All the Nations

First Sunday of Advent, November 27th, 2016

Isaiah 2:1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:36-44

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.

This week is the first Sunday of Advent, the church season where we prepare for the coming of Christ among us.  On the most obvious level, we are preparing for Christmas, the day Jesus was born 2,000 years ago.  And so we sing Christmas carols and decorate the church and put on Christmas pageants.  But we are also preparing for Christ to come again to judge the living and the dead.  As Christians, we live between the promise made with Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and the fulfilling of that promise when Christ comes again.  Which is why our readings for this first Sunday of Advent  are about the adult Jesus telling his followers to be ready for him to come again, and the prophet Isaiah telling us what God’s kingdom to come will look like.

As I was reading and studying the texts for this Sunday, and listening to the news, I kept coming back to the first reading, and the image of the nations streaming up to the Lord’s house—all people from across the world coming to it and walking in God’s paths.  It’s such a beautiful image of what God’s kingdom will be like.  In fact, every time the Bible discusses who will be there, the various writers make the point that it will be all people, from every nation and tribe.  In other words, not just “us,” whoever “us” happens to be.  And that’s a crucial point: humans by nature like to divide people into categories and exclude those who aren’t like us.  We tell ourselves stories to justify why we’re good and they’re bad.  And then we only notice the things that fit those stories.  We are hyper-aware of differences, and those differences can’t just be differences—they are signs that we are better because there is a right way and a wrong way and obviously, we’re right and they are wrong.  This is something all humans of every continent, race, religion, and ethnicity are prone to do.  It comes and goes in waves, and right now there is a wave of racist thoughts and actions sweeping our country.  In the last few months, some North Dakotans have used the conflict over the pipeline as an excuse to harass and attack Native Americans.  In the last few months, some Americans have painted swastikas on Jewish homes and businesses.  In the last few months, the number of hate crimes against blacks and Latinos have escalated in this country have escalated.  In the last few weeks, neo-Nazis have held open rallies in American cities and an alt-right spokesman went on CNN to debate whether Jews were really people.  All of this traces back to the idea that some people matter more than others, that some people are better than others because of the group they were born into.  This is something humans do, in this broken, fallen, sinful world.  We look for reasons to hate and divide ourselves up and attack one another.

But it’s not something God does.  In fact, God spends significant time throughout the Bible combating that type of thought whenever it creeps up.  It starts out in the first chapter of Genesis when we are taught that all people—of all nations, all genders, everyone—was created in God’s image.  White, Black, Native American, Asian, Latino, everyone is a beloved child of God created in God’s own image.  And when God gave the law to Moses, God repeated many times throughout the law that outsiders should be protected, not condemned or ostracized.  And when the Israelites strayed from that teaching and discriminated against outsiders, God reacted.  For example, in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, the Israelites made laws forbidding their people from marrying non-Israelites, forcing divorces where such marriages already occurred, and throwing out any mixed-race children.  There were also laws forbidding non-Israelite participation in society.  But in that same period, two books were added to the Bible directly criticizing that.  The first, Ruth, tells the story of a foreigner—a pagan—who came to God and married an Israelite and became the grandmother of the great King David.  In the middle of prejudice and xenophobia, God sent God’s Word to tell a true story of a foreigner as an example of faithfulness, and to remind God’s people that David, their great hero of the faith, was himself of mixed-race.  The second book is Jonah, which tells the story of a prophet who was sent to proclaim God’s word Israel’s enemy, the city of Ninevah.  Jonah doesn’t want to go, but God forces him to.  The point of the story is that Israel’s enemies are just as much God’s children—just as beloved to God—as Israel was.

Jesus spent most of his time ministering among the Jews, but he also went to the Greeks and all the other ethnic groups in his area, and held no distinctions between them.  When his disciples tried to impose their society’s ethnic boundaries, Jesus rebuked them.  And when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples at Pentecost, the first thing it did was give them the ability to preach to all sorts of different people in their own native tongues.  Why?  Because God loves all people of every land, and they are all God’s children, and they all need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, who became truly human, who is coming back to judge the world and to save it.

And in the early Christian church, too, people started to try to discriminate: they based worship practices on separating out rich people from poor people, Jews from Greeks, and women from men.  Paul wrote to condemn such things, because in Christ there is no distinction between ethnic groups, genders, or economic class.  All are one in Christ.  And when we try to separate people out and discriminate against some, we deny that.  We exclude and hurt people that Christ died to save.

