United Around the Cross

Third Sunday after Epiphany, January 22nd, 2017

Isaiah 9:1-4, Psalm 27:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23

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

 

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

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

Paul begins his first letter to the Corinthians by thanking God for them, for their generosity and the spiritual gifts that God had given them.  I, too, thank God for you all, for your generosity and love.

On Tuesday, I was in Corinth.  Quite a lot of the ruins have been excavated, and some of them have even been partially reconstructed to give a bit of a feel for what it must have looked like in ancient times.  My group celebrated Communion in the ruins, which was particularly appropriate given that Communion is such a large part of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.  During worship, we read this portion of the letter.  As we did so, the Temple of Apollo was on our right, along with the merchant’s stalls where you could buy meat that had been sacrificed to Apollo.  The temple of Aphrodite was on the top of the hill to our left.  Behind us was the bima, the magistrate’s office where Paul was put on trial for being a rabble-rouser and a heretic.

In the ancient world, everything was based on social status, on how honored—or shamed—you were in the community.  Like people today strive to be rich, people in the ancient world strove to be honored.  There were a lot of ways to get honor: money, property, the honor of your relatives and ancestors, worshipping the right god, following the right philosophers, giving the right gifts to the right people, getting appointed to the right public offices, sponsoring public events.  Do you follow Apollo, or Aphrodite?  And have they helped you grow in status?  Have you spent enough time showing off how great you are and how smart you are so that people will respect you? And there were a lot of ways to be shamed: poverty, bad relatives, making the wrong political moves, worshipping the wrong gods.  It was very competitive: you had to make sure everyone knew you were right and good.  It wasn’t enough to do the right thing, people had to know you were right.  Which meant that you had to prove that anyone who disagreed was wrong, and look down on them for being less smart and less honored than you were.

This is what society was like in pagan Greek cities like Corinth, and it seems to have been going on in the early church in Corinth.  These newly-converted Christians were acting in the same way as the larger society around them.  They hadn’t really figured out what being Christian meant, what it meant to be part of the body of Christ together.  And so they did the same sorts of things they’d done before they became Christians.  This is why they were fighting and dividing up into factions.  Who was the best Christian?  Who had the best interpretations of the Gospel?  Who was the most honored, and who should be ashamed that they didn’t understand it well enough?  It wasn’t enough to be a Christian; you had to be the right kind of Christian, too.  It was about looking good and getting one up on everyone else.  Which, as you can imagine, was not conducive to actually following Christ or building a Christian community.  But it should look familiar to us, because Christians today do the same thing.  Except worse, because while the Corinthian Christians were at least dividing up by following church leaders, modern American Christians divide ourselves up by secular political parties and economic ideologies and social mores, and then use them as litmus tests for Christian faithfulness.

And so Paul called for unity.  Paul called his people to set aside their petty quarrels, their snobbery, and unite around the cross of Christ as one community, the people of God together with one purpose.  It’s especially appropriate to read now, during the week of prayer for Christian Unity.  Because the Christian life isn’t about being holier-than-thou, and it isn’t about social status, and it isn’t about power or honor or fitting in with the larger culture or tearing others down so we can look better.  The Christian life is about following Jesus.  The Christian life is about being the body of Christ together.  The Christian life is about the cross.

Paul said that the cross looks like foolishness to the world, and he was right.  Our Lord could have had all the political and social power he wanted.  He could have snapped his fingers and had the world eating out of his hand with the right combination of miracles and telling people what they wanted to hear.  Instead, he told the truth and was killed for it.  And the truth is that humans are broken, sinful creatures, beloved by God but still bound and determined to screw up.  The truth is that even the best human society is marred by sin and death.  The truth is that we try to do our best and still end up creating unjust societies where God’s will is not done.  The truth is that no matter how shiny things look on the outside—no matter how beautiful our buildings, how powerful our nations, how rich or honored or good-looking we are—there is darkness and decay just underneath the surface.  We cannot save ourselves.  We cannot drive out the darkness ourselves.  We cannot build good and just societies ourselves, and the more we get caught up in trying, the less we can see the rot for what it is.  There is only one way to break the cycle of sin and death, only one way to build communities that are truly just and merciful and full of God’s grace and love, and that way is through the cross of Christ.

In the cross of Christ, we are forgiven for all the things we have done and the things we have failed to do.  We are forgiven for the ways we have hurt ourselves and others, we are forgiven for the ways we have made the world a darker, colder, crueler place, or looked the other way as others have done so.  And in the cross of Christ, we are made free from our sins to be the people God created us to be, and create the communities that God calls us to create.  In the cross of Christ, we are set free to love God and to love our neighbor.  God’s will does not happen through our own efforts, but through God’s work in us and around us.  We don’t save the world—we can’t.  Only God can do that, though he may use our hands to do it.

