Going to the Other Side

Lectionary 12B, June 24, 2018

Job 38:1-11, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

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

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

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

“When evening had come, Jesus said to the other disciples, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’  And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.”  Now, let’s remember what’s just happened.  Jesus has only been ministering for a short while.  He called the apostles and began teaching, healing, and casting out demons.  He’s had a rather nasty confrontation with the religious leaders who called him a demon because they didn’t like him.  But, on the bright side, lots of people love him.  The crowds are following him, and he’s really popular!  That is, he’s popular in Galilee, where he’s from, and where all his disciples are from.  Jesus is popular among Galileans, who are Jewish like him and his followers, who worship the same God who is Jesus’ Father, the God that Jesus is one part of.  The Galileans don’t just worship the same God, they share the same culture.  They speak the same language, eat the same food, share the same ethnic background, dress the same, etc., etc.

The people on the other side of the lake are not Galileans.  They’re not even Jewish.  They are pagans who worship many gods, none of which are the one true God.  They are a different ethnic group, eat different foods, speak a different language, wear different clothing.  And I wonder what the disciples thought about that.  This is the first time Jesus has led them out of familiar surroundings.  At home, they are close followers of a local celebrity.  They have influence, and respect.  Across the lake, no one has a clue who they are or who Jesus is.  And even without the celebrity, they’re comfortable at home in Galilee.  They know what to expect, and they know there will be food they like and things that they know how to deal with.  They may only be going to the other side of the lake, but it’s a different country and one they may never have stepped foot on.  They’re going from comfort and celebrity status to being strangers in a strange land, random foreigners.  This is not like the sort of church mission trips people go on today, where there are already Christian groups there to join up with.  They were completely, totally, and utterly on their own.  I wonder how the disciples felt about it?  The Bible doesn’t say, but I can’t imagine they were too happy about the idea.  I bet they wished they could stay home where it was comfortable and safe and build on the successes they’d already had, rather than going someplace weird where they would be starting from scratch.  At the very least, I bet they were nervous and apprehensive.

Then the storm started.  Now, the Sea of Galilee is a lake surrounded by really tall mountains.  It’s not like lakes we have here, where you can see things coming.  Things can go from sunny clear skies to major storms in a very short period of time.  And the fishing boats used in Galilee in those days were really small and flat-bottomed.  Great for fishing on a calm day, or when you’re close enough to shore you can row to safety in time.  Not so great when you’re in the middle of the lake, and it’s too choppy to row, and the wind is so strong that it can literally blow the boat over unless you take down the sail.  In those small boats, you are at the mercy of wind and wave if you get caught out in the middle of the lake during a great storm.  And this is a great storm.  It is huge.  The disciples probably weren’t all that happy to be sailing across the lake anyway, but Jesus told them to, and so they did.  And then they get caught in this huge storm that could kill them, and they wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for Jesus, and what is he doing?  He’s SLEEPING!  It’s his fault they’re in danger, and he’s not even paying ATTENTION to them!

So they wake him up.  “Teacher, don’t you CARE that we’re DROWNING?”  Jesus wakes up, orders the storm to stop, and turns to them, and asks them why they’re scared.  It’s still early in their relationship with Jesus, but they’ve seen him do some pretty incredible stuff.  Why don’t they trust that he will protect them from the storm, too?  Why is their first reaction to be afraid and blame people, instead of trusting that Jesus will be with them?

Did you know that one of the earliest metaphors for the Christian community is a boat?  If you go to some of the earliest Christian churches and catacombs, you will find pictures of boats all over the place.  You see, a boat does two things: it protects you from the water and wind and storm … and it takes you places.  That’s the thing about the Christian community.  We’re not called by God to sit still where we are.   We’re not called by God to be safe and comfortable. We’re called by God to grow in faith and then go out into the world and spread the healing love of God through word and deed.  We’re called to go out, tell the story of Jesus, heal the sick, free the oppressed and the prisoner, forgive the sinner, and bring reconciliation to all in the name of Jesus Christ.  Like a boat leaves the harbor to sail across the sea, we are called to leave our comfort zone to go minister to and with people who are different from us.

And those people who are different from us may be across the country or across the world, but they may also be the people across the street.  The people who don’t come to church, who are struggling and isolated and alone.  The people who think differently than we do, and live differently than we do.  The people who desperately need good news, because precious little ever seems to go right.

And you know what?  That’s dangerous.  It’s dangerous to try to build relationships with people who are different.  It’s weird, and in order to do it you have to be willing to set aside your own assumptions, even just for a little bit.  You have to be willing to change, to ask the hard questions.  You have to be willing to look at your own traditions and ask yourself if they serve the Gospel or only your own comfort.  You have to be willing to see the world through your neighbor’s eyes, to see what healing and reconciliation and good news they need.  And sometimes, you get rejected.  Sometimes, it doesn’t work out.  Sometimes you fail, and sometimes you get hurt in the process.  But Jesus still comes to us and says, “Get in the boat.  Let’s go across to the other side.”

