What’s Your Call Story?

Third Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 26, 2020

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

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

When you get a group of seminary students together for the first time, one of the first questions is always “describe your call story.”  At official events, it’s an icebreaker question designed to help people get to know one another.  At unofficial events, people ask one another: Where were you when you felt God calling you to ministry?  What was it like?  My call story is that I felt like God was nudging me towards ministry from the time I was in middle school—a nudge that I resisted because I didn’t want to be a pastor at the time.  One of my classmates felt the call when he heard a particular sermon—and he wasn’t even a Christian at the time, just tagging along to church with his girlfriend.  Another felt the call while she was scrubbing toilets.  Sometimes the call came from the outside—family, friends, teachers, and pastors, who saw the gifts of ministry in that person, and told them they ought to consider being a pastor or deacon.  Sometimes the call came from the inside—an internal sense (sometimes vague, sometimes pointed, sometimes even in the form of audible words) that God wanted them to become a pastor or deacon.  Some calls happened in appropriately churchy and reverent circumstances.  Some calls happened in really weird or irreverent circumstances.  Sometimes people take the call right away.  Sometimes people run as far away as they can for as long as they can.  There are as many call stories as there are people called.  So the call story in our Gospel lesson—Jesus saying “hey, come with me and let’s fish for people”—is not even CLOSE to the weirdest or most far-out call story I’ve heard.

Of course, part of the reason that seminary students are obsessed with call stories is that we kind of have to be.  In order to get into seminary as a Lutheran you have to share your call story with your pastor, your bishop, and a committee of pastors and lay people from your synod, and convince them that God is calling you to ministry while they examine your history, your relationship with God, your mental health, your debt load, and many other factors.  And most other Christian denominations that require seminary training have similar processes.  In the ELCA, during this entrance into candidacy for ministry, you have to write a six-page paper about how and why you feel God is calling you and what is the core of your personal relationship with God.

Now, I’ve written many long papers in my life.  I was a history major and English minor in college.  My senior thesis was 25 pages long, and while it took a while to get done, I didn’t find it especially challenging.  Give me a topic I care about and I can give you six pages in a couple hours, no sweat.  But that six-page paper about my own experiences was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write in my life.  It was so frustrating.  It had me in tears.  I could have written an abstract theological treatise, no sweat.  My own personal relationship with God?  Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.  I felt naked, vulnerable, like I was exposing something deeply private.  My parents were not very comforting, pointing out that if I was going to be a pastor I was going to have to talk about Jesus in concrete and personal ways, and so I might as well start now.

But the question is, why did I feel that way?  What made it so hard for me?  Part of that comes from growing up in a church where there was a lot of deep theological discussion, but nothing was ever put in personal terms.  Nobody ever said they saw God in something, or talked about how a piece of scripture impacted them on a personal level, or anything like that.  On the extremely rare occasions someone stood up to give a temple talk, it was usually a lecture on why you should give the church money or something like that, nothing like a personal testimonial.  There were edifying stories in the sermons, but those were about people I didn’t know, and usually fictional anyway.  I was very well equipped by this upbringing to expound upon Lutheran theology and Biblical interpretation at the drop of a hat.  I was completely unprepared to talk about—or even think about—what any of it meant for me, personally, or any community I was a part of.  I was really good at explaining how one should feel or think about any particular Bible passage.  But I was almost incapable of making the connection between theory and reality.  And, unfortunately, this is not unusual in modern American Lutheranism.  We don’t want to offend anyone, and we don’t want to sound like some of the more conservative churches we have theological disagreements with, and we don’t want to scare off any lay people by asking them to do something they might find too scary like speaking in public, and we want to make sure that everything said in worship or at a church event is theologically sound, and so despite our talk of a priesthood of all believers, the average Lutheran just doesn’t get the kind of support and help to be able to talk about the place of God in their life.

This is a problem for many, many reasons, but I’m going to focus on vocation today.  Vocation, from the Latin word for “calling.”  In the modern world, we use it in two circumstances: when we talk about people becoming church professionals such as pastors or deacons, and when we talk about “vocational training,” i.e. job training for blue-collar jobs like welding or computer repair.  The thing is, both of these things are firmly within the Lutheran theological understanding of the word “vocation.”  Vocation was actually a core part of Luther’s theology.  At the time, “vocation” only meant things that church professionals—priests, monks, nuns, etc.—did on behalf of the church.  Luther vehemently disagreed with this.  Luther believed and taught that God had calls for everybody.  Every job necessary to society could be a calling from God, because God was the ultimate creator of both humans and the societies we live in, no matter how marred by sin those societies are.

