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!


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.


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.


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.


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.