The sea is a dangerous place, full of storms and uncertainty.  Lots of ships are lost.  Even with the best modern technology and safety equipment, sometimes things happen.  But still ships go out.  A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are for.  Ships are for taking people places, and protecting them on the way.  Lots of people these days seem to think that being a Christian means your life will be perfect and happy and easy and good.  But that’s not what Jesus calls us to.  Jesus calls us to get into the boat, and go, knowing that there will be storms, and there will be problems, and there will be things we don’t know how to handle, but that Jesus will be there with us in the midst of those troubles.  If, as a Christian, your life never has storms, if you never take risks or allow yourself to be uncomfortable or do things that might change you, you’re like a ship that never leaves the harbor.  And when those storms come, the Christian answer is not to panic and look for someone to blame, as the disciples did.  The Christian answer is to trust that no matter what—whether the storm gets better or worse, whether the ship is saved or not, whether you succeed or fail—Jesus is with you through it all, working to keep you safe.

And you and I might not always see what’s so great about going to the other side.  I’m sure the disciples didn’t—going to those weird foreign people and trying to do ministry with them was hard and not very rewarding.  But if Jesus’ followers had only stayed ministering to and with their own people, you and I would not be Christian today.  If they hadn’t gone out into the world, following Jesus when he called them, Christianity would have stayed nothing more than a small sect of Judaism, if it had survived at all.  The sea of life may not be safe, but it also comes with great rewards.

Just like the disciples weren’t really sure what was waiting for them on the other side of the lake, I don’t know what’s in store for Augustana and Birka as you head into this time of transition.  I don’t know what sort of pastor you will get, and I don’t know what exactly God is calling you to do as you move forward.  But this I do know: God is calling you forward, and there will probably be storms along the way, and God will be with you no matter what.  I hope and pray that you will follow God and trust in him on your way.

Amen.

Advertisements

The Kingdom of God is like mustard

Lectionary 11B, June 17, 2018

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15, 2 Corinthians 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

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

 

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

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

When Jesus told the crowds the parable of the mustard seed, they would have started laughing at the second sentence.  Guaranteed.  “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground—“ pause for incredulous laughter as the thought of someone being so deliberately idiotic as to plant mustard.  See, mustard wasn’t really a crop in the middle east in Jesus’ day.  It was—and still is—a weed.  And the variety native to the area is not the crop that we grow today to make the condiment out of.  Like all weeds, mustard is hardy, grows quickly, gets everywhere, and is really hard to get rid of once it’s established.  It is edible, both the greens and the seeds (the seeds are what the condiment is made of), but you don’t go around PLANTING it.  Because you can gather what you need from the wild plants on the hillside, and it will seed itself in your fields without any help from you at all.  The problem is keeping it out of your fields.  So, yes.  Jesus starts talking about someone deliberately planting mustard, and people are going to start laughing.

Which then begs the question.  Why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed?  A big, mighty weed, sure, but still.  A weed.  That doesn’t fit our normal picture of God and God’s kingdom.  We tend to think of power and might and majesty and awesomeness and inspiration when we think of God.  Weeds are the opposite of that.  Weeds are the things that you groan when you see them.  Why not something like cedar, the tree of kings?  Cedars grow tall and majestic, the tallest trees in the holy land, and they were used to build palaces and temples and the wood is gorgeous and it smells beautiful and everyone looks up to cedar trees.  Or, if not a cedar tree, then a mountain, or something else grand and awe-inspiring.  Or maybe something useful, or profitable.  Something humans at least want.

Why a weed?  Well, maybe we shouldn’t assume that the kingdom of God will always be something we welcome.  I mean, let’s take Jesus’ first sermon in the gospel of Luke, where he says he has been anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and let the oppressed go free.  That’s good news for the poor, the captives, and the oppressed.  If, however, we or people we like are profiting from the fact that others are poor, or benefiting that some people are oppressed, or if we and people we love are the ones holding people captive, then that message is not something we want to hear.  It’s not good news to us.  And there has never been a society in the history of the world—including modern America—in which everyone is free from oppression.  There have always been people taking advantage of one another, and creating systems of laws and culture which benefit some people at the expense of others.  And that’s simply not compatible with God’s kingdom.  Some aspects of our culture will work with the Kingdom, but some simply will not.  And people generally don’t welcome things that tell us we have to change, or tell us we need to give up power and influence and wealth.  So we might be tempted to ignore the growth of God’s kingdom, or even tempted to treat God’s kingdom as if it were a weed.  We might try to kill it, to preserve the garden of our community in the old, comfortable, sinful, oppressive patterns we’re used to.