As Luther put it, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes.”  Or, as Luther put it another way, “The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.”  A farmer may be called by God to grow food for people, just as a contractor may be called by God to make and repair safe housing for people, just as an insurance agent may be called by God to help people through disasters.  Relationships can be vocations, too: some people are called to be parents, or to be friends, or spouses, and those vocations can be more important than any vocation we have career-wise.  Vocations can change throughout our lives as our circumstances change, and we can have more than one vocation at a time.  Vocation is—or should be!—the foundation of everything we do, not just in church and not just if we’re religious professionals, but for everyone.  But in order for that to be true, we have to be listening for God’s call.  We have to be praying about it, and thinking about it as we study scripture, and talking about it with people of faith whose opinions and judgment we trust.  Not all calls are the same.  For example, in the call story in our Gospel, the fishermen are called to leave their nets and follow him.  In many other call stories in the Gospels, Jesus tells the people he’s calling to stay in their communities and do ministry there.  Figuring out calls can be complicated.  But if we’re serious about being people of God, it’s not optional.

And vocations aren’t just for individuals.  Vocations are for congregations and communities, too.  Because God is calling us, just like God called Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John the son of Zebedee.  As we make decisions for our congregation today, we need to think about what God is calling us to do in the coming year.  But it doesn’t stop at the congregational meeting.  It’s a question that should always be in our thoughts, prayers, and discussions.  May God be with us, and may we hear and respond to God’s call.


The Call of God

Second Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, January 19, 2020

Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA

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.

Our reading from First Corinthians this week comes from the first part of the letter.  And man, does Paul have some good words for the Christians in Corinth!  He says he is ALWAYS giving thanks for them, because of the grace that God has given them, how they have been enriched by God, in speech and knowledge of every kind.  The testimony of Christ has been strengthened among them, and they were not lacking in any spiritual gift.  If you read this part of the letter, and don’t go any further, you’re left with the idea that things must have been AWESOME in Corinth.  God was working in and among them, they have all these spiritual gifts, what more could any community of faith want or need?

And then you read the rest of the letter, which is about all the problems the congregation has been having.  Factions that split the community, arguments about EVERYTHING, people taking advantage of and belittling one another, people using their spiritual gifts for personal aggrandizement rather than the good of the community and the will of God, you name it, it happened.  If there is a thing that could possibly go wrong in a Christian community, it happened in Corinth.  That’s why Paul wrote to the Corinthians so often—at least four times that we know of, though only two of his letters survived.  They were really messed up.  They were a problem congregation.  If there was a way to get the Gospel wrong, they would find it.

And yet, God gave them God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  God gave them every spiritual gift and strengthened their faith in Jesus Christ.  No matter how much they squandered God’s gifts or used them for selfish ends or just … missed the point, God was with them, nurturing the faith in them and giving them every spiritual gift and everything they needed to be part of the body of Christ.  They had problems, but a lack of spiritual resources wasn’t one of them.

An even more pointed reminder of God’s gifts can be found in our reading from Isaiah.  This particular part of Isaiah was written during the Babylonian Exile.  The nation of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, and the Jewish people taken away to be slaves in other parts of the Babylonian Empire.  They had lost everything.  Many of their people decided that God didn’t care about them any more and started worshipping Babylonian gods.  Even those who stayed faithful had lost all hope.  They were as good as dead.  Everything they’d tried to build or do had been destroyed.  And yet, in the midst of that, God sent the prophet to tell them that they were not abandoned, that God was with them.  And more than that, their nation was going to be restored—the exile would not be permanent, eventually they would be freed and allowed to go home.  And more than that, God was actively working in them and through them to make the world a better place, to make the world more like God’s kingdom.  Even in the midst of slavery and exile and death and despair, God was at work.  God had chosen them, and God would redeem them out of slavery, and God would help them rebuild.

Which I think is something a lot of churches today need to spend some time thinking about, because we spend a lot of time focusing on how bad things are.  In coffee hours after church, in pastor gatherings, in committee meetings and Bible studies, you hear the same refrain.  “Things just aren’t what they used to be.  Twenty years ago, we had so much more, and we just can’t do the things we used to do.  We’re too small, we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough young people, we don’t have enough anything.  We look at the numbers of people we used to have but don’t have any more, we sigh wistfully at what we could do if we had more people, if we had younger people, if we had more money, if, if, if.  And we get so focused on what we used to have, what we don’t have, that we can’t see what we do have.

