In the Breaking of the Bread

Third Sunday of Easter, (Year A), May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
Peter 1:17-23
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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

The thing that gets me, in all these post-Resurrection appearances, is that nobody recognizes Jesus. The women at the tomb don’t; they mistake Jesus for a gardener, or a guard. The eleven don’t, until they see his wounds. In our Gospel reading today, the two disciples walking to Emmaus don’t recognize him, either. They spend several hours in his company—walking the seven miles to Emmaus through mountainous terrain, talking about his life and death the whole time, then inviting him in to sit down and take a meal with them. Yet they don’t recognize their own beloved friend and teacher. He’s right there the whole time, and they don’t see him. They’re mourning his death, they are trying to figure out what it all means, and the whole time, he’s walking beside them. It wasn’t until later, after it’s all over, that they realize what happened, who was with them on the road.

Have you ever had times like that? Times when you thought you had been abandoned by God, only to look back later and realize, wow, God was helping me that whole time and I didn’t even recognize him? I have. Usually when I’m going through a really rough time. I’m hurt, upset, and I feel lost. I feel like I’m alone. And it’s hard to pray, because it feels like no one is listening. I look around me, and ask where God is, because I can’t see him. It’s only later, when I’m looking back on it, that I can see all the ways in which God was with me even when I couldn’t see him—the people he sent to comfort or help me, the coincidences that weren’t coincidences at all, times when I found courage or rest when I hadn’t been looking for them. I look back, and I go, “Man, that was really obvious. Why couldn’t I see it at the time, when I most needed to know God was with me?” And then I feel stupid, for missing the obvious. I feel like Cleopas and his friend must have felt when they finally realized that the guy they’d been talking to was Jesus, and their hearts had been burning within them the whole time. Like, duh, obviously, what the heck was keeping me from seeing the things that were right in front of my nose? Have you ever felt like that?

I wonder what it is that keeps us from recognizing God when he’s right in front of us. I wonder if, for Cleopas and his friend, it was because they weren’t looking. You’ve heard the old phrase, “seeing is believing,” right? But for Cleopas and the other disciple, it was the other way around. Believing was seeing. They saw Jesus, but they didn’t recognize him, at first. They’d been told about the resurrection; they’d been told that Jesus was alive again, and had appeared to the women. But they didn’t believe it. They didn’t believe that Jesus was God’s chosen one, the Messiah, the Christ. They had been looking for God to send a political leader to fix Israel’s problems, a king like David had been. Instead, they got a teacher who challenged many of their interpretations of Scripture and then was executed because of it. And then they got a wild story about that teacher, their friend on whom they’d pinned their hopes, rising from the dead. And they couldn’t believe it. That wasn’t the way God was supposed to save the world. That wasn’t the way things were supposed to work. So they saw Jesus Christ risen from the dead, and they didn’t believe. He was right in front of them—they saw him, they spent hours in his company talking with him, they ate with him—and they didn’t recognize him because they didn’t believe it was possible.

But Jesus doesn’t get angry at them. He doesn’t just write them off and go talk to somebody who would be easier to get through to. He spent time with them, even though they didn’t recognize him. He talked with them. He listened to their hopes and fears—and you know, as important as those hopes and fears seemed to them, they were actually pretty silly, when you get right down to it. Not their grief for their dead friend, but what they’d hoped Jesus was going to do. They were so wrapped up in what they thought he should be doing that they hadn’t been able to see what he’d actually been doing. And their fears—they’d been told Jesus was alive, but they hadn’t believed. He was right there, and they couldn’t see him. But as off-base as they are, as wrong and stupid as their hopes and fears are, Jesus listens to them. He asks questions, and lets them pour out their hearts to him. Then he begins to teach them, asking questions and bringing up things they hadn’t thought of, helping them to open up their hearts and minds to see what God was actually doing. He helped them to look beyond their assumptions about God and what was happening around them to see the truth.

And then he ate with them. He shared a meal. He blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to them to eat. If the phrasing here sounds familiar, it should, because we say something similar every time we take Communion. “In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, and gave it for all to eat.” In Emmaus, Jesus gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave it to them to eat, just like he had a week earlier in the last supper he shared with them. And it isn’t until that moment that they recognize him. They hadn’t been looking for Jesus; they didn’t think it was possible that he could be with them in their grief and confusion. But he found them anyway. He sought them out. He supported them, and he fed them, and he reminded them that he fed them with his own body and blood. And that’s when they realized who Jesus was. He gave them the bread, and their eyes were opened.

Jesus was with them in the breaking of the bread. That’s when they started to see who he was, really and truly. That’s when they looked back at their day and realized that he’d been there all along, even if they hadn’t recognized him at the time, even if they hadn’t been looking for him, even if they’d been wrong about what all Jesus was doing his entire time they’d known him. He was there. And this was huge! It rearranged their whole way of thinking! Jesus wasn’t dead, he was alive! He was raised from the dead, and God had been working in and through him the whole time, even when they hadn’t been able to see it. They were so excited, they got up and walked the seven miles back to Jerusalem that evening to tell everyone that Jesus was there, and they had known him in the breaking of the bread.

