The Holy Ones

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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

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

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

There is some scary stuff in the Bible.  Really scary, stuff that talks about the end of the world.  Most of it can be found in the books of Daniel and Revelation.  Beasts, antichrists, wars, persecutions, Death on a pale horse, all kinds of mysterious and unsettling things.  And mostly, when we modern Christians talk about them, we play up the scary parts: shape up, if you don’t want to be Left Behind!  If you don’t confess Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, and if you don’t live a good live a good life, you’ll be out in the middle of all that nasty stuff!  We forget—and sometimes we never realize in the first place—that these passages were not written to scare people.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  They were written in times of persecution and death and horror to comfort people, to tell them that no matter how bad things got, God had not abandoned them and God was at work in the world.  The visions are frightening because they reflect the reality those first readers were living.  But even in the midst of those things, God was working and protecting God’s people.  The first reading is a prime example.  Daniel receives a vision in a dream, and is frightened by it.  But the messenger in Daniel’s dream says not to worry.  The dream represents what’s already happening in the world, and yes, it’s bad, but God is with Daniel and his people. “The holy ones of the Most High shall receive the kingdom and possess the kingdom forever—forever and ever.”

Now, that begs the question.  Who are the holy ones?  Is it some special group of super-believers who are awesome and perfect?  Great theologians like Martin Luther?  People who devote their lives to doing good works like Mother Theresa?  People who are persecuted and die for their faith, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  Do you need to be someone really special to be counted among the holy ones of the Most High God?  Do you need to do something really incredible to receive the kingdom and possess it forever and ever?

No, you don’t.  You don’t have to do anything.  All you need is faith.  And it doesn’t need to be the greatest faith ever in the history of the world; faith as tiny as a mustard seed is enough.  That faith is a gift from God who loves us, and through that faith we receive the grace of God.  Through Christ Jesus our Lord we are saved, and marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.  Through Christ we inherit the kingdom and are made God’s own people.  Through Christ we are made God’s holy ones.  Through Christ, we are made saints.

Yes, that’s right—saints.  “Saint” is an old word meaning “holy one.”  We tend to think of saints as great holy people, better than you or I could ever be.  Sometimes people use it for that, as a title for especially perfect Christians.  But the older meaning of the word, the one the Bible uses, includes all people of faith, good and bad, small and great.  All people who set their hope on Christ are saints who have been made holy by God.  The power of God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and that same power is at work in us who believe, redeeming us, washing our sins, and bringing us together in Christ.

Now, that doesn’t mean that believers are perfect, or sinless; far from it.  If you were at Pastor Hartley’s funeral yesterday, you heard the pastor speak eloquently on the sinfulness of all humankind.  Even good and faithful people are full of sin.  We are not saints because of any inherent goodness on our own part.  We are saints because God has chosen to make us saints, holy and blessed and loved.  We are saints because God has chosen to give us the kingdom, claimed us as his own, and blessed us.

Today is All Saints Sunday.  Today, we remember all the holy ones of God, all those who have gone before us in the faith, all those who are faithful today, and those who will be faithful in the days to come.  We particularly remember those saints who have touched our lives, and those who have died recently.  They were not perfect—no one is—but they are beloved children of God who now rest safely in God’s care.  All of their sins have been washed clean; all of their tears have been wiped away; all their wounds have been healed.  They have been given their inheritance, they have been given the kingdom.  Whatever sin and grief and pain and fear they felt in this life, they now know the fullness of God’s blessing.

Everyone here has been touched by the saints who went before us.  I want you to remember those who were particularly meaningful for you who has since passed on.  Maybe it was a parent or grandparent.  Maybe the saint who means the most to you was a teacher or a friend.  Maybe they taught you about Jesus through their words, or maybe they showed you what it meant to be a Christian through their actions.  When we light candles for them, we remember them, what they meant for us, and how the light of Christ shone through them.  We remember that we, too, are called to bear the light of Christ to those around us, just as they once did.  And we remember that even in death they are safely in God’s care, and we will see them again, when we, too, come into our inheritance in Christ.