And what we have is this: the grace of God.  What we have is God’s presence in us and among us.  The God who called us by name, who claimed us as God’s own children, who has been with us all our lives and was with every one of our ancestors in the faith throughout their lives, is with us still today.  God has claimed us as God’s own, God has given us spiritual gifts, God has called us to minister to one another and to the world outside our doors.

The question is, are we listening to that call?  And not to what the call was twenty years ago, but what the call is now.  Because God’s call changes over time.  The central goal of ministry—to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, and to bring light and healing to the world—hasn’t changed.  But the most effective ways to do that have changed.  And our resources have changed, too!  I don’t want to pretend that we are what we used to be, and I don’t want to say that we can’t grieve for what has been lost.  We are smaller and older than we used to be, and there are many things we just can’t do any more.

But the most important question as Christians is, are we listening to what God is calling us to do here, now, today, or are we so caught up in our grief that we can’t imagine what new things God is calling us to?  Can we take a clear and positive view of the gifts and resources—spiritual gifts, physical resources, and people—that we have right now, and ask what God is calling us to do with those gifts and resources?  It may be something we’ve been doing all along.  It may be something new and different.  But God is present, calling us and equipping us for ministry, just as God was present in Corinth, and just as God was present during the Babylonian Exile.

Now, if you’re wondering what that might look like, here are some things it might be.  I am not a prophet; I can’t say for certain what God’s will for us is.  That’s something we all have to think about and pray about and talk about together, trusting that God will be in the midst of our thoughts and prayers and conversations.  But here are some suggestions.

First, and most obviously, God is probably calling us to grow in faith and love as a congregation and as individuals.  There’s pretty much no time that God isn’t calling us to do that.  I don’t mean that we should be insular, caring only for what’s happening inside our own walls, and I certainly don’t mean that we should just get in a rut and stay there.  I mean that we should be actively working to deepen our relationships with God and one another.  We should be actively working to increase participation in spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Scripture reading, worship, charity, confession and forgiveness.  We should be actively working to build healthy relationships with one another and with everybody around us.

Second, given that God created us for relationships and that God thinks it is not good for us to be alone, and given how fragmented our society is and how many people today are lonely, God may well be calling us to reach out to people in our community who are lonely and disconnected, and build relationships with them.  Not just so we can invite them to church, but because it is not good for human beings to be alone and God calls us to love one another.  I can’t do it by myself.  These days, people get suspicious of ministers who want to be their friends.  But just being there for people, making sure they don’t fall through the cracks, can make a huge difference both in individual lives and in society as a whole.

What do you think God is calling us to do?  What gifts and talents do you see that God has given us, and how do you think God wants us to use those gifts and talents?


God’s Abundance in a Hungry World

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 18), Year A, August 3, 2014

Isaiah 55:1-5, Psalm 145:8-21, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:13-21

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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

Isaiah writes: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” And from our Gospel lesson, we hear the story of the feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus takes two loaves of bread and two fish, and feeds thousands of people with many baskets of food left over. These are just two of many places in the Bible where God provides food and water miraculously, or promises to do so. In the creation stories, the first home of humanity was a garden with abundant food. When the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness and needed water, God created a new stream, gushing from a rock. When the wandering Israelites were hungry, God gave them manna and quails to eat. The prophet Elijah came upon a widow who was starving in a famine, and God provided for them by making her jug of oil and jar of flour never run low. Jesus helped the disciples catch lots of fish. Throughout the Bible, the most common image used to describe the kingdom of God is a feast. You want to know what heaven’s like? According to the Bible, it’s a party with lots of good food.

When you put all of these different passages together, we can safely say that God likes feeding people. God loves feeding people. God spends a lot of time and effort seeing to it that people have enough, and even more than enough. God provides abundantly. God gave his only son to save sinners, to give the world the true Bread of Life. Jesus Christ gave his own body and blood to nourish the world. God gives without counting the cost; God gives extravagantly. When God sees a need, in body or soul, God gives.

So why don’t we live in a world of abundance? If God wants people to be fed, why is there hunger? Why is there starvation? It’s true that God’s good creation is broken by sin and death, and so that there will be problems in the way the world works until Christ comes again, but why, specifically, do people go hungry? Why is it that even in America, one of the richest nations on Earth, there are seven million households where people regularly go hungry because they can’t afford food? Why are there people here in North Dakota—including children—who don’t have enough to eat?

