Our Refuge and Strength

Reformation Sunday, October 30th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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.

When I was a kid and I first heard that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46, I was pretty skeptical.  Because there are, on the surface, a lot of differences and not a lot of similarities between the two lyrics.  A Mighty Fortress is all about, well, God as a fortress.  By contrast, there is not one mention of fortresses in Psalm 46.  The closest it gets is describing God as a “refuge.”  And I don’t know about you, but when I think “refuge” I don’t think “fortress.”  I think of wildlife refuges, where strict management of the local ecology gives a safe space for animals, plants, birds, and fishes, where they can grow and thrive in harmony.  And “refuge” also makes me think of “refugee,” of victims of violence and oppression forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live.  A Mighty Fortress also spends quite a lot of time talking about the devil, who is nowhere to be found in Psalm 46.  The greatest similarity between the two lyrics is the part about the dangers of the world, the nations raging and kingdoms shaking, and God responding by destroying the weapons of warfare.

But A Mighty Fortress was never meant to be a direct paraphrase of Psalm 46.  A Mighty Fortress was Luther’s attempt at taking the feeling of the psalm—the sort of thoughts and emotions it evokes in its listeners—and expressing those through the vernacular of his day.  Psalm 46 is all about reassuring frightened people.  It faces head-on that there is evil and violence in the world, that there is destruction, that there are very scary things going on all around us: war! Natural disaster!  Nations crumbling!  There is no attempt to whitewash things or put on a Pollyanna-ish positive spin.  There’s some terrible thins happening.  But even in the middle of that, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how dark the day, no matter how many disasters shake the foundations of our world, we don’t have to be afraid because God is always with us.  The God who has been with our ancestors back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was with us through times of slavery and freedom, exile and homecoming, crop failure and bountiful harvests, and everything that life can throw at us, that God is our God who is with us and will always be with us.  Even though there is some terrifying stuff in the world, when we take the time to stop and breathe and clear our heads, we know that God is God, and he is going to be with us no matter what.

That is a very powerful message.  No matter what happens, we do not need to fear, because God is with us and will never abandon us.  It was a message that people desperately needed to hear in Luther’s day.  After all, there was a lot to be afraid of in the 1500s.  The economy was shifting, enriching some and impoverishing others.  This brought about civil unrest, rebellions and uprisings as poor people tried to strike back at those who were oppressing them.  And I’m not talking about protests and the occasional riot, here, I’m talking about full-scale pitched battles between armies numbering in the thousands.  As if that weren’t enough, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly sent armies up through the Baltic and into Austria.  While there was little chance they could ever set foot on Luther’s own native country, they were still a threat to his neighbors, and there was a widespread fear of them throughout Europe.  And as if that weren’t enough, social change was spreading quickly.  The very ideas of what a family was and how it functioned were changing.  The place of women in society, how people thought about sex, the role of family in the community, everything was changing.  Sound familiar?

All of this was spread and encouraged by new technologies like the printing press that made it easier for people to communicate and spread ideas quickly across great distances.  People were becoming more literate, and as they spent more time thinking and studying, old certainties on which their whole world was based seemed to crumble.  Morality was changing.  Some things that they had thought wrong and evil were being declared good, and vice versa.  People were changing what they thought about sex and intimate relationships.  Nothing could be taken for granted any more, not religion, not the family, not morality, not the economy, not the way society worked.  Everything that people had thought was a firm foundation was crumbling.  Sound familiar?

People were afraid.  People grasped at straws, they hopped on fads and bandwagons that promised to give them certainty in a world that seemed to be disintegrating.  They covered up their fear with anger and hate, blaming their enemies for everything they thought was wrong with the world.  In this world, where the nations were raging and the kingdoms were shaking and cities and countries were tearing themselves apart, Luther read Psalm 46.  And he asked himself, what image—what metaphor—could he use to help people see the strength and hope in God even in the midst of their world shaking and changing beyond all recognition?

For 16th Century Germany, that image was the fortress.  Every city had a wall to protect itself from bandits, civil wars, and foreign invaders, so that even when armies did come marching up to their gates, their people would be protected and kept safe.  All the local people from all the towns and villages around could go to the city, where the walls and the local fortress would serve as a refuge from violence and destruction.  Everyone knew how that worked; they’d lived with those protecting walls all their lives.  God, Luther said, was like the greatest and best fortress ever, which can never be destroyed or damaged by any enemy, no matter how cunning or brutal.  So it doesn’t matter how much your world is shaken, it doesn’t matter who’s prowling outside your door—God is the fortress that keeps you safe, God is your refuge and strength, God is with us.  Always.