The thing about mustard is that it’s one of those super-weeds that’s almost impossible to kill.  Like kudzu, or the Himalayan Blackberries we have in the Pacific Northwest.  I have spent many a long hour doing battle with Himalayan Blackberry vines.  No matter how vicious you are with them—no matter whether you chop them off, bulldoze them to the ground, poison them with the most deadly herbicides on the market—they ALWAYS come back.  Just like the Kingdom of God.  Humans can try to subvert it, prevent it, root it out, but it will come despite our best efforts.

The coming of the kingdom does not depend on human efforts.  We can work for the kingdom, yes, but each one of us is only one small part of that work.  Consider the first parable from our reading.  The farmer in that parable plants the seed … and then he waits.  He waits for the earth and sun and rain to do their work.  Eventually he harvests.  For all the things the farmer can do to ensure a good crop, some of the most important things are simply out of his control, as all farmers know.  When we treat the kingdom of God like good seed, we can till the soil and sow the seed and harvest it, but God is the one who gives us the seed and causes it to grow.  And when we treat the Kingdom of God like a weed and try to kill it, well, the Kingdom of God is stronger and more powerful than we are.  It always comes back, whether we like it or not, because God’s kingdom cannot be killed or prevented by any human power.  And although we should work for the Kingdom of God, it will come whether we do or not.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It grows like the dickens.  It’s not an awesome mountain or a graceful, majestic cedar, but it is large and full of life.  It’s a bush that grows much, much taller than humans.  It creates a lot of life, and it shares that life with others.  There aren’t that many big bushes or trees in the Holy Land; not many things that give shade or shelter from the harsh desert sun.  But the mustard bush does.  And so does the kingdom of God.  No matter what storms or burning sun or anything else comes into our life, the Kingdom of God provides shelter.  And that shelter isn’t just for the high and mighty—it’s for everything and everyone, even the ones we don’t necessarily think about, the ones most likely to get pushed out of the rest of the world.  Just like the mustard bush provides shelter for birds’ nests, the Kingdom of God provides shelter and a home for those who have no other home or shelter.

The Kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides food four our bodies and souls.  Mustard plants are edible, both the leaves and the seeds.  They’re one of those plants where, if you’re walking by the side of the road and you are poor and you have nothing else, you can harvest from the bush.  Just like God’s Kingdom provides for those who are poor and have nothing.  The kingdom of God provides food for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who feed people and make sure that all people have the resources they need to thrive.  The kingdom of God provides food for our soul through the Word of God, Jesus Christ, which nourishes us and helps us grow in faith and love.

The kingdom of God is like the mustard bush.  It provides healing.  Pastes made out of mustard are one of the oldest healing salves there is, and mustard is especially effective for burns.  Even today, if you have a burn that’s not serious enough to go to the doctor with, you can use mustard—the regular condiment you find in your kitchen—and put some on the burn, and it will help it heal faster.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our bodies through the work of God’s followers who work to prevent harm to people and heal them.  Just like the Kingdom of God provides healing for our souls through God’s work of forgiveness and reconciliation and love.

The kingdom of God is like a weed that will plant itself and grow anywhere, even when we try to root it out.  It grows from the smallest things into something huge that gives life and healing and shelter and freedom to those in need.  May we learn to recognize it when we see it, and value it as we should, and help plant and tend it.  And may the day come quickly when all people receive shelter and healing and nourishment from it.

Amen.

Lectionary 10B, June 10, 2018

Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1, Mark 3:20-35

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

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

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

This week’s Gospel reading has Jesus tangling with the scribes from the Jerusalem temple.  In the chapter prior to this, Jesus had healed people who were sick and cast out demons, causing quite a stir.  He’d also preached and taught and called the twelve disciples, so there was a great crowd everywhere he went.  And there was a ton of controversy about him, because he forgave sinners and was openly friendly with social outcasts, the tax collectors and the sinners.  He ate meals with the people that nice religious people were supposed to despise.  And he’d tangled with the Pharisees because he used a messianic title to refer to himself and they didn’t believe he was the Messiah.  So now here he is.  It’s still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but he has already created quite a stir.  And people are flocking to him because they know something good is happening, even if they’re not quite sure what.  They see people being healed, they see demons cast out, they see good news being preached, and they are excited.  They don’t know exactly what’s going on—some people think this Jesus fellow is simply nuts—but they know something big is happening.  Something worth keeping an eye on as they figure things out.

And this is when the scribes from Jerusalem show up.  Now, we don’t have a position exactly like the scribes today.  The word “scribe” means “someone who writes for a living,” which in the days before people had typewriters and computers and printing presses meant that they were the people who kept the records.  But don’t think of them as if they were mere functionaries or secretaries.  They were the ones who kept the records … which meant, effectively, that the records meant what they said they did.  They were the ones who recorded everything from history to poetry to business deals, and they were the ones who interpreted it.  In a lot of ways, they were like today’s lawyers and judges.  This was a very important and prestigious position.  No scribe was independently important, but as a class they were a force to be reckoned with.