Each of our two readings gives an answer. In Matthew, the disciples see that there is a large crowd, and they’re getting hungry. So they go to Jesus and ask him to send the crowds away so they can find food. Jesus tells them no—there’s no need for the crowd to go away. “You give them something to eat,” he tells his disciples. The disciples protest. “We don’t have enough!” they say “We can’t possibly do that. There’s only five loaves and two fish. It’s not enough.” There isn’t enough. That’s the way human beings tend to think. We believe there isn’t enough to go around. We don’t tend to believe that God can and will provide. God gives abundantly, but we fear scarcity more than we trust God’s bounty. In the case of the disciples, they’ve been watching Jesus heal people and perform miracles all day. But providing food … it doesn’t even occur to them that Jesus could do that, and when they are told to feed people in his name, they balk. We can’t. We don’t have enough.

In the case of the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples’ belief in scarcity caused only a momentary pause before Jesus stepped in and provided the miracle of abundance. But a belief in scarcity can do far more damage than that. When we believe that things are scarce, that there isn’t enough to go around, the natural response is to hoard and keep things for ourselves. We have to be sure that we and those we love will have enough! If there’s only so much to go around, we need to make sure that the right people get it. And as for everyone else, well, life just isn’t fair. When we believe in scarcity, the rich and powerful focus on accumulating more and more even at the expense of others. When we believe in scarcity, ordinary people are less likely to help those who need it. When we believe in scarcity, we are more likely to be guided by fear and selfishness than love.

One of the things we do, when we focus on scarcity, is to try and decide who deserves to be helped and who doesn’t. We’ll put in place elaborate and expensive systems to make sure that only the right people get help. And we tend to be so afraid of people cheating the system that some people will use it as an excuse not to help anyone at all. But notice that the food isn’t only for the worthy people. Everyone in the crowd got fed. I’m sure there were some people who had more than enough money to buy their own food. I’m sure there were others who were lazy or alcoholics or just all around nasty people, who didn’t deserve to receive a miracle, who didn’t deserve a free meal. But Jesus never separated anyone out. Everyone who was there got fed, whether they needed it or not, whether they deserved it or not. That’s what grace is. We talk about the grace of God, but I don’t think we always pay attention to what it means. Grace means love and forgiveness and good things given to people who don’t deserve it. Grace is God reaching out to sinners, Jesus sharing a meal with tax collectors and prostitutes. Grace is God’s abundant love, overflowing for everyone. Listen again to Isaiah: “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters! You who have no money, come, buy and eat!” Everyone. All people. This is not just good news for the good people. This is good news for everyone.

There are regular events throughout the year where pastors from our Synod gather for one reason or another, and usually there is a time for us to talk and share what’s going on in our different corners of Western North Dakota. Many of the pastors from the oil field have the same story, and they tell it time after time. You see, we hear of all the money going through the oil patch, but there has also been an increase in poverty. Prices of housing have gone up so much that even people with what used to be good jobs can’t pay the rent. And so many of the newcomers are isolated, alone, desperately in need of human connection. There is so much to be done in Jesus’ name, from giving out food and help with emergencies, to building playgrounds for children so that the new children have safe places to play—all kinds of ministries that those churches are being called to. Each one of those ministries takes money, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. And the members of those congregations have the money! Many of them are making quite a lot of money from oil royalties in addition to their normal salaries. Enough to buy a brand-new RV every year, or go to Europe every year, without counting the cost. Yet when the congregation asks for just a small portion of that money to minister to the desperate needs of the community, they balk. “Why should we have to be the ones to pay? Let someone else do it. It’s not our problem. We’ve earned this money; we’ve had hard times, and now times are good, so we’re going to have fun.”

Or consider the situation down on America’s southern border, where thousands of children have fled from extreme danger, seeking safety. The streets of Columbia and other central American nations are more dangerous today than the streets of Iraq were at the height of the war. Gangs, fueled by drug money, give children as young as ten two choices: join us, or die. In desperation, their parents give them what money they can and send them north, across thousands of miles, because it is their only chance of survival. And how do some Americans respond, when they see these children? They complain about the cost of feeding them, and want to send them back to almost certain death back in their native land. After all, they’re not our children, and feeding and housing them is expensive! And we don’t want other people to think that America might be a safe place to come.

When the disciples saw a need, when they saw that people were hungry, they tried to figure out how to do something about it. They wanted to send people home to buy food. Jesus told his disciples to give them food instead. The disciples didn’t think they had enough, but Jesus proved them wrong. Even a very little, given in Jesus’ name, can give big results. But the more we focus on our own needs, on our fears of not having enough, the more we want to hoard what we have. And so you end up in a situation where there is more than enough resources in the community that nobody should be going hungry, but the people who control the money won’t even acknowledge that there is a need—much less that they should do something about it.