It seems to me that we’re in a time of change at least as great as in the Reformation.  Our economic system is in a time of chaos, as the old industrial system is breaking down and we’re not sure what will replace it.  We don’t need to fear an army invading, but there is plenty of violence in the world you can see any time you turn on your tv.  There is civil unrest, protests, and deep disagreements on how the country should be run and how justice should be administered.  There is deep social change.  Families are structured differently than they were a generation ago, and that change doesn’t seem to be stopping.  The way we think about morality is changing.  Some things we declared evil even ten years ago are being re-thought by huge numbers of people.  The role of women in society is changing.  Everything about the way we think about the world and ourselves seems to be up for grabs, and this is spread more quickly and easily by new technologies such as smartphones and the internet.

And people are afraid.  People are grasping at straws, grasping at anything that will give them back that feeling of certainty.  Sometimes they cling to old ways of thinking and acting; sometimes they cling to new fads and social bandwagons.  We feel threatened by a world that seems to have no sure foundations, and so we lash out at one another.  We don’t want to feel scared, so we get angry instead.  We feel threatened, so instead of talking and working out our differences or even just agreeing to disagree, we attack.  We don’t want to take the time to let our fears and anxieties out from the corners of our minds we’ve shoved them to, and so we don’t take the time to be still and listen to God, either.

In Luther’s day, the symbol of safety was the fortress.  What is our symbol of safety?  What do we count on to protect us and help make us secure?  Bike and motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, Kevlar flak jackets, blank vaults?  What else can you think of?  If you were going to put the message of Psalm 46 into a modern metaphor, what would you use?  What imagery best symbolizes God’s protection and security to you?

There have been times of great upheaval before.  Morals, economies, political systems, countries, technology, family structures—all of these have changed radically more than once in the 2,000 years since Christ, and probably will again.  If we put our trust in them, if we make them our foundation, we are left with nothing but broken pieces when times of transition hit.    There is only one foundation we can count on that will be stable and strong no matter what happens in this world.  There is only one refuge that will keep us safe from the storms of life, from the chaos and destruction that accompanies upheaval and change.  And that foundation—that refuge—is Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born to break the cycle of violence and death, to set us free from all the things that bind us—even the chains that we don’t realize are there.  That foundation is Christ, who suffered and died so that we might be forgiven and healed and restored.  That foundation is Christ, who is with us even as the earth shakes under our feet and the nations rage.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  God is our mighty fortress, our foundation, our stable rock in an unstable world.  May we learn to truly put our trust in him.

Amen.

Living in the Story

Reformation Sunday, October 25th, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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 to those who believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples.” Today is Reformation Sunday, the day we celebrate the formation of the Lutheran Church—and all other Protestant Christian groups, such as Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and all the rest. And continuing in God’s Word was one of the big themes of the Reformation. You see, before the Reformation it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local language. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek; European Christians used a Latin translation for study and worship. But by the 1500s, the only people who understood Latin any more were scholars and priests and nobles. Your ordinary Joe or Jane on the street couldn’t read it, so they couldn’t read the Bible. They knew Bible stories—they knew the stories backwards and forwards. The stories got told and re-told, used as the basis of plays and songs and such. But only the church hierarchy read them directly from the Bible, and so only the church hierarchy could interpret God’s Word. Everyone else just had to accept what the priests and bishops told them.

This was to protect people from error, the church said. I’m sure many of you have had times when you are talking with someone about the Bible, and they come up with something that is completely out of left field, something that goes contrary to everything you believe about God’s Word. Well, if only the clergy can read the Bible—if ordinary people can’t read it, much less study it—that can’t happen, because the church is in control. (This assumes, of course, that the church hierarchy will always interpret God’s Word correctly.) This was a matter of theology; it was about saving souls by protecting them from error. But it was also about protecting the church’s power. And so throughout Europe it was illegal to translate the Bible into the local languages of English, German, and all the rest. And by illegal, I mean it was a capital crime. William Tyndale was burned at the stake for translating the Bible. John Wycliffe died of natural causes, but they dug up his body from its grave, burned it, and scattered his ashes in the river. And the only reason they didn’t kill Luther for translating the Bible into German was because he went into hiding until enough powerful people listened to his message that he would be safe. All for the crime of wanting people to be able to read the Bible. Wanting people to be able to dwell in God’s Word.