But lighting candles on All Saints’ Sunday is not the only day of the year when we remember them; and it is not only through the candles that the saints who have gone before us are present in our worship service.  Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper—every time we take Communion—they are here.  This table is God’s table; it is a foretaste of the feast to come, a foretaste of the feast

Amen.

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Good News in a Broken World

3rd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 27th, 2013

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21

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.

 

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us the first act of Jesus’ public ministry recorded in Luke.  Jesus goes to his home town, Nazareth, and participates in regular Sabbath worship.  He reads a short passage from Isaiah, sits down, and says the prophecy has been fulfilled.  What an announcement!  As sermons go, that’s pretty short.  Only one sentence.  (Sorry, but mine’s going to be a little longer than that.)  Yet Jesus’s sermon is so short because the prophecy from Isaiah says it all.  It perfectly encapsulated what Jesus’ ministry on earth was about.

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit came down like a dove to him.  The Holy Spirit was with him, as he began his ministry, and there in Nazareth he proclaimed what his ministry was about, what God’s kingdom is about.  Good news to the poor, release to the captive, sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and God’s abundant grace for all.  That’s what Jesus is all about.  That’s what God is all about.  That’s what life is like in the kingdom Jesus came to proclaim.

Good news for the poor: not a handout that feeds them for a day, but dignity and respect and a world in which they can earn enough to support their family.  Release to those who are held captive, whether that captivity is of body or mind.  There are all kinds of captivity.  Prisoners in jail are captives, yes, but so are those trapped by the cares of life that are grinding them down.  People in abusive relationships are captives, too.  And the longer you’re trapped, no matter what’s holding you down, the harder it is to even imagine what it would be like to be released.  What a relief to hear that you are free!  And blindness comes in all forms, from the physical to the spiritual to the intellectual.  Trapped in a dark world, what a joy to finally see the light.  Oppression comes in many forms, some blatant, some subtle.  To all people weighed down in body, mind, or spirit, Jesus comes bringing news of freedom.  Jesus comes proclaiming God’s love and grace.

Jesus comes to tell people that they have not been forgotten, and they have not been abandoned.  God wants us to be happy, and healthy, and free.  God wants us to live abundant lives filled with love and faith.  We live in a broken, sinful world, with all kinds of things that trap us and weigh us down.  We live in a world full of bad news and injustice.  It’s easy to take it for granted, to take it for normal, to assume that that is what the world is supposed to be like.  But that is not the life God wants for us.  Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim Good News to all, but especially the ones who are most in need of it: the poor, the brokenhearted, the sick, the trapped, all those who suffer.

And that’s not all.  Jesus didn’t just tell people the good news.  Jesus came to make the Good News a reality, to start the process of creating the kingdom of God, the place where sin is forgiven, brokenness is made whole, and where there is abundant life and freedom for all.  That kingdom isn’t here yet—it won’t be until Christ comes again—but it will come.  That is the deepest, truest reality of the universe.  In this world we live in, we see and experience so much pain and loss and brokenness.  But we know that it will not last forever, that the Good News is true, that all the world will be redeemed and healed and made free.  We have heard the words of Jesus, we have the Spirit in us, and we wait.

Last week I talked about the gifts of the Spirit.  These are all the talents that God gives to all of us.  Everything from the ability to teach or preach to the ability to heal or lead or follow—all are gifts of the Spirit.  All are given by God.  But why does God give them?  What are they for?   When the Spirit comes to us, what is it moving us to do?  The interesting thing about the Spirit is that if you look at the times the Spirit appears, it points to Christ.  The Spirit appears at Jesus’ baptism and again at his transfiguration, when God the Father claimed Jesus as his Son and told the Disciples to listen to him.  The Spirit appears at Pentecost, sending the Disciples out into the world to tell the crowds about Jesus.  The Spirit still points to Christ today, showing us the way to Christ.

