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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Life After Death

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

Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

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

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

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

 

Let’s talk about death in the Bible.  Here’s something that most people don’t realize: the concept of resurrection in the Bible is almost completely absent from the Old Testament.  The last few books of the Old Testament to be written have a few vague references to it, most notably Daniel; many other books have passages that we can insert the resurrection into.  But God’s people didn’t even start talking about the possibility of the dead being raised until a few centuries before Jesus was born.

Up until then, the standard Jewish belief was that you were born, you lived, and you died.  And that was the end.  There was no heaven, no hell, only Sheol, where all the dead went, a place of nothingness.  If God wanted to reward you, God did it during your lifetime.  They looked forward to a day when God would come and set to right all the things that were wrong with the world and make creation perfect again, and if you were a good person living at that time things would be awesome for you, but if you died before that point you would just miss out on it.  As things got worse and worse for the Jewish people, as they got conquered and enslaved and sent into exile and returned from exile and got conquered again and again, this belief got less and less satisfying.  If you didn’t get rewarded for being a good follower in life, then you had to get rewarded in some other way.  Since they didn’t believe in a separation between body and soul, that meant that you had to come bodily back to life.  That’s what resurrection is.  It’s not about disembodied souls floating on clouds somewhere, it’s about the whole person, body and soul together, coming back to life in the most physical way possible.

In Jesus’ day, the idea of resurrection was highly controversial.  The Saducees, who were the high-level priests who controlled the Temple and had awesome lives, thought the whole idea was absolutely absurd.  And why shouldn’t they?  They had lots of money and power and influence, and their lives were pretty good.  Ordinary Jewish people from the Pharisees on down, on the other hand, loved the idea of Resurrection.  Because their lives were terrible.  They were horribly oppressed by the Romans, and the idea of a resurrection into a new life (one that the pagan Romans couldn’t share) sounded pretty good to them.

So when Jesus came to Jerusalem, preaching about a coming resurrection, the Saducees wanted to discredit both him and the idea of the resurrection.  To show just how absolutely absurd the whole concept was, they asked a question designed to stump him, about a woman who’d married a series of brothers.  Now, we think it’s an odd scenario, but it was actually fairly common back in those days.  Women had very few rights and very little ability to support themselves.  For protection and to make sure they didn’t starve, women needed to have either husbands or sons, preferably both.  And women who weren’t under the control of a man were seen as an unstable force, a threat to society.  So a woman whose husband died without sons was expected to marry his brother and have kids with him.  That way she’d be taken care of, and she would be kept out of trouble.  It was the law.  This happening seven times in a row was a bit unlikely, but hey, why let probability get in the way of a good straw-man argument.  So the Pharisees tell this story about a woman who married a series of seven brothers, all of whom died on her, and then they turn to Jesus, sure they’ve got the example that will point out just how absurd this whole idea of life after death is.  She’s got to belong to a man, and she can’t belong to more than one.  That’s how patriarchy works.  So which one is she going to belong to?

Of course, as Jesus points out, the problem is that they’re expecting life after resurrection to be just like life before resurrection.  And what would be the point of that?  If resurrection exists because there is terrible injustice in the world and people suffer, being resurrected to a life with just as much injustice and suffering would be nothing more than an invitation to more suffering.  The whole point of the resurrection is that God will fix things.  God will heal people.  God will make things better.  All the injustice and sin and evil in the world—and in all of us—will be gone.  Things will be made new.

As for marriage, well, we’re still going to have loving and life-giving relationships.  In fact, we’ll have better relationships because all the sin and brokenness that distort us and our friends and family will have been healed.  What we won’t have is all the legal and social frameworks based on economics and power and prejudice.  The Saducees asked the question assuming that a woman had to belong to a man, and that was the basis of marriage, so the question was which man she was going to belong to in the Resurrection.  But God didn’t institute marriage for economic reasons or as a way of controlling people.  God gave us marriage because it’s not good for human beings to be alone.  Because we need companionship and affection and mutual respect and support.  That’s what God has always wanted marriage to look like, and that’s what relationships of all kinds are going to look like after the resurrection.  Which man is she going to belong to?  Nobody’s going to belong to anybody in that way.  Nobody’s going to be a piece of property to be handed around as convenient for society.  She’s not going to belong to anyone but herself and God.  If she wants to form a relationship of mutual love and respect, that’s great, but it won’t be anything like the Saducees thought marriage should be.

The Saducees couldn’t imagine a life different from the one they were living.  So when they imagined a resurrection, they imagined it looking just like the life they already knew.  We have the opposite problem; we tend to think of the resurrection as not being anything like the life we already know.  Ask someone what heaven looks like and they imagine people in white robes sitting on clouds and strumming harps.  The thing is, both ideas are wrong.  The resurrection will be something like the life we know because it is life.  Soul and body together, filled with eating and drinking and enjoying God’s good creation and loving God and one another.  But at the same time, the resurrection is utterly different from this life because we and all of creation will be saved and forgiven and healed and made new.  All the things that hurt people will be gone.  All the things that distort or corrupt our hearts and minds and bodies and souls will be gone.  All the things that bring fear or pain or jealousy or worry or anger will be gone.  And all those emotions shape us and our society in this life so much that we can’t even begin to imagine what life would be life without them.

God is god not of the dead, but of the living.  The life we will have in the resurrection is the life that God wants all people and all of creation to have, the life that was the plan from the very beginning and was only prevented by human sinfulness.  God isn’t waiting to destroy this world and all but a few people in it, God is working to make this world into the world to come.  We can’t construct God’s kingdom on earth in the here and now, but we can look to that world as the guide for what God wants life to be like.  The point of being a faithful Christian is not to escape this life and try to make it into the next one, but to try and live our lives now in the light of that life to come.

Amen.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 17, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

On the Resurrection of the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um.

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much food for thought.

Memorial Day, 2018

Memorial Day, May 27, 2018

Jonah 3:10—4:4, 11, Psalm 140, 1 Corinthians 5:20-26, John 11:17-27

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, O Lord.

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

We are here today, brothers and sisters to give thanks to God for those who give their lives in service to their country.  Unlike Veteran’s Day, today is a day to give thanks specifically for those who have died.  Their bodies lie in the ground here, across this nation, and across the world, in Europe and in Asia, in all the places where they went to serve, to fight, and to die.  Some of the men and women we remember here today were known to us; others are strangers.  But all of them gave much for the service of their country, and it is right and proper to remember that.

Some of them joined the Armed Forces to do just that.  They felt called to serve and risk their lives for the greater good.  Others were drafted, and went because our country said they had to.  Still others joined because it was good pay, or to see the world, or because it was that or jail.  Some of them served in just and righteous wars which had to be fought to defend the world from evil.  Some of them served in conflicts which were neither noble nor necessary.  But whatever caused them to join up, and whether the war they served in was good or bad, they served on our behalf.  They served in defense of our nation, and to accomplish the political and military goals we as a people set for them.  AS we remember their service, and their sacrifices, we remember this: we, here, today, you and I, we are the ones who elected the leaders and voted for the policies which required the sacrifice of their lives.  They did not go to war because it was inevitable; they went because we sent them.  We made the decisions that led to their service and death.  That is a heavy responsibility borne by every member of a free nation.

Whether they were good people or bad, whether they served in a necessary war or a pointless one, whether they died on the battlefield or came home and died of old age, there’s one other thing we need to remember: they are in God’s hands, now, and our God is a God of resurrection.  Being a Christian means that death is not the end of the story, because Christ Jesus has destroyed the power of death.  The God who created this world, who created each one of us, who knew all those who have served and died from their mothers’ wombs to their graves, is at work still.  Their bodies lie in the ground, but when Christ comes again all the graves will open and they and all the dead will come forth from their tombs as Jesus did on Easter.  ON that day, all the living and the dead will be judged.  ON that day, death will be no more.  On that day, all that is war and violence and evil will cease.  On that day, swords will be beaten into plowshares and pruning hooks, and military service will no longer be necessary.  On that day, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and everything will be transformed and made new, clean and whole and according to God’s will.

We don’t live yet in that good and gracious world to come, but we yearn for it.  We yearn for it because we miss our loved ones who have gone before us, and because we see the pain and misery in this life.  We see the times when it is necessary that some fight and die so that others may live in peace.  We see the times when we and others make stupid choices and send people out to fight and die senselessly.  WE see all the places where this world is not as it ought to be, all the places where hate and fear and violence and sin and death rule.  And we long for the day when the dead shall arise, and death itself will be defeated, and no one shall suffer and die.

On that day, that great day when God’s will is truly done on this earth, we may be surprised by who all we see there.  The book of Jonah reminds us that our enemies are not God’s enemies.  Nineveh was a great enemy of Israel; they had done many terrible things to Israel.  That was why Jonah wanted God to destroy them, instead of forgiving them.  But all people, no matter who they are, were created by God in God’s image.  God cares for all people—those who worship him and those who do not; those who do what is pleasing in God’s eyes and those who sin.  And God is working to call all people to repentance, to call all people away from evil and sin and death.  All people—and that includes not only us but also our enemies.  On that day when Christ comes again, and the dead are raised, and all the living and the dead are judged, there will be people of every land and nation and tribe and race.  And in that kingdom where God’s will is done, there will be peace instead of violence, love instead of hate, understanding instead of fear.

We wait for that day with hope.  We wait for the day we see our loved ones again and all evil and sin and death are destroyed forever.  We wait for the day when all those who have sacrificed for their country are given the reward they deserve.  We wait with hope, knowing that a new and better day is coming.  But while we wait, we have responsibilities here on earth.  We are called to live according to God’s will.  We are called to work for peace and justice and mercy in our own households, and across the world.  We are called to serve when there is just cause, but also to speak out when a conflict is not just.  As citizens in a democracy, we are called to use our political responsibilities thoughtfully and prayerfully, remembering that even our enemies are made in the image of God.

And always, always, we look forward to that great and glorious day, when wars will cease and Christ will come again, and we shall see him face to face.

Amen.

Easter 3, Year B, April 15, 2018

Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7, Luke 24:36b-48

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.