We are more like Cleopas and his friend than we would like to admit. Like them, we have preconceived notions about God that get in the way of seeing what God is actually doing. Like them, we get so caught up in our grief and fear and problems that we sometimes miss the fact that God is walking beside us. Like them, our eyes and hearts are too often closed to the mystery and wonder of God who loves us and will never let us suffer alone. So even when we’re looking for God, we may not always see him, even when he’s right there beside us. But, like Cleopas and his friend, there’s one place that we do see God. A place where we can see Jesus, feel him, smell him, taste him. A place where Jesus is made known to us: the breaking of the bread.

In the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus took the bread and told his disciples quite plainly: “This is my body, broken for you and for all people.” And he took the wine and told his disciples quite plainly: “This is my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.” The bread and wine aren’t just a memorial of Jesus’ last supper; they are a sacrament in which Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine. He’s here, in the breaking of the bread. If you go to a Catholic church, sometimes they’ll ring a little bell after the priest give thanks and says the words about Jesus’ body and blood. That little bell is a sign, a symbol, to remind people to pay attention. God is here! Yes, he’s always here. But in this bread and wine, he’s physically present. This is the body and blood that were shed to save us. This is Jesus, who feeds us with his own body and blood. This is the Christ, the Messiah, who calls us by name, who came to earth and became truly human, who lived and taught and healed and died to save us, who keeps on coming to us no matter how often we turn away, whether or not we can see or feel him. He’s here, now, with us. He is the host who invites us to the table and he is the meal that nourishes our souls.

Whether our eyes are closed or open, whether our hearts are happy or sad or burning within us or still, Jesus meets us hear in this feast. He calls us by name, he reminds us of his love for us and what he has done for us. He gives his life that we, too, may live. Thanks be to God.

The Gifts of Baptism

Baptism of Our Lord, Year C, Sunday, January 13th, 2013

Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

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

Those of you who have read a lot of the Bible or paid a lot of attention in church and Sunday School may have noticed how many of the major Bible stories have to do with water.  The first chapter of Genesis speaks of God moving over the waters during the creation.  Noah was saved in the midst of the flood which destroyed civilization.  Moses was hidden in safety in a basket on the river and later led the people of Israel to freedom through the Red Sea while Pharaoh’s army drowned.  In the wilderness, water was one of the basic necessities God provided the wandering Israelites.  All of that water, in just the first two books of the Bible!  And it doesn’t stop there.  God uses water in many ways throughout the Bible.

One of the reasons for that, of course, is that water is one of the most basic needs of all human beings.  Thirst will kill you quicker than hunger; and it’s really hard to keep anything clean without water.  On the other hand, water is also very dangerous: even a moment’s inattention by any open water, and you can drown.  We love to swim in it and go boating over the top of it on hot summer days, but we can’t ever take it for granted.  And in the desert, where the people of Israel lived, the search for water is a daily necessity.  People walk miles every day to the nearest well or river to get the water they and their animals need to survive.  So it shouldn’t surprise us that water is everywhere in the Bible.

The most important use of water in the Bible and in our churches today is, of course, baptism.  In the Gospel we read today the story of Jesus’ baptism, and from Acts we heard the story of the baptism of some Samaritan Christians.  After his resurrection Jesus commanded his followers to go out into the world, baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we are gathered here today to baptize young Weston.  So what is baptism, and why is it so important?

Baptism is a sacrament, one of two.  The other sacrament is, of course, Communion.  A sacrament is a rite commanded by God in which God’s promises are given form in a physical element.  Intangible words and tangible things are united as one.  In Baptism, the sign is water.  Although we can’t see or touch God, we can see and feel the water God uses to seal his promises.  And the promise is God’s love and grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, God comes to us to claim us as his own.  Did you hear the words God the Father spoke at Jesus’ baptism?  “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.”  That sounds a lot like what God said in the reading from Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”  And again: “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”  God speaks these words to us at our own baptisms.  As the water is poured over us, God claims us.  At each baptism, God says to each person being baptized “You are my beloved child.”  That love is unconditional: there is nothing we can do that will ever make God stop loving us and calling us.  In baptism, we become God’s children, and nothing can ever change that.

In Baptism, we die to sin and are born holy and righteous before God.  We are broken, sinful people who live in a broken, sinful world.  But through Baptism, we put on Christ’s righteousness.  Instead of seeing our sins, God chooses to see Christ’s sinlessness.  Although we are still sinners, we have been redeemed by God through our baptism.  Through our baptisms we are tied to Jesus’ baptism, and to his death and resurrection.  We are marked with the cross of Christ.  As Christ died, so we too will die.  But as Christ rose from the grave, so we too will rise when Christ comes again.