In Revelation, there are many images of what God’s kingdom will be like, and Revelation, just like Isaiah, tells us that all people, from every tribe and nation, will be there in God’s kingdom, and that there will be no distinction between them, for all will be united in Christ.  So if you ask me “what the kingdom of God looks like,” and ask me to put together a picture from all the different images and visions of God’s kingdom in the Bible, I can tell you a few things.  1) it’s going to be a great party where there is no suffering or pain or grief, and 2) it’s going to be intensely multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-everything.  And if you think I’m exaggerating, the Greek word usually translated as “nation” is “eqhnos”, which is where the word “ethnic” comes from.  All nations—and all ethnic groups—are equally beloved of God, and all will be part of God’s kingdom.

But we human beings, we keep coming up with reasons to hate, reasons to fear, reasons to discriminate.  We tell ourselves stories about how terrible other groups are, and then we tell ourselves it’s not really bad to discriminate against them because they really are like that.  We take every bad example of other groups as the norm for them, while pretending our own bad apples don’t exist.  An example of this is the police department of Fergusson, Missouri.  That police department focused most of its attention on investigating and harassing black people.  When accused of racial bias, they said they focused on black people because black people committed more crimes.  After the protests in 2014 the Federal Government launched an investigation.  They found that the police were wrong: black people in Ferguson were no more likely to commit crimes than white people were.  But the police of Ferguson believed that blacks were criminals.  So when a black person committed a crime, they took it as evidence that black people were all prone to criminality.  When a white person committed a crime, however, they thought he was just a bad apple.  Everything they saw and experienced was twisted to fit into the story they told themselves: that black people were criminals and white people were good people.  The story wasn’t true, but they genuinely believed it.  And so they acted unjustly, harassing innocent citizens because of the color of their skin.  They broke up and separated their city, and hurt a lot of people—black and white—in the process.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about race that aren’t true.  We tell stories about Black criminals and thugs, when black people are no more likely to commit crimes than whites are.  We tell stories about immigrants who steal American jobs, when immigrants actually are far more likely to start their own businesses and create jobs than native-born citizens are.  We tell ourselves that other races are lazy, they’re bad, they’re wrong.  And then we look for things around us that confirm those stories.  But those stories are not reality.  And, most crucially, those stories are not God’s story.  God’s story is that every person of every race was created in God’s own image.  God’s story is that each and every human being is equally valuable and beloved, regardless of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, disability, or any other category.  God’s story is that when God’s kingdom comes, all violence and conflict between groups will cease, and all people of every tribe and nation and group will come streaming to God, and all people will love one another instead of finding excuses to hate and fear and discriminate.

So when we break down ethnic or racial barriers, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we challenge ethnic or racial biases, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  When we make the world a little bit more equal, we are making the world a little bit more like God’s kingdom.  On the other hand, when we allow racism and bigotry to flourish, when we see it and do nothing, when we pretend it isn’t there, we are working against God’s kingdom.  When we see discrimination and prejudice and shrug and walk on by, we become complicit in a system that is directly opposed to God’s wishes.  We allow things to get less and less like the good and just kingdom that God is trying to create.  It doesn’t mean we’re horrible people—like I said, this is something all humans do—but it does mean we are not being faithful to God.  It means we are seeing through the eyes of the world, not through God’s eyes.  It’s not easy to challenge bias and racism; it’s not easy to challenge something that so many people believe.  Yet to be faithful to the vision of God’s kingdom, we have to do it.  May we have the courage and the wisdom to see the world through God’s eyes, and God’s story, and not the human stories that divide us.

Amen.

Work to be done.

Twenty-Sixth Sunday After Pentecost (Lectionary 33C), November 13th, 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25, Isaiah 12:2-6, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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.

I have a book called the Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse.  It has two chapters giving a timeline of every time a large number of people thought the world was about to end, from 2,000 BC to 2005, when the book was published.  The first chapter—2,000 BC to 1900—is eighteen pages long.  The second chapter, covering only the last hundred years, is thirty pages long. We are obsessed with the end times: how is it coming, when is it coming, and what should we do to make sure we come through it.  And yet, you will note that we are still here.  Every time we humans have thought surely, the end must be nigh, we have been wrong.  This world will end one day—and be replaced by God’s kingdom—but we are terrible at predicting it.  The disciples wanted to know when it would happen, too; but the closest Jesus ever came to a direct answer was in Mark 13, when he said he didn’t know.  He was a lot more concerned about teaching us how to face difficult times.

“Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” the disciples asked.  When is the world going to end?  Let us know, so that we can prepare!  And Jesus was very insistent that we needed to be prepared, that we needed to be waiting; but he didn’t tell us what the signs were that we should be looking for.

I think the reason Jesus didn’t tell us the specific signs was that if we knew them, we’d be paying too much attention to the signs themselves and not enough to how we’re supposed to be waiting.  Let me give you an example.  In the days of Paul, a decade or two after Jesus died and rose again, people were sure that Jesus was going to come back within their lifetimes.  They were sure that the end of this world and the beginning of the kingdom of God was just right around the corner.  You know what some of them did?  They quit their jobs, spent all day every day praying and waiting passively for Jesus to show up, and they expected the rest of the community to support them while they waited.  And waited.  And waited.  This is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Thessalonians: yes, Jesus Christ is coming back, and yes, there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and yes, we are supposed to wait faithfully for him.  But you know what?  We’re all waiting.  While we wait, there is work to be done.  Nobody gets to say “well, I’m waiting for Jesus, so I’m just going to sit around all day waiting—the community can pay for everything I need in the meantime.”  Everyone is waiting for Jesus, and nobody gets to use that as a reason to expect other people to pay their way.  This was not a case of people being disabled and not able to work, or willing to work and not able to find jobs; this was a case of people not thinking they had to work because Jesus was coming back soon.

And those early Christians were not alone.  Every time people think the world is going to end soon, they do things like this: quit their jobs, sell their stuff, and go out to a mountain or a field somewhere to wait for the second coming.  People have done it twice that I know of in the last decade!  And each time, of course, they were wrong about the date, and then they had to figure out how start over again.  Dropping everything to wait is obviously not the answer.  Which is why, when Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran church, was asked if Jesus was coming back soon and what they should do to prepare, answered this way.  “If I knew that Jesus were coming back tomorrow,” he said, “I would plant a tree today.”  In other words, go on with your lives, living faithfully as Jesus taught us.  That’s how we’re supposed to respond to troubled times; that’s how we’re supposed to deal with the knowledge that the world will eventually end.  Trust in God, and live your life faithfully.

If you find that hard, if you think “there has to be more to it than that!”, let’s remember what we know about God’s kingdom.  Isaiah describes it like this: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.  No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.  They shall not labour in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord…. They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.”

In God’s kingdom, there is still work to be done.  In God’s kingdom, there are houses to be built and gardens and farms and vineyards to be tended.  Except better.  No need to worry about rent or mortgages or foreclosure; no need to worry about crops failing or hail or bad prices or any other problem.  No need to worry about failure at all.  Good communities, where people love and support one another, where everyone is welcome and everyone has a place and everyone has joy, and everyone has work to do that suits them.  No violence, no destruction, no calamity, no cheating, no fear, no anger—because no fear or anger is needed.  Only love, and joy.

And while we wait for God’s kingdom, we are called to work.  No passive waiting for us; the waiting of a Christian is active waiting.  It’s like waiting for Christmas.  We don’t just sit around, November and December; we get busy.  We bake cookies, sing carols, decorate.  We serve our neighbor.  We wait for Christmas by doing things, and in just the same way, we are called to wait for God’s kingdom by doing things.  To work for that world described in Isaiah’s vision.  We can’t create God’s kingdom ourselves, but we can make little pieces of our world a little bit more like it.  In God’s kingdom, all will be fed, so we work to feed those who are hungry.  In God’s kingdom, everything is full of love and joy, so we work to spread love and joy.  In God’s kingdom, there is work for all and all enjoy the benefits of their labors, and so we work towards the goal of just and good employment for everyone who can work.  In God’s kingdom, there is peace, and so we work for peace.  In God’s kingdom, all are healed, and so we work to heal those we can and support those we can’t.  We are called to act with justice and mercy.  We are called to love God and our neighbor.  We can’t fix everything that is broken and wrong in this world, but we can make things better, bit by bit.