When I read our first lesson for today, my first thought was: “Really, Peter?  You, of all people, are criticizing what others did during the events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution?  Does the word hypocrisy mean nothing to you?”  Peter criticizes the crowd of Jerusalem residents for what they did: for first praising Jesus, and then turning on him when he didn’t do what they expected, and listening to the religious and political leaders who saw Jesus as a threat.  And then, when Pilate offered to release a criminal, they chose the one who’d been imprisoned for leading a rebellion against the hated Roman conquerors, instead of Jesus, who taught about peace and healing and love.  None of this is good.  But let’s look at what Peter was doing, during that time.  First, in the days leading up to Jesus’ death, he consistently misunderstood what Jesus meant and tried to stop him talking about the upcoming crucifixion.  Then he repeatedly fell asleep when Jesus asked him to keep watch in the garden.  Then, after Jesus’ arrest, he watched the trial but not only did he fail to come to Jesus’ defense and point out the lies the witnesses were telling, he denied that he even KNEW Jesus!  There is no point in this sequence of events where Peter does the right thing.  Not one.  He didn’t call for Jesus’ death, but he did not say a word to prevent it.  And here he is, criticizing what OTHER people did?  People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

And when you get right down to it, all human beings live in glass houses where sin is concerned.  Christ Jesus died because of the world’s sins, and that includes our sin, here and now.  And, unfortunately, a lot of that sin is the exact same sin of that crowd who first welcomed Jesus and then turned against him.  They wanted to be saved, but on their own terms, in ways that were familiar to them.  And then they listened to the voices of anger and fear telling them that Jesus was a way of threat to their faith and their way of life.  And they swallowed all the lies about Jesus that anybody could come up with.  When Jesus seemed like a winner, they were on his side.  When Jesus seemed like a loser, they abandoned him and even cheered for his death and destruction.  And given a choice between Jesus, whose promise of peace and salvation required them to change their hearts and minds, and Barabbas, whose promise of salvation was a bloody crusade against their enemies, they chose the violent one.

If you look around our society today, you will see exactly those same types of sin today, committed by good, Christian people.  We get this idea in our heads that we already know what life in God’s kingdom is going to look like, and it’s going to look like things we’re familiar and comfortable with.  Better than what we’ve got now, of course, but still pretty similar.  After all, we’re already God’s chosen people, right?  So we might still need God’s salvation, but we think it’ll fit neatly into our lives and society the way it is, just like those people of Jerusalem who called for Jesus to save them on Palm Sunday.  Which means we may not recognize God’s salvation, God’s call, when it’s right here among us.

And there are a lot of voices speaking and shouting in anger and fear, right now.  Fear about Americans of different races.  Fear of Americans of different political parties.  Fear of foreigners.  Fear of anyone who is different.  And while we are quick to see the flaws of people we count our enemies, we blindly follow the nastiest voices on our own side.  We follow people who seem like winners, and attack those who seem like losers, with little regard for what is right or wrong.  And we look for violent solutions, assuming that peace, security, and a just world can be created through violence and destruction.  Even when we know this is wrong, we fail to speak out against it, or even deny what we know to be true.  Every sin and flaw that led the crowds to call for Jesus’ death, and to Peter’s denial, is still within us here today.  And that desire to blame others while hiding our own sins, as Peter did in our first lesson?  That’s also still a part of us today.  In the words of one of my favorite Lenten hymns, “Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.  ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee.  I crucified thee.”  You and I and every person living today are just as guilty of Jesus’ death as the people who stood in the crowd shouting “Crucify!”

So the question is, if we’re still plagued by all the sins and flaws that have plagued the world since the very beginning of the world, what does Jesus’ death and resurrection matter?  What difference does it make, to you and I and our world, that Jesus died for us, and rose from the grave?  Is it just pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by?  Sure, we keep screwing up and hurting ourselves and others now, but when we die it will be okay because we’ll go to heaven?  I mean, that’s true, but it’s also a little limited.  Yes, Jesus’ resurrection means we will go to heaven, but Jesus also promised us new life in the here-and-now.  Jesus repeatedly said that God’s kingdom was all around us, if we only knew how to see it.

We are full of sin, but we are also full of the Holy Spirit, and full of God’s love.  For all that the world around us is calling for cynicism, hate, fear, and violence, God is working in us and around us to soften our hard hearts and purify us.  God keeps calling us to see that there is a different way, a better way, a way of reconciliation that leads to mercy and justice and peace.  Every time a bully stops hurting people, God is there.  Every time people stand up to a bully and protect the victim, God is there.  Every time people stop their knee-jerk reactions and choose to be kind and generous, God is there.  Every time people stop a cycle of violence and destruction, God is there.  Every time we give so that the hungry may be fed, the sick healed, homeless housed, refugees saved, God is there at work.  God is working towards a day when love and peace will be everywhere and sin will be defeated for good.

And God is calling us, you and me, to be a part of that work.  God is calling us to repent, to acknowledge the sin and brokenness in ourselves and turn to God for healing and forgiveness.  The world is full of sin but we don’t have to let it rule us anymore.  We can open our hearts and minds to Jesus, and let him change us.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it is hard, even when it will not win us friends or popularity.  We can choose to do the right thing even when it costs us.  May we always confess our sins, and strive to act in love as God calls us to do.

Amen.

Can you blame Thomas?

Third Sunday of Easter, April 30, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19, 1 Peter 1:17-23, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

If I didn’t know today’s Gospel story, and I had to pick which disciple was going to not believe that Jesus was risen, I would not have figured Thomas as the one.  Peter, maybe; Peter was always getting things wrong and not understanding what Jesus was doing.  But Thomas?  In John chapter 11, Thomas was the only disciple who seemed to get that going nearer to Jerusalem seriously meant risking death, and wanted to go anyway.  True, that was partly out of grief over Lazarus’ death, but at least it was something.  And then later, at Jesus’ Last Supper, Thomas asked a very good question, which Jesus used as the foundation for one of the great statements of who he is.  Thomas, in other words, gets closer to understanding Jesus than the other disciples before Jesus died.  And, unlike Peter, he’s never had a major mistake.  He’s never said or done anything so bone-headed that you just have to sit there shaking your head at it.  So why is it that Thomas, out of all the Disciples, is the one who doesn’t believe Jesus has risen from the dead until Jesus comes back to actually show him?

Let’s consider the larger picture.  Jesus died, and on the third day he rose again.  The disciples spent that time terrified that the authorities were going to come and arrest them, too.  They stay inside a locked room, where it’s safe.  Or at least, it feels safer than being out on the streets, among the people who so recently cheered Jesus’ crucifixion.  Let’s get real, if either the chief priests or the Roman governor decided to get rid of the rest of the group and sent troops?  A locked door would not keep the centurions and Temple guards out.  If all their fears come true, there is absolutely NOTHING the disciples could do about it.  They are absolutely helpless in the face of the powers that want Jesus’ movement crushed.  Nothing they say or do could possibly save them if the powers of the world truly decided to crush them.  But I’m sure that locked door made them feel safer.  It was absolutely, completely, and totally useless for any practical defense.  The lock on that door has one purpose, and one purpose only: to make the disciples feel better.

I’m sure it was very comfortable inside that locked room.  They could sit there and talk about how awesome Jesus was to their hearts’ content.  They could sing songs, and share stories about Jesus, and what he had done in their lives, and feel safe and secure and warm and happy.  They never had to take the risk of someone not understanding them.  They never had to take the risk of anyone looking at them and going, why do you care so much about a dead guy?  Or worse, wow, you guys sure are stupid for following him for that long.  And they never had to worry about putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.  Jesus asks hard things of his followers.  Jesus told us to forgive those who sin against us, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, love our enemies and people who are unloveable, and a lot of other hard things.  It’s a lot easier to talk about how we should feed the hungry than it is to actually do it.  It’s a lot easier to say, of course we should love our enemies, when we don’t have to actually put that love into action.  And if you’re hiding away in a locked room with only the people who agree with you, you never have to worry about any of that.  It’s very comfortable.

Which may be why, after Jesus appeared to them on that first Easter Sunday, and breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and sent them out to spread God’s peace and forgive sins, they … just keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I mean, this was a dramatic moment!  Jesus appeared in a locked room!  Jesus, who had been DEAD, was ALIVE.  And although he could apparently walk through walls when he wanted to, he was no ghost, no spirit.  His body was as living as the rest of him.  And then he gave them the Holy Spirit.  Now, when the Spirit comes, things are supposed to happen, right?  The Spirit is life!  The Spirit is fire and water and the breath of God and inspiration and it takes people, shakes them up, gives them faith, and sends them out into the world!  Look at what happened when the Spirit came into the disciples fifty days later, at Pentecost—they went out and spread the Gospel and baptized thousands!  Our first reading, Peter’s preaching to the crowd and three thousand people were baptized?  That’s from Pentecost!  That’s what happens when the Spirit moves people!  And here, the disciples have just seen the risen Lord, and he has personally breathed the Holy Spirit into them, and what do they do?

Nothing.  Zip, zero, zilch, nada, not one thing.  They keep sitting on their butts in that locked room for another week.  I think we can all agree that this was not the fault of the Holy Spirit.  It’s not that Jesus was not at work in their lives!  Jesus was really, physically present!  Jesus had personally and tangibly given them the Holy Spirit!  Jesus had told them to get out into the world and start spreading his peace!  And the disciples responded by going, well, that’s awesome, we’re really happy Jesus, but the world is a big and scary place and this locked room is pretty comfy, so we’re going to stay right where we are, instead.  But we’ll make sure to tell Thomas all about it!  I can just imagine Jesus standing there face-palming.

And where was Thomas when all this was happening?  Well, that’s the interesting thing.  Thomas was the only one of the disciples who WASN’T cowering in a locked room.  He was out and about in Jerusalem somewhere, and that’s why he didn’t see Jesus when the rest of the disciples did.  Maybe he was doing the grocery shopping.  Maybe he was visiting friends and family.  Maybe he was doing what Jesus had told them to do all along—feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, forgive the sinner, spread God’s peace.  I don’t know, because the Bible doesn’t say.  But whatever he was doing that first Easter Sunday morning, he was braver without even knowing Jesus was risen than the other disciples were after a personal appearance by Jesus and a personal, tangible gift of the Spirit.

So Thomas was out and about in Jerusalem while the rest of the disciples barricaded themselves in a locked room.  Then he gets back and they tell him awesome news!  Jesus is risen!  He gave us the Holy Spirit and told us to spread peace!  Isn’t that wonderful!  And if I were Thomas, I would have said something along the lines of, okay, great, what happens next?  Because whether you believe Jesus was risen or not, nobody can stay in a locked room forever, right?  So where are we going, what are we going to do, how are we going to start spreading that peace and forgiveness like Jesus commanded?