In Baptism, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  As the Spirit descended out of heaven like a dove to Jesus, and came to the people of Samaria after their baptism and the prayers of the apostles, so too the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us.  During Weston’s baptism, you will see me anoint him with oil and say that he has been sealed by the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will be with him all the days of his life, through good times and bad, even when he can’t see or feel the Spirit’s presence within him.  God will always be with you, even when your own doubts and fears and the cares of the world blind you to God’s presence.  Baptism doesn’t mean that your life will be all smooth sailing, but it does mean that you never have to face trouble alone.

In Baptism, we become part of the Christian community, which is the body of Christ in the world.  As we become children of God, that means that all of God’s other children are our brothers and sisters.  At the end of the baptism today, you will all join me in welcoming Weston into the family of God.  We don’t often take that as seriously as we should, but it’s true.  We are all brothers and sisters, through our baptisms, and we should be better at loving and helping one another than we are.  Being a child of God means participating in the community, and sharing in the life of faith with all of God’s children.  Being a child of God means following God’s call and listening to the Holy Spirit.  So during the baptism, you will all be asked to make promises.  Weston’s parents and godparents will promise to raise Weston in the faith, bringing him to worship and helping him learn the scriptures.  But the congregation as a whole will promise to support Weston in his Christian life.  We make this promise at each and every baptism, that we will help and support our new brother or sister in Christ, and it is the basis of the Christian community.

All of these things happen in baptism.  God claims us as his beloved children, we die to sin and rise to new life in Christ, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, we become children of God and members of the Christian community.  That’s a lot!  Each and every one of these things can have a profound impact on our lives, if we let it.  And yet, all too often we forget.  We forget that we are children of God, we forget that God loves us, we don’t pay attention to the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and we ignore the promises we make to one another to support each other in faith.  We forget that our need for God is as fundamental as our need for water to drink.  We forget that without Christ, our souls shrivel up in thirst for the living water that comes from God alone.

So what can we do?  How can we respond to the great gifts God has given us in our baptism?  The first step is obvious enough: remember your baptism.  Remember always those words God spoke over you: “You are my beloved child.”  Remember that all your sins are forgiven.  Remember that the Holy Spirit always dwells within you, and listen for its guidance.  It sounds easy.  But these are all intangible things.  We can’t see these promises God has made to us; we can’t touch them or taste them or smell them.  And sometimes it is hard to believe that they are real, in the midst of this solid world.  That’s why God has given us another gift in baptism: the water.

We can’t touch God’s promises, but we can touch the water.  We can bathe in it, swim in it, drink it, hear it splash, feel it soak into our dry skin, feel it run down our throat.  So each time you use water, remember your baptism.  Each glass of water you drink, remember that God loves you.  Each time you take a bath or a shower, make the sign of the cross and remember that you have been washed clean and your sins are forgiven.  Each time you jump in a pool, remember that you have been made a member of the body of Christ, part of the community of faith.  And thank God for the promises made in your baptism.

Amen.

Called to the Waters

Advent 2, Year C,nSunday, December 2nd, 2012

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

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

In my first year of seminary, I participated in a Bible study run by laypeople at a local church.  In one session, the subject of the worship service came up, and why we do what we do every Sunday.  One woman started complaining about the confession at the beginning of every worship service.  “Why do we do it so often?” she asked.  “I don’t have any sins to confess!  I’m not a sinner!”

I was so shocked, I didn’t know what to say.  How to answer that?  She thought she was perfect, that she didn’t sin?  She thought she never did anything wrong?  I wondered if her husband and children would have agreed with her.  I wondered if her boss would have agreed with her.  I wondered if her co-workers and neighbors would have agreed with her.  I wondered if the people in her life less fortunate than her would have agreed with her.  Reading today’s Gospel lesson, I wonder if John the Baptizer would have agreed with her.

John was the son of a priestly family.  His father, Zechariah, served at the Temple in Jerusalem.  He was from the biggest city in Judea, the center of Jewish life.  He undoubtedly was connected in some way to all the important people in the land—the priestly caste, after all, had a good bit of power.  Being a priest was a good job, a comfortable job, and since it was hereditary John had it made.  He could have had a very nice life, a much more comfortable life than the vast majority of the people in Judea.  And yet, John tossed it all away to go live in the wilderness on what he could scrounge.  John followed the word of God, away from everything that people expected of him.

God called John to tell the world that they were sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness, and to offer that forgiveness to all through the waters of baptism.  God called John to prepare the way for Jesus.  God called John, and John went.