That is counter-cultural.  You see, working to make the world more like God’s kingdom, is working to make the world a better place.  It’s working to change the world.  And the world doesn’t want to be changed.  Change is scary.  Change upsets the applecart.  Change means that people who are comfortable with the way things are become uncomfortable, and change means that the people in power might not be powerful any longer.  And so the world tries to prevent change.  The world wants us to be apathetic.  The world wants us to not even notice the injustices in the world, the pain and hurt we cause each other.  The world wants us to think that hurting people is normal, that pain is just the way things are, that there are winners and losers and that nothing we do matters.  If we don’t notice or care, we certainly won’t bother to do the hard work of waiting for God’s kingdom.

And if the world can’t make us apathetic, well, the next best thing is if we’re frightened and angry.  Because when we get scared, we tend to stop looking outside of ourselves.  We focus on ourselves, instead of on the plight of our neighbors.  And worse, instead of waiting and listening for God we chase after anyone who claims they can protect us.  We get angry, and we see people as threats instead of as fellow children of God.  It’s no wonder that when the disciples asked for signs of the end times, Jesus responded by telling them not to be led astray and not to fear.  Fear gets in the way of active waiting.  Fear gets in the way of loving God and loving our neighbor; we can’t love, if we’re afraid.  We can’t think if we’re afraid.  And we are called to love God, to love our neighbor, and to put that love into action.  That’s what the life of a Christian is; that’s what waiting for God’s kingdom is like.

There is destruction in this world.  There is confusion, and pain, and chaos.  There is evil.  But we hope and trust in a God who will take care of us even if this world kills us.  We hope and trust in a God who is creating a kingdom where there is no longer any death, or pain, or destruction, or evil, or fear, or hate.  Only love and joy.  That kingdom isn’t here yet, but it is coming.  May we trust in God, and wait actively for it.

Amen.

Our Refuge and Strength

Reformation Sunday, October 30th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28, John 8:31-36

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.

When I was a kid and I first heard that the hymn “A Mighty Fortress” is based on Psalm 46, I was pretty skeptical.  Because there are, on the surface, a lot of differences and not a lot of similarities between the two lyrics.  A Mighty Fortress is all about, well, God as a fortress.  By contrast, there is not one mention of fortresses in Psalm 46.  The closest it gets is describing God as a “refuge.”  And I don’t know about you, but when I think “refuge” I don’t think “fortress.”  I think of wildlife refuges, where strict management of the local ecology gives a safe space for animals, plants, birds, and fishes, where they can grow and thrive in harmony.  And “refuge” also makes me think of “refugee,” of victims of violence and oppression forced to flee their homes in search of somewhere safe to live.  A Mighty Fortress also spends quite a lot of time talking about the devil, who is nowhere to be found in Psalm 46.  The greatest similarity between the two lyrics is the part about the dangers of the world, the nations raging and kingdoms shaking, and God responding by destroying the weapons of warfare.

But A Mighty Fortress was never meant to be a direct paraphrase of Psalm 46.  A Mighty Fortress was Luther’s attempt at taking the feeling of the psalm—the sort of thoughts and emotions it evokes in its listeners—and expressing those through the vernacular of his day.  Psalm 46 is all about reassuring frightened people.  It faces head-on that there is evil and violence in the world, that there is destruction, that there are very scary things going on all around us: war! Natural disaster!  Nations crumbling!  There is no attempt to whitewash things or put on a Pollyanna-ish positive spin.  There’s some terrible thins happening.  But even in the middle of that, God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how dark the day, no matter how many disasters shake the foundations of our world, we don’t have to be afraid because God is always with us.  The God who has been with our ancestors back to the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who was with us through times of slavery and freedom, exile and homecoming, crop failure and bountiful harvests, and everything that life can throw at us, that God is our God who is with us and will always be with us.  Even though there is some terrifying stuff in the world, when we take the time to stop and breathe and clear our heads, we know that God is God, and he is going to be with us no matter what.

That is a very powerful message.  No matter what happens, we do not need to fear, because God is with us and will never abandon us.  It was a message that people desperately needed to hear in Luther’s day.  After all, there was a lot to be afraid of in the 1500s.  The economy was shifting, enriching some and impoverishing others.  This brought about civil unrest, rebellions and uprisings as poor people tried to strike back at those who were oppressing them.  And I’m not talking about protests and the occasional riot, here, I’m talking about full-scale pitched battles between armies numbering in the thousands.  As if that weren’t enough, the Ottoman Empire repeatedly sent armies up through the Baltic and into Austria.  While there was little chance they could ever set foot on Luther’s own native country, they were still a threat to his neighbors, and there was a widespread fear of them throughout Europe.  And as if that weren’t enough, social change was spreading quickly.  The very ideas of what a family was and how it functioned were changing.  The place of women in society, how people thought about sex, the role of family in the community, everything was changing.  Sound familiar?