The other thing about them is that their position and class depended on the patronage of the chief priests and the secular hierarchy.  Poor people can’t afford to pay a scribe to take notes for them, or to interpret the law for them.  Even middle class people only used a scribe’s services rarely.  The Temple and the chief priests were their primary employers, and the rich and powerful were their main other source of income.  And let’s review who the rich and powerful were, at this point in time.  The Romans ruled, either directly or through puppets like Herod.  Israel was a conquered territory ruled by foreign invaders who responded to any hint of rabble-rousing with immediate cruelty to the whole population.  The rich and powerful were either Romans or people who sucked up to them.  And the Romans did not like anything stirring up the ordinary person on the street.

As for the Temple, well, the chief priests were intimately aware that their existence depended on Rome’s good will.  Rome allowed the Temple to exist in the hopes that it would placate the Jewish people.  If the chief priests and temple authorities allowed the beginnings of an uprising, their heads would be first on the chopping block.  Or rather, first on the cross, because that was how the Romans executed conquered people.  Not to mention, the chief priests were supposed to be the ones with the monopoly on God’s power and wisdom, not untutored yokels from the sticks.  So, basically, when these scribes show up to see Jesus, they have a ton of reasons not to like him.  He’s a threat to their power and authority, and they are afraid at what might happen if he incites the crowds around him to violence and the Romans respond.

So when those scribes arrive, they don’t even bother to see what he’s doing or hear his message.  They have already decided he is a threat, and therefore he cannot be from God.  God’s Spirit cannot be present in someone they do not approve of, someone who threatens to upset their applecart.  Therefore, all of his supernatural powers—healing, casting out demons—must come from a demonic source.  It doesn’t make any sense AT ALL, because why would a demon want to cast out demons?  Why would a demon heal people?  Those are the LAST two things a demon would want.  Demons do evil, not good.  That’s their very nature.  But the scribes don’t care.  Jesus is a threat, so he must be discredited at all costs.

Think about that, for a second.  Think about the arrogance and hard-heartedness it would take, to see someone healing the sick and casting out demons, saving people from the very real evils in their lives in the most concrete way imaginable, and declaring that the healing force is demonic and evil.  They are literally seeing God’s power at work in front of their very eyes, and it’s not just that they don’t believe it.  No, it’s worse than that.  They see God’s power, and it’s doing something they don’t approve, so they believe it’s the devil.

And Jesus tells them that they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin.  Now, Christians in various times and places have sometimes interpreted it in various ways, mostly by taking whatever sin they find most immoral and calling it a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  But this passage is actually fairly specific about what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  It’s when you see the Holy Spirit at work and call it evil.  Everything else can be forgiven.  Unbelief, spreading lies about God, killing people, stealing, lying, cheating, and any other sin you care to name, it can all be forgiven.  But not looking at the power of God bringing healing to the world and calling it evil.

Unfortunately, the scribes of old are not the only ones to feel this temptation.  You see, the Holy Spirit is disruptive.  The Holy Spirit is a troublemaker, it is disorderly, upsetting, disruptive.   The Holy Spirit is wind, ruffling our feathers and blowing the dust off us and inspiring us to move out of old, comfortable, worn-out tracks.  The Holy Spirit is flame, setting us on fire and purifying us.  The Holy Spirit is water, washing us clean and drowning our old sinful self and making us re-born children of God.  The Holy Spirit sets prisoners free and makes people see things they have been blind to.  The Holy Spirit forgives sins and crosses boundaries.  The Holy Spirit brings good news to people who are poor and oppressed, and healing to a world broken by sin and death.

None of that is comfortable.  In fact, most of it is really uncomfortable.  Given a chance, most human beings do not like change.  We prefer things we understand, even if they’re not all that great, to things we don’t understand, even when it is so much better than anything we could have imagined.  We are prone to nostalgia, viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses and forgetting all the bad parts of it, as an excuse to keep things the same.  We don’t want to be set on fire, and we don’t want to be reborn, and while we like being forgiven we don’t like others to be forgiven, and by and large we don’t want to see things that might make us think new thoughts, either.  And the more wealth and power and status and influence we have, the less change we want, because after all, we don’t want to risk losing things.  And the more likely we are to count the Spirit’s disruptive action as a threat.

The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and though it is not always comfortable, it is always good: healing people and communities, inspiring, and working to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  It isn’t always easy to understand, but it is always present.  Whether we understand it or not, whether we want to be disrupted or not, may we always see it for what it is.

Amen.