Given his family’s position, John would have been in a good position to see the excesses and the injustices of everyone from the Romans to the Temple leadership to the ordinary people on the street.  If he wandered outside the Temple complex through Jerusalem, he could have seen just about every walk of life.  And if he stayed in the temple, he could have seen the infighting, the petty bickering, the power plays common to powerful people.  I bet he heard a lot of justifications, too.  “It’s not that bad, everyone does it.  It’s a necessary evil, it’s for a good cause.”  Or how about this one?  “It’s not my fault, it’s just the way the system works.”  Or “It’s not my fault, they made me do it.”  Sound familiar?  Nobody likes to admit it when we do things wrong, when we make mistakes.  It’s easier to tell ourselves that we haven’t done anything wrong than it is to own up to our failings.  And it’s easier still to point fingers at other people.  You’ll notice that John doesn’t make distinctions.  John doesn’t say: you people who don’t go to Temple are sinners who need to repent.  John doesn’t say: you Roman invaders are sinners who need to repent.  John doesn’t say: you religious leaders are sinners who need to repent.  He doesn’t go after the non-Jews, or the Jews from different factions, or the people everyone knew were sinners.  No, filled with the word of God, John called everyone to repentance and forgiveness.  He wasn’t just concerned with the big public sins that everyone shakes their head at and points fingers at.  John was concerned with all the things, big and small, that turn us away from God and away from other people.  And John was concerned with all people, calling them to the water.

We, today, are still being called to the water.  John the Baptist’s words echoes through the centuries.  All who are brought to God, whether as infants or as adults, come to the water and are baptized.  In that water, the old, sinful self is drowned and we rise up forgiven and renewed children of God.  There is repentance, a turning away from sin.  But it is God who calls us, and God whose Spirit is given to us in baptism, God who washes away the stains left by our own actions, thoughts, and hesitations, God who forgives us.  It is God who calls us to turn away from our sins, God who calls us to live lives worthy of the kingdom he will bring.  John quotes Isaiah: prepare the royal highway, for God is coming, and everyone will see the salvation he brings.  In that salvation we will be washed clean of our sins, all the broken, petty, selfish, nasty little bits will be wiped away.  One of the images of baptism is drowning: we are drowned in the water, our sinful self is killed, and we are reborn as children of God.  Martin Luther liked to say that the reality of a baptized Christian is that we die every day to sin and rise to new life in Christ.

Drowning is violent, scary, dangerous, something we’re not in control of.  People like to think of the Christian life as being all about our choice: we choose to come to Jesus (or not), we choose to repent, we choose to believe.  And, certainly, we can choose to turn away from God.  But it is God who calls us and claims us, who gives us life and light, God who is coming to bring salvation to all people.  We are not the ones in control; God is.  And that’s good news because our sin and brokenness are far greater than anything we could ever fix on our own.  Every day, in thought, word, and deed, by what we do and by what we fail to do, we show our impurities, our imperfections, our brokenness, and our sin, no matter how hard we try to hide it or deny it.  It is only through God’s grace and mercy that we are renewed, made pure, and our sins are forgiven.

The prophet Malachi understood this, when he used the image of a refinery to describe God’s actions.  In an old-style refinery, crude, unrefined ores are heated in a vat until they melt, and the impurities rise to the surface.  The refiner stands beside the vat of molten metal, skimming all the bad stuff off the top.  The refiner keeps skimming until the metal is pure—and knows the metal is pure when he can see his face in it.  We are the crude ore being melted and skimmed of impurity, and God is the one doing the scraping.  We can’t do it ourselves—we don’t even realize what the impurities are, half the time!

We live in a culture that prizes self-reliance and self-righteousness.  We idolize those who can take care of themselves, and we hate admitting we need someone—anyone—else.  We like to have things all planned out, to know where we’re going and why.  And yet, there are some things we can’t do.  We can’t cleanse ourselves of our sins, we can’t heal the broken places in our souls, we can’t make the bad things we say and do disappear.  All we can do, on our own, is paper over the cracks and pretend they aren’t there.

It takes courage to admit we aren’t perfect.  It takes courage to admit that we need help, that we can’t do everything by ourselves.  And it takes courage to follow God’s call, whether that call leads us out into the wilderness or just leads us to do new things here at home.  The Christian life is not an easy one, because it strips us of our illusions and shows us just how much darkness there is around us and inside us, how much brokenness there is.  It shows us all the things we should have done but didn’t, all the things we did do that we shouldn’t have.

And yet, there is hope, even in our darkness, because Christ is coming.  We can’t fix ourselves, but God calls us to the waters of baptism.  God calls all of us, from all walks of life, no matter what we have done or failed to do, and washes us in the water.  Our sins are drowned, we are purified, the crooked places inside us are made straight.  We are made ready for our Lord, who comes to bring salvation to all

Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

Being Called

Third Sunday of Easter (Year A), Sunday, May 8th, 2011

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

“You will receive the Holy Spirit.  For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”

Today is Confirmation Day here at Saint Luke’s.  In just a few minutes we’re going to call forward the youth being confirmed, and pray that the Holy Spirit strengthen them as it did those early Christians in our first lesson.  Confirmation is sometimes called “Affirmation of Baptism.”  It’s a longer term, but it’s pretty descriptive of what Confirmation actually is.  You see, “affirmation” means “to say yes.”  The Confirmation students are here today to say Yes to their baptisms, to say Yes to God’s call.  When the confirmands come up before the congregation, they repeat the promises their parents and godparents made at their baptism.  Confirmation is when a young person says that yes, I am a Christian, and this is what I believe.  From this point on, these young people choose to be Christians.  They’re not just here because their parents say so.  When they come forward, we will be repeating parts of the liturgy of baptism, except this time they will be making the responses, not their parents.  It’s an important milestone, and I hope and pray that they will have the courage and faithfulness to follow through with it all the days of their life, even in a culture that is increasingly secular-oriented.