In a truly Christian community, there is unity.  Now, some people misunderstand what that means.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that there will never be disagreements.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that all of us have to have the same political opinions, or the same social beliefs, or the same ways of living.  Christian unity doesn’t mean that we have to move in lockstep, or suppress parts of ourselves to fit in, or always see eye to eye.  In fact, later in his letter to the Corinthians Paul would go on to say that diversity and difference within the community were crucial to the community’s well-being.  We are the body of Christ, and being a body means that each of us has a different part to play, and we can’t do that if we are all the same and think the same and act the same.

What Christian unity means is that we need to re-organize our priorities.  The cross of Christ is the most fundamental part of what it means to be Christian, and it is the cross of Christ which has saved us and called us together to become Christ’s body in the world.  All the rest—politics, social values, family values, lifestyle, economics, patriotism, social position, literally everything else we think is important—all of that comes second to the cross of Christ.  The cross is who we are.  The cross is what brings us together and teaches us to see the truth.  That is where Christian unity comes from.  Christian unity means that as Christians, our highest priority is to follow the cross of Christ.  Everything else—politics, family, social issues, economics, patriotism, ideology—everything else comes in second.  Because none of those things can save us; none of those things can save the world from the mess we have made of it.  There is only one savior, and that is Jesus Christ.  There is only one who was crucified for us, and that is our Lord and Savior in whose name we were baptized.  There is only one light, and that light is the life of the world.  In him we live, and move, and have our being.  In him is the power of God to transform us and the world.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Where’s Jesus?

Seventh Sunday of Easter & Ascension, (Year A), June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6-14, Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35, 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

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.

Have you ever listened to the Creed that we say each week and thought, “Huh. Jesus ‘ascended into Heaven’? What’s that?” The other events the Creed mentions are all really big ones: Jesus’ birth, his suffering under Pontius Pilate, his crucifixion and burial, his resurrection, and the fact that he will come again. We talk about them all the time. But Jesus’ ascension into Heaven doesn’t. Here’s the short version: to “ascend” means to “go up.” As we heard in today’s first lesson from Acts, forty days after he was raised from the dead, Jesus went to heaven. Now, one would think that was the end of the Jesus story, at least until he comes again. Born, taught, died, raised, taught a little more, went back to heaven where, as the Creed says, he is with the father. Jesus isn’t on Earth, so that should be the end of things, right? But you’ll notice that here we are, in chapter one of Acts. The beginning of the book! And Jesus is present throughout the rest of the book, appearing or being mentioned more than a hundred times. Jesus wasn’t physically present with the disciples anymore. They couldn’t touch his hands and side. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t there.

Here are some of the ways Jesus was present. Most obviously, several times people had dreams and visions of Jesus at various points throughout the book of Acts. Paul’s dramatic conversion when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and turned him from a persecutor to a believer is described in Acts, for example. Then there are all the times people preach about Jesus, his life and death, and his ministry. There’s a lot of preaching in Acts, and all of it centered around Jesus’ words and actions. But most often, we know Jesus was present because the community saw him. They knew that even if Jesus wasn’t physically sitting next to them, Jesus was with them, guiding them and helping them along their path, through awesome highs and terrible lows, as they struggled with what it all meant, what impact Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had on their lives.

And it was a struggle. Our text sums up what happens next in just two verses: All the disciples were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, along with others including many women. If you read through the book of Acts, though, it doesn’t take long to learn that things weren’t always so nice and simple as that makes it sound. There were disagreements and fights—huge ones! Disagreements over just about everything. Money, food, worship, how to deal with outsiders, how to reach out to the community, how best to teach new believers about Jesus, which rules were important to keep exactly as-is and which ones should bend to changing circumstances, how to react in times of trouble and persecution, who should be leaders in the Christian community and what to do when some clique holds all the power in the congregation. It’s easy to read and focus on the miracles, the crowds—thousands of converts at a time, wow! Wish we could do that, fill every pew! But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that it didn’t always come easily.

Jesus was there, with them, throughout it. The reason he gets mentioned so many times is because Jesus was at the very center of their life together as a community of faith, and they never forgot it. Whenever there was a conflict, no matter how huge or how trivial, they always stepped back and asked where Jesus was in the issue. Which course of action, which idea, showed Christ to the world most clearly? Jesus said that his followers were one and united, but that didn’t mean that they always agreed on everything; it didn’t mean that they were always in perfect lockstep. What it meant was that they were one in mission, in their goals. They shared the same ultimate vision of what the world and the community should look like. The community should always, always be focused on Jesus and the love he showed to the world. If a beloved tradition and way of living got in the way of showing Christ to their neighbors, it should be discarded or modified. If sharing Christ’s love meant welcoming people they didn’t like, people who weren’t like them—and not just welcoming them, but giving them a place at the table and a true voice in the discussion—then they would do it, no matter how uncomfortable it made them at first. If sharing Christ’s love meant putting their own life on the line, they did it. If sharing Christ’s love meant some people in their community turned their back on them, they didn’t let that turn them away from the path. It was not easy, and it was not smooth. But they did it.