Memorial Day, 2018

Memorial Day, May 27, 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Love in Action

Easter 4, Year B, April 22, 2018

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

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

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

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

“We know love by this, that Jesus Christ laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”  Thus begins our reading from First John.  And Jesus also talks about laying down his life for us on the cross in our reading from the Gospel of John: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”  This is sacrifice of the greatest nature.  Being willing to die in order to save someone else.  Imagine what the Christian community would be like if we all followed this example.  It’s a model of Christian life—and death—that doesn’t quite fit with the ways we tend to think about Christian love and generosity.

On the surface, it does.  There’s lots of talk, in Christian circles, about love.  Lots of talk about sacrifice, and service.  Jesus gave everything, so we should too.  But have you ever noticed how often that ethos of loving service and self-sacrifice ends up, in practice, turning into a bit of superficial niceness?

Jesus’ command to love and serve becomes superficial niceness through a refusal to let that love transform our hearts and minds.  It’s relatively easy to paste a smile on our face, even if that means hiding what we’re really feeling.  Have you ever done that?  Maybe you don’t agree with someone, or you’re hurt by something they said, but you want to be ‘nice’ and Christians are supposed to get along, and so you don’t say anything and smile and change the subject.  Now, that niceness right then might prevent a fight … but it also prevents the possibility of reconciliation and healing.  Maybe they didn’t realize they hurt you.  Maybe you didn’t understand where they were coming from.  Maybe, if you’d sat down and talked it out in love, you could have found common ground and a deeper mutual respect.

And maybe not. Love can’t solve all disagreements.  But there is no possibility of that deeper understanding without taking the risk of being open and loving.  That niceness may prevent an open disagreement, but it can’t bring you closer together.  In a world where our whole culture is telling us not to trust one another, to be suspicious of people who think or act or look differently than we do, being nice is at least better than attacking other people.  But it’s not going to change us or our society for the better, either.  It’s not going to overcome the gaping divisions or heal the growing wounds we inflict on one another.  Niceness puts wallpaper over problems.  Love puts in the hard work of healing.  But to love means to make yourself vulnerable, and that’s a scary thing.  So we Christians choose niceness too often.

Another way modern Christians interpret Jesus’ command to love and serve is through the pay-it-forward idea.  Which, at its heart, is a good idea.  Instead of looking at the world as a dog-eat-dog place out to get you, try to increase the amount of good in the world by doing good deeds for others without expecting them to pay you back.  As Christians, we are supposed to be doing good deeds and helping others in the name of Jesus.  But have you ever noticed how often pay-it-forward gets boiled down to simple, cheap, and easy things like “buy coffee for the person behind you in line”?  Buying coffee for others is great.  But if that’s the sum total of the way you act out your Christian love and charity, if the only times you take time, effort, and money out of your busy life to serve others is when it’s cheap and convenient, that’s pretty superficial.  It’s nothing like the deep love for one another Jesus calls us to have, the kind of love that is willing to lay down our lives for the sake of others.

Christian love is transformative.  Laying down your life for the sake of love can change the world.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for the world, and it broke the power of sin and death, opening up the way of salvation for us.  Jesus laid down his life out of love for us, and that changed the world on a fundamental level: it means that however strong the powers of sin and death may seem, they are ultimately going to lose and be defeated by the love of God.  Now, obviously, us laying down our lives for the sake of others isn’t on quite the same scale, but it can still transform the world.

Consider Dashrath Manjhi, of Bihar, India.  Manjhi was a poor laborer who lived in a small town that was 15km away from the nearest hospital … as the crow flew.  Unfortunately, there was a mountain in the way, forcing people to travel 55km to get around it.  In 1966, his wife Falguni Devi was injured and died.  Manjhi set out to prevent anyone else from dying because they could not get to the hospital.  He was a poor man, who had nothing but a hammer and chisel.  It took him 22 years, but he carved a 9m wide road through the mountain, so that now the hospital—and the city it’s part of—is easy to get to for everyone in his region.  It saved lives and opened up economic opportunities for his whole region.  His love, and his sacrifice of 22 years of backbreaking labor, changed everything.  And if you hear this true story and tell yourself “I could never do anything like that,” consider this.  How much less time do you think it would have taken if the rest of the community had helped?  If they’d all come together instead of laughing at him for being so ambitious?

Consider Leymah Gbowee, a Lutheran woman from Monrovia, Liberia, in Africa.  Her country was torn by religious, ethnic, and political turmoil that caused a civil war.  She started working with a church group to help people heal from the trauma of war, and from there she started gathering women from all sides of the conflict and bringing them together to work for peace.  They prayed for peace in churches and mosques, they talked to everyone who would listen, and through their tireless efforts the war was ended.  After the war, they continued to work for reconciliation and peace, bringing people from all different backgrounds together and helping them rebuild their lives.  Gbowee and her followers were tireless in their actions to bring both justice and mercy to a country that was desperately in need of both.  They gave counseling and support to women who had been raped and abused, they gave counseling and job training to young men who had grown up fighting, they insisted that the re-united country build a sustainable future which had room for everyone in it.  They did it out of love for their fellow human beings and hope for the future, and in so doing they transformed Liberia and are bringing peace and stability to the neighboring countries.