In the Spirit, we were all baptized into the body of Christ.  We are Christ’s body in the world.  And what was Jesus Christ sent to do?  As he told the people of Nazareth, he was sent to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed and to tell God’s grace to all people.  Jesus was sent to proclaim the coming kingdom, and to bring it to all, so that they could see and hear and feel God’s presence with them.  Jesus came to help people live in the reality of the world to come.

We, too, are called to live in the reality of the world to come.  We are called to be the body of Christ in the world.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet and ears and eyes and mouth in the world.  We aren’t just here to think about Jesus for an hour a week.  We aren’t just called to remember him fondly.  We are called to live our lives in response to the Good News that Jesus came to bring.  Now, we can’t create God’s kingdom or make it come more quickly—only God can do that.  But we can live lives that point to that coming reality.  We can follow the Spirit which leads us to Christ, and with the Spirit’s help we can live lives that point to Christ and the Good News he brought.  We can live in the light of Christ.

None of us can do it alone.  We are all members of the body of Christ, but not one of us is Christ alone.  We all have different skills, different passions.  We have all been called to different ministries by the Holy Spirit.  But those ministries all work together to proclaim the Good News in word and deed.

As Paul says, no part of the body is complete in itself.  Hands, feet, eyes, ears, nose, and all the other parts.  Each one is needed, each one has its own task and its own gift.  We may like some parts better, and we may think some parts are prettier and more valuable, but all are needed.  All have been given gifts by the Spirit, and all are needed.

There are many divisions in our world.  Money, race, gender, politics, sexuality, religion.  You’ll find those divisions within the church as well as outside of it.  It’s very easy to let our differences and disagreements take center stage.  After all, they touch on fundamental issues.  But there is one thing more fundamental still: our lord and savior Jesus Christ, whose body we are.  Despite all the divisions and brokenness, we are called and gifted by the Spirit, beloved children of the Father, saved by the Son.  Despite all our divisions and the brokenness, we have heard the Good News of Jesus, the news of freedom and light and renewal and healing.  Despite all our divisions and brokenness, we are called to be the body of Christ in the world, to live in the light of God’s grace and show God’s love to the world.  May the Spirit which points to Christ guide our thoughts and our actions.

Amen.

Farewell Sermon–Planting Seeds

Pentecost 6 (Year A), Sunday, July 24, 2011

1 Kings 3:5-2
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
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.

When you think of Jesus teaching, what’s the first thing to come to mind?  The parables.  Usually, they’re a bit longer than the parables of today’s lesson, which are only a verse or two apiece.  The word “parable” comes from a Greek word, “parabolh.,” which literally means “to throw alongside.”  And a parable is a story that makes a point indirectly, by going alongside it and using metaphors and analogies to paint a picture.  In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus throws a lot of ideas about the Kingdom of Heaven out to his listeners.  I think it shows at least one reason why Jesus used parables so often to teach people.

How do you talk about the kingdom of heaven—God’s kingdom, where righteousness, mercy, peace, and love flourish and sin is no more—to people who have only ever lived in this broken, sinful world?  How do you describe the joy of salvation?  I don’t know that any human can possibly understand—I mean really understand—what the kingdom of heaven is like until we experience it.  God is so much greater than we are; God is greater than we can ever know.  It stands to reason that God’s kingdom would be, as well.  In the Bible, the kingdom of God is almost never described directly.  Instead, we are told of the kingdom in parables, visions, dreams—things that inspire us to imagine greater, to expand our ideas what God’s reign means.  In today’s lesson Jesus throws several parables to us, and in these parables we get a glimpse of what God’s kingdom is like.  I’m going to focus on just one of today’s parables.

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  A mustard seed starts really, really small, and inconsequential, and unless you know what it is you’d never believe that such a huge bush—almost a tree—could come from it.  Likewise, the Kingdom of Heaven grows out of things that seem small and unimportant.  Now, remember the Gospel lessons for the last two weeks, the Parable of the Sower and the parable of the wheat and the tares?  Those come right before today’s Gospel reading, and the crowds that Jesus was preaching to here had just heard those two parables.  I don’t mean to imply that there’s a literal one-to-one correspondence between the various parables; after all, they are metaphors.  But these parables are related.  They work together, like different chords in a song or different colors in a painting.  So when you hear Jesus talk about seeds here, you should remember that in those two parables the seed that is sown is God’s Word, and in this lesson the seed grows in us to produce God’s Kingdom.