Being a follower in the Way of Jesus Christ meant letting Christ be in the center of everything. We tend to put our own desires first, as if we don’t trust God to know what’s best for us. I know too many Christians who only ask what God might want if they’re pretty sure he would agree with what they want—God’s will is good for justifying their own will, and not much else. Or, worse, have you ever noticed that sometimes people assume that God wants the same things they do? The reasoning goes like this: “I’m a good Christian, therefore God must want the same things I do, and want me to live the way I do, and anyone who’s different from me must not be a Christian.” It’s a comfortable system. You never have to ask the hard questions; you never have to take the risk of God leading you in a direction you wouldn’t choose to go yourself. You never have to truly give your life over to Christ, because you can tell yourself that you already have. It’s easy. Daring to truly ask the question, “What does Jesus want me to be and do? How can I show Jesus’ love to the world?” takes courage. It takes a willingness to be open to change. It takes a willingness to let go and let God take the reins.

So how did the early church do this? How is it that they were able to see and follow Jesus even though he was no longer physically present with them? Remember, our reading from Acts tells the story of Jesus leaving this world and going to be with the Father in heaven. Two things: Jesus sent them the Holy Spirit. He promised he would several times before he left. He would no longer be physically present, but God’s Spirit would still be with his people. We will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit next week at Pentecost.

Second, they were listening. When the Holy Spirit moved them, when Jesus sent dreams and visions, when God was working in their lives, they paid attention. They prayed all the time. About everything. As Acts says, “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.” They were asking God what God wanted them to do. And when they got an answer, they did it, even if it wasn’t the answer they were expecting or hoping for. Prayer was not just a two-minute rote thing tacked on to the beginning and end of their day. It was a conversation which lifted up their needs and hopes and fears, and asked for guidance. They prayed about everything, even when they thought they already knew what God wanted—and they found out that sometimes, their ideas had been wrong!

This was not a smooth process. They did not always agree with one another. They sometimes hurt one another. There were factions and cliques, and different groups interpreted Jesus’ teachings in different ways. The unity that Jesus had prayed for, the unity that Jesus had given them, didn’t mean there was no disagreement. Being one in Christ Jesus meant that they would respect one another even when they disagreed. Being one in Christ meant that they would do the hard work necessary to reconcile their differences, to forgive one another for hurts and injuries, to come together and love one another even when love was the last thing they wanted to do.

And you know what? People saw that. People saw that they were living a better way. People saw the love of God poured out in and through them. People saw that they weren’t just talking the talk, they were walking the walk. People saw Jesus through their words and actions. The early Christians were great at sending people out to talk about Jesus, and bring people to the faith that way. But they were also great about showing people what Jesus was like in their actions, the way they treated one another, the way they treated others outside their group. Being a witness for Christ wasn’t just something they did once in a while: their whole life was a witness for Christ, a witness to each other and to the world. They loved God, and they loved one another, and they loved the world as Jesus had taught them to do. In good times and bad, in harmony and conflict, in times of change and times of hope and times of fear and doubt, they followed Jesus’ example and showed him to the world in their love. May we, too, be such witnesses for Christ.

Putting On Christ

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 12), Year C, June 23, 2013

Isaiah 65:1-9, Psalm 22:19-28, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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

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

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

For the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Galatians.  Next week, we’re going to take a break for Augustana’s 100th anniversary before finishing up this sermon series.  To recap what’s happened so far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians: The Galatians had started to value human traditions as the way to prove themselves followers of God, and Paul tries to set them straight.  He reminds them that no human tradition, no matter how good, can take the place of the Good News of God in Christ Jesus.  No amount of following the rules and toeing the line will save us; only Christ can save us through his life, death, and resurrection.  Paul reminds us that the true Gospel, the Good News that Jesus came to give us, can change our lives as it changed his; the Good News that Christ called Paul to preach is the same Good News that we hear today.  Even in the midst of a world that is broken by sin and death, Christ is with us.  The faithfulness of Christ transforms us, gives us hope in the midst of all our brokenness, gives us faith in God and in one another.

Paul expands on that idea in today’s reading.  First he goes back to the law.  Now, when Paul talks about the law, he’s not just talking about the rules and regulations the government sets up to manage everything from traffic lights to taxes to elementary education to international treaties.  Paul is talking about religious laws—or, perhaps teachings would be a better translation—that govern everyday life.  He’s talking about everything from the Ten Commandments on down, all the things that faithful followers of God are supposed to do.  That’s the law he’s talking about, the law that he says imprisoned us and was our disciplinarian until faith came.

Disciplinarian, imprisoned—those aren’t very nice terms.  But the Law that Paul was talking about, that was part of ordinary religious observance!  We still teach and hold up some of those laws today as good and beneficial.  I just got through teaching the 7th Grade Confirmation students about the Ten Commandments, which is the cornerstone on which the rest of the Law is built.  I think we can all agree that following the Ten Commandments and other such religious teachings is a good thing.  I wouldn’t want to live in a society that didn’t have such a moral code.  So why is Paul so hard on the Law?  Why doesn’t he seem to like it?