This is where the disciples start hemming and hawing and coming up with excuses for why they can’t actually go out and start sharing the good news, spreading God’s peace, forgiving sins, or doing any of the other things Jesus has taught them and commanded them to do.  Well, you know, it’s too late to start today, we better wait until tomorrow, when we can get a good head start on it.  And, you know, people don’t want to listen to messages of peace, the city’s pretty tense right now and everybody is busy with cleaning up after Passover and getting back to their normal lives, so they probably wouldn’t listen right now.  And we can’t possibly do anything until we’ve got a good plan, and we’ve never done this before so we don’t know what would be best.  And people might get mad if we tell them that Jesus, the same guy they crucified, is God’s Son and rose from the grave!  And what if the Romans hear about it, they’d get mad.  What if the high priests hear about it, they’d get even more angry, and so we can just stay here sharing peace with each other and forgiving each other when we make mistakes, okay?  Any excuse that will justify staying up there in that comfortable locked room.

I can just imagine Thomas standing there staring at them, listening to all their excuses for staying where it’s comfy and cozy and they never have to actually put their faith into action.  Do you blame him for not believing them that Jesus rose from the grave?  Do you blame him for not believing that the Holy Spirit had come into them?  They’re not acting like Jesus is risen!  They’re not acting like they’ve been given the Holy Spirit!  They’re just sitting there like bumps on a log!  Why should Thomas believe them?

Why should anyone believe us?  Because we do the same!  We have been given the Holy Spirit!  Many times!  We were given the gift of the Holy Spirit in our baptisms, and again at Confirmation, and again throughout our lives whenever God wishes to inspire us.  But how often do we act like it?  How often do we let that Spirit, that relationship with the risen Christ, drive us out into the world to start spreading God’s peace and love?  We come for Easter services and say He is risen, alleluia! And then we go back to our homes and have a nice family dinner and an Easter Egg hunt.  And then we go right on about our business like nothing has changed.  We stay firmly in our comfort zone, in our safe and ordinary lives, coming up with all the reasons why we can’t open up to what the Spirit calls us to do.  Just like the disciples stayed up in that locked room.  And then we wonder why no one listens to the Good News we have to share.

The disciples don’t look like Jesus is risen.  Sometimes, neither do we.  Jesus says that those who have not seen and believed anyway are blessed, but most people are like Thomas.  We need to see something.  If not Jesus risen with our own eyes, then at least the Holy Spirit sending us out into the world.  May we follow the Spirit wherever it sends us.

Amen.

Where Jesus Is

Second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017

 

Acts 2:14a, 22–32, Psalm 16, 1 Peter 1:3-9, Luke 24:13-35

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

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

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

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

The powers of death and hell have been broken.  Christ is alive.  He has promised to be with us, and he has promised to give us his Holy Spirit.  And he is!  Throughout every part of our lives, good and bad, we are never alone, for Christ is with us.  That’s just as true for times of sorrow and suffering as it is for times of joy and celebration.  But one thing I’ve noticed, throughout my life, is how easy it is to miss Jesus.  To not notice the Holy Spirit.  To walk around with God right next to me and be completely oblivious to his hand at work in me and in my life.  Now, sometimes—a lot of the time!—that’s because I’m not paying attention.  I’m just going about my life, following my own plans, and even though I know I should be trying to follow Jesus, it’s a lot easier just to go on about my business.  But there are other times when I need God’s presence, when something bad has happened and I feel alone.  And only later do I realize the ways in which God was with me all along.

So it’s comforting to read about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in the Bible and know that I’m not the only one who has trouble recognizing Jesus when he’s there right next to them.  You see, our Gospel reading for today is only one of several places where Jesus appears to people after his resurrection—people that knew him well!—and they don’t recognize him.  I’m not sure why that is.  In the walk to Emmaus in today’s reading, the disciples explain to Jesus that the women at the tomb had a vision.  They don’t believe that Jesus rose from the grave; they believe the women who saw the resurrected Jesus just had a vision.  They are walking along right next to Jesus, and I’m sure they were wishing that Jesus was there with him in their grief and sorrow.  They were with Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him.  We are told that they were kept from recognizing him—maybe because they’ll understand more if they listen to him and speak with him before they learn he’s Jesus?  Maybe it will have a better impact that way?  Or maybe it’s their own wrong understanding that’s keeping them from seeing Jesus.  Maybe it’s the fact that, despite the testimony of the women, they don’t believe that Jesus is really risen that keeps them from seeing him.  Maybe, despite all they’ve seen and everything that Jesus has said, they just can’t accept the idea of someone rising from the dead.  Maybe they’d say, well, resurrection is a nice theory, and I’m sure God could raise the dead if he wanted to, but it obviously couldn’t be true now, here, today, in my ordinary daily life.  We think that too, sometimes. We don’t recognize God’s presence in our lives because our lives are too ordinary, we think, for God to be with us.  And yet, God is there even if we don’t recognize him.

There are other followers of Jesus, too, who don’t recognize him after he rose from the dead.  Earlier that first Easter morning the women went to the tomb and were surprised by the stone being rolled away.  Mary Magdalene thinks he’s the gardener at first.  She doesn’t recognize him because she’s looking for the wrong thing.  Her grief is blinding her.  She’s looking for a dead body instead of a living Lord.  We do that, too; look for Jesus in all the wrong places, or mistake him for someone else when we do see him.  Jesus is with us, but we don’t always recognize him.

But there is one place that we can count on Jesus being, absolutely for sure, and that is the meal we share together here in worship, the bread and wine that are his body and blood.  Hear the words that Jesus told his own disciples, that have been handed down ever since: Take, and eat.  This is my body, given for you.  Take, and drink, this is my blood, shed for you.  When we come together in the name of Jesus Christ, the bread and the wine become his body and blood.  Even when our eyes are kept from seeing him, he is here.  In the bread and wine, we can see him, touch him, smell and taste him—a tangible reminder that he loves us so much he died for us, and that we too will someday rise as he did, because we are tied to his death and resurrection.

Notice when the disciples recognize him.  Notice when their eyes are open.  Not on the way, as they’re walking and talking and learning from Jesus.  They spent probably hours together, on that road.  And they were good hours, hours spent drawing closer to Jesus even if they still didn’t recognize him.  Hours of learning.  Hours where their faith was nourished and grew.  But they didn’t see Jesus for who and what he was until he took the bread and wine, and blessed it, and gave it to them.  Just as he blessed it and gave it to them in his last supper before his death.  Just as he gave his body and blood for them on the cross, so now he gives it to them again in this meal.  And that’s when their eyes are opened.  There’s something about this meal that does that: opens their eyes, and connects them to God.  We human beings are tactile creatures.  It’s one thing to intellectually understand something, or remember it, or think about it.  It’s something else to have a visceral and bone-deep experience.  Where our bodies are affected, not just our brains.  We don’t get to be there at Gethsemenee or Golgotha or the empty tomb.  We don’t get to put our finger in the wounds in Jesus’ hands, feet, and side.  But we do get this.  We get the body of Christ, placed into our hands.  We get the blood of Christ, shed for us and for all people, to take and drink.  How it happens that bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood, we don’t know.  I can’t scientifically explain the transformation.  But we know that it happens, that Jesus meets us—always—in the breaking of the bread.

Today we are celebrating with several children who are coming to Communion, some for the first time, and all with a better understanding of it.  We gathered weekly during Lent to learn about Holy Communion, and what God has done for us.  And the first place we started was talking about meals: what meals do they remember?  What events are marked in their family by special meals?  Are there any stories their family tells about things that happened at special meals in the past?  And every year I do this, kids tell me stories.  Because in the human experience, food is one of the universal ways we build community and memories.  Every special event is marked by a meal, and every time we share that meal, we remember.  When we come together to share in God’s holy meal, the bread and the wine that are Jesus’ body and blood, we remember all that Jesus did.  We remember the meals that he shared in life, with his disciples and with the Pharisees and with sinners.  We remember how he fed the five thousand people in the wilderness.  We remember his last supper, how he gave his body and blood in the form of bread and wine, and commanded his disciples to love one another.  This meal that we share helps us to remember all the meals in the past that helped bring us here.  This is important, because in order to know where we’re going we have to know where we’ve been.  To understand what God is calling us to do out in the world we have to know what God has done for us.

But this meal is not just about memory.  It’s not just about remembering what Jesus did a long time ago.  It’s also about experiencing Jesus’ presence here and now.  Because Jesus wasn’t just a nice guy who lived a long time ago.  Jesus is present in our lives, now.  Jesus didn’t just sacrifice himself for us once on a cross, Jesus offers his body and blood to us every week, to strengthen us in faith and love, to help us connect to him, and to nourish both our bodies and our souls.  We may not always see Jesus, we may not always be aware of God’s presence, but in the meal we share in worship we can see, feel, taste, and smell our Lord’s presence.  May it strengthen us in faith towards God and fervent love for one another.

Amen.

Come and See

Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

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, O Lord.

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

Throughout the Gospels, there is a common thread, a repeated invitation to come and see.  Come and see Jesus, come and hear his teachings, come and experience his healing, come and be fed.  Come and see.  And the disciples—the twelve, plus Jesus’ other followers—have come, and they have seen.  They have witnessed the saving actions of Jesus, including his death on a cross, and now these two women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, have been witnesses to the resurrection.  They have seen what God has done.  They have seen life come out of death, a life that is too powerful to ever return to the grave.  And now there is a new invitation: go and tell.

Go and tell people that Jesus is alive.  Go and tell people that the Lord of Life has broken the powers of sin and death.  Go and tell his disciples that they will see him again, that he is with them.  Go and tell.  Twice in ten verses, the two Marys are told to go and tell.  And our Acts reading is Peter telling the story of Jesus to new believers.  First, we come and see; then, we go and tell.

What makes this story worth telling?  What makes this story important?  What makes this story matter, to us here today?  This story matters because it is not just a story of something that happened a long time ago to people who looked and dressed funny.  This story matters because it is our story, and because it is still ongoing.  This world is broken by sin and death—we are broken by sin and death.  We live in a world where there is evil, where we hurt ourselves and others, where might makes right and innocent people suffer while the ones who hurt them prosper.  We live in a world where people cherish their feuds and enmities, and deny the humanity of anyone who’s not like them.  We live in a world where any amount of pain and suffering can be shrugged off and ignored as long as it happens to people somewhere else who aren’t our kind of people.  We live in a world where too many of those with power abuse those who have none.  We live in a world where people choose to hurt each other, in word and deed, through things we do and things we fail to do.  Things fall apart.  And especially given what we see on the news, it is so, so easy to focus on all the problems.  On all the bad things.  On all the general crumminess and misery in the world.  It is so easy to be afraid.  But that story, the story about how terrible everything is, is not God’s story.