God sows the seed of God’s word in us, and it grows in us to produce God’s kingdom.  Isn’t that amazing?  The kingdom of heaven won’t be fully realized until Christ comes again, but at the same time, the seeds of that kingdom are in our midst, oftentimes so small we don’t even realize what they are.  Maybe that seed is a smile or an encouraging word when we’re feeling down.  Maybe that seed is what motivates you to get up and spend an afternoon helping someone that needs it.  Maybe that seed is something that makes you question your prejudices.  Maybe that seed is praying with your family.  Maybe that seed is reconciling with someone you’ve had a fight with.  Maybe that seed is a thought you’d never considered, before, that gives you a different perspective.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the cares of the world, in our own hopes and fears and desires, and let that blind us to the seeds of God’s kingdom in our midst.  We all have a lot of ideas about what life should be like, and how we want our life to go.  And conventional wisdom has a lot to say about what our goals should be and how we should live our lives.  But God’s wisdom is very unconventional. God’s wisdom places justice and mercy above social climbing.  It places generosity and hospitality above accumulating riches.  It places love above all.

God works in our world, in our communities and in our hearts, planting seeds.  Seeds of generosity, and mercy, and justice, and love.  Sometimes they bear fruit in our actions.  But even when they don’t, God keeps sowing seeds, knowing that some will grow until they become great trees.  Remember the parable of the sower, where the seed is spread around on all types of soil, the good and bad alike?  God gives the gift of the Word generously to all.  Whether or not we respond, God is there for us, giving us the precious gift of the seeds of his kingdom.

That’s why God was so pleased with Solomon in our first lesson today.  Solomon could have asked for anything.  Take a few minutes, and consider what you would ask for if God came to you and offered you anything you want.  Would you ask for a better job?  A nicer home?  Would you ask to be more popular?  There are a lot of things that tempt us.  I’m sure Solomon was just as tempted as you or I would be.  But Solomon realized that all the things the world values most are ultimately unimportant next to God’s word.  Solomon could have asked for anything, and what he asked for was the wisdom to do the task God had called him to do.  Solomon asked for the seed of God’s kingdom to be planted in him, so that God’s will could be done and God’s kingdom could grow.

It’s not always easy to keep our focus on God’s kingdom rather than our own desires.  Even Solomon, for all his God-given wisdom, faltered and went astray.  He let his desire for women and his hunger to become an international power lead him away from God’s will and into idolatry.  His desire for riches and huge building projects led to heavy taxes and forced labor, and to the splitting of his kingdom in half after his death.  It’s easy to look at Solomon’s life from a safe distance and disapprove, but not so easy to realize when we’re going astray ourselves.  I’m sure we’ve all had times in our lives when we’ve let our desires and our fears rule; I know that’s true for me.   And yet, no matter how far we go astray, God is still with us, ready to forgive and bring us back.  Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation—not even our own sinfulness—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  No matter how far we go astray, God never stops planting seeds.

God is planting seeds today.  One of the seeds God is planting is the baptism of Josey Louise.  In baptism God claims us as his own, and connects us to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Josey Louise may be small, but like the mustard seed she will grow in God’s grace beyond anything we can imagine for her now.  God is coming to her today in the midst of this congregation, through water and the Word, to plant the seed of God’s kingdom within her.  God is planting today, and God will keep planting, and nurturing, and watering, and fertilizing, until the harvest comes.  We don’t know when the harvest will be, but we know that we are safe in God’s hands.

