long enough for “wind” to be the first thing I think of.

The Spirit’s effects can be more difficult to discern than the effects of wind.  You have to be watching for it, and open to the possibility of God working among us.  Just look at the lesson from Acts.  The Holy Spirit filled the disciples, sending them out from the rooms they’d been hiding away in.  They went out into the community and began to tell people about their experiences with Jesus.  Even more than that, they spoke in many different languages, so that everyone could understand them.  And some people heard them and believed, but others heard them and thought they must be drunk.  To us who know Jesus, who hear this story with the benefit of hindsight, it seems incredible that they could miss God’s actions in this story.  This was a great miracle, and yet they couldn’t see it!  They looked for reasons to doubt, for other explanations.  They were faithful people—they were all in Jerusalem to celebrate a major Jewish religious festival at the Temple—and yet, when God intervened directly in their midst, they couldn’t see it.  They weren’t expecting it, and so they found other explanations that made more sense to them.

Sometimes, we do the same thing.  Be honest: how often do you actually look for God’s presence in your life?  How often do you see something happening around you and wonder if it might be the Holy Spirit?  Too often, we simply don’t see the Spirit because we’re not looking for it.  We shrug and explain things as coincidence, or as the result of a whole host of reasons.  And that may very well be true—but that doesn’t mean the Spirit can’t be working through those things!  Throughout the Bible and the history of Christianity, God has done amazing things that the people at the time would never have thought of.  Without the Holy Spirit, Peter and the rest of the disciples would never have gone out there to preach to the crowds, and, later, it would never have occurred to them to spread the message of Jesus to non-Jews.  And without the Holy Spirit, the crowds who heard the disciples’ story on that first Pentecost would never have believed.  Without the Spirit, those crowds would have remained divided by race and language.  Without the Spirit, nothing is possible; but with the Spirit, all sorts of things are possible.  But if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t looking for the way the Spirit is moving, we can miss seeing it just like some of those who saw the first Pentecost did.

We look back at what the Holy Spirit did in the Bible, at stories like Pentecost, and it’s easy to think that nothing like that could happen now.  That was a long time ago, and I haven’t seen any tongues of flame, have you?  Yet we know the Holy Spirit is with us, because Jesus promised to give it to us.  We may not always recognize its work in our lives and in our world, but it is with us always.  And it can do amazing things, whether we recognize it or not.  The Spirit comforts us in our sorrows, inspires us, connects us to God, and guides us in our journey through life.  The Spirit leads us to do things we would never have believed we could do, to places we would never have believed we would be.  The Spirit brings us together as God’s people and forms us into the body of Christ.  And, when this broken, sinful world brings sorrows and griefs, the Spirit comforts us and shows us God’s love.

We are given the gift of the Spirit in our baptisms, and that is an awesome gift.  In baptism, we are washed clean.  Our old sinful self is drowned and we rise to new life in Christ.  And the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  We are, in the words of the baptismal rite, “sealed by the Holy Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit dwells within each one of us.  No matter what happens, no matter what we do or where we go, the seal of the Holy Spirit goes with us.  Even when we can’t see the Spirit moving, we know it is with us.  Even when we can’t feel its effects, we know it is with us.

Rylan and Roslin will be receiving that gift of the Spirit here today.  It’s an awesome gift!  It’s not the end of their journey towards God; it is the beginning of their journey with God.  We here are all making that journey.  It’s not a journey to take alone.  Christianity is not, at heart, about being alone with God.  Christianity is about coming together in the community of faith, to support and encourage one another and to be the Body of Christ in the world.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings us together despite our differences.  It is the Holy Spirit that guides us along that journey and helps us to be faithful to God.  It is the Holy Spirit that helps us to share God’s story with all people, and it is the Holy Spirit that sends us out into the world to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world.

When people are baptized, we promise to support them in their life as Christians.  We welcome them into the family of faith.  In the case of children, we promise that we will help their parents and godparents raise them in the Christian faith.  It is the gift of the Holy Spirit, which we received at our own baptisms, that allows us to do this.  We have been chosen and called by God, here in this place, to share the Good News with all people through our words and our actions.  Rylan and Roslin, who will be baptized today, are entering into that relationship.  We will support and encourage them to grow in God, just as they in their turn will support and encourage others.  We will tell them the stories of God’s work in the world just as those stories were told to us, just as the disciples told the crowds at that first Pentecost, so many years ago.

Two thousand years ago, the Holy Spirit sent the disciples out to tell the story of Jesus.  It sent them out into a world that didn’t like them much, a world in which many people wouldn’t hear or understand their message, wouldn’t see God’s presence in their midst.  The Spirit acted through them, and we call Pentecost the church’s birthday because the conversions that started that day were the beginnings of what came to be the church.  By hearing and responding to the good news, those people became part of the family of God, and they, too, received the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The story of Pentecost is not over.  The story of Pentecost continues wherever the Holy Spirit blows.  Pentecost is happening right here in our church today, as we celebrate the work of God in our young people, from those who have grown in faith until they are ready to graduate from high school and become adults, to those who will be baptized here today.  We see the Spirit at work in them, and it reminds us that the Spirit is at work in all of us.  Wherever the Spirit is at work, it is Pentecost, and the Spirit is at work here.  It led the disciples out of their comfortable rooms and into the world to preach God’s Word.  It led crowds of people to be given the gift of faith.  I wonder what the Spirit will do in and through us?  May we all feel the Spirit’s work in our lives.  Thanks be to God for that gift.

Amen.