Devouring Widows’ Houses

Lectionary 32B, November 11, 2018

1 Kings 17:8-16, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44

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.

There is a problem in our Gospel reading.  It is the hypocrisy and selfishness of the scribes, who like to show themselves off as good, righteous, pious pillars of the community, while at the same time, according to Jesus, ‘devouring widows’ houses’.  They make a show of being great people, full of religious devotion and moral uprightness, and yet underneath it they are rotten to the core: selfish, hypocritical, throwing the most vulnerable members of society under the bus for their own benefit.  They, Jesus says, will be condemned.  Even though they’re respected now, it won’t last.  Because while society may be fooled by their wealth and the appearances they maintain, the excuses they make for their behavior, God sees who they truly are, and what they’re actually doing underneath the mask of piety.

Then there is the widow.  The generous widow, who has literally less than a penny to her name, and yet gives that penny to the Temple, trusting that the priests and Temple authorities will use that money well.  Jesus says that she is more generous than all the rich people who give lots of money, because she is giving more than they can afford, while the rich give only a tiny fraction of their wealth.  For almost two thousand years, Christians have been holding up this widow and her generosity, and encouraging one another to be just as generous as she is, to give everything we have to God.  And it is good to be generous; throughout the Bible, God asks us to be generous with our time, our money, our attention, and our love.

But the thing is, when we focus on praising the widow for her generosity, we miss a crucial question, one which connects her sacrifice with the problem of the hypocritical scribes.  And the question is this: why is this widow destitute in the first place?  Because, you see, if this society were truly following the laws handed down to Moses and recorded in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, she shouldn’t be.  I don’t mean that she wouldn’t be poor; poverty won’t be eradicated until the kingdom of God is truly established on earth.  But there’s a difference between being poor and being destitute.  This woman has nothing.  Her entire wealth is two coins worth less than a penny.  Even back in those days, you couldn’t live on that.  It’s commendable that she is generous with that pittance that is all she has, but why is ‘all she has’ that small?

If you look through the ancient laws recorded in the Bible, they cover a wide variety of things, and some of them seem strange to us, and a lot of them don’t seem to apply to modern life.  But if you look at the overarching themes to those laws, there are some that are just as relevant today as they were back then.  And one of those themes is taking care of the vulnerable.  See, in any society, there are some people who are more likely to slip through the cracks than others.  Some people who are more likely to go hungry, some people who are more likely to be cheated, some people who are more likely to lose everything, some people who are more likely to be abused.  In the Bible, the standard way to refer to such people is as “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”  (That last is translated in a lot of different ways; sometimes it’s ‘alien,’ sometimes it’s ‘foreigner,’ but it’s always someone not-from-here, an outsider.)  See, in those days, if you didn’t have an adult male member of the community advocating for you, you would find it hard to do business, own property, farm, buy or sell anything.  If you didn’t have an adult man of the tribe speaking up for you, things could get pretty dire pretty fast.  So widows and orphans pretty often had bad things happen to them.  So did people who didn’t have family ties in the area.

And this extra vulnerability is wrong.  Nobody should be abused; nobody should be abandoned; nobody should go hungry; nobody should be treated badly or exploited.  So the laws God gave Moses spend a lot of time talking about vulnerable people, and how we should always be careful to see that they are treated well and get what they need to live.  It’s not that God loves the widow, the orphan, and the stranger more than he loves rich people with big families.  It’s that rich people with big families are a lot less likely to need help and support.  Or, at least, when they need that help and support, rich people with big families can usually either buy it or get it from their family.  A poor widow, or an orphan, or a stranger with few ties to the community?  They slip through the cracks really easily.  So, God says, we need to be careful to see that they don’t.  We need to be careful to see that they have what they need and are taken care of even if it costs us time and money.  We should always be on the lookout to see if vulnerable people need to be helped or protected, God tells us again and again in the laws of Moses.  And it’s not just about individuals choosing to be generous.  God tells us to set up our society in such a way that there are systems in place to take care of these vulnerable people.  The details of those systems in the Laws of Moses wouldn’t work for us today, because our society is so different.  But the basic principle remains.  We need to take care of vulnerable people.

Back to the vulnerable person in our Gospel reading, the widow who has nothing but two coins worth less than a penny, who is so generous with the pittance that she has.  Jesus sees her.  But nobody else seems to.  All those prominent scribes, who make such a show of piety and devotion to God?  All the rich people giving to the Temple?  None of them notice her.  Not one.  The laws of Moses say they should be looking for such people and making sure they receive the help they need.  I’m sure everyone there gave lip service to helping those in need.  After all, they’re at the Temple!  They are the Biblical equivalent of good, faithful, churchgoing people.  They are the ones who read Scripture and pray a lot and give to support God’s ministry.  If anyone in their society is going to know God’s law and put it into practice, it should be them.  If anyone in their city is going to see someone who has slipped through society’s cracks as this widow has, it should be them.  And they don’t see her.  They ignore her.  They may even be judging her for having such a paltry gift instead of their large donations.