We take it for granted these days. We have Bibles everywhere, many different translations, which many of us don’t read as much as we think we should. Imagine what Wycliffe or Tyndale or Luther would have thought of that! I’m sometimes guilty of not reading my Bible as I should myself. But I want to back up, a little bit, and think about what Jesus meant when he said we should continue in his Word. Because even when we read the Bible, I think we sometimes miss the point, a little bit.

The word translated here as “continue” is “menw” which also means remain, dwell, abide. Later in the Gospel, when Jesus tells his disciples to abide in him and he will abide in them? The word he uses, that’s translated “abide”? That’s menw. And in today’s lesson, when he says the slave doesn’t have a permanent place in the household but the son has a place forever? The word he uses to talk about remaining in the household is “menw”. It means live, stay, continue, dwell. Literally, it means to pitch a tent. This is the word you use when you want someone to pull up a chair, crack open a nice cold can of soda, and get comfortable. It’s not just about plodding through it, or about carrying something around with you. It’s about staying somewhere, building something.

That’s the way, Jesus says, we should approach his Word. But do we? All too often, when people use the Bible, it’s in a fairly shallow and superficial way. We read it because we’re supposed to, memorize bits of it as lists of rules or quotes to stick on things, and then promptly forget about it, God’s Word lost in the busy-ness of our everyday lives. We pull it out when we can use it to prove we’re right and someone else is wrong. We pull it out on special occasions. But we don’t live in it. We don’t dwell in it. We don’t pitch the tent of our lives in it.

I think back to those medieval peasants who couldn’t read the Bible. They never read it, but they turned out in droves to watch plays based on it, they sang about it, they wrote poems about those stories that they had heard and seen, they let those stories fill their hearts and minds. We have the precious gift of being able to read God’s word directly, yet we seldom take it as seriously.

Scientists tell us that human beings think in stories. The stories we tell ourselves about who we are shape how we think and speak and act. The stories we tell about other people shape how we treat them. The stories we tell about life and the world guide how we live our lives. Think about your favorite TV show, book, or movie: think about how it moves you. Think about how you care about the characters. Think about that sense of rightness you feel when something happens that fits with the world as you understand it—or when something in your real life echoes something you saw or read. When a story affects us powerfully, we will look for things in our life that confirm that story as true. We will see patterns that connect to that story, even if they’re not really there and the story is fiction. If you tell someone a fact, and then tell them a false story that contradicts the fact, they will believe the story even though they know it’s a lie. This is how a lot of politicians operate. If you tell a story often enough, people will believe it even if it’s a lie. You know those stories you hear about people using food stamps to buy iPads and things? Those are lies; you literally cannot use food stamps to buy those, the debit card only works in grocery stores and even then not all departments of the grocery store. But it doesn’t matter how often you point this out, people believe the stories instead of the facts. Because stories, even false stories, are more powerful than facts. If even TV shows, movies, and books can do that—if even the lies politicians tell can do that—imagine what dwelling in God’s Word can do.

We have the truest story of all, the story of how God created the cosmos, and us, how God chose us and called us and saves us, the story of God acting in the lives of God’s people throughout history. We call it the Bible. What would it be like if we let that story be as real to us, as important to us, as the stories we watch on TV? If we spent as much time thinking about those stories as we do thinking about Game of Thrones or The Office or NCIS? How would that shape us as people of God? And how could we even do that?

It’s not about reading, or not just about reading. It’s about opening yourself up to the story. Who are the people in the story, and how are they like us? How are they different from us? What would you have done, if you were there with them?   Even if the only time you read the Bible is when you’re in church, you can do that. Listen actively, and put yourself in the story. Because you are a part of the story—God’s Word didn’t stop when the last words of the Bible were written. God is still speaking to us today, through the Bible but also sometimes through our experiences in the world. Let’s take the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” as an example. Now, you may have heard that Martin Luther based on Psalm 46, which we read today, and if so, you probably were confused, because there are some pretty big differences between the two. First off, there are no “mighty fortresses” in the Psalm; instead, the psalmist talks about God as “our refuge and strength.” And “A Mighty Fortress talks a lot about the Devil and about Jesus, neither of which are mentioned in the Psalm.

But let’s consider Martin Luther’s world. It was a VERY dangerous time. The Ottoman Empire—which ruled Turkey—kept invading up into Europe, getting as far as Hungary and Austria, which are pretty close to Germany, where Luther lived. There was religious violence, civil war—you name it, they had it. What kind of refuge and strength did people need in Luther’s day? A big huge fortress to protect them from rampaging armies. So that’s what Luther wrote about. And Luther really struggled with the devil’s influence—he had dreams and nightmares about Satan all the time. So that’s another thing that God was his refuge from, another thing that God gave him strength to deal with. He read Psalm 46 and saw himself in it, and in “A Mighty Fortress” he wrote about what God was doing there in 16th Century Germany. Luther knew that he was a part of God’s story, the stories of the Bible.