God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, that first Easter morning, and the stone was rolled away from the tomb.  God’s story is this: there was an earthquake, and the aftershocks are still being felt to this very day.  God’s story is this: death does not win.  God’s story is this: God shows no partiality, but loves us, all of us, everyone, rich and poor, the powerful and the vulnerable, of every race and tribe and nation, here and throughout the world.  God loves us all, and God chooses to save us.  God chooses to reach in to the terrible, crummy world, and work in it, to bring light to the darkness and healing where there is brokenness, forgiveness where there is sin, reconciliation where there is estrangement, hope where there is despair, joy and love where there is fear, and life even in the grave.

We don’t follow Jesus because he was a nice guy who said some wise things 2,000 years ago.  We follow Jesus because we have seen the life that he brings, and we want to experience it and share it with all the world.  We follow Jesus because he offers us a better story than doom and gloom and despair and fear, a story that looks at the very worst the world has to offer and acknowledges all the worst parts of it and says, this is not the way the world is supposed to be and God is at work to do something about it.  We follow Jesus because he brings healing and forgiveness and new life.  And some of that new life and healing and forgiveness will have to wait until Christ comes again in glory and heaven comes to Earth.  But some of it?  Some of it happens here, now, among us.  I have seen people be petty and cruel; I have seen people make excuses to heap more pain on those who are already devastated.  I have seen people lash out out of fear.  But I have also seen people be kind and generous, not just to those they already like but to everyone.  I have seen people build bridges instead of walls, and I have seen people stand up to bullies and I have seen people and communities change things for the better.  I have seen people bring love and joy to the places it is most desperately needed.  And in each of these times and places I have seen God at work, Jesus Christ present in the words and deeds of ordinary people.

This is our story.  This is not just the story of one dude who died and got resuscitated a long time ago.  This is the story of how Jesus Christ is still at work in us and around us.  This is the story of change, and hope.  This is the story of God working in us and around us.  Come and see.  Look around you, and see the signs of God’s presence.  Look around you, and see what God is doing.  I guarantee you that in every dark place in the world, if you look closely enough you will see God at work to bring light and healing.  Come and see.  Come and see what Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago in dying for our sins and rising to new life.  Come and see what Jesus Christ is doing in us and around us right now to break the power of sin and death and bring new life to all people.  Come and see the seeds of the kingdom God is planting in us and around us, flowers that spring up even though the world tries to choke them to death.  Come and see.

And then go and tell.  Thank the Lord, and sing his praise.  Tell everyone what God has done.  And I don’t just mean tell non-Christians.  I mean, we should tell them, too, but believers are part of “everyone.”  Notice that before Peter got to telling the story to Cornelius and his household in Acts, the women had to go tell the disciples.  Both the angel at the tomb and Jesus himself told them to share what they had seen with the other followers of Jesus.  We need to hear that story, too.  We need to hear about God’s power to destroy death.  We need to hear about the earthquake that is in the process of reshaping the world.  We need to hear about life even in the midst of death.  We need to hear the story of God’s saving actions and let it inspire us, let it help us to see God’s work in us and around us.  We need to hear the story, too, so that it can build our faith and strengthen us to be part of God’s mission in the world.  We need to hear the story so that we can grow in faith and love.  We all need to hear that story, so we all need to be telling it to one another.

We need to hear the story from the time we are very small to the time we are very old.  The world has so many stories to tell, and so many of them are bad ones.  The world tells stories about pain, about despair.  The world tells stories about selfishness, and greed, and hate, and fear.  And the only way to counter those stories is with stories about life: the life that God gives, the life that Jesus Christ died and rose again to give us.  The life that God wants for all of creation.  We need to hear that story, over and over again.  And so we need to keep telling it.

In just a few minutes we’re going to baptize young Axel.  And his parents are going to promise to bring him to church and place in his hands the holy Scriptures—in other words, to teach him the stories of faith and raise him in the community that tells those stories.  We as a congregation are going to promise to tell those stories, to support him in his growth in faith.  And in a few weeks we’re going to confirm some young members of this congregation, and they will affirm the promises made in their baptism and promise to live as part of that community of faith, to hear the story of what God has done in Christ Jesus and is still doing around us today.  Every one of us has made those same promises, either at our own baptisms, or our confirmation, or the baptism of our children, or the baptism of other children in the community.  We promise to tell the stories, to pass them on, to encourage one another, to build one another up in the faith.  We promise to set aside our fear, we promise to reach for the joy and love that Christ brings, we promise to tell the story of Jesus Christ, and we promise to open ourselves to let God’s story shape us and our lives.

Come and hear that story.  And then go and tell it, and may God be with you every step of the way, breathing new life and healing and hope and joy and love into every corner of your soul and your life.

Amen.

Lazarus was dead, to begin with

Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 2, 2017

 

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

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.

Lazarus was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.  This is the reason Jesus delayed the two days: so that everyone would know that Lazarus was dead.  Remember, he arrived four days late.  Even if he had come immediately when he got word, Lazarus would have been in the grave for at least two days by the time Jesus arrived.  But at two days’ dead, one could have argued that perhaps he was merely in a coma, or in that state between life and death where it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.  But no, when Jesus arrived Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days.  No food, no water, no air.  There was no possibility of his still being alive under any circumstances.  Lazarus was dead, and everybody knew it with a bone-deep certainty.  He was not mostly dead, he was all dead.  He was not merely dead, he was really most sincerely dead.  He was not just dead, he was dead and rotting.

It is said that there are two certainties in life: death, and taxes.  I suppose if you are too poor or manage to live completely off the grid, you might get out of taxes; but nobody gets out of death.  Not since Adam and Eve first decided that that apple looked mighty good, and surely God wasn’t serious when he said they’d die if they ate it.  The world is broken by sin and death, and in this life we can’t avoid either.  In life, nobody gets out alive.  Things wear out.  People die.  Communities die.  Nations die.  Cultures die.  Nothing lasts forever.

But we worship a God of Life.  We worship a God who created the universe and all that is in it.  We worship a God who created the earth to be a paradise, and saw that it was good.  We worship a God who wants us to not only have life, but to have it abundantly.  Overflowing with good things: peace and joy and love and hope and so much more.

If you have ever been angry at death, if you have ever been frustrated at the pain and sorrow and suffering in the world, you are not alone.  If you have ever wanted to punch death in the face, you are not alone.  God, too, gets angry at death; God, too, gets frustrated at the way we hurt one another;  God, too, gets upset at how we take the abundance he gives and waste it so that some have too much while others are desperately in need.  God, too, wants to punch death in the face—and sin and suffering, while he’s at it.

I know that, because in our Gospel reading Jesus was upset and angry.  Where it says he was “greatly disturbed and moved” that’s actually not a very good translation.  There isn’t a translation that really gets the feel of the Greek.  We keep trying to sentimentalize Jesus, here.  We keep trying to make grief his primary emotion for his friend.  And it is true that Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, and Jesus grieved deeply at Lazarus’ death.  But he was also frustrated.  Angry.  A better translation than “deeply moved” would be “deeply indignant.”  The Greeks, who read the New Testament in the Greek it was originally written in, have spent a lot of time over the last two thousand years pondering why Jesus is so angry, here.  There are a lot of possible answers.  But I think Jesus is angry at death.  Jesus was angry that Lazarus had died, but Jesus was also angry that anyone dies.  Jesus was angry at the way God’s beautiful creation is broken.

I think Jesus was also angry at how we take death for granted.  We take illness and brokenness for granted.  We think about the planes that crash, not the ones that land safely.  Whenever someone protests at the cruelty and unfairness in the world, someone else will shrug and say “life’s not fair, deal with it.”  Or maybe “but if you protect people from that, they won’t toughen up!”  As if cruelty and unfairness were supposed to be normal, or perhaps even good.  Death may be inevitable, death may be part of the way the world works, but it is not supposed to be.  That’s why Jesus came to earth; that’s why Jesus became human.  To break the power of sin and evil.  To smash it.  To destroy death, to swallow it up forever.  This is why Jesus came to earth; this is why, just a few weeks later, Jesus was going to die.

But notice when, specifically, Jesus gets upset, what moves him to the point of tears.  Jesus asks where they have laid the body, and the community tells him to come and see.  And then he starts crying.  The thing is, we’ve heard those words before.  They’re a common theme in John.  When Jesus first started inviting the disciples, that’s what he told them: “Come and see.”  Come and see the Lord of Life.  Come and see the one who is the Resurrection and the Life.  Come and see the Son of God.  He didn’t tell them all that, he invited them to follow, to see.  And when one disciple invites another to follow, that’s what he says, too: come and see.  Come, see and experience for yourself the lifegiving Lamb of God.  Come, see the abundant life God brings.  Come and see!  And when the woman at the well goes to her community, that’s what she says, too.  “Come and see!”  Come and see this man who might just be the Messiah, the holy Annointed One of God.  Come and see this man who knows me, who knew me before he saw me.  Come and see this one who promises living water so that we will never thirst again.

This is the invitation to life.  This is the invitation to participate, to become part of God’s kingdom.  It doesn’t start with explaining all the details, it starts with an invitation.  Come, and see for yourself what God has in store for you.  Come, and see the life God has for you and for all of us.  Come and see the love of God made flesh and bone.  Come and taste the bread of life and wine of salvation poured out for all people.  Come and touch the one who loves you and knows you more deeply than anyone else ever could.  Come and hear the word of life.  Come and see.

Jesus has been inviting people to come and see for three years, at this point.  He’s been teaching and living his message, for three years, and putting it into practice with miracles that bring abundant life for all.  Jesus has healed the sick, forgiven the sinner, fed the hungry, and done wonders beyond measure so that people can see and experience God’s abundant life.  Not just for some, but for all.  Everyone there knows who Jesus is and what he has done.  Some of them have been there to see it; some of them have heard him speak; some of them have heard the witness of others.  He has asked them all, in word and deed, to come and see what new thing God is doing.

And now, here, when they ask Jesus to come and see, they mean a tomb.  They mean death.  They mean the very opposite of what Jesus has come to do.  They have seen, but not understood.  They think he could have kept Lazarus from dying … for now, at least.  Their comment isn’t about healing, or about resurrection, although many of them believed that one day all the dead would be raised.  The highest their expectations go is the prevention of death for a little while.  Death, in their minds, still gets the final say.  Death to them is the end which we can sometimes put off but never prevent, which can never be beaten.  And so Jesus is so frustrated and upset he begins to cry.