Yet, in a larger sense, what we are celebrating today is not our ability to follow Jesus, but our Lord’s ability to call us to him.  You see, whenever we reach out to God what we always find is that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  God created us, and even when we were dead in sin, God loved us and promised us that he would always be with us.  God came to us as Jesus Christ, our Messiah, who died and rose again that we might have abundant life.  God loves us still, even when we go astray.  God loves us when we convince ourselves we already know what God wants, even without bothering to listen to him.  God is with us still, calling us and all people to him, helping us hear his word and respond to it.

That’s what happened in today’s first lesson, when Peter was preaching to the crowds after Easter, telling them about Jesus and what his death and resurrection meant.  The crowd heard the message, and the Holy Spirit was working—they felt it in their hearts.  Peter was there because the Holy Spirit led him to be there, and he could preach such a stirring sermon because the Holy Spirit filled him.  After all, Peter spent pretty much the entirety of Jesus’ time on Earth getting things wrong and messing up.  But with the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter found the voice and the wisdom he needed to preach God’s word.  The crowd received his preaching and were moved by it because God was working within them, too, because the Holy Spirit was calling them.  God was working there.  God had already reached out to them and called them through the promise of Jesus, and they responded to that call and were baptized.  Their sins were forgiven, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  They learned what it meant that Jesus, crucified and risen, was Lord and Messiah.  They learned to hear God’s call and respond to it through lives of faith.

Whenever we reach out to God we always find that God was reaching out to us, first—and is already helping us to reach out to him.  That’s what happened in today’s Gospel reading, too.  On Easter Sunday morning, two disciples were travelling to a village called Emmaus.  We don’t know why.  In fact, we don’t even know where Emmaus is—there are several different villages near Jerusalem that might be it.  What we do know is what happened on the way.  Jesus came to those two disciples, and they didn’t recognize him.  They were too caught up in what they thought they knew about what had happened to see what had actually happened.

Has that ever happened to you?  Have you ever been too sure of something to see the truth, even when it’s staring you in the face?  As Cleopas and his friend found out, it can be easy to get trapped by what you think you know.  We are told that they were already disciples—they had walked with Jesus, they had heard him preach, they had heard him tell them about what was coming, and then when it actually happened, they still didn’t understand.  Jesus Christ is Lord of All, the Messiah, God’s Son sent to forgive our sins, reconcile us to God, and teach us how to follow God’s Word.  They saw it, but they didn’t understand it.  On their own, even as first-hand witnesses they couldn’t figure out what it meant for them or anyone that Jesus had died and rose again.  But God had called them, and God had promised them, and God was helping them learn how to see him even through their confusion and doubt.

On the road to Emmaus, Jesus walked with them, kept them company, taught them, and ate with them.  When at last they were ready, when they had heard him and he’d explained to them everything that had happened so that they finally knew the truth, that’s when they realized it was Jesus.  That’s when they realized that he had been with him all along, that their hearts had been burning within them.  They were trying to understand what God had done and was doing, and when they finally saw God, they realized that God had been with them the whole time and they just hadn’t realized it.  They had been reaching out to God, and found that God was the one helping them do it because God was already with them.

Do you know what else is really cool about the story of the walk to Emmaus?  It’s a story about Communion!  Jesus takes the bread, and blesses it, and breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to eat.  And it’s through that meal that those disciples see Jesus.  In the same way we gather around a table today for communion, and find that Jesus is present through bread and wine, which he makes into his body and blood.  In this story, the pattern of Christian worship is established that we still follow today: the disciples come together, they hear God’s word, they share a meal in which Jesus is present, and they go out to spread the Good News.  Our worship service works in the same way.  God gathers us in, teaches us his word, shares a meal with us, and then sends us out into the world to live as faithful Christians and to share the Good News of God’s love in word and deed.  And when we come seeking God, we find that God has already sought us out, helping us to hear his word and live as his people.

It’s that process of learning to see God reaching out to us that brings us here, today, for confirmation.  God reaches out to us in the same way through our baptisms.  That’s why we baptize babies as well as adults: in baptism, God is reaching out to claim us as his own, so it’s not dependent on our ability to choose.  We have already been chosen, each one of us.  We have already been called.  The question is, will we respond to that call?  Will we live lives conformed to Christ, in the covenant God made with us in Holy Baptism?  Will we live among God’s faithful people, listen to God’s Word, share his supper?  Will we proclaim the Gospel through word and deed, and follow Jesus’ example of service, justice, peace, and love?  Will we respond to all the many ways God reaches out to us and calls us to follow?