The story isn’t over. The story will never be over, and we are a part of it. The stories in the Bible didn’t just happen to people with funny names in funny clothes a long time ago; the stories in the Bible are our stories, too. We are a part of them, and they are a part of us. Whether you read your Bible a lot or a little, remember that you are a part of the story.

Amen.

Which Commandment?

Reformation Sunday, October 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

 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.

Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, lived in turbulent times.  The Middle Ages were turning into the Early Modern Era, so systems of government and economics were changing.  The Scientific Revolution was just getting started.  The longstanding war between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire was heating up.  The Ottoman Empire, centered in what is now Turkey, was moving northward, conquering the Baltic and threatening the Holy Roman Empire, centered in Germany, from the East.  During Luther’s lifetime they got deep enough into Europe to besiege the city of Vienna.  And the church was corrupt, too; high church offices were bought and sold, bribery was common, the priesthood was torn by sex scandals, church attendance was down, and the average Christian knew shockingly little about the faith they supposedly believed in.  The world, in short, seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket.  There were many good things happening, too—great works of art and literature from the past being rediscovered, for example, and great moral thinkers and philosophers, but they brought with them the uncertainty of change.  In Luther’s day, you could no longer take comfortable old certainties for granted.

It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite psalm was the psalm we read today, Psalm 46.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake .0+in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  No matter what happens, God is with us, a refuge and strength.  In the words of the hymn Luther wrote as a reflection on this psalm, God is a might fortress, victorious over all the forces of evil.  What a comfort!  No matter what troubles, no matter what trials and tribulations, God is with us.  No matter how the nations rage and the kingdoms shake, no matter how the earth moves under our feet, no matter the natural disasters that surround us, God is with us.  We may be tossed and turned, but God is always with us.

But that doesn’t mean that we will always stay the same.  It doesn’t mean that our understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s people will always stay the same.  God is always the same, but we are not.  Martin Luther found that out.  You see, Martin spent a lot of time reading his Bible, and as he did so, he noticed things.  God’s Holy Spirit was with him, and it opened his eyes to things he hadn’t seen before.  One of those passages he saw with new eyes was today’s reading from Romans, where Paul says that “There is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Martin had been taught, as all Christians believed at the time, that you got into heaven when you did more good works than sins.  They believed—as some still believe today—that you had to earn your way into heaven.  They believed you had to make yourself worthy of God’s love and forgiveness.  But that’s not what this passage from Romans says: it says that we are all sinners, every one of us—and we are forgiven solely because of the gift of God’s love through Christ Jesus our Lord.  We don’t earn our way into heaven, which is good, because no human ever born could do it.  But God loves us so much that he gave his only son, Jesus Christ, for the salvation of the world.

This was a big deal!  This set the whole belief system of his day on its ear!  And the more Luther read his Bible, the more he found this whole idea of God’s grace in all sorts of places.  It’s in the Gospels; it’s in Paul’s letters; and while we think of the Old Testament as harsh and unforgiving, you can find God’s love and grace there too, in passages like today’s first reading where the LORD says that he will forgive all of Israel’s sins and make a new covenant with them, pouring out his love and spirit to them, giving them the gift of his love, no matter how often they have fallen astray.  We believe, as Christians, that that new covenant comes in the form of Christ Jesus, who died so that our sinful nature might be forgiven, redeemed, and made whole.

Luther started spreading his ideas, pointing out places where the church’s traditional explanations were wrong, and people listened!  They heard the Holy Spirit speaking through Luther, calling people back to the faith and opening their eyes to see God’s Word.  Luther used the newfangled technology of the printing press to reach a bigger audience, and other people began reading their Bibles more and talking about what God’s Word meant for their own lives.  They didn’t let traditional understandings of what Scripture should mean get in the way of how God was speaking to them through the Bible and through their conversations with one another.  And they started talking about how God’s grace and forgiveness should be lived out.  They weren’t trying to start a new church; they were trying to reform the church they already had, going back to the roots of what it means to be a Christian, roots found in Scripture, in God’s love poured out through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It had an impact on their lives.  Their new understanding of Scripture changed the way they lived.  It affected how churches were organized and how pastors were trained.  It affected how people were taught about the Bible and about God—after all, the catechism that we teach to our Confirmation students started out as a handbook to help parents instruct their own children in the Christian faith.  But it affected a lot of things outside the church walls, too.  It affected how people treated the poor on an individual level and on a community level, as well as on a governmental level.  It changed how families lived together.  It changed the position of women in the community.  It gave people new ways of dealing with the other changes in society.  Even though they lived in a time of turmoil, a time of change and warfare, a time when nations raged and kingdoms were shaken, God was still their refuge and strength, even more than he had been before.  Their understanding of God’s Word changed, but God was with them, their refuge and their help in trouble.