All of this was spread and encouraged by new technologies like the printing press that made it easier for people to communicate and spread ideas quickly across great distances.  People were becoming more literate, and as they spent more time thinking and studying, old certainties on which their whole world was based seemed to crumble.  Morality was changing.  Some things that they had thought wrong and evil were being declared good, and vice versa.  People were changing what they thought about sex and intimate relationships.  Nothing could be taken for granted any more, not religion, not the family, not morality, not the economy, not the way society worked.  Everything that people had thought was a firm foundation was crumbling.  Sound familiar?

People were afraid.  People grasped at straws, they hopped on fads and bandwagons that promised to give them certainty in a world that seemed to be disintegrating.  They covered up their fear with anger and hate, blaming their enemies for everything they thought was wrong with the world.  In this world, where the nations were raging and the kingdoms were shaking and cities and countries were tearing themselves apart, Luther read Psalm 46.  And he asked himself, what image—what metaphor—could he use to help people see the strength and hope in God even in the midst of their world shaking and changing beyond all recognition?

For 16th Century Germany, that image was the fortress.  Every city had a wall to protect itself from bandits, civil wars, and foreign invaders, so that even when armies did come marching up to their gates, their people would be protected and kept safe.  All the local people from all the towns and villages around could go to the city, where the walls and the local fortress would serve as a refuge from violence and destruction.  Everyone knew how that worked; they’d lived with those protecting walls all their lives.  God, Luther said, was like the greatest and best fortress ever, which can never be destroyed or damaged by any enemy, no matter how cunning or brutal.  So it doesn’t matter how much your world is shaken, it doesn’t matter who’s prowling outside your door—God is the fortress that keeps you safe, God is your refuge and strength, God is with us.  Always.

It seems to me that we’re in a time of change at least as great as in the Reformation.  Our economic system is in a time of chaos, as the old industrial system is breaking down and we’re not sure what will replace it.  We don’t need to fear an army invading, but there is plenty of violence in the world you can see any time you turn on your tv.  There is civil unrest, protests, and deep disagreements on how the country should be run and how justice should be administered.  There is deep social change.  Families are structured differently than they were a generation ago, and that change doesn’t seem to be stopping.  The way we think about morality is changing.  Some things we declared evil even ten years ago are being re-thought by huge numbers of people.  The role of women in society is changing.  Everything about the way we think about the world and ourselves seems to be up for grabs, and this is spread more quickly and easily by new technologies such as smartphones and the internet.

And people are afraid.  People are grasping at straws, grasping at anything that will give them back that feeling of certainty.  Sometimes they cling to old ways of thinking and acting; sometimes they cling to new fads and social bandwagons.  We feel threatened by a world that seems to have no sure foundations, and so we lash out at one another.  We don’t want to feel scared, so we get angry instead.  We feel threatened, so instead of talking and working out our differences or even just agreeing to disagree, we attack.  We don’t want to take the time to let our fears and anxieties out from the corners of our minds we’ve shoved them to, and so we don’t take the time to be still and listen to God, either.

In Luther’s day, the symbol of safety was the fortress.  What is our symbol of safety?  What do we count on to protect us and help make us secure?  Bike and motorcycle helmets, seat-belts, Kevlar flak jackets, blank vaults?  What else can you think of?  If you were going to put the message of Psalm 46 into a modern metaphor, what would you use?  What imagery best symbolizes God’s protection and security to you?

There have been times of great upheaval before.  Morals, economies, political systems, countries, technology, family structures—all of these have changed radically more than once in the 2,000 years since Christ, and probably will again.  If we put our trust in them, if we make them our foundation, we are left with nothing but broken pieces when times of transition hit.    There is only one foundation we can count on that will be stable and strong no matter what happens in this world.  There is only one refuge that will keep us safe from the storms of life, from the chaos and destruction that accompanies upheaval and change.  And that foundation—that refuge—is Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born to break the cycle of violence and death, to set us free from all the things that bind us—even the chains that we don’t realize are there.  That foundation is Christ, who suffered and died so that we might be forgiven and healed and restored.  That foundation is Christ, who is with us even as the earth shakes under our feet and the nations rage.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  God is our mighty fortress, our foundation, our stable rock in an unstable world.  May we learn to truly put our trust in him.