God tends the seeds he plants in many ways.  Sometimes, we are the tools God uses to nurture and guide the seeds that God has planted in our community.  That’s one of the reasons the whole community participates in baptism: it’s not just between Josey and God, or even between Josey and her parents and God.  We are all called, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to nurture and support Josey, her parents, and her godparents, in their life of faith.  We are called as Christians to be brothers and sisters to one another, in love and grace.  We are called to help one another grow in Christ, to help one another be good soil, to help one another seek the pearl of God’s wisdom and not the empty promises of the world’s riches.

Saint Luke is a very nurturing family in Christ.  I know, because you have helped me grow this year that I have spent as your Vicar.  I have been so blessed by your love, your support, and your example.  I have learned and grown so much in my time here, and I could not have done it without you.  Thank you so much for all that you have done for me.  I hope and pray that you will continue to be a nurturing environment for the seeds God plants in this congregation, in this community, and in the whole world.

Thanks be to God, the sower of the seed, the maker of the pearl, the giver of true wisdom, the guide and companion along life’s journey.

Amen.

Bearing fruit: good works, not works righteousness

Some people believe that if you do enough good deeds, if you follow God’s word perfectly enough, you can earn God’s forgiveness (and that if you don’t do enough good works, you’ll go to Hell). This is called “works righteousness” because it is based on a belief that our righteousness comes from the good works we do, instead of God’s grace. The problem with this belief is that “all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). The grace of God is that even though we are all sinners, God still loves us and sent God’s only son, Jesus, to pay the price for our sin so that we could be saved. There is nothing we can do that would make God love us less, and nothing we can do on our own to earn the love and forgiveness God has already given us; works righteousness doesn’t work. But just because good works can’t “earn” us salvation doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do good things.

God loves us no matter what we do. Our works cannot reconcile us with God or obtain grace. (See Ephesians 2:8-9.) Our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake through faith, and that faith is a gift of God that we call grace. When our sins are forgiven, our relationship with God is made right. The technical term for this is “justification.” That’s what Lutherans mean when we say we are justified by grace through faith. This is intended to be a comfort; we never have to worry that we have done enough good things to make God happy with us.  Good works have nothing to do with salvation. HOWEVER, you can’t just stop there.

We are saved by God’s grace when he justifies us, but there’s more to the Christian life than just coming into a right relationship with God. Once you are justified, then it becomes a question of living out your faith. We have been given a new life through Christ Jesus, and the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. There’s an old saying: “if being Christian were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Living as a Christian is called “sanctification.” And part of living as a Christian—being sanctified—is doing good works. We don’t do good works out of fear of going to Hell; we know that God will always love us and redeem us whether we do good works or not. We do good works because we love God and God loves us; he wants us to do good things, and we want to make him happy. Doing good works is a form of praise to God, just as surely as singing hymns or praise songs is.

I’m sure you can all remember Bible passages that talk about bearing good fruit or having the fruit of the Spirit. (For example, the parable of the sower in Mark 4, John 15:4-9, Ephesians 5:8-20, Colossians 1:9-14, Matthew 3:8, Romans 7:4, and many others.) As Christians, the Holy Spirit works within us, and inspires us to do things that are pleasing to God.  This is what it means to bear good fruit: to have the Spirit working within us, helping us to do good things. God loves us no matter what we do, but he wants us to live fruitful lives. God wants us to help others who need help. God wants us to do the right thing, not because we are afraid, but because we love God and we love our fellow human beings, and doing good works is a way of showing that love.

Christ died to forgive our sins and through that forgiveness the Holy Spirit comes to us. Forgiveness of sins is Justification, and giving the Holy Spirit is Sanctification. They’re not the same thing, though they are closely related.  When Christ saves us, he calls us to live as Christians, and to live out our faith in our daily lives. Each day we are renewed in faith and love by the Holy Spirit. Doing good works is our way of responding to that call. Good works are not necessary for salvation, period. But they are necessary for living according to God’s call. We do them not out of fear, but out of love and respect.

We should also remember that even though good works won’t save us, they do give us other rewards. Here on Earth they make others happy, and they do store up treasures for us in heaven. They don’t grant us salvation, but they do give bonuses once we have been saved.

If you have any questions about the Christian faith, Christian life, or theology, please leave a comment.