The Gospel of John is structured around seven signs, seven miracles, that Jesus showed the people around him, signs of God’s abundant life.  The first was the Wedding at Cana, when Jesus turned water into wine.  The raising of Lazarus is the last and the greatest.  All right, Jesus says through his tears.  You’ve seen, but you haven’t understood.  My job is to destroy death; my job is to bring life.  So here it is, a foretaste of the feast to come.  And so Jesus, in anguish and frustration, prays loudly to God so that they might hear and orders them to roll away the tomb.  And he commands the dead man to come out … and Lazarus does.  Not as a zombie, not still sick, but alive and well enough to sit down to dinner with them all in the next chapter.

Death has one more shot.  Two weeks after raising Lazarus, Jesus will be crucified by the authorities, and he will die, and he, too, will be placed in a tomb.  And after that, he will rise, and the power of death will be destroyed forever.  The general resurrection, when all graves everywhere will be opened and all who have died will live again, whole and healed and restored, will not happen until Christ comes again.  But we know it’s coming.  We have seen our God, who brings life.  We have seen our God, who destroys death itself, who opens graves, who brings life in the most impossible places.  Life is here.  Come and see.

Amen.

An Easter People

Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 8th, 2016

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

If you’ve taken a moment to glance through your Bibles at the Gospel of John in the last few weeks, you may have noticed something a bit … odd in the Gospel readings.  Not in the readings themselves, but in the fact that these particular texts are assigned to be read now, in Easter.  Easter is a time of resurrection.  We celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we look forward to the time when he will come again in glory and all those who have died in Christ will be raised from the dead, as well.  That’s why we read from Revelation in Easter—we’re celebrating Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to the general Resurrection, which Revelation gives us a vision of.

And that’s what’s so peculiar about the readings from John that we’ve been reading.  Because they’re taken from before Jesus’ death and resurrection.  And not just any time throughout his ministry.  No, they come from what is called the Farewell Discourse, the words Jesus spoke to his disciples after their last meal together, before he was handed over to the guards in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is Jesus praying and teaching the very night before his crucifixion.  Jesus knows he is about to die, and is preparing for it by preparing his disciples for it.  The disciples don’t know Jesus is about to die, because they’ve been willfully blind to what Jesus’ teachings mean … but even so, they know just how tense the situation is, how much the authorities in the city would like to silence Jesus and his followers.  It’s a time of fear, a time of pain, a time of death, a time when nobody but God could see any hope… and even that hope could not come without suffering.  So why, out of all the times during the year, do we read this discourse during Easter?  The time of great joy and hope?  The time of healing and resurrection and new life?  On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense.

But the thing is, even as we celebrate Christ’s resurrection—even as we look forward to the general resurrection of the dead that is to come—we still have to live in a world filled with death.  Jesus’ resurrection is the foretaste of the feast to come … but before we sit down to the full feast that is heaven, we’ve got to get through life today, first.  We know there is healing to come, but we live in a world of sickness.  We know there is life to come, but we live in a world of death.  We know there is hope and love to come, but we live in a world of fear and hate, where sin and brokenness run rampant and abuse is all too normal.  Like the disciples, we want to know God, and to live in God’s kingdom—but like the disciples, we are still caught up in a world of fear and death.  We are a resurrection people.  We celebrate Christ’s resurrection, and we look forward to our own resurrection and the resurrection of all the dead … but we live in a world of death, and will until Christ comes again.  And I think that’s why these readings from the Farewell Discourse are read in Easter.

The question—the great question, that most of the New Testament revolves around—is how do we live as children of the resurrection in a world broken by sin and death?  How do we keep the faith, how do we maintain our hope, how do we live and speak and act, in a world that is determined to sell itself out to power and greed and hate and lust and fear and all the sin and brokenness there is?

Revelation has two answers.  Revelation is a dream, a vision, not meant to be taken as a literal history of the future but rather as a reassurance of two great truths.  First, that no matter how bleak things get, no matter what horrible things happen—in our own lives, and in the larger world—God is at work.  God is present, God is active, no matter how bad things look.  Just as the disciples couldn’t see God’s hand in Jesus’ death until afterwards, in the light of the resurrection, so too God is present and at work even when we can’t see him, even in the darkest moments there are.

And the second answer that Revelation gives is that we don’t have to worry about the end of the story.  We don’t have to worry about how things are going to turn out.  We already know.  God wins.  Sin and death are defeated.  Heaven comes to earth, and this world truly becomes God’s kingdom as it was always meant to be.  There is resurrection, and healing, and life, and joy, and love, and hope, and all pain and sorrow and evil will be gone.  No matter what happens, no matter what trials we have to live through in this life, we know how the story ends.  Even in the midst of pain and sorrow, suffering and evil and brokenness, even though it kills us—and this world will kill us, each and every one of us—we don’t have to be afraid, because we know how the story ends.  And it’s a good ending, the best ending possible.

We don’t have to worry about the end, just the middle.  Just the here-and-now.  Just getting through each day.  And that’s what Jesus was talking about in the Farewell Discourse, as he said goodbye to his disciples and tried to prepare them for what was to come.  How to get through each day, because knowing how the story ends gives hope but that may not be enough by itself when the going gets rough.  And Jesus’ answer is love.  In these three chapters, Jesus talks about a lot of things, but the common thread is love: God’s love for us, and our love for one another.  That’s how we get through the middle times.

Now, when I talk about love I don’t just mean a kind of wishy-washy platitude, and when I talk about sin and brokenness and evil I don’t just mean on a cosmic scale.  I know you’ve all experienced it.  For example, I know you have all seen and experienced how feuds, rivalries, jealousies, and prejudices can build up in a small town, how they can hurt and twist people over and over again.  I know you’ve seen how people turn to drugs and alcohol to solve their problems and hurt themselves and their families and friends in the process.  I know you’ve seen how petty and nasty and mean people can be to one another, even when they smile and hide it behind a nice façade, and the damage that does to people.  And there are members of this parish who have been abused; there are members of this parish who have been raped.  If you have been lucky enough never to have suffered that way, you know people who have—even if they’ve never told you about it.  We have a nice community, a good community, but even in our own homes and hearts and minds there is sin and brokenness, there are victims and aggressors, and oftentimes people who are both.  And the love of God—the love that Jesus asks us to have for one another—is right there in the midst of it.  Not just in platitudes and sayings, but in action.

That love is the love that leads us to be there for people when they need help—when they’re sick, or in pain, or hurt.  That love is the love that leads us to work for a just peace and reconciliation, even when choosing a side and striking back would be easier.  Striking back and lashing out are the easiest things in the world when pain and fear come.  Building walls and closing out problems is simple, too—just go with the flow, follow the world’s advice, contribute to the pain in the world—but that’s not what God calls us to do.  We are called to love.  To open our hearts and our hands and our lives.  To witness to the abundant life and love that God brings.  We are called to heal the world, not add to the hurt.  We are called to be kind when it is easier to be mean, to be forgiving when it is easier to be resentful.  We are called to love in tangible ways, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and brokenhearted, and in all things be Christ to our neighbors.  And when we, together, put God’s love into action, that is when we are most truly a resurrection people.  When love is not just a word but a way of life, that is when we see a foretaste of God’s kingdom to come.  Love is how we live as an Easter people in a world still full of sin and death.  May God teach us truly how to love one another in thought, word, and deed.

Alleluia!  He is Risen!

Amen.

Your Funeral Sermon

Easter, March 27th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Day of Mourning

By Anna C. Haugen.  This article first appeared in Gather: The Magazine of Women of the ELCA in the March 2016 issue.  It was written in November of 2015.  For more information on Disability Day of Mourning, see the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s Anti-Filicide Toolkit.

As I write this, I have just heard the news that a woman in Georgia has murdered her autistic son, Dustin, and shot herself. It sits in my gut like lead. In the last five years, more than 90 disabled people in the U.S. (many of them autistic) have been murdered by parents or caregivers. More than 90 people betrayed by those who should have protected them.

I sit in the land of death. I close my eyes and pray for young Dustin, and for Tracey, Melissa, Daniel and all those who went before him. I trust they are safe in God’s arms. It’s cold comfort.

I don’t have to turn on the TV to know what some are saying. It’s always the same. “He was such a burden.” “You don’t know what it’s like to be the parent of an autistic child.” “Can you really blame her?” “He was severely disabled—what kind of life would that be, anyway?” It will probably come out, eventually, that his mother abused Dustin long before she murdered him, taking her frustrations out on him (and worsening his condition in the process). If so, few will care.

I’m autistic, and so is my baby brother. I can’t help thinking that if our parents shared that mindset, that news story could have been us. When I share this, people try to comfort me: “Oh, you’re so much higher-functioning. You’d never have to worry about that!” As if the fact that I look more “normal” means I’m more worthy of life, of love. Yes, autism brings challenges. Yes, it has a profound impact on our lives, and sometimes limits what we can do. But there is also joy and happiness and great ability—in spite of our autism and because of it. I am fearfully and wonderfully made by a Creator who made me different, but not less. So was Dustin.

Many people can’t see that. And so, in this sinful, broken world, they take their fear, their hate, their frustration and their grief out on the vulnerable. Sometimes it’s “just” abuse. Sometimes it’s murder. We need better support systems, but more than that, we need to realize that disabled people are people—not burdens or tragedies. Every March 1st, the autistic community joins other disabled groups in a Day of Mourning. We hold vigils. We remember the names and stories of those who have died. We speak out against a society that excuses the murderers and blames the victims. We cry.

I sit in the land of death, hearing stories about people like me being abused and killed. I wait for the morning, for the light of new life coming from the empty tomb. I wait for the day Christ comes back and all the dead are raised—including Dustin—and we live in a world free from abuse and violence.

I live in the land of death, but I hope for new life.

The Day Everything Changed

Easter, (Year A), April 20, 2014

Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:12-14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10

 

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.

There are some events that change everything. Some events that everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. For my grandparents’ generation, the question was: what were you doing when you heard Pearl Harbor was bombed? For my parents’ generation, the question was: what were you doing when you heard that Kennedy was shot? For my generation, the question is: what were you doing on September 11th? (If you’re curious, I was in college, in Greek class, when we got the news.) If you notice, those events have a lot in common. They all involved a huge shock. They all were hard to believe at first. They all involved death. And they all involved a loss of innocence, a time of fear and pain. Something broke, and nothing was ever quite the same. The rules were different, afterwards. Life was different afterwards.