Consider Bikers Against Child Abuse.  They’re a motorcycle gang whose goal is to protect victims of child abuse and help them feel safe.  When a child has been abused, they volunteer their time to act as bodyguards as long as the child needs them, to help them understand that their abuser can’t hurt them any more.  It helps children who have experienced the worst things a child can start to feel safe again and heal.  They give of their time and attention so that the most vulnerable children can know the life-giving and positive love that God wants for them.

Consider the Community Cupboard of Underwood.  Before we started it, I knew there were people who were poor and hungry in our community.  But I was surprised, as we started up and learned more, at how many of them there were.  How many people in our community have trouble affording enough food to feed themselves and their families.  But by coming together as a community, now there is help for people who need it.  And we’ve helped with other things, too—helping people find housing they can afford, or household goods, or clothing they can wear to work and not feel ashamed of.  It’s taken a lot of time and effort and resources, and nobody could have done it alone.  But together we’ve improved the lives of people living right here in Underwood.  Out of love for our fellow people of Underwood, a whole lot of people have laid down their time and money, and made our community better.

Hate can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to destruction.  Fear can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to defensiveness.  Self-righteousness can’t lead to transformation; it can only lead to judgmentalism and legalism.  The only thing that can transform the world for the better—the only thing that can make this world a little bit more like God’s kingdom—is love.

Jesus Christ showed us what love is by laying down his life for our salvation, and the salvation of the world.  He chose to do what was hard, and painful, because he loved us.  And he calls us to love one another as he has loved us.  Most of us won’t be called to die for someone else, but laying down your life can take many forms: laying down your time, your attention, your money.  And sometimes it’s hard.  But imagine what the world would be like if we all took that command to love seriously.  If we all were willing to lay down our lives, and all that entails, out of love.  May we all learn to follow Jesus’ example.

Amen.

Love Vs. Sin

Easter 2, Year B, April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:1—2:2, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Whenever I read the first chapter of the first letter of John, I remember worship as a kid, back in the days of the green hymnal, the LBW.  If you remember, the part of the confession used at the beginning of service was taken from this passage: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  This piece of scripture, repeated over and over, sunk in deep to my mind and heart and shaped the way I saw God and humans.  All humans are sinners, but God loves us and saves us anyway.  This was—and still is—the bedrock certainty on which my faith rests.

Which is why I was shocked and confounded, in my mid-twenties, to deal with a woman who complained about having to confess each week—because, she insisted, she was not a sinner and didn’t need to confess anything.  She was a good person who followed the commandments, so, she claimed, she had no need of confession and forgiveness.  I love this passage from First John, it is beautiful and poetic and meaningful.  But in order to understand it, I think we need to unpack a little bit what it means when it talks about “sin,” and why it is so certain—and so right—that all human beings are sinners in need of forgiveness.

We talked about what “sin” is in Confirmation the other day.  And when I asked the kids if they could define “sin,” the answers were sort of circular.  “Sin” is breaking the commandments and doing things God doesn’t like.  Why doesn’t God like them?  Because they’re sins.  Which isn’t wrong, but it also doesn’t help us figure out what sin is in a complicated world.  And so we went back to Mark 12:30-31, when Jesus tells his disciples that all of God’s commandments and teachings can be summed up in two phrases: Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Which is why one of the most ancient definitions of sin is that sin is anything that curves you in on yourself, away from God and your neighbors.  Sin is the thing that breaks relationships.  Sin is what makes us selfish, suspicious, and callous.  Sin is when we see injustice and cruelty and look the other way.  Sin is when we surround ourselves with people we like and ignore or get suspicious of anyone who is different.

The word “fellowship” appears four times in just this one chapter.  Now, fellowship means community, companionship, a relationship of equality and fairness.   To have fellowship with the community is to have fellowship with God, and to walk in the light is to have fellowship with God and one another.  But you can’t have fellowship while sinning.  Sin and fellowship are mutually exclusive.  Or, to take a verse from the next chapter of 1 John, “Whoever says ‘I am in the light’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness.”  And when the Bible talks about spiritual siblings like this, it doesn’t just mean people we like who are like us.  It means all children of God.  If you hate God’s children, you are walking in darkness.  If you are indifferent to the pain and suffering of God’s children, you are walking in darkness.