That was almost 500 years ago, but we, too, live in a time of turmoil and change, and don’t let anybody tell you it’s never happened before.  We, too, live in a time of danger and war and conflict; there is a revolution of science and technology happening in our time, too; there is conflict and corruption within and around the church now just like there was in Luther’s day, and then as now there are far too many people who give lip service to Christianity but don’t live it out.  And there are people with new understandings of God’s Word, new interpretations of what it means to be a Christian.  This should not be a surprise, because it’s happened before.  In fact, it may surprise you, but Luther and his fellow Reformers didn’t think theirs was the only Reformation.  They thought of reformation as something that should be constantly ongoing.  We are all beloved children of God, freed in Christ from our sin, but until Christ comes again, we remain sinners.  We are, in Luther’s words, both saint and sinner at the same time, until the glory of God is revealed.  As we are saints, we hear God’s Word and God’s Spirit is in and around us. But as we are sinners, we fall astray, and sometimes let our own prejudices and assumptions get in the way of God’s Spirit.  We go astray, but God leads us back, forgives us, and reformation begins again.

It’s hard.  It’s hard, because the world is changing.  It would be so much easier if things remained the same; it would be so much easier if we never had to study God’s Word and ask ourselves if our traditions and traditional understandings were leading is towards God or away from God.  Life would be easier if the nation did not rage and tremble.  Life would be easier if there was never a need for reformation.  Life would be easier if we were not sinners who depended on God’s grace and forgiveness.  Life would be easier if there wasn’t any need for reformation.

But through it all, no matter what, God is in our midst, and God is not shaken even when we are.  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Reformation: Freedom in new Words

Reformation,  Sunday, October 23, 2011
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA

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

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

“They answered him, ‘We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.'”  Really?  They’ve never been slaves to anyone?  Are they joking?  I seem to recall—you may remember this, too—that before they came to the Promised Land, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah were slaves in Egypt who had to be liberated by God’s saving power.  And then, after they were in the promised land, the Assyrians conquered and enslaved Israel, and then the Babylonians conquered the Assyrian Empire and enslaved both Israel and Judah.  After the Babylonians, they were independent for a while before the Greeks conquered them; and after the Greeks came the Romans, who were oppressive foreign overlords at the very time today’s reading took place.  While the Romans didn’t technically enslave the Jews, they certainly weren’t what anyone would have considered “free.”  And yet, despite a long history of slavery and oppression, when Jesus tells them they will be freed, they indignantly insist that they have never been slaves to anyone!  Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.

One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett.  He writes fantasies that are satires of modern life.  In a book called Feet of Clay, Pratchett tells the story of Dorfl, a golem.  Golems are people made out of clay, brought to life by written words stuck into their heads.  The words make them alive and tell them what to do—and the words tell them to be slaves.  A golem works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, at the most degrading and dangerous jobs there are.  If you order a golem to do something, the golem will do it, because the words in their head make them obey.  Towards the end of the book, Dorfl is freed—his head is opened up and new words are put into him, words that say he belongs to himself.  Dorfl is transformed by this gift, something he couldn’t have imagined on his own.  He goes out and tries to free others—golems, humans, animals, everyone.  He opens the doors to the sweatshops and the slaughterhouses, breaks the machinery the golems use, and yet despite all the chaos he causes the humans and golems just try to fix it and go on exactly as they did before.  This puzzles Dorfl—his freedom was such a wonderful thing, literally giving him new life, so why are people trying to go back to the things that hold them captive?

He says to Sam Vimes, the head of the City Watch, ‘You Say To People “Throw Off Your Chains” And They Make New Chains For Themselves?’

‘Seems to be a major human activity, yes,’ Vimes said.

Dorfl rumbled as he thought about this. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually. ‘I Can See Why. Freedom Is Like Having The Top Of Your Head Opened Up.’