Amen.

Where is God?

Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 29C, October 16th, 2016

Jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 119:97-104, 2 Timothy 3:14—4:5, Luke 18:1-8

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.

When you’re reading the Bible, one of the important things to do to help you understand it better is to consider the context.  What else is going on around it?  How does this passage fit into the larger pattern of Scripture?  This is tough to do in a worship service, since we usually don’t have time to read large swathes of the Bible, and so focus on smaller passages.  Today’s Gospel reading, for example, is a parable.  This single parable that we read is just one part of a section that goes from Luke 17:20 through 18:14.  It starts with some Pharisees asking when the Kingdom of God was coming.  And Jesus started by saying that the kingdom of God was already among them, that it wasn’t coming in the big obvious things but in the little ones we might overlook.  Then he spends the rest of chapter 17 and the first half of chapter 18 explaining what he means by that.  The parable of the widow and the unjust judge is part of that explanation.

So this is a parable about the need to pray always and not lose heart, but it’s also a parable about God’s kingdom among us.  There’s a widow—and in those days, a widow was a lot worse off than widows are today.  Women usually couldn’t own much property or a business, so a widow—a woman with no male relations—would have very little way to support herself.  And women couldn’t bring legal suits or use the courts to defend themselves without a man to support their claim, which a widow probably wouldn’t have.  In other words, the system gave them almost no protections, economic or legal, against anyone who wanted to prey on them.  A judge didn’t have to be corrupt to add to a widow’s misery; all he had to do was follow the letter of the law.  You can imagine what a corrupt judge such as the one the widow faced might do!

But the widow was persistent.  The widow kept on demanding justice.  She kept on showing up, even when people tried to shut her down.  I imagine the judge wasn’t the only one annoyed by that widow.  I bet you that everyone else in society—all the judge’s friends and neighbors, his colleagues, and the leaders of the town—thought she was aggravating and irritating.  I can almost hear them: “She lost!  Why does she keep harping on it!” or “Yes, of course it’s a shame, but that’s life—what did she expect?” or “He was wrong, but she’s just too loud—if she were quieter, more polite, maybe he would have listened,” or even “Well, he’s a judge, he must have made the right decision, I bet she’s just hoping she can get special treatment or cheat the system.”  The whole system was against the widow, the judge was against the widow, and it’s very likely that the rest of the community was against the widow, too.  But she persevered, she kept on, she never lost faith in God or faith that justice could come even for her.  And eventually, that faith and persistence paid off, and the judge relented and gave her justice.  Not because he agreed with her or saw the error of his ways, but just to shut her up.

So this leaves me with two questions: where is God in this parable, and what does this parable have to do with God’s kingdom?  Let’s start with the first question.  Although we usually assume that God is the authority figure in a parable, that is obviously not the case here.  The unjust judge is not a metaphor for God—he can’t be, because we are told both that he is unjust and that he does not fear or care about God.  And the widow obviously isn’t a metaphor for God, either—she’s the one seeking God’s justice!  God’s place in this parable is a little less obvious: God is supporting the widow and giving her courage.  God is helping her in her quest for justice in a million ways, big and small.  God is working behind the scenes to change the judge’s heart and mind.  This is made more obvious in a different translation of verses 7 and 8: “Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them?  I say to you that he will produce vindication to them in quickness. When the son of humanity has come will he find faith in the earth?”  Where is God?  Bearing patiently with those who cry out to him.

As I studied this parable this week, I was reminded of a friend’s struggle with her insurance company.  She has a chronic condition, which can be treated with medication.  Without this medication, her quality of life is pretty bad.  There are two different meds that are commonly prescribed for her condition.  One is expensive, the other relatively cheap.  Her insurance company only covers the cheaper one.  But while that cheaper drug works for most people, it is not effective for her.  Not only that, but she finds that the side effects it creates are almost as bad as the condition it’s supposed to treat.  So she’s been struggling with her doctor and her insurance company for quite a while to get the medication she needs that will actually manage her condition instead of making her feel worse.  Where is God?  Helping her get through each day.  She is not suffering is because God isn’t listening to her; she is suffering because her insurance company isn’t listening to her.  And because our entire health care system is messed up.  Like the widow, she prays and draws strength and courage from God and has faith that one day she will receive justice.  One day, she will get the medication she so desperately needs.  One day, if she makes enough trouble, even if the insurance company never gets better, they’ll give her what she needs just so they don’t have to keep fighting about it.  And meanwhile, God is with her.  Just like God is with the widow in the parable; just like God is with us in our struggles against the injustices of this world.

