The following sermon was presented at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Hopkins, MN as a part of the congregation’s 125th anniversary. Pastor Haug served there from 1996-1999.
Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
It is good to return again to Gethsemane. I first came here in June 1996, together with Pastor Lisa Holt Thompson. It was a great blessing to serve together with Lisa for nearly two years. For our family this is a congregation which is rich in memories and blessings. It is after all here at Gethsemane that the Haug family doubled in size. I remember the day the church bell rang to announce that we were to travel to Russia to pick up the boys. I remember as well, in the days before homeland security, the crowd from Gethsemane who had gathered at the airport to watch as we first stepped off the plane with two tired boys in hand. Our sons Vitali and Alexei were baptized here and it was here that they spent many an evening in the nursery. Three years later in 1999, on a hot and sticky July evening nearing a hundred degrees, we were sent out from here as missionaries to Lithuania. And wherever our sons went, they acted as if they owned the world, just as they did when they were here. So on behalf of Janna and our entire family, I thank you for the wonderful blessings that you offered us.
Let us turn now to the gospel. The children in one Sunday School class were told that they were to write notes to God. Their thoughts and concerns were delightful, playful and often whimsical. “Dear God, if you watch me in church on Sunday, I’ll show you my new shoes.” “Dear God, sometimes I think about you, even when I’m not praying.” “Dear God, did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident?” But two messages surprised me, “Dear God, maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each other so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother Larry?” And the second which was equally poignant, “Dear God, I bet it is very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only four people in our family and I can never do it.”
We would like our children to grow up in a sheltered and protected world where they would see only our best actions, and hear our finest words. We would like our children to witness only our faith in action. And so we move to communities and neighborhoods, where we believe our children will experience the very best- a place, “Where all the women are strong, the men are good looking and the children are above average.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Somewhere along the way, God’s little ones experience the harshness of human tragedy. They encounter deeds of Christians which do not match their words, and their faith is shattered- sometimes in their own families.
Scripture uses the phrase “these little ones” in many ways. In the epistles, “these little ones” refers to new Christians, still young in the faith. Jesus himself uses the phrase as a term of endearment for his twelve disciples. And at times, these little ones refers to all the vulnerable children of God. This morning, I would like to reflect on the great responsibility we have as a Christian community. It is a word that challenges Christians to examine their actions and their deeds. It is especially poignant word for the churches of Europe that I have grown to know so well. Do our actions and words welcome to the stranger and the little ones to the Christian faith, or do they cause them to stumble and fall?
My sermon today could be titled, lessons from a cup of water, but it could just as easily be called lessons from a pinch of salt. For the gospel teaches the church that Jesus invites you and me in our small gestures of charity and love, to be his preserving salt and his life changing seasoning and spice. All this serves as a reminder that you too are called to play your part to ensure that that little ones in the next will have faith for another 125 years.
It is a wonderful compliment to say that you are the salt of the earth, for salt is good. In the ancient world, salt was highly valued. The Greeks called salt divine. In the Roman Empire, soldiers were paid with weights of salt. Indeed, our word salary is derived from the Latin word for salt. Salt performs two important functions. It is the most common of all preservatives for it keeps things from going bad. For millions of people in the world, salt still has this purpose. The Christian’s task is to be the salt of society, preserving, reconciling, adding taste, giving meaning where there is no meaning, giving hope where there is no hope. A Christian is called to be the salt in the home, and yes, in the school. It is about the quality of life. The same is true about you and your family and friends. You are called to uphold the good values in life, and work for reconciliation and peace.
And yet my doctor has reminded me that there can be too much salt. It is the common knowledge of sailors on the great oceans, “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” A pinch of salt can do great things, but it is also true, that salt has the power to destroy the very life and faith that we nurture. Indeed, for many children, it is a sad reality that the very actions of loving and well-intentioned mothers and fathers, teachers and coaches, can drive their loved ones to despair, bitterness, and anger- and a loss of faith. How? Simply, because their actions did not match their words. The good salt was too much. It is a sobering warning, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” In the strongest language found in St. Mark’s gospel, Jesus warns, that if your behavior, attitudes and manners are causing fear and doubt to creep into the lives of God’s little ones, you should change your life dramatically. Three times he warns in the language of fire and brimstone preachers. If your actions and words cause a little one to stumble in the faith, change your ways now, before it is too late for the sake of those you love and for your own sake. Jesus states that the stakes are high- so great is his love for his children of all ages. You are to be the salt of the earth that preserves life and not the salt that destroys.
Jesus has also invited his followers to be the seasoning in this world. As the salt of the earth, you are called to be God’s seasoning and spice. You are called to bring out the natural skills and gifts. Just as seasoning brings out the best in food, so Christians should be able to affect the world.
So where do you begin in bringing out the best in those you love and care for? It is the same question that our European brothers and sisters are asking as they confront and greet the little ones crossing their borders? Will their actions and words be a stumbling block to the little ones, or will they instead proclaim the love of God in Christ Jesus? And so we turn to the lesson of the cup of water.
A Hungarian pastor who lives and serves a Lutheran parish on the Hungarian-Serbian border wrote of his own experience.
“Late last night I heard a large crowd on their way towards the wave of approaching refugees. I was standing at the city limits, but no one was in sight yet. I spoke to the police on the way carrying water, if they would let me through. The commander at the border point promised that I would be allowed back. I grabbed the only bottled water I had at home. It was sparkling mineral water. I stopped at the convenience store on the corner, but there was nothing. I headed back to the crossing. They wouldn’t let me return, since it had now become a special permit zone only. I went to a quiet road further from the border. When I saw the first travelers, I stopped and started to share the water. They thanked me. Grateful. We exchanged a few words. Two young men, both 18-20 passed. Their big brown eyes were fatigued from despair and maybe a faint spark of hope. They thanked me for the water, they took a drink and they left the bottle in the road for the next refuges to drink from. I didn’t have time to deal with this, as more and more peoples trudged by. Soon, I was out of stock. The middle of the road was filled with empty bottles. I left and got permission to return again. This time I aimed for a super market. Not sparkling water this time either. Just plain water. I can’t describe what I experienced that night. I didn’t take any pictures. I couldn’t take a picture of them. I couldn’t steal their life from them. Their images were burned in to my retinas.”
My friends, I cannot tell you how important you are, as God’s instrument for sharing the Christian faith with the little ones of this world- including the strangers and foreigners. You are preparing the world’s little ones to have faith. Every act of charity to your neighbor, no matter the color of his or her skin, or the confession on his or her lips, is an act of godly love. “For no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”
Yes, children will say the darnedest things, “Dear God, thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.” “Dear God, we had a good time at church today. Wish you could have been there.” Blessings come in a variety of ways to those who share their gift, but my friends, do not forget, “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.