I think an analogy with secular law is in order here.  You see, the legal system can’t make anyone good.  All it can do is punish you for being bad.  If you step out of line, you are punished.  And fear of punishment may stop people from doing evil or immoral things, but it won’t make them a good person.  I mean, it’s good to be a law-abiding citizen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good person.  All it means is that you’re not a criminal.  There are a lot of people out there who have never broken a law in their lives who are still thoroughly nasty people and miserable excuses for human beings.  I could name some, and I bet you could too.  And while the law tries to promote good behavior, all the incentives in the world can’t change a person’s nature.  You can donate to charity in order to get the tax write-off, and it still won’t make you a generous person, if all you’re doing is the minimum needed to reduce your tax obligations.  Don’t get me wrong, having laws is a good thing.  Restraining evil is a good thing.  Working together for the common good in the form of roads and schools and other necessities is a good thing.  But it can’t save anyone, and it can’t make people better.  And, sometimes, bad laws get made, laws that hurt people; sometimes good laws get interpreted in bad ways, to hurt people.

Religious law is the same way.  It can restrain evil, and it can regulate our life together for the common good.  But following all the traditions and teachings and rules can’t heal anyone’s brokenness or save anyone’s soul.  It can’t transform us; it can’t make us children of God; it can’t make us brothers and sisters in Christ.  And when we start focusing too much on our laws, when we make our traditions the arbiter and central point of our Christian faith, it’s all too easy to forget about the one thing that really can save and transform us: Jesus Christ.  It’s easy to get so focused on what we’re doing, that we can’t see what God has done and is doing for us.  And from there it’s a short step to interpreting God’s law through our own prejudices.  That was the Galatians’ problem: it wasn’t that the laws they were following were bad in themselves, but they were starting to put more trust in those laws than in Christ.

When we were baptized, we became children of God.  When we were baptized, we became united with Christ’s death and resurrection.  When we were baptized, we were washed clean.  When we were baptized, we were transformed.  That’s the core of the Gospel; that’s the core of what it means to be a Christian.  All the laws and traditions in the history of the world are less important than that simple fact.  Laws and traditions can’t save us; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t transform us into children of God; Christ can.  Laws and traditions can’t heal our brokenness; Christ can.

We have put on Christ.  We still live in a world broken by sin and death.  We ourselves are broken by sin and death, and will be until Christ comes again.  That brokenness divides us, separates us from one another and from God.  And yet we are clothed in Christ’s love, forgiveness, and righteousness.  And that makes a difference.  We are called to see the world through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to see one another through Christ’s eyes.  We are called to act out of love, not out of fear of punishment. We live in a world that is and always has been fragmented by tribe and race and creed and gender and class and sexuality and age and politics and a thousand other things.  We live in a world where people pay attention to the letter of the law, and not the spirit of it.  And we often fall short of our calling and fall prey to those divisions and temptations.

In Paul’s day, the most fundamental divisions were cultural divisions between Jews and Greeks, economic and class differences between slaves and free people, and gender divisions between men and women.  Those divisions were codified and reinforced by secular laws and customs, and also by the way religious laws and customs were interpreted.  And those divisions were getting in the way of spreading the Gospel, because people were paying more attention to those divisions, to the rules that kept people separate, than they were to the Good News that frees us and unites us all as children of God.  But as Paul said, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  In other words, Christ brings all people together—and our baptism in Christ is more important than anything that separates us, more important than any tradition or rule that holds us apart.

It’s easy to be blinded by all of society’s rules and prejudices.  It’s easy to use those rules as the basis for our actions, rather than our faith in Christ.  And it’s easy to let our understanding of God’s law be twisted and shaped by our prejudices and divisions, rather than by the light of Christ.  But the truth is, what we share in Christ is more important than any human division could ever be.  When you look at another human being, you see someone for whom Christ died.  Even if it’s someone you don’t like; even if it’s someone you think you have nothing in common with.  Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is the basis of our relationship with God, and it is the basis of our relationships with all people.

Through our baptisms we have been saved, redeemed, made children of God and united in Christ.  That is who we are.  That is more important than any human division.  That is more important than any rule or tradition.  It is Christ who saves us, all of us, no matter who we are or what we look like or where we come from or what group we belong to.  It is Christ, not our ability to follow the laws, not our traditions, not our ability to interpret the teachings.  It is Christ who makes us children of God, who forgives us and saves us no matter how many times we fall short of God’s glory.  That is the Good News, and it is Good News for all people.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

In Unity and Love

The Seventh Sunday After Easter, Year C, May 12, 2013

Acts 16:16-34, Psalm 97, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, John 17:20-26

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

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

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

As Christians, we pray for people a lot.  Sometimes we pray alone, sometimes together.  Sometimes we pray for ourselves, and sometimes for others.  It’s quite a feeling, to know you are being prayed for.  It can give comfort; it can bring humbleness, it can bring inspiration.  I find it particularly moving when I am present and can hear the prayer.  Have you ever held someone’s hand while they’re praying for you and had a chill go up your spine?  I have.  Have you ever listened to someone praying and felt something you can’t describe, that seems to fill the room?