For the first followers of Jesus, the question was: where were you when Jesus rose? This was the game-changer. And life is different afterwards! But it’s a different kind of game-changer. This game changer doesn’t lead to a loss of innocence; it doesn’t lead to fear and pain. Quite the opposite. This event wipes away the fear and pain. This event restores an innocence and faith that had been lost. This event healed the world, and those who lived through it.

We take it for granted, today; after all, we know that Jesus rose! He died on Good Friday, and he rose on Easter. We celebrate it every year, regular as clockwork. We have the rituals and the traditions all laid out to help guide us through what to do and what it means. It’s not a shock, and it’s not hard to believe. We take it for granted. But put yourselves back in their shoes. If you hadn’t heard the story every year, would you have believed it possible before seeing it yourself? And when angels came and rolled the stone away, how would you have reacted? If I’d been there, not knowing the story, I probably would have fainted just like the guards did. And I definitely would have been as freaked out as the two Marys were.

Someone rose from the dead. The Son of God rose from the dead. The gates of hell have been broken. Sin and death have been defeated. These are all huge things! But for Jesus’ first followers, this is something more. This is, after all, their friend. Their friend whom they love. Their friend that they have eaten and drank with, their friend they’ve shared stories with, their friend who was with them in good times and bad. He was dead, and now he is alive. Notice that the women took hold of his feet. Mary Magdalene once washed his feet and anointed them with oil: these are feet she knows. I wonder if she touched his feet to reassure herself that this was truly Jesus, not a ghost or a hallucination or a case of mistaken identity, but the real man she had known and followed throughout Judea.

Jesus told them to tell his followers to go to Galilee, and they went. Jesus met them there, and they worshipped him, and he gave them the great commission: to pass on what they have learned, making disciples and baptizing them and living the kind of life that Jesus had taught them. And they did! They started telling people about Jesus; they started living differently. All of those first followers put their trust in God, and followed where he led them. Jesus promised to be with them always, and he was. Life wasn’t always smooth, and it wasn’t always easy. But their lives had been changed by meeting the resurrected Jesus, and they never looked back. They experienced Jesus’ death and resurrection; their old lives were dead, and their new lives were in Christ.

How have our lives been changed by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? Have they been changed? For a lot of people, Jesus’ death and resurrection doesn’t really affect their every-day lives. For them, the salvation that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection means that they’ll go to heaven when they die. And that’s true! And it’s good that we know that! It’s a great comfort, particularly when a loved one dies, to know that we will see them again in the kingdom of heaven.

But Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just about what happens to us after we die. It’s about how we live in this life, too. In the words of our reading from Colossians, we have died, and our new life is with Christ in God. Our life, the life we live now, is in God. That’s why Jesus’ resurrection is immediately followed by a call to action. The two Marys meet Jesus in the garden, and they are overjoyed! They worship him! And they are sent to tell the rest of Jesus’ followers where to meet him. They don’t just hang around in the garden rehashing old times and celebrating. They get sent out into the world. And when Jesus’ followers get to the mountain in Galilee where he sent them, Jesus was there, and they worshipped him again. But, again, they didn’t have time to rest on their laurels. They weren’t given the chance to just stay there hanging out with Jesus; Jesus would be with them always, but they were supposed to go out in the world and be in the world, sharing the light of Christ. They weren’t given the chance to go back to their old lives as if nothing had happened. Yes, some of Jesus’ followers did go back to their old jobs; they all worked, they all had homes and most had families. But the way they lived their lives was different than it had been. They had a story to tell, and love to share.

Have you ever felt alone? Have you ever felt like nobody cared about you at all? Have you ever felt that if people really knew you, they wouldn’t like you? Have you ever felt that you had to hide parts of yourself to keep your friends? How much would it have meant to you, when you felt abandoned by the world, to know that God loved you no matter what? Would it have affected how you felt and thought? Would it have affected the choices you made? It’s true! God loves you no matter what. Jesus’ resurrection is proof that God loves each and every one of us—you, me, the entire world—with a love greater than anything we can imagine. God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to die for us. So no matter what happens to us, no matter what hard knocks life gives us, no matter how far we go astray, God loves us and calls us. And that’s huge. We aren’t alone; we’re never alone. Fear and loneliness can make people do terrible things, but we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to be alone. We don’t have to hide ourselves. God sees the worst in us and loves us anyway. Knowing and accepting God’s love can give us the courage to open ourselves up to God’s Holy Spirit, to spread that love to all the world.

Those of you who were at Maundy Thursday services this week will remember Jesus’ last command to his disciples before his death was to love one another as he had loved them. In fact, Jesus said that love was the mark of a disciple. And here Jesus is, telling them to go and make disciples of all nations. You can’t be a disciple without loving one another as Jesus has loved us. So you can’t make a disciple without loving one another. Making disciples is not about making sure they know the right things or can say the right words. It’s not about separating good people from bad people. It’s about sharing Jesus’ love with the world, the love that he has given us. Discipleship is about letting God’s love transform us, and sharing that love with the world through our words and our actions.

And note that Jesus doesn’t just say “go and make disciples of your friends.” He doesn’t say “go and make disciples of nice people you like.” He doesn’t say “go and make disciples of people who are like you.” He says that we should go and make disciples of all nations. Everyone. As Peter says in our first lesson, God shows no partiality. God’s love is big enough for the whole world. It’s not something to be rationed out by the cupful, it overflows abundantly for everyone. We’ve been given the greatest gift imaginable—the love of God. We have more than we need, and we’ll never run out of it. We don’t have to hoard God’s love, because he gives it freely. Shouldn’t we share this wonderful thing with the world?

Jesus Christ died and rose again. He died for us, because he loves us, because he loves the whole world. This is not just a story of something that happened two thousand years ago, this is something that is happening here, now, for us. We have died with Christ, and been raised with him. Our lives are with Christ. God’s love has been poured out on us, and in us, and through us. And we have that gift to share with all the world. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

The End of the Story

Lent 5, (Year A), April 6, 2014

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, Romans 8:6-11, John 11:1-45

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.

The scriptures appointed for each Sunday are supposed to be thematically appropriate for the day, but that doesn’t mean that they always come from the same event in the Bible that is being commemorated. If you pay attention, the texts we read each week often jump around. So, during Advent, when we’re preparing for Jesus’ birth, we’ll have Gospel readings from his adult ministry. In the Easter season we’ll have stories from before Jesus’ death. But today’s Gospel matches up. We are one week out from Holy Week, a week and a half before Jesus’ arrest and trial and execution, and two weeks out from Easter. And our Gospel lesson comes from that time. Today’s reading takes place less than a week before Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and in fact if you read the rest of John eleven you’ll find that this event was the last straw, the final thing the chief priests and the scribes needed to convince them that Jesus was dangerous and needed to be gotten rid of.
Two weeks before his own death, Jesus was called to the bedside of a dying friend. Now, remember that while Jesus knows what is to come, his friends and disciples have not been willing to listen. They don’t want to hear about suffering and death, and have in fact gone to great lengths to ignore or misinterpret everything Jesus has said predicting it. And we look back at them and shake our heads, but really, who can blame them? Who likes to think about death? Particularly the death of someone we love? I can’t tell you how many hospital and nursing home rooms I’ve been in when family members have refused to believe that their loved one will die. “He’ll pull through—he’s strong, and he’s made it this far.” “How can they know she won’t recover? Just yesterday, she was doing fine!” We don’t like to think about death.

Now, in those days they believed that the soul of the dead person stuck around for three days after the death. You will note that Jesus makes a point of not coming until the fourth day. This isn’t the case of someone in a coma. This isn’t the case of someone being only “mostly dead.” This corpse is dead and rotting. And I think Jesus does this to make a point for his disciples. They don’t want to face death, well, Jesus is going to force them to. This is reality, as stark and as bare as it gets: everyone dies. Good people, bad people, friends and enemies. Some die young, and some die old, but everyone dies. Ignoring it doesn’t change that basic fact. You can’t argue it away; you can’t misinterpret it; and you can stick your fingers in your ears and ignore it, but not forever. Death is going to come.

But please remember, this is the beginning of this story. We usually place death at the end of the story, but that’s not where God puts it. No. For God, death comes in the middle. So Jesus comes to Bethany, and Lazarus’ sister Martha comes out to confront him. The first thing she says is “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Where was God when her brother, his beloved friend, lay dying? Where was he throughout the first days of Mary and Martha’s grief? It’s a question I hear often. If God loves us, why does he allow this? Why doesn’t he just wave his hand and fix things?

Jesus and his disciples weren’t there, but I don’t think that means that God had abandoned Mary and Martha and Lazarus. I think the Spirit was with them even in their pain and grief, even as Lazarus died. As for why Jesus wasn’t physically present, well, remember that this is only a week and a half before Jesus’ own death. Two weeks from Easter. And for God, death is not the end of the story.

Jesus loves Lazarus, and Mary, and Martha, but he didn’t come to Earth only for them. God was not born in human flesh solely so that one man might be saved. If that was the case, Jesus would have been there when Lazarus caught that first sniffle, and fixed it. No, God was born in human flesh so that the entire cosmos might be saved. If Jesus had been there from the beginning and waved his hand and cured Lazarus when he first fell ill, it would not have solved the basic problem. Lazarus would still die someday, unless Jesus stuck around perpetually to take care of every ache and pain and injury and sniffle. The basic problem of existence is not that one person gets sick and dying. The basic problem of existence is that everything dies. The basic problem is that for all mortal beings, death is the end of the story. That’s the problem Jesus came to Earth to solve. Jesus came to save Lazarus, yes, but also Mary and Martha and the disciples and the thieves crucified with him and the Pharisees and the Romans and the whole entire world. And he’s going to do that by dying himself. His disciples have been trying to ignore that fact, but time is running out. They have to be prepared for what’s coming. They have to be able to look death in the eye.