Contrast this with a church up near Bottineau. They studied and prayed about what God was calling them to do, and they decided that God was calling them to step up in the community and provide for the needs that nobody else was. They decided to trust that God would provide enough for them to do this, and sent out a call into the community asking what people needed. The Monday after they decided to go ahead with this project, the pastor got a call. There was a single mother in town whose car had just died. The family was poor; the car couldn’t be fixed and she couldn’t afford to buy even a used car. But without a car, she couldn’t get to work. So she needed a new car. Could the church help? The pastor gulped. A car is a big-ticket item, even a used one. For a little bit, she faltered. Surely, God couldn’t provide that much. But she decided to take it on faith that God could, and she posted the need on the church’s Facebook page. By the end of the day, a reliable used car had been found, and the money raised to purchase it and register it. They trusted in God to provide a miracle of abundance, and God did.

The disciples saw a need. They saw that people were hungry, and they wanted to do something about it. But even when Jesus told them to feed the people, they didn’t think they could. They had seen Jesus working miracles all day but they didn’t trust that he could help them help others. “We don’t have enough,” they said. Yet God provided enough, and more than enough. God provided abundantly for everyone there, rich and poor, good and bad. God provided, and no one went hungry. It makes me wonder: what are the needs in our community? Where are the places in Underwood and Washburn where people have needs that aren’t being met? What things is God calling us to do that we shrug aside because we don’t think we can do anything about it? May the God of abundance, who gives his own body for our bread and his own blood for wine, who gives miracles of abundance, so guide and nourish our hearts and minds that we may, like the disciples, be instruments of his grace.

Unexpected Calls

The Third Sunday After Easter, Year C, April 7, 2013

Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

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.

In today’s readings, we have three “call” stories.  Now, a call story is a story about God calling you to do something.  The most obvious people in a community with a call from God are pastors.  After all, like most churches, the ELCA will not ordain anyone a pastor unless they genuinely believe that you have been called by God to the ordained ministry.  But pastors aren’t the only ones God calls.  In fact, God calls all kinds of people to all kinds of work.  And sometimes that work is something that lasts a lifetime, and sometimes that call is just for one thing, right then, right now.  It’s often something we wouldn’t have chosen, and from the outside it can look kind of strange.  God works in ways we don’t understand, ways we would never have chosen, and sometimes God calls us to do things we would never have imagined.

Our first lesson tells the story of the conversion of Saul.  You’re probably more familiar with him under a different name: Paul.  You see, “Paul” is a more Greek-sounding name, so it’s what Saul called himself when dealing with Gentiles.  So, since we are the spiritual descendants of the Gentiles that Paul brought to the faith—and because most of our knowledge of Paul comes from the letters he wrote to those Gentiles, which have been included in the New Testament—we call him St. Paul.  It’s easy to think of Paul as a wise church leader, an apostle sent by God to preach the faith and guide new believers.  It’s not so easy to remember that before he was a believer in Jesus Christ, Paul persecuted the church.  He was a devout Jew who believed that the teachings of Jesus were leading his people astray from the true word of God, and so he sought out followers of Jesus and prosecuted them.  At least one of those trials, that of a deacon named Stephen, resulted in an execution.  And after Stephen’s death, Paul travelled to Damascus to seek out other followers of Christ to bring to trial.  Paul was a devout man who genuinely, honestly believed that he was a righteous man following God’s will … except what he was doing was directly against God’s will!

Now, if it was you or me, we would not say that this guy would make a good follower of Christ.  If it was you or me, we’d look at this man who was responsible for the death of a faithful Christian and was seeking others to persecute, and we’d say “this guy deserves what he gets—he doesn’t deserve salvation!  He doesn’t deserve God’s love!  Get rid of him.  But that’s not what God did.  God did not attack Paul.  God did not think Paul was beyond redemption—God knew better.  God came to Paul and showed him the error of his ways.  God called Paul to a better and truer and deeper understanding of God’s Word.  Imagine what it must have been like for Paul: God turned his entire world upside down.  Everything Paul thought he knew was wrong.  God did have work for Paul, but it wasn’t what Paul was expecting.  When he started out for Damascus, neither Paul nor anyone else could have imagined where that journey would lead him.  God called him out of his comfortable certainties, his narrow righteousness, into a fuller understanding of God’s love that demanded to be shared with the world.  The call that God gave Paul, which began on that road to Damascus, would last Paul’s whole life long and transform the fledgling movement known then only as “the Way”, which would eventually be called the Christian Church.