In today’s Gospel lesson, we overhear Jesus praying for us.  Unlike many other times we hear Jesus speaking, he isn’t speaking to us, he’s speaking to his Father.  He’s not telling us a parable, he’s not teaching, he’s not exhorting his followers or telling them how to live their lives.  He’s praying.  Just as we pray for one another, Jesus prays for us.  We are hearing his prayer through the ears of the disciples, who were with him at the time.  Jesus was praying for them, and for all those who would come to follow him.  He was asking the Father to give us the unity and love which only comes through God.

Now, the disciples weren’t a very unified, loving bunch.  Peter was pretty volatile, and always leapt before he looked.  He could be very right, but he could also be very wrong, and he was never quiet about it.  Judas was there at this meeting, and hadn’t yet betrayed Jesus, but it wouldn’t be long before he did.  James and John, the sons of Zebedee, jockeyed for position and power and prestige.  Sound familiar?  Like any group, the disciples had conflicts and divisions within their group, and sometimes they focused on squabbling rather than following Jesus and learning from him.

Christians today are, if anything, even more divided than the first disciples were.  Division and strife seem to be part of human nature, and these days we revel in it.  Our culture is ever more fragmented, and it seems like everything is devolving into an us-vs.-them mentality.  Too many people believe that anyone who disagrees with them is not only wrong, but stupid and quite possibly evil.  You can see it most clearly in political rhetoric, but it’s everywhere.  Christians are not immune to this tendency, and never have been.  There is a tendency among Christians to schism—to break apart into separate groups whenever there is a disagreement.  Sometimes those disagreements are truly important, but at other times they are small and trivial.  The Russian Orthodox Church once split over whether one should make the sign of the cross with two fingers or three; a Lutheran denomination in the 1870s split over whether slavery should be categorized as a sin or as an evil.

Churches have split over what time worship should be at, what language worship should be in, what type of music should be used in worship, how people should dress, as well as deeper theological issues.  And even theological issues that can seem huge and enormous at the time can look trivial in hindsight.  But no matter how small or large these issues are, they divide us and we turn against one another.  It’s so common for Christian groups to say that other Christian groups don’t follow the Bible, just because they disagree on how to interpret the Bible.  The Word of God, which should bring us together, becomes just another bone of contention.  We call for Christian unity, but all too often what we mean is that everyone else should become exactly like us.

And yet, Jesus didn’t pray that we would always be right.  Jesus didn’t pray that everyone would all interpret his words the exact same way.  Jesus didn’t pray that we’d always figure out what things are important and focus on the big things instead of the trivial.  Jesus didn’t pray that we would all become superheroic Christians, capable of single-handedly converting thousands.  He prayed that we would experience the kind of unity that the Father and the Son and the Spirit have, a unity based on love.  It’s a unity that we can’t quite grasp or understand, but which God models for us every day.

You see, there is only one God—but in that one God are three people.  The Father is not the Son, and neither the Father nor the Son are the Spirit.  All three are different, but all three are God together.  Each has their own role to play in the divine relationship: creator, redeemer, sanctifier.  Yet despite their different roles, their different personalities, they are always together as one.  Their unity doesn’t mean they work the same way; it doesn’t mean they are identical.  It means they love one another, and work together.  The trinity—the triune God—is a relationship of joy and love.  Sometimes it’s been described as a dance, or like a choir singing together.  It’s a dance that is only complete when all three partners are there and active together.  And a choir can’t have only one person; choirs are about different melodies and harmonies coming together to make music.  It’s not about being completely the same; it’s about enjoying being together, doing something wonderful that no one could do by themselves.  That’s the kind of relationship that Jesus prayed we might have.

A lot of things divide Christians today.  Sexuality, the role of women, immigration, the environment, politics, economics, and, at the root of it all, the question of how to interpret the Bible.  We sometimes think of our relationships with a combat mentality—us vs. them.  How often do we think of our fellow Christians as partners in a dance?  Or fellow members of the choir of all creation who have been called together to praise God?  For that matter, how often do we think of coming together as Christians to worship and pray and hear God’s Word as something we want to do, rather than something we have to do?  How often do we focus on the God who created us, who redeemed us from our sin, dwells within us every day, and calls us to be one?  How often do we focus on our love for one another, instead of our disagreements?  How often do we pray for one another to grow in love and faith?