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”  And what does he see next, but a widow in dire, desperate poverty.  We don’t know why she is in such straits.  We don’t know how family bonds and social structures failed that she is left with so little.  We don’t know what the scribes might have done—or failed to do—that contributed to her situation.  We don’t know if the scribes ‘devoured her house’ as Jesus condemns them for doing just a few verses earlier, or if it was just a run of bad luck, or even bad decisions on her part.  We know two things: first, she has a spirit of grace and generosity that is boundless and stunning.  And second, the people of God who should be looking out for people like her, are failing.

Like the scribes and others Jesus saw that day, we are good, faithful, churchgoing people.  And, like the scribes and others at the Temple, we live in a society where sometimes people fall through the cracks.  Where some people go hungry even though we have more than enough food.  Where some people are homeless even though we have more than enough buildings to house them in.  Where some people are sick or disabled and can’t afford medical care.  Where some people are abused or exploited.  Where some people are alone and friendless even in the midst of a crowd.  And, like those scribes and others, it is really easy to do nothing.  It’s easy to give just enough to make ourselves feel good, even when we are capable of so much more.  It’s easy to stand back and let the system and greedy people take advantage of those with little power and few connections.  It’s easy to ignore vulnerable people, and let them slip through the cracks, and shrug our shoulders and say that’s just the way the world works.  But that’s not what God calls us to do.  That’s not the kind of society God calls us to create.  May we see the vulnerable in our midst, and work to create a society where nobody is forgotten or destitute.  And thanks be to God for all the people who give of their time and money to help those in need.

Amen

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The Sacrifice of Following Jesus

Lectionary 29B, October 21, 2018

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

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.

The Gospel of Mark, although the first Gospel written, was first completed about 70AD, forty years after Jesus’ death.  At that point, John was still alive, although James was not.  He’d been killed in the year 44AD, the first of the Twelve Disciples to be martyred.  Peter and Paul had also been killed by then, and Jesus’ brother James, and Stephen the Deacon, and others.  So when this passage was first read aloud in its present form, and those first listeners heard how James and John had requested power and glory beside Jesus in his kingdom, and been given a call to serve and die instead, they understood it far better than we do today.  They knew what service meant; they knew what giving your life away meant.  The organized, widespread persecutions of Christians were yet to come, but it was already a dangerous thing to serve Christ, with consequences that could sometimes prove fatal.  In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, nobody became a Christian expecting wealth and power.  The very idea would have been incomprehensible.  If wealth and power are your goal, you do not choose to join a group whose founder and leader died in the most humiliatingly painful way possible, a group made up mostly of poor people, women, foreigners, outcasts, slaves, and other unesirables.  If power and influence are your goal, you do not join a group dedicated to service and submission.  Power and influence are the ways of the world.  They are antithetical to the Christian life.

Christians today don’t really get this.  Christianity has been the religion of the powerful for so long that we can hear Jesus’ words condemning worldly power and the behavior of the powerful, and not connect it to anything about our own behavior.  We are used to power, and we don’t know what true sacrifice is.  Or true persecution.  I’ve had faithful Christians tell me that Christians are being persecuted because people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  We Christians are fast losing our cultural power, it’s true, but being less powerful is not the same as being persecuted, and many Christians today follow James and John’s belief from our Gospel that power is something Christians should seek.  We give lip service to serving others, we give lip service to “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” but we don’t really know what it means.

So let’s look at what Jesus meant, and what that looked like in his life and the lives of early Christians.  For Jesus, service came in two forms: earthly service, and spiritual service, although he didn’t really separate them out that way.  For Jesus, they seem to have been all the same.  He healed the sick and forgave their sins at the same time.  He fed the hungry.  He built community wherever he went, eating with sinners and religious authorities.  All were welcome.  If any had a need—physical or spiritual—that he could fill, he did.  And if any criticized him for doing so, he rebuked them regardless of their power.  He taught anyone who would listen, regardless of who they were or what they had done in the past.  He loved them all, and welcomed them even when society objected.  He offended a lot of people by eating with sinners and outcasts.  He did it anyway, because loving his neighbors—ALL his neighbors—was more important to him than cosying up to the powerful.  If Jesus had spent less time building community with outcasts and welcoming the downtrodden and more time upholding the existing social order, the authorities probably wouldn’t have felt so threatened by him that they chose to execute him.  But if he had sought earthly power, he wouldn’t have been able to reach the people who most needed him—the suffering, the sinners, the powerless.

In a very real way, his suffering and his death cannot be separated from his service.  When Jesus says he came not to be served but to serve, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Everything he said and did was a service to others.  And it all culminated in his death.  He died to save the cosmos from sin and death, he died to redeem sinners, he died to serve the very people he had served in life: all people, of every tribe and race and class and category.  His suffering was not random, not the whim of a cruel and indifferent taskmaster.  Jesus suffered and died so that we might live.  This is not suffering for the sake of suffering.  Jesus came that we all—every human being ever created—might have life, and have it abundantly, both in this life and the next.  And he was willing to put in the work to make it happen, by serving people, body and soul, through feeding, healing, teaching, forgiving, and finally, by dying and rising again at Easter.