The second call story in today’s lessons is that of Ananias.  Unlike Paul, we don’t know much about Ananias.  He seems to have been an ordinary follower of Jesus Christ, nothing special about him that anybody can see.  The only other time he’s mentioned in the Bible is later in Acts when Paul tells the story of his roadside experience, referring to Ananias as a “devout follower” of God.  There was nothing special about Ananias … except that when God called him to do something, he did it.  Put yourself in Ananias’ shoes.  He knew darn good and well who this Saul of Tarsus that God was sending him to was.  He knew that Paul had been persecuting the followers of Jesus.  He knew that Paul was responsible for the death of Stephen, and had come specifically to attack followers of Jesus—like Ananias himself!  Paul was a clear and present threat to his continued life and livelihood.  If you were him, would you have wanted to go heal Paul?  No!  If it were me, there’s a good chance that I’d look upon Paul’s blinding as the least of what he deserved, and take pleasure in his misfortune.  So it’s no wonder that, when God called Ananias to heal Paul’s blindness, Ananias questioned God.

And yet, when it came down to it … Ananias went.  He followed God’s call to heal and teach Paul, and in so doing he participated in something he could never have imagined.  By healing Paul and teaching him the basics of the Christian faith, Ananias helped start Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.  Without Ananias’ healing and witness, Paul could not have learned about Jesus, he could not have travelled throughout Greece and Turkey spreading the Gospel, and he could not have written the letters that have added so much depth and richness to our understanding of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Ananias’ call to heal and teach Paul lasted only for a short time, and yet it enabled a spread of the Gospel beyond anything anybody had seen yet.

Then, in the Gospel, we have a call for Simon, who was nicknamed Peter.  Peter, by the way, means “Rock,” and I’ve always wondered if that was a reference to how hard his head was.  Peter was not the brightest of the disciples.  If there was a way to misunderstand, Peter would do it.  If there was a way to screw up, Peter would find it.  Peter had some of the best moments of any of the disciples, where he “got” who Jesus was better than anyone else … and each time he immediately followed it up by proving he was still missing the boat.  You may have noticed, in today’s reading, the funny thing he does: he’d taken off his clothes to fish, presumably so as not to get fish guts and stuff on them.  Seeing Jesus on the shore, he is overwhelmed with joy!  He’s going to swim ashore to meet Jesus because he can’t even wait for the boat to get there!  And before he jumps in the water and gets soaking wet, he put all his clothes on.  Usually, people take their clothes off before they go swimming, but not our Rock.  Not the brightest crayon in the box, our Peter.  If I were interviewing for a church leadership position and someone like Peter was one of the applicants, I would hesitate.  If I were to pick a disciple to be the backbone of the early church, without knowing Peter’s later role, I would have picked a different one.  Yet Jesus singled Peter out, calling him to “feed Jesus’ sheep,” to care for all of God’s children, and telling him that this call would end with Peter suffering for Jesus’ sake.

And Peter answered Jesus’ call, knowing it would lead him into danger and hard times.  He didn’t miraculously become a different person, he didn’t miraculously become suave and sophisticated.  He never stopped being a bit dense.  Yet God used him to bring many others to the faith.  Peter never managed the sophisticated theological arguments that Paul did, but that was okay.  That wasn’t what Peter was called to do.  Peter was called by God to tell the story, to tell how he had experienced the love of God in Christ Jesus, to tell the story simply and honestly.  And, when disputes among the followers of Christ came up, Peter was called to give common-sense answers and pass on what God told him.  Nothing fancy, nothing complicated.  Through his honesty, his openness, his willingness to follow God even when he didn’t understand what God wanted him to do, Peter had a profound impact on the early Christians.  He helped them see God’s work in their midst, even when it went against what they expected God would want.  Peter fed God’s sheep with simple, wholesome Good News.

In all three of these call stories, God called people we wouldn’t expect to do things we wouldn’t expect.  He picked the enemy of the faith, the ordinary follower of Jesus, the dimmest of the disciples.  And he didn’t call them to do what they expected God would want them to do.  Paul never imagined that he would join the very group he had been persecuting in God’s name.  Ananias never expected he would heal and mentor a man who had been the enemy of his people.  Peter never expected he would be the heart of the followers of Jesus, one of their great leaders.  Yet through their actions, faith in Jesus Christ was spread throughout the world.  We would not be here today without them.