One of the greatest sins of our culture—the root of many other sins—is a belief that compassion and kindness and generosity are “stupid,” and that selfishness and coldness are somehow “smarter.”  It’s a sin full of self-justification.  When you believe that, you can walk past anyone who needs help, and tell yourself that you’re ignoring them because you’re smart, not because you’re selfish.  You can attack anyone who is different than you or who disagrees with you, and tell yourself you’re being courageous, not cruel and hate-filled.  You can spread all the darkness you want, and tell yourself it’s not sin, it’s being realistic.  And I don’t know anybody living in America today, who hasn’t given in to that temptation at least a little bit occasionally.  We are all sinners, stumbling around in the dark and telling ourselves it’s light.

That kind of darkness—selfishness and hate and callousness hidden under self-serving justifications—has no place in God’s kingdom.  God is love, as John tells us over and over again.  That’s the core of who and what God is, and that’s the core of God’s plan for us: that we will love God and love one another by everything that we say and do, and that we will never neglect to do the loving thing that praises God and serves our neighbors.  Our whole culture is marinating in that darkness, it shapes our thoughts and how we see the world, and as long as we continue in that spiritual darkness, God’s living Word, Jesus Christ, is not in us.

Thanks be to God for the forgiveness in Christ Jesus.  We can’t purge ourselves of the evil in our hearts and minds.  It keeps creeping in no matter what we do, and so often we don’t even recognize it for what it is.  But that’s why Christ gave his life.  That’s why he became human like us, to share in our world and be connected to us in baptism, so that we might share in his death and resurrection, and be washed clean.  We are connected with Jesus, who forgives our sins when we confess them, and helps us live towards the glorious light of God’s coming kingdom.

While we live in this life, we cannot fully be in the light all the time.  Darkness creeps back in: all the temptations that curve us in on ourselves, away from right and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbors.  Jesus forgives us, fills us with his Holy Spirit, calls us out into the world to spread God’s love in word and deed … and eventually, sooner or later, we fail.  But God is faithful even when we are faithless.  God is love, even when we are filled with callousness, cruelty, selfishness, fear, and hate.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how wrong we go, no matter how much we harden our hearts and tell ourselves we’re being smart to do so, God keeps coming to us and breathing his Holy Spirit into us and calling us to repentance and change.

God is love, and we cannot follow God unless and until we learn to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  When that happens, when we learn to put God’s love into action and not just pious words, amazing things happen.  We’ll hear some of the stories of those amazing things in our readings from the book of Acts this Easter season, including our first reading today.  After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus set about building a community based on God’s love.  And they started by making sure nobody was going hungry, that everybody had what they needed.  They made sure that everybody had what they needed, that nobody was forgotten or ignored by the community.  Now, they didn’t go about it in the best way for long-term stability, and people started lying and undermining the system pretty soon after.  This is a pattern we see often in Christian history.  The Spirit comes, amazing things are accomplished, and then human sinfulness comes in and brings things to an end.  And then the Spirit comes in someplace else, inspiring humans to great acts of love and community.  No matter how much we fail, no matter how much we turn to darkness, God’s light keeps breaking into our lives, teaching us to live in love with God and our neighbors.

How has God’s love and light broken into your world, recently?  I know the world can seem like a grim and heartless place full of darkness and death, but we worship a God who can bring light and life to every time and place—even to the grave.  We worship a God who cannot be kept out, a God who brings new life and resurrection even in the midst of death, who brings love in the midst of hate, generosity in the midst of selfishness, and forgiveness for all our sins.

The God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, who inspired Christian communities in Acts and throughout history since then, is at work in us and among us.  The God whose very nature is love is calling us to love God and one another, and to put that love into action, even in a world that calls such love stupid and foolish and unrealistic.  The God who forgives all who repent is softening our hard hearts and calling us to return to him, calling us into loving fellowship not just with him but with all his children.

Amen.

Covenant: Jeremiah

Lent 5, Year B, March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-12, John 12:22-30

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

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

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

This Lent, the Old Testament readings for Sunday morning take us through the covenants.  A covenant is a solemn promise, like a treaty or a marriage.  It’s code of conduct, a set of agreements about how people are going to live together or work together.  A condo association might make a covenant, or the people living on the same floor of a dorm, to establish what the expectations are for people living together.  A covenant is not a legalistic “you better follow the rules or else!” type of rulebook.  A covenant is instead a model, an agreement of how to live together, in which expectations and boundaries are clearly set.  The covenants in the Bible are all between God and humans.  They set the standard for what our relationship with God is going to be like.

God’s first covenant was with Noah and with all the earth, in which God promised that no matter how much wickedness there was in human hearts, God would never again choose to destroy everything and start again.  Then came God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah, where he called them to follow him and promised to be with them and their descendants forever.  Then came the covenant on Mount Sinai, where God re-stated his promise to the people of Israel, and gave them teachings and commandments to show them how they should live as God’s people.  Then last week we heard of God’s covenant with David, promising him that his descendants would always be king of Israel, a promise fulfilled in Christ Jesus, who is of the house and lineage of David.