The early church followed Jesus far more closely than we do today.  The early church didn’t seek power or wealth; the early church served.  They fed the hungry, healed the sick, visited prisoners, and created communities in which nobody could lord it over anyone else.  They weren’t perfect; they were still sinful humans just like us, and they failed often, but by and large they worked to create communities where all were welcome, where all could hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and where hungry people were fed, sick people healed, naked people clothed, lonely people befriended, and nobody abused or abandoned or neglected.  And together, as the Body of Christ in the world, they did amazing things.  Just as Christians have done amazing things throughout history whenever we have let go of our own selfish expectations and truly devoted ourselves to following Jesus no matter where he leads.

And, just as people had been suspicious of Jesus for his service, people were suspicious of those early Christians.  Everybody wants power, or so the Roman Empire thought; so if Christians don’t seem to be seeking power the traditional way, they must be trying to overthrow the current order and set themselves up instead.  So Christians were persecuted.  Many were killed.  But still they kept serving.  St. Lawrence is my favorite example of the early church.  Lawrence was a deacon, which means “servant.”  He coordinated the church’s ministry in Rome.  It was his job to go out into the city, figure out what poor people needed, and help them get it.  He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, prayed for the sick and brought the medicine they needed.  Lawrence did anything and everything he could to see that everyone in his city had what they needed.  And, in so doing, he was publicly known as a Christian, and so when persecution started, he was one of the first brought to trial.  Now, because he was the head deacon, Lawrence was also in charge of all the money the church collected for charity.  And the judge knew that.  So the judge said, “I’ll let you go, if you give me the treasure of your church.”  Lawrence agreed, and said he would need a day to collect it.  So the judge released him.

The next day, Lawrence returned with the treasure of the church: all the poor people he served.  You see, Lawrence didn’t care for riches, or power; Lawrence cared for the grace and mercy of God.  Lawrence knew that the Christian life is not about safety or security, not about power or wealth or glory, but about service.  And when there is a conflict between the powers of this world and service to God, well, we’re not called to serve the powers of this world.  He followed Jesus’ example, and like Jesus, he was executed.  Legend says he was roasted alive over a griddle, and that his last words were “turn me over, I’m done on that side!”

We live in a much different world than those early Christians.  Nobody here will ever be in danger of being executed for being a Christian.  We won’t lose our jobs, or homes, or anything like that.  We have it a lot easier than Lawrence did!  And yet, we’ve forgotten what it means to truly serve.  Like James and John, we’ve let the world’s love of power and glory guide our views and goals, instead of Christ’s call to service.  We are seldom willing to follow Christ if it means going outside our comfort zone, or lowering our status, or dealing with people who are different from us.  And I wonder, what would it look like if we changed that.  What would it look like, if we put following Christ and serving the world at the top of our priority list?  What would it look like if we stopped judging by the world’s standards of power and glory and wealth and influence?

Amen

Sell all you have and give it to the poor

Lectionary 28B, October 14, 2018

Mark 10:17-3, Psalm 90:12-17, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

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

Most sermons I’ve heard on this topic have spent more time trying to explain away Jesus words than to explore them.  If you want a Bible passage guaranteed to bring out justifications of how Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, or he meant it, but it doesn’t apply to us, this is it.  There are several things in this passage that I suspect most of us—myself included—don’t really want to hear.  The first and most obvious is Jesus’ command to give up our property.  We like our wealth!  And even the poorest of us here today is probably wealthier than the rich guy in the Gospel was.  We have far more possessions than anyone in Jesus’ day would ever have dreamt of owning.  We may not be rich by the standards of the modern world, but we are rich compared to Jesus and most of his listeners—including the disciples.  Property is wonderful.  Our homes keep us warm and dry, give us safe places to store our stuff.  We have all these wonderful devices like stoves and washing machines and vacuums that make our lives easier and we also have things like televisions and computers that provide entertainment.  We have cars that allow us to go where we want.  Money and possessions can’t buy happiness—but they can sure fix a lot of the things that make us unhappy.  Money can buy safety and stability.  Money can buy help when we need it.  Money can buy anything from basic physical needs like food, water, and shelter to more ____ desires like “interesting things to do.”  Nobody wants to be poor.  Nobody wants to give up what they have.  Most people, given a chance, would MUCH rather have MORE stuff than we have now, rather than less.

Now, granted, money can do bad things.  Money can corrupt.  Money can be used to bribe.  People sometimes do terrible things to get money, or let their desire for money influence them to treat people badly.  People make decisions based on profit or cost rather than on ethics.  For example, after some recent exposes about just how bad things are on many cocoa plantations, Nestle announced that they couldn’t possibly stop buying cocoa beans from plantations that used slave labor because it would cost too much and they’d have to raise their prices.  And people judge others based more on how much money they have than by what sort of person they are, which is why poor families where the parents genuinely are trying to do their best for their children are more likely to have those children placed in foster care than rich families where the parents actively abuse their children.  Money can be used as a status symbol, to decide who matters and who doesn’t.  Money—or rather, a love of money allowed to dominate our thinking—can and does do a lot of evil.  All you have to do is read our Old Testament reading from Amos to hear just how the love of money can corrupt a society, and how dire and devastating it is when that happens.