And we shouldn’t be surprised that God calls unusual people to do unusual things.  After all, God is one who does the unexpected.  God is the one who chose to save the world through his own death.  God is the one who came to earth not in a palace, but in a humble stable.  God is the one who came to challenge the forces of evil not like a lion, but like a tiny lamb.  Our God is always turning the world upside down and right side up.  We worship the lamb that was slain, who loved the whole world so much that he could not bear to see any part of it suffer.  We worship a God who calls all of creation to himself, not just the big and might and good but the small, and stupid, and wrong, and bad as well, every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, calls them to new life with the risen Christ.

God calls all of creation to rejoice in the Resurrection, and to participate in Christ’s saving work in the world.  God calls us, too, every single one of us.  We all have our part in the choir of all creation.  We all have our part to play in the Good News.  It may be big, it may be small, but in everything we say and do we are called to proclaim the good news that comes through Jesus Christ.  The question is, will we answer God’s call?  Will we follow where God leads us, even if it’s not what we would have chosen or anticipated?  Will we let the love of God shine through our words and our deeds?

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

“Who, me?”

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Year C, February 3, 2013

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13, Luke 4:21-30

 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, my rock and my redeemer.

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

A pastor preached a moving sermon on the gifts of the Spirit.  After church, as people were shaking the pastor’s hand on the way out the door, one of the members of the church stopped to chat for a bit.  Now, this member had been on the fringes of the congregation for some time.  He attended worship sporadically, and he didn’t participate in any event or ministry of the church besides Sunday morning worship.  “Pastor,” he said, “that was a great sermon.  Thank you so much for preaching about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and how people should figure out what gifts God has given them so they can use them in ministry.  I could name a couple of people in this congregation who really needed to hear that!”  And off the man went, whistling, secure in the knowledge that while other people had gifts they should be using, he didn’t need to think about it.

No, that hasn’t happened to me, despite preaching on the gifts of the Spirit two weeks running, but many of my friends have a story like that.  It seems to be very easy to assume that God only gifts other people, that God only calls other people, so we can go on with our comfortable lives.  Even when we do accept that God is calling us, too often we try to argue with God, and claim we couldn’t possibly do whatever it is we’ve been called to do.  “Who, me?” seems to be the most common response, followed by a list of excuses.

I know I did.  When God started nudging me in the direction of ministry, I didn’t even believe God actually intervened in daily life.  I believed in God, sure, I just didn’t think he was doing anything in the world these days.  I didn’t believe he could possibly be calling me to ministry, and I sure didn’t want to be a pastor.  I wanted to be a science fiction author, or maybe an editor at a publishing house.  I could also see myself as a historian or an English professor.  I tried to ignore that sense of call as long as I could, but eventually I had to give up, and so I went to seminary.

What a relief it was to hear all the stories of how my classmates got there—I wasn’t the only one who’d tried to get out of a call to ministry!  We sat around in a circle and heard story after story about arguing with God, story after story filled with doubts and plans that got derailed.  Then, in class, as we studied the Bible and the history of Christianity, I noticed more stories about people who were called to a ministry they didn’t want to do and didn’t feel qualified for.  Yet God called them despite their objections, and gave them the gifts and support needed to perform the ministry to which they were called.

Jeremiah was one of them.  Like Moses before him, Jeremiah’s response to being called as a prophet was to say he couldn’t possibly do it.  He was too young.  He wasn’t a good enough speaker.  Who would listen to him, anyway?  Yet God had an answer to every one of Jeremiah’s objections.  “Don’t say you’re too young,” God said, “just go where I tell you.  I’ll give you the words you need, and I’ll take care of what needs to be done.”  God dismisses Jeremiah’s objections, because in the end, it isn’t really about Jeremiah at all.  It’s about God, and what God is doing through Jeremiah.  The words aren’t Jeremiah’s: they belong to God, just as Jeremiah himself does.  Jeremiah may be young and untried, but God will give him the gifts he needs to do the work God has called him to do.

Prophets and pastors aren’t the only ones who don’t expect God’s call and try to avoid it when it comes.  I’ve only been working in ministry full time for a few years, but in that time I’ve seen many cases of ordinary church-goers who’d been given gifts, but didn’t even realize it.  I’ve seen ordinary people sitting in pews just like you are today, who think God may be calling them to something, but dismissed it out of hand.  They were too young, too old, too rich, too poor, too busy, too proud, too humble, not good enough, not eloquent enough, not brave enough, not big enough.  Who were they to think that God might have a job for them to do?  Besides, if God really wanted something done, why hadn’t he asked someone else to do it?