The young people who come forward for Confirmation today are here to say yes, they will.  They’re here to promise God and this congregation that they will listen to God’s call, that they will follow in the way of Jesus.  In return, we need to help them—and each other, and everyone we meet—along that path.  God is calling us, all of us, to follow him, and God gives us his Holy Spirit to give us strength, and wisdom, and understanding, and most of all, to give us joy in God’s presence, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Let us pray that all people will hear that call and respond.

Amen.

Remembrance

Maundy Thursday

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Exodus 12:1-14

Psalm 116

1 Corinthians 11:23-26

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

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

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

Have you ever wondered what the word “Maundy” means?  I know I did before I came to seminary, and someone asked me that question just a few weeks ago.  “Maundy” comes from the old Latin word “mandatum,” which has also provided another word in English—mandate.  Mandatum means command.  During the Last Supper, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, and said: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”  Remembering Jesus, remembering the Lord’s Supper, means remembering this commandment, as well.  Remembering means loving one another.  It means acting out that love—God’s love for us—in everything we say and do.

“Do this in remembrance of me.”  “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.”

In both our first and second readings, remembrance is a strong theme.  We are commanded to remember what God has done, both in the Exodus that freed the people of Israel from slavery and in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  But what does it mean to remember?  Does remembering just mean to take ten minutes during Communion every Sunday morning to think about Jesus, before going back to our everyday lives?  Does it mean putting a few lines in our prayers and songs about God setting people free?  I don’t think so.  I think it means more than that.

For the Jews—and remember, Jesus and his disciples, everyone present at the Last Supper, were Jewish—remembering isn’t just a matter of thought.  Remembering is something you do, it’s how you act.  Remembering is how you respond to things that have happened.  Remembering means responding to God’s love and to all the things God has done for us.  Remembering means proclaiming the truth of what has happened for all the world to see and hear.  Remembering is how the past becomes a present reality.  Remembering is a way of life.

When God tells the Hebrew people to remember the Passover, the Exodus hasn’t happened yet—they were still in bondage, waiting for God’s saving actions.  And on the night of the first Passover, God bought their freedom in blood and pain and set in motion the actions that brought them out of slavery and into the freedom of the Promised Land.  So every year they celebrate the Passover and remember that God freed them, that God promised them new life and God kept that promise, that the God they worship is the God who brought them out of freedom and is still keeping promises to them.  The Exodus isn’t just something that happened three thousand years ago to their ancestors.  The Exodus is something that happens now, to them.

As Christians, we should understand that, because the Supper of Our Lord isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago to twelve guys in Jerusalem, it’s something that is happening, now, to us.  In the night in which our Lord Jesus was betrayed, the crucifixion hadn’t happened yet, the resurrection hadn’t happened yet.  The whole world was still in bondage to sin, waiting for God’s saving actions.  And on the night of the Last Supper, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples and told them to remember him.  He was betrayed, he was crucified, and in his sacrifice God bought our freedom from sin with Jesus blood and pain.  Through Christ’s death and resurrection we are brought from slavery into freedom, from death into life, from brokenness into wholeness, from isolation into relationship with God and with one another.

So on Maundy Thursday, and every Sunday throughout the year, and at other occasions, we celebrate Communion and remember that God has freed us, that God has promised us new life and God has keep that promise.  We remember that the God who brought the Israelites out of slavery, the God who sets people free, is the God who has set us free, as well.  We remember that the God who promised freedom to the people of Israel, the God who promised us his love before we even knew him, is still keeping those promises today.  The Last Supper isn’t just something that happened two thousand years ago.  The Last Supper is something that is happening here, to us and to all of God’s people, tonight and every time we come together to celebrate Communion.  Christ is truly present with us now, in bread and wine, just as he said he would.  When we eat this bread and drink from this cup, we know that Christ is in them, just as he said he was.  Christ comes to us in bread and wine, something we can feel, taste, smell.  When we come together around the Lord’s Table, we know that we gather together with all Christians of every time and every place, those who have gone before us and those who will come after us.

Remembering Jesus isn’t just thinking about him every now and then.  Remembering affects everything we do and say.  Remembering is taking Christ’s presence here in this meal and in our lives seriously.  Remembering means taking Jesus’ last commandment seriously, too.  Love one another as Jesus has loved us.

Jesus showed us what that meant when he washed his disciples’ feet.  Think about that, for a minute.  You know how much sweat and dirt builds up on your feet over the course of a summer day when you’re wearing sandals?  Think about how much worse it must be, how much more filthy, when the only paved roads are just cobblestone—and even those are few and far between.  When even many indoor floors are made of packed dirt.  When your only mode of transportation is your own two feet.  When you’re in a desert area so there’s very little rainfall to wet everything down and everything is dry and dusty.  Think about just how gross those feet must have been.  Think about how nice it must feel to have had them cleaned.

Washing those feet couldn’t have been pleasant.  It’s not something anybody would want to do, normally.  But Jesus didn’t do it because he had to, he did it because he loved them, and because he wanted to show them what love is.  Love isn’t just thinking nice thoughts about someone.  Love is helping someone even when it’s not nice, or pleasant, or fun.  Love is being willing to serve not because you have to, or because you’re not worth anything better, but because you want to.