The thing is, there’s no evidence that the guy with lots of possessions in our Gospel reading has been doing any of that.  He seems to be a faithful guy who genuinely wants to get closer to God, and has done his best to live a good life.  Society was small in those days, and there weren’t many rich people around.  If he were, say, using his power and wealth to cheat people or profit off of injustice, there’s a good chance the disciples would have known.  Jesus certainly would.  And it’s not mentioned.  This man with many possessions was probably not a bad person.  He says he’s been faithful all his life and tried to follow God’s commandments, and asks what else he needs to do.  Jesus looks at him, loves him, and tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor.  And the guy goes away grieving, because he’s got a lot of possessions and he doesn’t want to sell them, any more than you or I would.  And Jesus says that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to be saved.

The disciples are shocked.  Absolutely SHOCKED.  Then, as now, people tend to take material wealth and success as measures of God’s love and blessing.  If you are rich, we think, you must be doing something right.  If you are successful, you must be doing something right.  Conversely, if you are poor, we often assume that you must be doing something wrong.  And if you were a good person, if you were doing everything you were supposed to, you wouldn’t be poor because you would have lifted yourself up with your own bootstraps and God would have rewarded you.  If you are rich, it’s because you deserve it, you’ve earned it, and God has blessed you for deserving it.  If you’re poor, it must be your own fault.  In this way of thinking, it’s not that a person can buy their way into heaven … but if they’ve got money, it’s usually a sign that they’re already in God’s good books and have earned salvation in some way.  Because no matter how many sermons we’ve heard on how salvation is a free gift of God, we still think of salvation as something we can earn, as something we can work hard enough to deserve.

Which is why, when Jesus says how hard it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, the disciples’ response—our response—is disbelief.  But the thing is, we can’t do anything to earn our way into God’s good books, and even if we could, it would have nothing to do with material possessions.  Money—or the lack of it—has nothing to do with how good a person you are.  Some people earn great wealth while being genuinely good people.  Some people get wealth through sheer luck, by being born into a family with money, or being exceptionally good at sports or music or something.  Some people get wealth by cheating and exploiting others.  And some people are poor because they make bad choices, but others are poor through sheer luck, by being born into a poor family in a bad area, or being disabled and unable to work, or only able to get jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.  And some people are poor because they’re being exploited or cheated.  The amount of money a person has tells you absolutely NOTHING about their character.

You know what money tells you?  How dependent someone is.  If you have enough money, you don’t need other people.  Or, at least, you don’t have to depend on them.  You can buy anything you need.  Food, shelter, a plane ticket to a better place, healthcare, a housekeeper or assistant to take care of all the little stuff, a lawyer to get you out of legal trouble, you name it, money can buy it.  And when you can get yourself out of most problems without outside help, you start to believe that everything good that happens in your life is because you earned it.  Even the stuff you didn’t earn, like your health, is because you deserve it, right?  And if you’re exploiting people or taking advantage of them, it’s not really wrong, because if they were smart they’d have managed to do as well as you did.  The more money you have, the easier it is not to care about other people.  The more money you have, the less important kindness seems: it’s easy to be kind, and it probably won’t cost you much, and it’s easy not to be kind, and if someone is not kind to you, it probably isn’t going to make a huge difference.  The more money you have, the less you have to depend on anybody but yourself.  The less you have to depend on God.

Poor people, by and large, don’t have the delusion of independence.  They know that their survival and well-being depend on the generosity of others.  They know that it’s possible to work hard and do everything right and still not be able to make it on your own.  They know what it’s like to depend on others for their daily bread.  They know how important that daily bread is, because they can’t always take it for granted that they’ll have it.  And they know just how incredibly important kindness is.  A kind person—whether a neighbor or a stranger—can literally make the difference between eating and going hungry.  When you can’t pay for hardly anything, you depend on others.  Being poor doesn’t guarantee that a person will be a Christian, of course, but Christians who are poor, whether here or across the world, understand that we all depend on God far more clearly than those of us with many possessions.

Here’s the thing.  Salvation is a gift from God.  Forgiveness, abundant life in God’s kingdom, these are all things that no human being could ever hope to earn.  There’s just no way.  Our sins are too great, our failures too many.  There is no good deed, or series of good deeds, or perfect behavior, that can buy God’s love.  We can’t earn it, and we absolutely, positively, do not deserve it.  On our own, salvation is impossible.  Rich or poor, we cannot be saved by our own merits.  Money and possessions can buy a good life in this world, but they are worth exactly jack in the kingdom to come.  And the more security you have in this world, the harder it is to believe that none of it matters in the long run.

The guy asked Jesus what he can do to inherit eternal life.  He’s spent his life doing good works as if that will earn salvation.  But there’s nothing he can do.  There’s nothing we can do.  If he sells everything and gives it to the poor, maybe he’ll be vulnerable enough to learn to depend on God.  But even if he doesn’t, giving all that to the poor would mean a lot of hungry people fed, a lot of sick people healed.  That generosity will have a big impact on this world; but nothing we say or do has much impact on the next.  We do good things in this life because we should do good things, but we can’t earn our way into heaven.  We depend on God for that.  And with God, all things are possible.