Jesus prays that we will know the kind of unity that the Father and Son and Spirit have together.  He asks this so that we may show the world what God’s love is like, but he also wants us to experience that unity so that we may know the glory of God.  Now, “glory,” that’s a word we don’t use very often.  The word in Greek can mean power, or majesty, or grandeur, and usually those words are all how we think of the glory of God.  But “glory” can also mean light.  It can mean brightness or radiance.  And, in the Bible, it means the presence of God.  That’s what Jesus is praying for: that we will experience the love and the presence of God through our fellow Christians.  Jesus is praying that we will know the kind of love and joy in one another that the three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—have in each other.  It’s not a unity that depends on everyone thinking and acting the same.  Instead, the unity of God is based on mutual love and respect.  What would Christianity—the whole body of Christ—look like if we always treated one another with mutual love and respect?  What would the body of Christ look like if we always remembered that whatever our differences, we are all children of the same God, saved by the same Lord?

Let us pray.  O Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living Father, crucified for us and resurrected, who prayed on earth for us and prays even now to the eternal Father, saying, ‘Father, sanctify them in truth; cause them all to be one, as you and I are one in love.’ O Christ, we beg you to assist us with this prayer. Gather us together and keep us in your church. Shield us according to your loving-kindness. Amen.

Amen.

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.

The Gifts of the Spirit

2nd Sunday After Epiphany, Year C, Sunday, January 21st, 2013

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

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.

The Christians in Corinth had a problem.  Well, actually, they had lots of problems.  All the time.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, to misinterpret its meaning for the life of the community and the individual, Corinth found it.  Consistently.  Repeatedly.  Corinth was Paul’s problem child, always trying and failing, consistently missing the point.  Paul’s pattern was to found a church and then move on, keeping in touch with his congregations through letters, some of which now make up part of the New Testament.  We know Paul wrote at least four letters to Corinth, though our Bibles contain only two.  Four letters.  To the best of our knowledge, that’s more letters than he wrote to any other congregation.  And these weren’t short letters, either.  No, each letter had many, many issues to deal with as Paul tried to keep the Corinthians on track.

There were divisions in the church in Corinth, caused by theology and gender and money and sex and eating habits and anything else you can think of.  They cheated and sued one another at the drop of a hat.  From what we can tell, they used the Gospel as an excuse for doing anything they wanted, no matter how destructive of themselves or others.  They doubted the resurrection.  They held grudges.  They boasted in their own wisdom.  They gave lip-service to God without following through.  Their divisions and rivalries twisted their worship of God into a way for the powerful to have fun and exclude the powerless.

Paul addressed all these issues, and more.  But while Paul sometimes gave practical advice of what to do and what not to do, what actions should and shouldn’t be taken, Paul realized that there was a deeper spiritual dimension to the Corinthians’ problems.  They acted as they did because, on a fundamental level, they didn’t get what the grace of God given to them in Christ Jesus meant.  They didn’t understand what was important about the gifts the Holy Spirit had given to them.

1 Corinthians chapter twelve starts off Paul’s explanation of the deeper things they’re missing.  Chapter eleven ends with instructions on how to celebrate Communion the right way, with love and unity for the whole congregation.  In chapter twelve, Paul starts talking more generally, about gifts the Spirit gives; in the second half of the chapter Paul will speak about how even with our different gifts we are all members of the body of Christ together.  Chapter 13 is the climax of this section of the letter, the great love passage that we hear so often at weddings, in which Paul overflows with emotion in describing what love—the kind of love that will allow them to overcome their differences—truly is.  Only the love of God and one another that will allow them to make right use of the gifts of the Spirit.  Only the love of God and one another brings any meaning to their existence.

With that in mind, let’s turn to the section we read today.  It’s about gifts, and unity.  First off, Paul assures us that there is a clear way to tell if people are working with the Holy Spirit.  The only way anyone can say that Jesus is Lord is through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Faith is a gift of the Spirit, in the midst of doubts and divisions.  You can’t reason your way to a belief in Christ.  And no matter how much you disagree with someone, if they believe that Jesus Christ is Lord, God is working within them.  In other words, no matter if you disagree with them—even if they’re wrong on major issues like the ones that divided the church in Corinth—you can’t exclude them or ignore them.  You can’t just wrap yourself in a comforting certainty that you’re right and they’re wrong so you can ignore or attack them.

I know there have been times when I have listened to a Christian I didn’t agree with and wanted to completely shut them up so no one could be led astray by how wrong they are.  And they may have been wrong—but they still had the Holy Spirit in them.  You can’t say: “I like that person, and I like how they think and what they do, so they must be real Christians working with the Spirit.  But that person over there, I really think he’s a jerk and he’s wrong about everything and so therefore he must not really be a Christian.”  No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  And if they have the Holy Spirit, they are members of the body of Christ and of the community.  They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.  We may not like them, but we do have to love them, and treat them always as the children of God they are.

Next, Paul turns to the gifts given by the Spirit.  And they’re all different!  Nobody gets exactly the same gift as anybody else, but they’re all important.  Paul only describes general categories; the Spirits gifts are far more wide-ranging than the few examples that Paul gives.  The ability to preach is a gift of the Spirit; so is the ability to teach.  Healing, faith, wisdom and knowledge, all of these and more are gifts of the Spirit.  In some people they’re easy to spot: the people who lead worship, who teach Sunday School and lead the women’s group and the youth group, it’s easy to see and value the gifts the Spirit has given them.  But those aren’t the only gifts in the congregation, and the ones who are already in leadership aren’t the only ones with the gifts of the Spirit.