That’s how Jesus wants us to love one another.  That’s how Jesus wants us to remember him, and that’s how he wants us to show the world that we are his.  Jesus wants us to remember him by putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak—by loving one another as God has loved us, and putting that love into action.  Jesus wants us to remember him by knowing that when we share this meal, and when we put his love into action, he is there with us.  When we gather together for worship and communion, we proclaim our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who died that we might have life and have it abundantly.  When we are sent out into the world to share God’s love through serving one another and all of God’s creation, we proclaim our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who gave his life for us because he loves us, and wants us to truly love one another.

Amen.

Remember your Baptism

Two sermons in one day–what a treat! 😉  Here is the sermon I preached yesterday, on the Baptism of Our Lord.

Baptism of Christ (Year A), Sunday, January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3-13:17

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Saint Luke Lutheran Church, Bloomsburg, PA

 

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

This is a very appropriate Sunday for baptism, as this is the Sunday we celebrate our Lord’s baptism at the Jordan river, two thousand years ago.  As we welcome little Cheyenne Marie into the body of Christ, and into this community of faith, we remember who we are and whose we are.

It is interesting to note that while only two of the Gospel writers, Matthew and Luke, chose to include a story of Jesus’ birth, all four of them begin the story of Jesus’ ministry with his baptism by John in the Jordan river.  And if you noticed, in our first lesson Peter also begins his short summary of Jesus’ life and death with Jesus’ baptism.  It may be that early Christians considered this event more significant even than Christ’s birth.

It was a momentous event, to be sure.  John the Baptist was a major figure, one feared and hated even by King Herod Antipas, son of the King Herod who tried to kill Jesus as a baby.  Although most Christians would count Isaiah as the greatest prophet, for Jews that honor falls to Elijah, and many people in those days thought John the Baptist was Elijah reborn, particularly given his style of clothing and his message.  All of Judea had heard of John and his teachings: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  John’s message is rich in meaning, but it has been repeated so often I wonder if we really hear it or if it’s become just another catchphrase.  Perhaps it will help us hear it if we phrase it differently.  Now, the word usually translated as “kingdom” is “basilei,a”, which means kingdom, but can also mean reign or rule.  And to repent literally means “to turn.”  Turn away from the rule of sin and death, turn away from the meaningless, mindless scrabble for power and advantage, for the reign of God is near.  John the Baptist stood in the Jordan river, where centuries earlier the people of Israel had crossed into the promised land, from slavery into freedom, from death into life, and called the people back to God.  Turn away from the emptiness that would swallow you, for God’s rule is right next to you.

People came from all over to hear John’s message.  They came, and John baptized them in the Jordan river, symbolically washing away their past sins and their allegiance to the things that drew them away from God and God’s reign.  Then Jesus, too, came to the Jordan river, to be baptized by John, and in that moment John’s words began to come true.  The kingdom of heaven was at hand, was all around them.  When Jesus went into the water and came out, we are told, he saw the Spirit descending like a dove.  And a voice from heaven said “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  We don’t know whether anyone besides Jesus could see the Spirit, or hear the Father’s voice.  Whether or not the people around him could see or hear it, the kingdom of the heavens was right there with them.  Father, Son, Holy Spirit, in water and word.  This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.  This was his initiation into the work of Heaven’s reign among us.

This is our initiation, too.  Like Jesus, we are children of God, and workers in God’s kingdom.  And that kingdom is nearer than we can know.  Through our baptisms, through water and the word and God’s command, we are brought from death to life, from sin to salvation.  Through water and the word we are tied to Christ’s own baptism, to his life, death, and resurrection.  Through water and the word we are claimed by God as God’s beloved children.  Through water and the word the Holy Spirit comes to us.  Through water and the word our old, sinful self is drowned, that we may be reborn as God’s own.  Through water and the word, we are marked by the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever.  We baptize because this is what God commands, because it is this ritual that God uses to reach out and claim us as his own.

I wish I could tell you that baptism made the darkness go away.  I wish I could tell you that baptism made our spiritual journey, our work for God’s kingdom, clear and easy.  I wish I could tell you that it meant that little Cheyenne Marie will never face temptation.  I wish I could tell you that being a child of God meant that the Kingdom of Heaven was truly realized in full here on Earth.  But I can’t.  Even for Jesus, baptism was followed by his temptation in the wilderness.