Amen

Marriage and Hard Hearts

Lectionary 27B, October 7, 2018

Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

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.  Amen.

“Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  The thing about this verse is that there are at least two things that don’t translate very well into English, or are misleading.  First is the word “helper.”  In English, that word gives us the impression that the helper is a subordinate.  Think of children helping their parents, or an aide helping their superior.  But in Hebrew, the word doesn’t have that connotation.  In the Bible, “helper” is most often used to describe God.  God is our helper.  The word implies that the one who helps is a powerful person, not an underling or a subordinate.

Second is the word “partner.”  Partner, in English, is a word that is very businesslike and limited.  A business partnership is a contract between two or more people to accomplish a specific goal, like running a law firm together.  Outside of that one goal, the partners may not have anything to do with one another or care about one another.  But the Hebrew phrase implies a much deeper relationship, one that goes beyond than contracts and obligations.  If you’ve ever had a friend or loved one whom you just clicked with, who understood you on the deepest level, who would drop anything for you if you needed them and who you would do the same for, that’s what this verse means.  Or, as Ecclesiastes puts it, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?”

One thing the Bible is very clear on, from the beginning to the end, is that being human means being in relationship with others.  When we read this passage, we tend to focus on what it means for gender relations or for marriages, but the first thing we should remember is that it is not good for humans to be alone.  This is still in the garden of Eden, before the fall; sin has not yet entered the world.  Everything so far has been “good.”  The human’s aloneness is the first thing that is not good.  We were created in God’s image, and God is a relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all three together.  In the same way, human beings were created to be in relationships.  And that’s why God split that first human being in two and created Adam and Eve.  And by “relationships” I don’t just mean romantic relationships, either.  Parent-child relationships.  Friendships.  Sibling relationships.  Neighborly relationships.  Mentorships.  These are all incredibly important to our spiritual well-being.  Good relationships help us grow and sustain us even in our darkest times.  But when sin intervenes—when our relationships are twisted or bad—they are incredibly damaging and make our lives measurably worse.  The Bible spends more time focusing on our relationships with other human beings, in all their variety, than it does focusing on our relationship with God.  Why?  Because God created us to be in relationship with other people.  And those relationships can do either great harm or great good.

Marriage is one of the most fundamental of those relationships.  It is the foundation, not just for the relationship between spouses but of a life together which may include children and which will affect every other relationship we have.  God wants that marriage to be a partnership in the Biblical sense, one that nourishes both spouses, in which both receive what they need and work together for their common good.  God intends that marriage should be faithful, that both spouses should be committed to one another in not just body but mind and heart, too.  There’s a reason that adultery is the only sexual sin mentioned in the Ten Commandments.  It’s a betrayal of the relationship and of the faith the spouses place in one another.  God intends marriage to be a thing that gives joy and helps both spouses to grow in faith and love, which gives support in time of trouble.

And that’s not an easy thing to maintain!  We don’t live in the garden of Eden anymore.  Even in the best marriage, there are going to be times when things don’t work right.  Times when one or both spouses is selfish or self-centered, times when they do things that hurt their spouse, times when anger or fear or jealousy or indifference lead to words or actions that break down the relationship, or hurt one another.  Or sometimes they take it for granted that the help should only be going one way, and what should be mutual support and partnership turns into one taking advantage of the other.  None of these things are what God intends marriage to be.  And they all hurt.  And it’s a hard thing to recover from; it’s hard to fix the problems and build a good and life-giving relationship back up.  I’ve never been married myself, but I’ve seen it in friends and family and parishioners.  It is hard work, but can be so rewarding if both spouses are willing to honestly do their best to build a better relationship.

But sometimes, one or both spouses isn’t willing to put in the hard work to build a better relationship.  Sometimes they like taking advantage of their spouse.  Sometimes they like hurting their spouse.  Sometimes they don’t like hurting their spouse, but don’t care enough about it to change the things in them that lead them to hurt their spouse.  Sometimes they like using their spouse as an emotional or physical punching bag, someone to blame and attack when things go wrong.  Sometimes they decide that desiring someone else means it’s okay to be unfaithful.  Sometimes they want to trade their spouse in for a younger model.  Sometimes there are other problems.  All these things are caused by a hardness of heart.  And, if they go on long enough, they can cause SERIOUS damage, not just to the relationship, but the people in it.  And when that happens, it is a perversion of God’s good gift of marriage.

Every society throughout history has struggled with this problem.  What do you do when human hard-heartedness pervert’s God’s good gift of marriage?  What do you do when a relationship that is supposed to be life-giving and supportive turns destructive?  What do you do when one or both spouses either can’t or won’t put in the work to get the relationship to a healthier state?  If you make divorce hard, you trap people in destructive mockeries of what marriage is supposed to be.  If you make divorce easy, then people in destructive or abusive relationships can escape them … but some people who could heal the problems in their marriage if they put in the effort will decide they simply don’t want to do the hard work, and walk away from their marriage.  Where do you draw the line?  What about relationships where it’s not abusive, but it’s not the mutually supportive relationship God intended?  What about when there are children?  What about when one spouse—usually the wife—has no resources to live on if they divorce?  Human beings, and human relationships, are complicated.  These are not easy calls to make, and there is no hard-and-fast one-size-fits-all rule that everyone can agree on.