Death is a consequence of the brokenness of the world. You can’t always tie it to specific sins, but the sinfulness of humanity results in the death of all created things. Sin and brokenness creep in everywhere, even where we least expect them. To overcome death, you have to heal the brokenness. You have to atone for the sins. You have to remake the world into the good creation God made it to be. And that doesn’t happen without sacrifice. It doesn’t happen without pain. Because the brokenness of this world is not just going to give up without a fight.
Jesus knew that was coming. Jesus knew that it was his own sacrifice, laying down his life for the whole world, that was going to save things. It was going to be God’s own pain and grief that saved creation. And that salvation was going to come in two phases. First, after Jesus death and resurrection, the followers that Jesus has taught and brought together are going to spread the stories of Jesus. They’re going to tell people what God is like, the God who loves us so much that he became human and died for our sake. They’re going to teach people how to live lives full of love and hope, and they’re going to teach people how to build right relationships with God and with one another. That’s phase one. Phase two is that Jesus is going to come back. God’s kingdom will be established, and all the living and the dead will be raised, sins forgiven and all brokenness will be healed. God’s good creation will be re-established.

That’s what’s coming, in the end. Resurrecton. Not just resurrection of one or two people, but all people. And not just so that they can go on living in the same broken, sinful world they’ve always been living in, but in a new and better world, where there is no pain, no grief, no loss, no fear, and no hate. A world where there is only goodness and kindness, love and hope.

But to get there, Jesus has to die. And the disciples have to be ready for it. They’re going to have to be able to stand at the cross, at the place where all their hopes and dreams are shattered by the cruelties of life, and watch their friend and teacher die. They’re going to have to be able to stand there and see it and not run away. They’re going to have to be willing to stay through the grief and pain of the crucifixion, so that they will also be there when Jesus rises. They’re going to have to be able to look at death and say, “This is not the end of the story. There is still hope. God is still working, even in the midst of death.”

Because isn’t that what the Christian life is all about? Let’s not forget that the symbol of our faith, the cross, is an instrument of torture and execution. When we wear a cross, that’s what we’re saying. Yes, the world is a broken, sinful place. Yes, there is death: horrifying, terrible, death, that leaves people torn by grief and fear. Yes, there are horrors in the world. But they do not get the final word. Death does not win. God is alive, God is present, God is with us even when we can’t see him. God is with us even when we think he is dead and gone. God is with us no matter what, and God is going to turn this world upside down. God’s plan for this world is life, abundant life, joyful life, where sin and brokenness can’t hurt us anymore. And God’s plan is fulfilled through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the one who was, and who is, and who will come again.

And so, a week and a half before Jesus’ own death, two weeks before his resurrection, Jesus takes the disciples to the tomb of his friend Lazarus. He weeps with Mary and Martha. He tells them to have faith in the Resurrection—because he is the resurrection, and the life, even in death when it seems like all hope and life are lost. And Jesus commanded them to take away the stone from the tomb, even knowing that Lazarus had been dead long enough to rot. And he called Lazarus to come out, and Lazarus did. And everyone there could see that death was not the end. Lazarus could see it, and the disciples could see it, and Mary and Martha, and the people who were there. And we can see it, too, whenever we read this story: death does not get the final say. Death is not the end of the story. Because Jesus is the resurrection, and the life.
The story doesn’t end with death, not then and not for us here, and now. We won’t see the resurrection until Jesus comes again, but Jesus will come. Death is not the end of the story. Life is the end of the story. Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Resurrection and Relationships

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 32), November 10, 2013

Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

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.

Did you notice something a bit … odd about today’s Gospel lesson?  Something that just doesn’t make sense?  The reading starts out like this: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.”  And what was the question they asked?  They asked about the Resurrection.  Why, if they don’t believe in it, are they asking questions about it?  Why do they care?  And why are they paying attention to a guy who obviously does believe in the Resurrection?  Who are they, anyway?

Well, we don’t know that much about them, but we do know they were Jews.  This isn’t much of a surprise since Jesus was a Jew, as were all his disciples, and the Pharisees were Jews, too.  In those days there were a lot of different factions and groups within Judaism, and they argued.  They argued a lot.  One thing they argued over was which books were the most authoritative.  Some Jews (like the Saducees) believed that only the Books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—were truly Scripture.  They didn’t believe the writings of the Prophets or the books of History should be part of the Bible.  Other Jews (like the Pharisees) believed that the Prophets and the histories and the writings such as Psalms and Ecclesiastes should be considered Holy Scripture and thus part of the Bible.  The debate didn’t get finally settled until some time after Jesus’ death.

And which books you considered to be Scripture affected what you believed.  For example, resurrection isn’t mentioned once in the books of Moses.  So the Saducees didn’t believe in it.  If God were going to bring people back from the dead, they reasoned, he would have told Moses about it.  Since Moses didn’t know about it, they thought, it won’t happen.  Now, that has a huge effect on how you understand God.  If there is no Resurrection, than any reward for faithfulness (or punishment for unfaithfulness) have to come in this life.  Therefore, if something good happens to you it is because God is rewarding you … and if anything bad happens to you, you must have done something to deserve it.  You can tell why this was a popular belief among the rich and well-connected people.  They were rich and powerful, therefore God must be rewarding them more than other people, therefore they must be better than other people.

The problem is, sometimes bad things happen to good people.  I’m sure you have all seen that in your lives.  Sometimes horrible things happen to people who don’t deserve it at all, and sometimes good things happen to bad people.  As it happens, Moses wasn’t the only person to ever hear God’s Word; God had kept on speaking, through prophets and judges and teachers and men and women and all kinds of people.  And one of the things God spoke about was the world to come.  This world we live in today is not the end of the story.  The good and bad things that happen in this life are not the end of the story.  God’s kingdom will come, a kingdom where there will be no more death, or war, or pain, or hunger, a place where every tear will be wiped away.  And when that kingdom comes, the dead will be raised.  They won’t have lived and died in vain; they will be saved, redeemed, made holy, healed, restored.

The Saducees didn’t believe any of that.  They thought it was stupid.  How could anyone believe that the dead could live again?  It just didn’t make sense to them.  You get one life, they thought, so don’t mess up.  And when a group of them heard of a popular preacher talking about God’s kingdom to come, about life out of death, about resurrection, well, they wanted to trip him up.  The reason they asked Jesus such a long question was to make everybody see how absurd the very idea of life after death was.

The question goes like this: A woman is married and her husband dies before they have children.  So she marries his brother.  (This was actually a common custom; women couldn’t work outside the home and couldn’t own much property, so a woman needed to have a man to support her, whether her father or her husband or her sons.  And women needed to be controlled so they wouldn’t bring shame on their family, and therefore they needed to be married.  So if she was widowed without sons, it was her brother-in-law’s job to marry her so she wouldn’t starve or embarrass anybody.  In those days marriage had a lot more to do with property and family connections than it did with love.)  But this woman was really unlucky: her second husband died, too, and so did her third, and so on.  I feel so sorry for that woman; can you imagine what her life would have been like, passed around from brother to brother as an obligation, watching her loved ones die around her?  But eventually she died, too.  And what the Saducees wanted to know was, whose wife would she be?  They didn’t ask because they wanted to know about the coming of God’s kingdom; they didn’t ask because they were concerned for people who suffered grief and loss like the woman in their question; they didn’t ask because they wanted to know whether they would see their loved ones after the resurrection.  They asked because they wanted to show how stupid it was to hope for anything better.

They expected their question to really trip Jesus up.  Obviously she couldn’t be married to more than one man at the same time!  If the woman and her husbands were all alive at the same time, which one got her?  It’s like some cheesy romantic comedy: Someone comes back from being marooned on a deserted island and believed dead, to find their spouse has remarried!  That’s the Saducees’ point: the whole situation is absurd, but if everybody is resurrected from the dead it’s the sort of thing that would have to happen.  I don’t know anyone who’s married seven brothers, but I do know a lot of people who’ve gotten remarried after a spouse’s death, and I bet you do, too.  But the problem is, the Saducees are assuming the wrong things.  They assumed, of course, that God’s kingdom would be just like this world we live in now, and in particular that marriage would work just the same.

That’s where the Saducees were wrong.  The whole point of God’s kingdom is that it’s not like this world.  Things are different, and they’re better.  In God’s kingdom, death has lost its sting.  In God’s kingdom, all have enough; no one is in danger of starving.  In God’s kingdom, injustice is destroyed.  In God’s kingdom, no one is abused or neglected and no one lords it over others.  In God’s kingdom, all people are loved and valued; they don’t get passed along just because it’s more convenient that way.  In God’s kingdom, relationships aren’t based on business transactions, or fear, or greed, or need.  In God’s kingdom, relationships are built on the foundation of love and equality that is Christ.

The Saducees didn’t get that.  The type of relationships they understood best were based on need and practicality and power.  It was a kind of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” way of looking at the world.  We sometimes find it familiar.  Although we no longer routinely treat marriage as a business transaction, we treat other kinds of relationships that way.  We’re nicer to people when we need something from them.  We seek out and befriend people who can help us get where we want to go.  Now, that’s not all there is to most relationships—but that kind of quid pro quo creeps in everywhere.  In this life, that’s just how things go.  But that’s not how things go in God’s kingdom.  In God’s kingdom, relationships won’t be based on social pressure or need or obligation.  In God’s kingdom, we’ll be free to build relationships based on love and affection.

The Saducees were asking the wrong question, and they were asking with closed hearts and minds.  Because they didn’t believe in the Resurrection, they thought that the ways of this world are the only ways that matter.  But we know better.  We know that our Redeemer lives, and that we will be raised from the grave to be with him in God’s kingdom.  We know that God is a God of the living, and more than that, of the truest and best kind of life there is.  We know that this life is not the end of the story; we know that death is not the end of the story.  Our hope is in the Lord our God, who created us, who redeems us from the grave, and whose spirit dwells within us and continues to give us words of hope and love even today.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A Matter of Life and Death

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 23), September 8, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

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

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

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

Today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy takes place after the Exodus.  The Hebrew people, who were slaves in Egypt, have been freed by God’s power and grace.  They followed God into the wilderness, but because of their own sinfulness and rebellion, they spent forty years wandering in the wilderness.  God used those forty years to teach them to rely on him—God gave them everything they needed, even though they didn’t get everything they wanted.  God gave them the Commandments, instructions on how to live their lives.  And most of all, God built a relationship with them that God hoped would last forever.  When they were ready, God led them out of the wilderness to the Promised Land, what we call Israel and Palestine today.  But before they entered the land, while they were standing on the banks of the Jordan River waiting to cross into the land God had promised to them, Moses stood up to give a speech.

It’s a long speech; it takes up most of Deuteronomy.  In it, Moses summarized all the commandments and rules that God had given them, all the ways they were supposed to live.  God had promised to be their God, and in return they were to live as God commanded.  To use Christian terminology, they were to be disciples: everything they said and did was to be guided by their relationship with God.  That would bring them the life God had promised them.  Living any other way would bring them misery and death.  Our reading today comes from the conclusion of the speech: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.”