Freedom is like having the top of your head opened up.  Christian freedom means trusting God to take care of us, trusting God’s love and care and guidance even when the world keeps telling us it’s foolish to depend on anyone besides yourself.  Christian freedom means listening to God’s call to lives of justice and mercy, and love, even when it would be safer and easier to be self-centered.  Christian freedom means letting Christ open up our hearts and minds and replace our words that enslave us to sin with God’s Word that frees us and makes us whole.  That sounds dangerous.  That sounds scary.  When you’re a slave, you don’t have any control over your life, but if something bad happens it’s not your fault.  You don’t have to think, you don’t have to take risks, and however bad things get at least they’re predictable.  Remember the newly freed people of Israel wandering in the desert and grumbling how they wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt because at least there they had food to eat?  Nobody really wants to be a slave, but at the same time—sometimes it seems safer and a whole lot easier.

People make chains for themselves all the time.  Some chains are easier to spot than others.  Addictions—to alcohol, drugs, gambling, hoarding, whatever—those can be easy to spot, at least from the outside.  People who are addicted find their lives controlled by their need.  Yet most people who are addicted try to claim, at some point, that they are fine, that they have it all under control.  They aren’t slaves to their addictions.  They can quit at any time, they say, even when it’s obvious they can’t.

Some chains are harder to spot than others, particularly when (like the people in today’s Gospel lesson) we are in denial.  We confess every Sunday at the beginning of worship that we are sinners, that we fall short of the glory of God, that we are held in chains by sin and cannot free ourselves.  But when it comes down to it, how many of us really take that seriously?  After all, it’s not like we’re Snidely Whiplash, gleefully chortling and twirling a moustache as we plot evil deeds.  Our sins are little things, we tell ourselves.  After all, saying something hurtful when we’re upset isn’t that big a deal, is it?  Paying more attention to our jobs or hobbies than to the people around us isn’t that big a deal, is it?  Watching movies and television shows that treat women like sex objects, play on racial stereotypes, or promote violence isn’t that big a deal, is it?  After all, everyone does it!

And on their own, each little sin may not look like much—but when you add them all together, they dominate every aspect of our lives.  Those sins keep us apart from one another, keep us from building right and lasting relationships with God and each other, breaking us apart, keep us isolated and turned in so that all we can see or hear are our own fears, our anxieties, our prejudices, our flaws.  We don’t want to admit that those sins keep us from listening to God’s Word, and keep us from truly living the good and abundant lives God wants for us.  We build up walls between ourselves as individuals, as communities, as a nation.  And we pretend everything is all right, that we can stop at any time, that we have it all under control, when the truth is, those sins control us, instead.  We don’t want to admit that we are slaves to sin.  We don’t want to admit that there are things we can’t do by ourselves.  Particularly not here in America, where we idolize self-reliance.  Admitting that there are things larger than us, things that we can’t control, feels like weakness.  And so we close our eyes to our brokenness, to our slavery, and pretend that we can do it all ourselves.

Sometimes that self-reliance turns into legalism.  Yes, Jesus saves us … but surely there’s something we need to do to make sure.  God gave us the commandments to help us live full and abundant lives in harmony with God and one another, guidelines for how to live a free life full of love of God and our neighbor.  And yet sometimes, we get so focused on those laws that we fulfill the letter of them while leaving no room in our hearts to love God and our neighbor.  We use those laws to justify our conflicts and our hatred of one another.  We get so focused on how we think God’s Word should be interpreted that we can’t hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us.  We get so focused on the world around us that we can’t see the ways God is building the kingdom of God among us.  And so the commandments that God gave us as a gift become a curse, chains binding us and showing us just how far we fall short of the grace and freedom God wants for us.

Today is Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate the religious movement in 16th Century Germany that formed the Lutheran church.  Through the Reformation, God freed people from their preconceived notions so that they could follow God’s Word.  People from across Germany, and all of Europe, started reading the Bible with open minds, and praying with open minds, and trusting God to free them from the chains that bound them.  And the church was transformed—Lutherans, other Protestants, Roman Catholics too.  By opening themselves up to God’s Word, people allowed God’s Word to change them.  Relying on God’s Word changed the way they thought and the way they lived.  Everything was affected, not just church life.  The role of women in society changed.  The way they handled poverty changed.  It wasn’t change for the sake of change, but change for the sake of living out the Gospel through love of God and love of neighbor.  It was change for the sake of the freedom that only comes from Christ.