This week, we heard of the new covenant God proclaimed through the prophet Jeremiah.  And, again, it’s good to remember the context, what Jeremiah was dealing with that prompted God giving this covenant.  Jeremiah was a prophet during a particularly terrible time.  God’s people had gone astray over and over again, sometimes worshipping idols and sometimes giving lip service to God’s word while creating a society filled with injustice and exploitation, in which the rich got richer by grinding the poor under their feet, and people hurt one another while claiming to be following God.  And God had warned the people again and again, that if they continued on in that way, he would stand aside and let them reap the consequences of their actions.  God wouldn’t abandon them, God would keep God’s promise to always be their God … but God wouldn’t protect them from the empires around them who wanted to conquer and enslave them.  By Jeremiah’s day, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was gone, but the Southern Kingdom of Judah was still hanging on, and the people of Judah believed that God’s covenant with David would protect them even despite their continuing bad behavior.

Jeremiah spoke the words the Lord had given him so speak, and told them that God’s love would not save them from the consequences of their actions unless they repented and turned away from their sins.  And they didn’t listen.  And so Jeremiah watched as the Babylonians conquered Judah, captured the city of Jerusalem, and took many of their people off in chains.  Jeremiah wrote two books, and the second was Lamentations, which records his grief at the destruction of his beloved country.  But even in the midst of devastation and grief, even as the holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the people of God enslaved and removed from the land God had given them, there was hope.  Because Jeremiah knew that God always keeps God’s promises, and God would always be with them, even as slaves in a foreign land.  And Jeremiah knew that God was going to make a new covenant with God’s people.

The covenant Jeremiah records is the only one the Bible specifically calls “new.”  But what’s new about it?  On the surface, it’s a lot like covenants of old.  God will be their God, and they will be his people.  In the covenant at Sinai, God gathered the people from slavery in Egypt; in this new covenant, God will gather the people from Israel and Judah, captured by other nations.  Just like the covenant at Sinai, God will give instructions on how to live a good and godly life.  And just like the covenant at Sinai didn’t eliminate or replace the earlier covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Sarah, this new covenant will not replace or get rid of all the other covenants God made with God’s people.

The difference, what makes this covenant new, is that it will change human nature.  Up until this point, the wickedness of the human heart that so distressed God in the days of Noah has remained.  God promises that God will always be with God’s people, and God gives instructions for how God’s people are to live, but we human beings fall continuously short.  We hurt ourselves and one another, and we twist God’s word to justify our sinful thoughts and actions.  We tell ourselves that when God commanded us to love one another, he only meant we should love people who are like us, people that we already like.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to hate and fear people who are different, because surely they are not God’s people like we are.  We tell ourselves that if someone hurts us, it’s okay to hurt them back.  We tell ourselves that it’s okay to be selfish, and if others are impoverished or hurt because of it, that’s their problem.  We tell ourselves that we are good people, God’s people, and so whatever we think and do must be good and Godly, instead of conforming our hearts and minds to the will of God.  We keep breaking our promises to follow God.  That was true in Jeremiah’s day, and it is still unfortunately true today.

But this covenant that God promises through Jeremiah will be a new covenant.  God’s teachings and commandments won’t be empty words on a page that we try to ignore or weasel our way out of whenever they become inconvenient.  Instead, God’s word will be written on our hearts.  We won’t have to argue about what God means, because nobody will try to twist God’s words to their own gain.  We won’t have to tell each other “know the Lord,” for we shall all know the Lord, from the least of us to the greatest.  Instead of giving lip service to doing the right thing, humans will actually do it.  Instead of telling ourselves we can do everything because of our own abilities and we don’t need anyone else, we will love God and love our neighbors, and build deep and lasting and life-giving relationships with God and our neighbor.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?  It sounds almost too good to be true.  And yet, Jeremiah assures us that that day is coming, for God has promised it.  We get a foretaste of that day in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  We get a foretaste of God’s word in us and in our hearts by the way the Holy Spirit of God moves in us and around us, giving life to our faith and constantly bringing us back to God.  We get a foretaste of that great and wondrous day every time someone chooses love over hate, generosity over selfishness, faith over despair.  We get a foretaste of that day whenever chains are broken, oppression is ended, justice is done, and mercy is given.

Now, we see that world, that kingdom of God, only dimly and in little bits and pieces.  But when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, that kingdom will come to earth and the human heart will be made new, washed clean from all the evil that is in it.  And God’s Spirit will dwell with us, and God’s will will be written on our hearts.  And we will do the right thing not because we have to, or because are afraid of the consequences, or grudgingly, but with joy and love.  I can’t wait for that day.  And every time I see the pain in this world, my longing for it grows stronger.  That day is coming, says the Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.