Which is why the Pharisees asked about divorce when they were looking to test Jesus.  They don’t like him and they’re looking for a way to discredit him.  So they choose a topic which has lots of debate about it, which has far-reaching implications.  No matter what he says, somebody’s going to be offended.  If he says divorce is legal, they can crow about how he’s not following God’s law.  If he says divorce is illegal, they can crow about how he’s not following Moses’ law, and has no compassion to boot.

Jesus responds by pointing out the flaw in their argument.  If a relationship is to a point where divorce is being thought of, it’s already a violation of God’s good gift.  God gave marriage to be a support and a help and a partnership, a nurturing relationship in which a couple can depend on each other and trust one another to be there for them and help them grow.  If one or both spouses is contemplating divorce … there’s already a problem, whether or not a divorce actually results.  And if they want a divorce not because their relationship is damaging, but simply because the grass is greener on the other side, well, they’re going to leave a lot of damage in their wake.  But whatever the reasons, the ultimate problem is not the divorce itself, but the hard-heartedness that leads to it.  Divorce is one of the things that can happen when human sin and hardness of heart corrupt a marriage.

God gave marriage for a reason.  To be a supporting relationship that will help people grow strong and healthy.  Marriage—a good, healthy, mutually-supporting relationship—can be a great gift from God, one that takes hard work to maintain.  But we humans are hard of heart, and sometimes we turn marriage into something unhealthy, something that is nothing like what God created marriage to be.  We give thanks to God for all good and life-giving relationships.  And where heard-heartedness breaks or corrupts relationships, we pray for the safety, the healing, and the recovery of those who have been hurt by it.

Trying to Stop the Spirit

Lectionary 25B, September 30, 2018

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29, Psalm 19:7-14, James 5:13-20, Mark 9:38-50

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.  Amen.

“John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’”  John—one of Jesus’ disciples, one of the Twelve—saw someone casting out demons and thought to himself, “how terrible!”  This is one of many places in the Bible where faithful followers of God get upset that other people are doing things in God’s name.  Another example is in our first lesson from Numbers.  Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, out and among the general people instead of where Moses and the other Israelite leaders were gathered.  The Holy Spirit was with them, speaking in and through them!  And Joshua ask Moses to stop them!

When I was a kid, I thought stories like these were incredibly unbelievable.  Not the casting out demons and the prophesying; I had total faith that if demons existed God could give the power to cast them out, and that God could give people the spirit enough to speak in God’s name.  No, the thing that was unbelievable to me was the response people had to such demonstrations of God’s power.  Demons were being cast out, and they thought it was a bad thing?  The Holy Spirit was being poured out on people, and they thought it was a bad thing?  They wanted to stop it?  Come on, that is TOTALLY unbelievable.  It was obvious that the power of God was working!  Surely, God’s faithful people would never try and stop the Holy Spirit!

I don’t find it unbelievable any longer.  I’ve seen it too many times among God’s faithful people.  I’ve even done it myself!  There are a lot of reasons, but far too often we as God’s people see God at work in the world and try to shut it down.  Oh, we don’t say that’s what we’re doing, even to ourselves.  We find all sorts of justifications, ways to explain how it wasn’t really God at work, it wasn’t really good, and so we were right to try and shut it down.  Unfortunately, sometimes we succeed.  We shut down God’s work in and among us and in the larger society, and then we wonder where God is.

Joshua wanted to stop Eldad and Medad because he was jealous.  God’s Spirit had been given to the elders, to the in-crowd, to the ones who supported Moses.  That was exactly where Joshua wanted that power: with those he approved of, those he followed.  Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man, and he knew all the stuff Moses had had to put up with, and here are two guys who refused to join Moses who are prophesying!  Obviously, it’s bad, Joshua thought.  Moses is God’s chosen leader.  Therefore, the Spirit of God can only come to those who follow Moses, those who are part of our party.  So no matter what it looks like, they can’t really have the Spirit of God.  Because if it was really the Spirit, they would have come and joined Moses.  Therefore, Eldad and Medad must be stopped.

The thing is, God’s power doesn’t work like that.  God’s Holy Spirit is not stingy.  It doesn’t measure out wisdom and power by the teaspoonful in the appropriate places.  The Holy Spirit is a bonfire, or a raging flood, or a rushing wind.  It overflows, it goes where it wills, it is not confined, it cannot be controlled.  It’s not bound by Human rules or conventions or traditions, but by the will of God.  The world would be a much better place if everyone were open to the Spirit, and followed where it led.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the leadership, the in group.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is with the people on the outside, the people who have no power or leadership role.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit is in both places at once, with insiders and outsiders, the people we agree with and the people we don’t agree with.  Even when we are truly following God’s guidance, that doesn’t mean that other people aren’t following God’s guidance as well.  Joshua had to learn that, and so do we.  The way we think God should organize things is not necessarily the way God chooses to organize things.  And when it comes down to a choice between our will and God’s will, the only faithful thing to do is choose to follow God.