It sounds so simple when Moses says it.  There’s a good way, a way of life, and a bad way, a way of death.  It should be a no-brainer.  And yet, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the people go astray regularly, so that God must come and bring them back to him and to his ways.  They had all manner of reasons to do so, some good and some bad.  Greed and corruption were common motivations, people trying to enrich themselves at the cost of their neighbors.  In some cases, through intermarriage with people who were not loyal to God, mixed loyalties were created that drew people away from God.  In some cases, people convinced themselves that God wanted what they did, instead of listening to God’s Word.  In some cases, people decided that they were rich and prosperous enough that they didn’t need God any more.  In still other cases, people just forgot about God, going through the motions and giving lip service to following God instead of genuine devotion.  These motivations should all be very familiar to us; you see them everywhere today, too.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus also talks about discipleship, too, and about making choices.  Only, when Jesus talks, discipleship sounds more like the way of death than the way of life.  To be a disciple, you must leave behind your family and friends and all your posessions.  In fact, Jesus’ words are harsher than that.  Jesus says to hate family and friends for his sake.  Now, in Hebrew, “to hate” can mean the emotion we would think of, but it can also mean “to separate” or “turn away from,” and given that Jesus’ spent so much time telling us to love one another, I’m pretty sure that’s what he meant.  But even so, that’s pretty strong language.  For Jesus, discipleship is not easy, and it means you have to make choices.  You have to be willing to put Christ first, above all the things that this world says are important, above everything else that you love.  And worse, you have to be willing to carry a cross—to be humiliated, to be persecuted, to be punished.  It sure sounds different from Moses’ exhortation to choose life.  It sounds like discipleship is choosing death.

But that depends on what kind of life you mean, and what kind of death.  In this world, death is everywhere.  Sin and brokenness are everywhere.  All the bad things people do to one another, all the natural disasters, all the illnesses and the injuries that we are afflicted with, all are symptoms of the brokenness of the world.  No one is spared.  Some people have more than their fair share; others are blessed with good luck and many good things in this life.  But even the luckiest person in the world is going to have trials.  Even the most self-reliant person in the world is going to have times when they simply can’t do it on their own, when they come to the end of their rope.  A life of independence from God—a life where you make your own priorities and follow your own goals—may be wonderful for a while.  It may bring you everything you think you want.  But it can’t last.  In this broken world, no good thing lasts forever.  And so, when things go wrong and you find yourself flat on your back, you learn that what looked like the easy path, the path that you thought would lead you to the kind of life you wanted to live, actually led to death.  It may have looked like the path you wanted, but in the end you find yourself alone and hopeless.

Jesus’ path will lead to death too, of course; today’s Gospel story comes from Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to be crucified.  When Jesus starts talking about bearing crosses, it’s because in a very short time he’s going to be carrying one, himself, out to Golgotha beyond the Jerusalem city limits, where he’s going to be crucified and die a painful, lingering death.  The path of discipleship leads us to take up our crosses and follow Christ, into the valley of the shadow of death, for we are tied through our baptisms to Christ’s death and resurrection.

Because you see, there’s a difference between the death that Jesus offers and the death the world offers.  The death the world offers is the end, and it comes dressed up in all kinds of things to hide what it is.  The death the world offers comes dressed up in all the things we want—popularity, riches, power, love, anything to hide what it really is.  The death the world offers is empty; nothing can come out of it.  But Jesus’ death comes naked and bare, and it is the beginning of the story, not the end.

Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the resurrection.  Jesus’ death brings with it the seeds of the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ death brings with it the only kind of life worth living, the only kind of life that lasts: a life with God, who will be with us, sustaining us and guiding us no matter what, and who will never abandon us even in the darkest times this world can throw at us.  God’s life teaches us how to live the kind of life we’ll have in God’s kingdom, where there is no sin and no brokenness.  God’s life is the truest and best life, the life that leads us to be our truest and best selves, full of love for God and for one another.

But to get to that kind of life, there’s a catch.  You have to go through death.  You have to go through Jesus’ death on the cross, and our own death with him.  You have to be willing to give up all the things that pull you away from God.  For some people, that’s money; for others, it’s the career you want to have or the place you want to live.  For still others, it’s family and friends that pull them away from God.  And that’s the choice we face, as Christians.  God has chosen us; God has died for our sake.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord we are saved; all we have to do is take the salvation that God offers us.  Are we willing to do what we have to do to follow Jesus from death into life?  Are we willing to be true disciples?  Are we willing to put our priority on the kind of life God wants us to have instead of the kind of life the world tells us we should want?

God has set before us life and death, blessings and curses.  May we choose life—God’s life—and live.

Amen.

We Have Seen the Empty Tomb

The Resurrection of Our Lord, Year C, March 31st, 2013

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

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

 

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

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

A few months ago, after a funeral, I was asked to explain death to two children.  They were confused—why had we put their great-grandmother in a box, and left her out in the snow and ice far from home?  But while children don’t understand death, adults understand it all too well.  It is one of the few facts of life that is the same no matter where you go or what time period you live in.  Everyone and everything dies, eventually.  Some die young, some die old, some die quickly and others slowly.  Every animal, every plant, every fish, every insect, every person, will eventually die.  Even stars die.  Death and decay is part of the natural order of the universe.  We don’t like to remember this, but we know it in our bones.  Benjamin Franklin put it this way: nothing in life is certain except death and taxes.

Well.  He was half right, anyway.  Because we are here today to testify to the fact that death itself has been defeated.  Death is not the end of the story.  It doesn’t get the last word, and it doesn’t get the most important word.  The “natural” order of things has been turned on its ear.  The things we think we know about life are shown to be wrong in the most dramatic way imaginable.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus is not dead, not any more.  He is risen!

When we hear the Easter story, it’s easy to scoff at the women and the disciples, who didn’t believe Jesus when he told them he would rise from the grave.  As the angel points out, Jesus had told them what was going to happen!  Yet there they are, three days after his death, going to his tomb to embalm his body.  They saw the empty tomb, and didn’t understand.  In fact, their first response to the angels was fear and perplexity.  They didn’t get what had happened until someone explained it to them.  But after they knew, when they realized that Jesus had risen, they were filled with joy and went to tell everyone what they’d seen.  But the other followers of Jesus didn’t believe them at first—they thought those women were crazy.  Why didn’t the disciples believe their witness?  After all, the women were long-standing followers and students of Jesus, too—they’d been there from the beginning, and stayed through the crucifixion.  They’d been there, learning at Jesus’ feet, the whole time.  These are women the disciples knew and trusted, just as they had all known Jesus.  And they had all heard him talk about what was going to happen to him.  But none of them seem to have believed his words, or understood them.  Sitting here in church, knowing the story, it’s easy to roll our eyes at how blind they were.

And yet.  Put yourself in the shoes of those women.  Yes, Jesus had done many great things … but everyone dies.  Yes, they believe in the resurrection … but they haven’t seen it yet.  And after all, Jesus was fond of using parables and metaphors and figures of speech.  He rarely said anything that was intended to be interpreted literally.  So I can see how they might have assumed he meant something metaphorical, something spiritual, something that would be easier to fit into their experience of the world.

If the general Resurrection happened today, would we be as surprised as they were?  Yes, we say we believe in the Resurrection.  But it’s been two thousand years since Jesus rose, and nobody’s risen from the grave since.  Yes, we might sincerely believe it’ll happen someday, but in a vague, general way.  We’ve never seen an empty tomb.  We’ve never seen the dead rise, except maybe in zombie movies.  But we’ve seen death.  We’ve seen friends and loved ones die.  We’ve seen pets die.  We’ve seen in the news and on TV all the horrible things that people can do to one another.  Death is very real to us.  New life, the kind that Jesus has, the kind of life that is so powerful that even death itself can’t keep it down for long, that’s harder to accept.

But all our worldly wisdom is wrong.  Our knowledge of death is wrong.  All the experience that tells us that might makes right is wrong.  All the sayings telling us that it’s a dog eat dog world are wrong.  Because the tomb is empty.  Jesus Christ is doing a new thing, and through his death and resurrection God is doing a new thing for the entire world.  Listen again to the words God spoke through the prophet: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD– and their descendants as well.  Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.  The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

Imagine that.  A world with no pain, no grief.  A world without bigotry, without fear, without hate, without jealousy, without callousness, without arrogance, without bullying, without grief, without suffering.  A world where everyone chooses to do good, instead of evil.  A world where predators, whether animal or human, don’t prey on those weaker than they are.  A world where there is enough for all.  A world where love and joy are the strongest emotions, the ones that guide people.  That’s the way God created the world to be.  That’s what life was like until sin and death broke in.  That’s the life God wants for us.  And that’s the life that Jesus died to give us, to give the whole universe.

When we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ’s death.  We share in Christ’s death so that we may also share in his life—the life of the Resurrection, the life of joy and peace and love.  In baptism our old sinful self, the self that is trapped by sin and death, is drowned.  The old self that, like Adam, chooses to disobey God, go astray, and then blame others, is killed.  What rises up out of the water is something new, something that has the seeds of God’s new heaven and new earth within it.  When we come up out of the waters of baptism, we are united with Christ in a bond that nothing can ever break.  In our baptisms, we are started on the path towards the new life, towards resurrection and joy.

We have not yet seen the fullness of that life.  Christ is the first fruit of the dead, in Paul’s words, but the harvest has not yet come.  We have not yet seen all of creation transformed into the new heaven and the new earth that God has promised is coming.  And yet we have felt it.  We have heard God’s promises.  We can see a glimmer, in Christ, of what that life will be like.  We have experienced the love of God through our baptisms, through every moment of grace and goodness in our lives.  It’s true, the forces of sin and death are fighting a desperate rear-guard action to keep us mired in darkness, but we have seen the light.  We have seen life come out of things that look dead and barren.  We have seen the empty tomb.

We have seen the empty tomb.  We stand outside it with Jesus’ first followers and hear the words of God’s messenger: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”  The old certainties of the world—that death is final, that decay is simply the way things go, that pain and grief and hate and fear and selfishness win—those old certainties are turned upside down.  Jesus is not dead; he has risen, and we will rise with him.

Yes, there is still pain in the world.  Yes, sin and death still drag people down.  But not forever.  Their power is broken.  New life is here.  Resurrection is here.  Joy is here.  Christ is here.

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!