Dorfl the golem found that it was easy to break the physical locks and chains holding people captive, but the things that really made people slaves were the words inside their heads.  For some people, those words are ‘I’m better than everyone else,’ while for others those words are ‘I’m not worth anything.’  Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘we’ve never done it that way before,’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘that’s the way we always did it—I want something new.’  Sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘what will people think?’ and sometimes the words that enslave us are ‘I don’t care about anyone else.’  There are so many words inside our head that can become prisons without our even realizing it.  And like Dorfl, we can’t free ourselves.  Someone has to open our hearts and minds and replace the words of slavery with the words of freedom.

Thank God for Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, who comes to set us free.  Christ comes to transform and reform us, to heal our relationships with him and with one another.  Christ comes to us when we are so tied up by our brokenness that we don’t even realize it and sets us free.  Christ comes and breaks open hearts and minds made hard and heavy by sin and puts words of love and hope and freedom within us.

Amen.

God is our refuge and strength

Reformation Day

Sunday, October 31, 2010

 

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

St. Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

 

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

 

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

 

“The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter … the earth changes … the waters roar and foam, the mountains tremble with its tumult.”  Sometimes, as in today’s psalm, it’s really obvious that some things haven’t changed in the millennia since our text was written.  Today, the nations (particularly our own) are in an uproar.  Rather, in many uproars over many things.  Healthcare, immigration, taxes, sexuality, religion, schools, jobs, oil drilling … you name it, and somewhere there’s a heated debate about it.  All sides are afraid of what might happen, and so they attack those who don’t agree with them.  I’m sure we’re all sick and tired of the vicious campaign ads that seem to run constantly whenever we turn on the TV.  It’s not just that this is an election season, either; there are several fundamental debates taking place throughout our country over where we go from here, and the road forward seems uncertain.  Heck, sometimes the road that led us here seems uncertain.  Our ideologies are clashing, and the economic model we’ve been using for the last half-century or more seems to be failing.  Nor are we the only country facing such an internal schism: Mexico is plagued with riots and gang wars, France is currently struggling with crippling strikes and shortages, the Middle East is a hotbed of religious conflict as always, and many more countries could be added to the list.

It’s not just human-built society that is shaken, either.  Just this last year, we’ve had massive, crippling earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, devastating floods in Pakistan, and droughts in other places.  In the last ten years, we’ve had hurricanes and volcanic activity in numbers unprecedented in the last century or more.  The effect of these natural disasters on humans has been devastating.  The global hunger crisis of the last few years has only gotten worse.  Everywhere we look it seems things are going to Hell in a handbasket.  Nations are in uproar, kingdoms are tottering, the earth is changing, waters are roaring and foaming, and mountains are trembling.  Whether that is literal or metaphorical for us—or both—things are a lot less sure than they used to be.  It’s a scary time to live.

In times of trouble, when I’m worried or uncertain or afraid, I am tempted to retreat into my comfort zone, both mentally and physically.  Lots of people do; it’s normal.  Dealing with new things, with unexpected things, with different things is so much harder than sticking with what you already know.  When things aren’t going well, I don’t feel like I have the energy to deal with new and different things, even if they’re good things.  How many of you have felt the same way?  In my case, my comfort zone is things I can understand, things I can control, things I can use my experience and education to predict and deal with.

The problem is, being in my comfort zone means I’m relying on my own abilities, my own goals, and (even when I don’t realize it) my own fears.  When I retreat to my comfort zone I get so focused on what I’m doing, I can’t see what God is doing.  Even when I think I’m taking God’s wishes into account, I’m only open to what I think God should be doing or asking of me.  That’s the problem with fear—it makes me curve in on myself until I can’t see anything past it.  When I try to make it my fears go away by ignoring them or pretending they’re not there, they get even worse.  Fear chokes off the possibility of anything new, of anything God might do, and taints everything I see or hear or do or say.

That was a hard lesson for me to learn.  Some of you may know this, but this is not my first internship.  Two years ago, I was on an internship in another church that went very badly, for a variety of reasons.  Some of the reasons were my fault and some of them were not; some of them were nobody’s fault.  A little over half-way through the year, things came abruptly to a head and I had to resign.  I was devastated.  I felt like my world was ending.  God had called me to seminary, and then—when I was almost done—everything collapsed.  I felt utterly alone, and there were times I didn’t believe I had any help or support.  I got through it and learned a lot—grew a lot—in the process.  One of the hardest things for me to deal with was the realization that I wasn’t putting my money where my mouth was—I was relying on myself, and not on God, particularly when things got tough.  And I was a seminary student, in training to be a pastor—I knew better!