Then there are the disciples.  They, too, were jealous.  There was a man casting out demons in Jesus’ name—publicly showing Jesus’ power, and taking tangible part of that power as well—and he wasn’t one of them!  Our Gospel reading this week is a continuation of last week’s Gospel, it’s the same day.  They’ve been arguing about which of them is the greatest, and Jesus told them they were missing the point.  He took a child and told them that they should be like children, that the Christian life is about service and sacrifice, not power and glory.  And they learned nothing from his words.  They’re still focused on power.  They don’t want to talk about sacrifice, or responsibility, or taking care of children and other vulnerable people.  They want power to be concentrated with them, in their little group.  Not with this random outsider who is doing more impressive things in Jesus’ name than they are.  They don’t care how much good this other guy does; he’s not one of them, he’s not doing the things they think he should be doing, so he needs to be stopped.  The love Jesus’ power, but only when they benefit, only when they’re at the center.  Their wants, needs, fears, and comfort level are more important than any of the people this other guy is helping.  And so they want him stopped.  They don’t care how many people are suffering.  All they care about is themselves.

It’s no wonder Jesus is so harsh with them.  They are not listening to him!  He’s trying to tell them to put love first, to care about others in word and deed, to put more attention into serving those in need than into their own power and comfort levels.  And how do they respond?  By doubling down on their selfish jealousy!  They are letting their own pride and selfishness become a stumbling block to following Jesus, and in the process they themselves are being stumbling blocks to others.  They are trying to shut down someone who is saving people from evil.  They are trying to stop people from getting help they desperately need.  They are trying to keep those who need Jesus most from receiving healing in his name.  They, who claim to be Jesus’ most devoted followers, are trying to stop Jesus’ power from working in the world, and all because it’s not happening in ways they approve of.  And it’s dangerous, and it’s wrong, and it’s hurting people.  All their self-righteous justifications are a great big millstone dragging them down and keeping them from understanding Jesus; and worse, they’re preventing others from following Jesus, too.

And we Christians today do the same thing.  When God is at work among us, when God’s Holy Spirit is giving wisdom or healing, all too often we try to shut it down.  Sometimes it’s because of jealousy, or because it’s coming from outside our comfortable circle.  A lot of the times we try to shut it down because it’s leading us places we don’t want to go, or trying to make us deal with people we don’t want to deal with.  People who have demons, literal or metaphorical.  People who don’t look like us, or sound like us.  People who are different.  Or sometimes we shut God’s Spirit down because it requires us to change.  Given a choice between our traditions and following Jesus, most Christians will take their traditions every time … and then claim that they’re being faithful.  God called us to do a particular thing long ago, and it was good, and we’re comfortable with it, and therefore we tell ourselves that God can’t ask us to do something new or different.  We place our trust in our traditions and rules and comfort level, instead of in the Holy Spirit of God.  And in so doing, we become stumbling blocks.  We get in the way of God’s work in the world.  We create a culture of saying no to everything.  We lose our saltiness.  We work against God’s will, and all the while claim we’re being faithful.

I like traditions, myself.  I get in a rut very easily, and I like my well-worn patterns.  But God keeps calling us to do new things.  And God keeps calling us to love and serve all people, not just the ones we like, but even the ones we don’t like.  So here’s my challenge for us: to open ourselves to how God is calling us here, and now.  And not just to the ideas that are comfortable, or that we’ve done before.  What is God calling us to do that might make us uncomfortable?  What is God calling us to do that we’ve never done before?  What is God calling us to do that we would rather not do?  How is God calling us to love and serve our neighbors that aren’t like us?  What would it be like to actually follow the Spirit wherever it led?

Let us pray.  Holy Spirit, living Word of God, breathe new life into us.  Break our fears and help us avoid the temptation to close our hearts and minds to you.  Stir up in us a passion for your will that will lead us out into the community to speak your word and act as God’s hands and feet in the world.

Amen.

Welcome the Children

Lectionary 25B, September 23, 2018

Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:8a, Mark 9:30-37

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.  Amen.

We did not spend much time studying Jesus’ welcoming of children in seminary, despite the fact that it is a common theme in the Gospel of Mark.  Nor were we encouraged to preach on those passages.  You see, people now—since the Victorian era, basically—have a much different view of children and childhood than people did in Jesus’ day.  In Jesus’ day, children were the most vulnerable members of society, and the least valued.  Half of all children died before the age of ten; if you survived to reach adulthood, then you were worth paying attention to.  It’s not that parents didn’t love their children, but rather that many of them kept emotional distance until they knew whether the child would live or not.  And society as a whole really did not care about children.  The basic strategy was, have as many kids as possible, work them hard so their labor benefits the family as much as possible, and hope enough of them survived to take care of you in your old age.  Parents loved their children, but the overall culture still believed that children should be seen and not heard, that children should be worked hard, that children were not valuable.  Families cared for their own children, and the children of their friends, but not other children.  And society as a whole didn’t care.  If a child’s family couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them, or were abusive, there was little help available.  There was no concept of children as special, or innocent, or to be protected.  Childhood was a dangerous, hard, ignored part of life that you escaped as soon as you could.