Every single person here today has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit.  Every single person here, no exceptions.  If you believe that Jesus is Lord, the Holy Spirit dwells within you, and the Spirit never comes empty-handed.  But here in American churches, we don’t tend to be very good at identifying the gifts the Spirit gives.  We think as if the pastors, the teachers, the leaders are the only people who have gifts.  Often times, we don’t even look to see what gifts are in our congregation and our community, or in ourselves.  If there’s a hole that needs to be filled, a job that needs to be done, we take any warm body we can guilt into filling it and shove them into it.  Instead of trusting that the Spirit will give the gifts needed for ministry, we focus on plugging holes.

Sometimes we acknowledge the gifts, but don’t use them.  We think we’re too busy.  We fill our lives with all kinds of activities and entertainment, and use that as an excuse to ignore the gifts God has given us.  Now, these things we choose to focus on, our activities and our entertainments, aren’t bad in and of themselves.  Many times they are a blessing for us.  But they become harmful if we treat them as if they’re more important than our calling as Christians.  They can be corrosive to ourselves and our community if we let them draw us away from God.  We are not given gifts to let them sit on the shelf.  We are given gifts so that we can use them.

One last thing.  These gifts the Spirit gives are not primarily for the blessing of any one individual.  Paul says that the Spirit is given to each for the common good.  Everyone comes to the table with different gifts in different strengths—no one person can do it all, and no one person should do it all.  Each and every person has something to contribute, something that God is calling them to do in our life and ministry together.  We minister to one another for the sake of the Gospel, not for the glorification of any individual.

It’s almost time for the annual meeting.  As we look back on the year that has just passed, and look towards the year to come, ask yourself what gifts God has given you for ministry.  How can you share those gifts with the congregation and the community?  May we be inspired to share our gifts, this year and always, so that together we can be the Body of Christ in the world, full of love for God and each other.

Amen.

On true love

Pentecost 12 (Year A), Sunday, September 4, 2011

Ezekiel 33:7-11, Psalm 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, 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.

As some of you know, I have two younger brothers.  The youngest is sixteen years younger than I am: we didn’t really grow up together.  But the middle brother, Nels, is only four and a half years younger than me.  In general, Nels and I had a very good relationship growing up … except for Saturdays.  Saturdays, we didn’t get along.  You see, our parents own their own business.  When we were growing up they worked almost every Saturday during their busy season.  Nels and I would be at home alone together, and since I was the elder, I was in charge.  There were two things we had to do every Saturday: we had to eat a good lunch—not just snacks, but a nutritious meal—and we had to clean the bathrooms.  Dividing the labor was where the trouble began.

The first part was easy.  Cleaning toilets kind of grossed me out, but they didn’t bother Nels.  And Nels could never quite get the mirrors spotless enough to pass Mom’s inspection.  So Nels did the toilets, and I did the countertops, sinks, and mirrors.  So far, so good.  The conflict arose when we got to the bathtubs.  You see, one of the bathtubs was easy to clean.  The other was not.  The other bathtub was stained, and showed dirt and grime, and required a lot of scrubbing to get it acceptably clean.  So that was the battle each week: who would clean which tub?

Being the one left in charge, I was the one who got to decide.  My decree was that the fairest way to do it would be that the one who finished cleaning their assigned part of the bathrooms first got to choose.  It was a fairly safe decision for me, given the differences in how Nels and I approach tasks.  When I start, I tend to work hard and constantly until I’m done, so that I can get on to doing something else.  Nels, on the other hand, is more of a daydreamer.  He worked slowly, with frequent breaks.  Despite the fact that I had more surface to clean, I don’t think Nels ever finished cleaning the toilets before I was done with the counters, sinks and mirrors.  Which meant that I always got to choose, and of course I always chose the easier tub to clean.  You can see how I thought that division of labor was perfectly fair.  After all, I was the harder worker, surely that deserved a reward.  But you can also see why Nels did not agree.

And it didn’t stop there.  We had a deal that we would trade off making lunch every week, but I’m not that fond of cooking.  So I would sometimes try and get Nels to do it, even if it was really my turn.  After spending quite a long time cleaning—remember that Nels was not a fast worker—and having to clean the harder tub, Nels would come out into the living room only to be confronted with his older sister asking him: “Isn’t it your turn to make lunch?”  I’m sure you can imagine the squabbles and hurt feelings between us.  Many Saturdays followed that pattern.  We got along fairly well the rest of the time, but on Saturdays, we fell back into the same unhealthy pattern.  We never tried to fix it, do things differently, to find a way to work together in love.  We just did the same old thing, and fought the same battle over and over again.