I was so sure that I knew what God wanted for me, and how I was going to achieve that, that I didn’t know what to do when my best efforts came crashing down around me.  And then I was so wrapped up in my fears and insecurities and pain that I wasn’t allowing room in my life for God to be God; I wasn’t leaving room for God’s grace to do a new thing or help me grow; I wasn’t leaving room for God’s grace to send me on any path but the one I wanted.  And while I’m capable of handling ordinary life on my own, when things are toughest and seem to be falling apart, I need help.  I can’t do it by myself.  I need God, and the times when it’s hardest to open myself up to God are the times I most need to do so.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” the psalmist says.  Amid all the storms and tempests of life, when we most want to withdraw into ourselves, to drown out the chaos with our own order and busyness, God calls us to stop, and remember who we are and whose we are.  God is our refuge and strength, our help in times of trouble.  Being a Christian, being faithful to God, doesn’t mean that the storms of life will never come or won’t affect us when they do.  It means that no matter what happens, God will be with us, a sword and shield to guard us and a light to guide us.  It means that when our own sinful and self-absorbed ways fall apart—as they inevitably, always do—God is with us, to forgive us and renew us and do a new thing in us.

“The days are surely coming,” God told Jeremiah in our first lesson, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.”  Surely, Israel and Judah needed something new.  Jeremiah was a prophet during one of the most troubled times in the Old Testament.  The Northern Kingdom of Israel had been destroyed by Assyria, and the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been much weakened.  Soon after, the mighty Babylonian empire was on their doorstep, and all the political and military stratagems Judah’s leadership could devise only succeeded in making things worse.  There was nothing they could do to save themselves from slavery and exile—and the prophet Jeremiah told them so.  (As you might imagine, he was not a very popular guy.)

All hope seemed lost.  And yet, as all their schemes crumbled, God spoke to Jeremiah: God was going to do something new.  Something that would transform them, and transform what it meant to be God’s people.  God wasn’t going to just rebuild the old ways, the ways that had failed them.  God was going to take the pieces of the old and re-make and re-form them into something greater.  Their nation was trembling, the world itself seemed to tumble and fall, and yet even in the midst of their despair and loss God was with them.  God was doing a new thing in them.  The Lord of Hosts was with them; the God of Jacob was their refuge, as he is ours today in our time of trial.  Just as God has always been a refuge and hope in times of trouble, and has always broken in to people’s lives to transform and renew them, to write God’s word on their hearts.

Today’s psalm, Psalm 46, was one of Martin Luther’s favorites, which is why it’s assigned for Reformation Sunday.  You see, the world was just as uncertain in his day as it is today, and almost as uncertain as it was in Jeremiah’s day.  Things were changing in the 16th century—the middle ages were giving way to the renaissance and the Enlightenment.  Social mores were changing.  Religion was changing.  The structure of society and the economy was changing.  There were revolts and wars.  There was political and religious corruption on a grand scale.  There was the threat of invasion from outside forces.  Does any of this sound familiar?  Like Jeremiah and the psalmist, Martin Luther knew from experience just how dangerous and unpredictable life could be.  And like them, he also knew that it’s in times of trouble, that we most need to rely on God to guide and protect us.  When it’s most tempting to close in on ourselves and fall back into our comfort zone is when we most need God’s presence to open ourselves up and lead us in new paths—even if they’re paths we couldn’t have imagined on our own.  And when we hit rock bottom, when we have no other place to turn and can no longer pretend that we can do it all ourselves, that’s when God’s love and grace and mercy and refuge are our greatest gift.  So after meditating on this psalm, Martin Luther wrote the hymn “A Might Fortress Is Our God” which we sang earlier this morning.

The message that rang so powerfully when Luther wrote it is still needed today.  Things are uncertain.  It would be so easy to retreat into our comfort zone, and it would be so much simpler and safer to allow our fears and our prejudices to guide our footsteps in the years to come.  It would be easier, but it would not be faithful.  And, in the end, it would leave us out in the storm without a rock to cling to.

God is our mighty fortress, our sword and shield, our present help in times of trouble.  God is the one who breaks into our self-certainties and forgives all the many ways we have turned away from him.  God is the one who claims us as his own in the new covenant in Jesus Christ, re-forming us as his own beloved children, instead of just papering over the cracks in our fractured lives.  Come, behold the works of the LORD.  Remember what God has done for our forefathers and foremothers.  Remember what God has done for us, and see what God is doing for us still today.  We live in a time of tumult, but God is in our midst, and God will not be shaken.  May we rely on God’s promises, and not our fears.  May we hear God’s call, and may God’s word be written on our hearts.

Amen.