In that context, when Jesus spends several chapters repeatedly chastising his followers for their power-hungry squabbling and telling them to be more like children, it was something surprising, shocking.  You want us to be like children, Jesus?  Some of the most vulnerable, ignored, unimportant people in town?  No thank you!  The disciples wanted power, riches, glory—they wanted to be important.  They wanted to matter.  They wanted, in short, everything the children in their community didn’t have.  But unlike the disciples we live in a society that values and cares about children, in which “think of the children!” is one of the most effective calls to action there is.  So, a professor told me, sermons preached on Jesus’ words about children usually aren’t very effective, because they just turn into maudlin sentimentality about how wonderful children are.

The United States is currently locking up hundreds of children for the crime of coming to this country from someplace else.  Many of them were ripped from their parents’ arms, and despite court orders, many of them have still not been reunited with their parents.  In Flint, Michigan, it has been over four years since their water became unsafe, and yet most children do not have access to safe water for washing and drinking in their own homes.  Nationwide, American schools now employ more guards than counselors.  We would rather lock children up than help them mature and grow healthier.  America is the richest nation in the world, yet over 20% of American children today live in poverty, and 40% of American children today will spend at least a year in poverty sometime before they turn 18.  Despite sharply rising child poverty rates, we have spent the last several decades making steady cuts to kids’ education, nutrition, social services, and healthcare.  As a nation, we have decided that such programs are too expensive.  We have decided that taking care of our children is too expensive.  The picture gets even bleaker when you look specifically at the reality faced by children who are not white, or children with disabilities.  Rates of poverty are even higher, and resources are even scarcer, and discrimination is sadly all too common.

So as I was reading this text this week, I found myself asking: how different are we, from people in the disciples’ day?  Do we really love and value children more than they did?  And if so, which children do we care about?  We care a lot about children who are middle-class, white, normal, and photogenic.  The further away from that they are, the less attention we pay, and the less we care.  The church is sometimes better than the rest of America, but not always.  I read an article in Christian Century magazine a while back, in which the writer—a nationally-known church speaker—recounted a story of doing a seminar in a large church.  Sunday morning, after worship, one of the Sunday School teachers came up to her with a dilemma: there was a Latina girl in her Sunday School class that she didn’t recognize.  The child might be an undocumented immigrant.  Should the teacher call the cops?  No, the speaker had to explain.  The job of the church is not to enforce immigration policy, but to spread the good news of Jesus.  You know, the guy who said to welcome children?  It’s amazing, but even good, committed Christians often need to be reminded of Jesus’ words.

When Jesus told us to welcome children, he didn’t mean to just welcome the ones from families like ours, the ones we’re most comfortable with, the ones we would naturally be caring about anyway.  Because there’s absolutely no need to tell people to welcome people they already want to welcome!  Even in those days, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles loved their kids, and most adults probably kept an eye out for the children of people in their social circle just like we do today.  Jesus meant all children, but especially the ones we wouldn’t choose to welcome normally.  The ones we might not care about as much.  The ones who look different, or speak different languages or come from the wrong side of the tracks or have bad backgrounds.  The ones our society tells us are bad, or wrong, or dangerous, or inconvenient, or just plain worthless.  The ones we might be tempted to shove aside, as the disciples repeatedly did.  Those are the ones we need to welcome.  Those are the ones we have to care for.  Because those are the ones in greatest danger, the ones in deepest need.  If we welcome them, Jesus says, it’s the same as welcoming Jesus.  If we don’t welcome them … we are not welcoming Jesus.  The way we care for those who are most vulnerable is directly tied to the way we care for Jesus.  If we do not serve those in need, we do not serve Jesus.  This is a common theme in Jesus’ teaching.  And yet it’s one we often forget.

The disciples were arguing among themselves about who was going to be the most important of Jesus’ followers.  They dreamed of the day he would overthrow the Roman government and set himself up as God’s Anointed King, just like his ancestor David.  No matter how often he told them that he was building a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom based on sacrifice instead of power, they did not listen.  They repeatedly fought over who would be the greatest and who would have the most power and influence.  They ignored Jesus’ teachings that he would be betrayed and die; they ignored his teachings to welcome the children and others who were vulnerable.  They put their own pride and ambition above serving those who needed help.  That’s why Jesus had to keep repeating those teachings.

Are we any different?  We live in a society that worships power, in which we love winners and hate losers.  That was one of the worst insults you could call someone in my school as a kid—that they were a “loser.”  We love underdog stories … but only if the underdogs win in the end, triumphing against all odds.  We want to win, and we quickly turn on those who don’t win.  Often, unfortunately, we make “winning” more important than “doing the right thing.”  And Christians do this to, despite all of Jesus’ teachings to the contrary.

Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  We as Christians are not called to power and glory, but to service and sacrifice.  Especially the service of those who cannot help themselves, the ones society ignores or shoves aside or lets fall through the cracks or abuses.  We as Christians follow the one who submitted himself to the most humiliatingly painful death imaginable in order to save sinners.  If we want to follow him, if we want to serve him, we have to be willing to serve others as he did.  Especially the most vulnerable.  And I pray that God will work within us here, now, today, and send us out into the community to work for a society in which all children are safe, and valued, and loved.  Not just some children, but all children.

Amen.