What baptism does is give us the resources to deal with whatever this broken, sinful world can throw at us.  No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do or don’t do, God has claimed us as his children.  God has marked us with Christ’s cross and sealed us with the Holy Spirit.  God will be with us every step of our way no matter what, and all we need do is turn to him.  That’s a powerful truth that we find all too easy to forget.  It is when we forget God’s presence and God’s love that we are most vulnerable, most likely to let ourselves be drawn aside.  Martin Luther used to say that in any temptation, any crisis, the best and most useful thing we could do is remember our baptism, the moment in which God claimed us and sealed us as his own.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t actually remember my own baptism.  Like many Christians, I was a small baby when I was baptized, only a couple of months old.  On the other hand, I can tell you all about my First Communion: it took place on an Easter Sunday morning, and my church had three Easter services with a full breakfast in between each.  My family went to late service, and during the breakfast before it one of my classmates who had taken his First Communion during the middle service beckoned me over.  He looked around to make sure his mother wasn’t listening, leaned to me, and whispered, “The wine tastes terrible!”  You see, at my home congregation grape juice was not an option.  So later that morning I went up to the communion rail expecting the worst—and found that the wine did indeed taste bad to a child’s tongue.  I made a big face for which my mother scolded me when we were back in our pew.  That was my first Communion, but I can’t tell you about my baptism.  I don’t know how the water felt, if I cried from the shock of it, if I liked the smell of the oil.  So what does it mean, to remember my baptism?

Most obviously, I remember my baptism when I see another person being baptized.  I see it, I participate, promising with the rest of the community to support my new brother or sister in Christ, and know that even if I don’t remember it myself, this happened to me, once, too.  But I also remember my baptism when I do things with the congregation, because it is through our baptisms that we were made brothers and sisters in Christ.  I remember my baptism when I feel alone, when I feel powerless, because it helps me remember that Christ is with me, and that he was once a human like me, and that he understands what I’m going through.  I remember my baptism when I don’t know what to do, or when I know what I should do but don’t want to do it, when I need to remember that I am God’s and that God’s reign is better and more fulfilling than any transitory desire.  I remember my baptism when I know that I need to turn to God, for God’s reign is near.

I remember my baptism when I hear Isaiah’s prophecy: “Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people upon it and spirit to those who walk in it: I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.  See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”  God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, to Jesus Christ his son, and through our baptism he speaks them to us.  We, too, are called in righteousness and taken by the hand and given to the world as light and healing and freedom from darkness.

No matter how dark things seem, God’s reign is near.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand, for God is with us and God has chosen us as God’s own people.  The Holy Spirit is in our midst, whether or not we can see it—all we need do is follow God’s call.  Through water and the Word, we are marked by the Holy Spirit and sealed with the cross of Christ, forever.

Amen.

Treasure in clay jars: Baptism and Communion

I talked last week about the fellowship of believers and the body of Christ. Important as it is, however, this fellowship is not the only reason for attending worship services.

God is present in many things every day, great and small. Some we may find easy to attribute to God—the beauty of forest, the grandeur of a mountain, the love of those around us. Some escape our notice—the little grace notes that lighten our day. A stranger’s smile, a break in the clouds, a chance remark that sparks an idea. All are examples of God present in our lives, in both good times and bad. It’s important to notice these things, but so often we get caught up in our busy lives and forget to pay attention, or credit them instead to our own skill and luck. God’s presence can be so intangible, so easily ignored, that we need something concrete and physical to demonstrate it, something we can see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and know God is present in it.

In the Lutheran understanding, a “sacrament” is the combination of the Word of God with a visible sign (something we can see and touch), as ordered by Christ. We recognize two sacraments, Baptism and Communion. Jesus commanded us to do both of the sacraments as signs of his presence with us. God takes every-day, ordinary things (water, oil, wine, bread) and makes them into extraordinary signs of God’s love and grace.

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20.)

In our baptisms we are initiated into the Christian life as disciples and members of the fellowship of believers. We are “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” This is not fire insurance for Christians; it is not a “get out of Hell free card.” Baptism is God reaching out to us and promising us that God will always be there for us, claiming and reclaiming God’s identity as Emmanuel. There’s a reason baptism is traditionally done during the worship service, and there’s a reason that the congregation makes promises of support and solidarity with the person being baptized. God’s presence sometimes manifests itself through the companionship of our fellow members of the body of Christ, so it’s important that our fellow members are there when God promises to be with us. But beyond that, the baptism of each new member, child or adult, is a reminder that God has claimed us as God’s own through our own baptisms. It’s a reminder that baptism is not a once-in-a-lifetime event, but the beginning of an ongoing life of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s also a reminder that Christ is present with us, not in theory but in fact. God’s presence is as real and tangible as the water and the oil.

“While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28).

There’s been a lot of debate over these words over the centuries. Some say they’re meant to be symbolic, some have argued for arcane philosophical justifications for the turning of bread into flesh and wine into blood, some have other ideas. But the important thing is that Christ is promising to be truly present in the bread and the wine. Whatever you think it is, Christ is present in it. In this bread and wine, God’s covenant—God’s promised relationship with us—is made into a form we can feel and taste. God’s promise to forgive our sins, renew us, and make us whole is real even when we’re so overwhelmed with life that we can’t see it any other way.

This is why going to church is important. God is present in many ways every day, whether we go to church or not. But it’s only in worship with our fellow believers that we receive these two sacraments, these two physical assurances of God’s grace.

If you have any questions about this or any questions you would like interested in next week’s entry, please comment.