I think both Paul and Jesus would have a lot to say about that.  In our reading from Romans today, Paul writes: “The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  The commandments our parents gave us for Saturday mornings were given in love.  We were commanded to eat nutritious meals so that we would grow up healthy and strong.  We were commanded to clean the bathrooms so that we would learn responsibility and so that the whole family would have a clean place to live.  Both commandments were given for our good, and for the good of the whole family.  But we did not follow them in love, and so they only caused turmoil and arguments.  And because the guidelines I developed to tell us how to follow those commandments were based on my own selfish desires rather than love of my brother, they caused trouble and pain.

Have you ever had a similar time in your own life?  A time when commandments and rules that were designed for good were used instead to hurt?  It’s something I’ve noticed humans are particularly prone to.  God’s commandments were given in love.  They are designed to help us live good and faithful lives, abundant lives rich in grace and mercy.  Instead, through our own sinfulness, we make them into burdens.  Instead of helping us to love God and one another, we interpret the laws so that they work to our own advantage, even at the expense of our neighbor.  We use laws and rules as weapons.  We use them to separate ourselves, keep ourselves apart, rather than as ways to help us live together in love and harmony.  We keep the letter of the law and ignore the spirit.  We let division and selfishness rule instead of love.

Love is not always easy.  There’s this idea, in America, that love should be effortless, and if there’s a struggle, that it’s not really love.  I think that’s one reason there are so many divorces, these days.  Couples start out in harmony, but the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.  Eventually there comes a time when things get hard, when they disagree.  Some of them decide that since it isn’t easy—since it requires work to get through whatever the trouble is—that it means they’re not really in love any more.  People do the same with friends.  There’s a disagreement, a problem of some kind.  Someone’s feelings get hurt.  And instead of working through it, the friendship is abandoned.  There’s a saying that love means never having to say you’re sorry.  I think that’s wrong, because even when we love people, we sometimes hurt them through selfishness or carelessness or honest disagreement.  I think that love truly means being willing to admit when you’re wrong, to apologize, and work together to rebuild your relationship.  And love means being willing to forgive even when you’ve been hurt.

We as Christians should know this well.  God loves us so much that he is willing to forgive us no matter how we hurt him.  As Paul said earlier in Romans chapter 5, “ God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  God loves us even when we sin, so much that he gave his only son to die for us, to save us and make us whole.  In return, God asks only that we love one another as God has loved us.  Because as Paul says, all the commandments can be summed up with one word: love.  Even when we hurt one another, even when we go astray, we are still God’s beloved children, brothers and sisters in Christ and members of Christ’s body.

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus gives instructions for times when our love for one another has fallen short.  Matthew 18 has a practical step-by-step guide on how to resolve disagreements.  First, go to the person who hurt you, or who has a disagreement with you, and trying to resolve the trouble privately.  Don’t complain to your spouse, your sibling, your parents, your children, your neighbor, your best friend, the church secretary, or the pastor.  If you have a problem with someone, Jesus says, you should talk to them about it directly and see if that solves the problem.  How often do we do that?  Too often, we vent at someone else about our problems and so make the whole thing harder to resolve.  By going to others instead of the one we’re mad at, we start to form factions and further divide the body of Christ which is the church.  We may feel better, more in the right, but that self-righteousness comes at a price.  Nothing is resolved, and the same pattern plays out on a larger scale.  The love that should bring us together is sacrificed on the altar of our resentment.  We repeat our mistakes, we make the hurt grow bigger.  We fail to love one another as God loves us.

If one-on-one discussion of the trouble doesn’t work, Jesus says, bring in two or three witnesses.  Now, he doesn’t mean gang up on someone.  These witnesses should be impartial people to help mediate and settle things and provide an unbiased account.  Only if that doesn’t work should the matter made public.  And it shouldn’t be made public through rumors, innuendo, or gossip.  Instead, there is open communication so that everyone knows the full story and the community of faith can judge rightly.  You see, each of these steps is designed to be fair, so that the truth may be spoken and relationships may be mended.  These steps are designed to help us work through our disputes so that a loving relationship may be restored.  It’s not an easy process, nor is it one that comes naturally to most people.  But if used with love and compassion it is the best way that broken relationships can be made whole.

The problem, of course, is the same one Nels and I had on Saturday mornings.  The command is given in love and designed for our good and wholeness, but we take it and use it in such a way that it brings dissent, instead of love.  We get so focused on what we want, on how we can get our own way, that we don’t even see how we hurt one another.  We use the rules God gives to break people down, instead of build them up in love.  We live by our own way, instead of God’s love.

“The commandments … are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”  Sometimes, that kind of love is harder to fulfill than any rule or regulation could be.  All too often, we fall short, and fulfill the letter of the law by breaking its spirit.  All too often, we act out of selfishness or anger instead of love.  Thank God, that Jesus loves us, and forgives us no matter how often we go astray and completely miss the point.  May the love of Christ dwell within us, that we may learn to show that love to one another.

Amen.