The thing is, though, nobody is good enough, on their own, to do God’s work.  Nobody, on their own, has enough gifts.  Nobody, on their own, knows what really needs to be done.  Nobody, on their own, has all the right words.  Everything that we have, everything that we are, comes from God.  Our Lord created us, formed us in our mothers’ womb.  He was with us every step of our lives and he is still with us, today.  And God has lots of plans for each and every one of us, and gifts to give.  The question is, how will we respond?  Will we hear that call, and will we use those gifts for the work God has given us?  Or will we say, “No, I couldn’t possibly do that, God must be wrong”?

I don’t know what God is calling each individual person here to do.  I don’t know what gifts God has given to members of this congregation.  I don’t even know what God is calling this congregation to—after all, I just got here myself.  But this I can tell you: God is calling us to minister to one another, to our community, and to the larger world, and God is giving us the gifts we need to do so.

Have you ever felt a pull you couldn’t explain?  Have you ever seen a problem and thought, “Somebody really should do something about that”?  Have you ever had people around you say, “you know, I think you could be great at that!”  Those might be signs that God is calling you.  It might be something big, or it could be something as small as sending a card to someone who is sick.

So how do we know whether or not we’re being called?  And how does God give us the gifts for ministry?  The first step is always prayer.  Prayer for guidance, for strength, for wisdom, for courage.  Prayer should be the first thing we do when we wake up in the morning and the last thing we do at night.  And in that prayer, we should leave room for God to speak to us.

The second step is looking around and seeing what resources God has given us.  Part of the way God equips us for ministry is through the church around us.  Regular worship attendance is a large part of it; regular worship strengthens our faith and deepens our connection both to God and to the body of Christ which is the church.  Worship helps nourish our souls just as food nourishes our bodies.

But besides worship, God has given us many things to prepare us for God’s ministry that we don’t always take advantage of.  Bible study, particularly in groups, can help deepen our understanding of God’s Word.  (Augustana will be having an evening Bible study on the first Monday of the month at 7 PM, starting tomorrow.  Birka’s will be the third Sunday at 6:30.)  When we read God’s Word and discuss it, we learn more about how God is active in the world around us and in our lives.  Camp is one place where our faith can be strengthened and our skill at talking about our faith can be helped.  The Synod has regular events to help people learn and grow in their faith.  For example, there will be a Global and Local mission event in Bismarck on February 22nd and 23rd.  And the GIFTS program has regular sessions to help people’s understanding of Scripture and worship grow.

These are only a few of the things God uses to equip us for the ministries God has called us to.  Yes, our lives are busy.  Yes, God’s call is sometimes daunting.  But God has provided all that we need to answer that call, and will continue to provide.

Being Called

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

Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Christian Vocation

A Christian cobbler makes good shoes, not poor shoes with little crosses on them.

–Martin Luther

Yesterday was Labor Day, the day devoted to the celebration of workers and those who work.  Within the church, we, too, celebrate work–the work God calls us to do.  We call this work our “vocation.”  Now, sometimes when we speak of vocation, we only mean vocation within the church–pastor, youth pastor, Sunday School teacher.  That’s unfortunate, because clergy and church workers aren’t the only ones with a call from God!

Humans don’t do well alone–even in the Garden of Eden, Adam needed company.  Community is a gift from God, not just church communities but the larger world as well.  And every community has a wide variety of things that must be done to keep it functioning.  Performing these tasks is a service to the community.  Now, obviously, no community is perfect; all people have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, so we should be thoughtful and prayerful about how we serve the community.   In church, we are renewed in our faith and built up in Christ and in the priesthood of all believers.  In the world, we act out our faith in word and in deed.  When we leave the sanctuary Sunday morning, we don’t stop being the body of Christ.  Sometimes our vocation is our job; sometimes our vocation is a “hobby;” sometimes our vocation is taking care of our family.  All of these, when done with prayer and love and dedication, can be our vocation.  So as you go about your daily duties, ask yourself: how am I building up the body of Christ through my actions and words?  How am I caring for God’s creation and all of God’s children?  How am I receiving spiritual nourishment?

Being called by God doesn’t necessarily mean that we must always overtly share our faith as part of our work.  It means instead to do our work as well as we can, letting our actions speak for us, being an example to others, and taking the opportunities God gives us for prayer, for fellowship, for witness, in large ways and in small.