So if this is a parable about the kingdom of God, where is the kingdom in the parable?  Partly, the kingdom of God is in the future when the Son of Man comes back to earth.  Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, and he is a righteous judge (unlike the one in this parable), and we are to have faith until that day.  But remember, Jesus starts this whole section by telling his listeners that the kingdom of God was already there among them.  So where, in this parable, is the kingdom of God?  Again, it can’t be the judge.  Because we are told throughout the Bible that God’s two most important desires for humans are justice and mercy, love of God and love of our neighbor.  The judge has neither justice nor mercy, and loves neither God nor his neighbors.  The unjust judge is, in fact, the exact opposite of God’s kingdom.

The judge’s whole job is to work for justice, and he isn’t.  And it is the job of all human beings to love God and love their neighbor, and the judge isn’t.  In fact, he’s taking his God-given job and actively working against God’s wishes.  He is a part of an unjust and unmerciful system, and instead of working to correct it or help those hurt by it, he is completely upholding the worst parts of it.  He is taking something meant for the good of all people and using it only for his own good, not caring how that hurts people and interferes in God’s will.  Unfortunately, this is something that we are all too familiar with today.  The healthcare system is supposed to heal people, or at least help them.  We all know just how often that isn’t the case.  Our justice system is supposed to protect all people, and all too often it persecutes the most vulnerable people and ignores the crimes of the powerful, just as it did in our parable.  There are so many cases in our world today where people who desperately need justice or mercy are denied both.

And yet.  Even with all the injustice and cruelty in the world, Jesus says that God’s kingdom is here among us.  Now.  In our hearts and in our communities.  And I wonder: is the kingdom in the parable the widow’s persistence?  Is that what the kingdom looks like in the present world?  Jesus says the kingdom of God is here, and it is not coming in things that can be observed.  We look around us and we see a world filled with injustice, a world filled with hate, a place where there is little justice and mercy for those who need it most, a world where people love neither God nor their fellow human beings.  Where is God’s kingdom in all of that?  God’s kingdom is in the people who persist in faith and love.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone strives for justice in the face of greed and prejudice.  God’s kingdom is present every time someone chooses to respond with love instead of hate.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that this world is not the sum total of reality.  God’s kingdom is present every time we have faith that God will win in the end.  May we persist in our faith until Christ comes again.

Amen.

Exile

Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 28C, October 9th, 2016

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 2:8-15, Luke 17:11-19

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.

Last week we focused on the reading from the book of Lamentations.  If you recall, it was written in response to the destruction of Judah in 587 BC.  The Babylonian Empire had conquered Judah, destroyed its capital city of Jerusalem, and carried off many Judeans into exile, where they would be forced to serve the Babylonian Empire.  Still others had fled for safety, knowing that if they stayed in Judah they, too, would only be killed or captured.  They lived as refugees in Egypt.  Few remained in Judah, and they lived in a climate of fear as their new overlords crushed their communities and their ways of life.

And so they lamented.  They grieved.  They got angry at their oppressors, the Babylonians.  Last week’s reading comes from the book of Lamentations; today’s Psalm is also a lament, this time from the people who were carried into exile and captivity in Babylon.  “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.”  You can feel their grief, their confusion, their anger.  What are they supposed to do now?  How are they supposed to live?  Are they supposed to live?  Was God still with them, even in this foreign place?  What do they do now?  How can they be God’s people if they’re not in God’s land, not with their own people, if they’re a minority and can’t arrange their own laws the way they believe God is calling them to live?  Will it all be over soon?  Should they keep all their arrangements temporary, hoping they’ll be able to go home soon?  And you can be sure the people in exile in Egypt were thinking those same questions, too.

Throughout the world today, millions of people are asking the same questions.  There are about 65.3 million displaced people in the world.  About one out of every 113 people in the world can’t go home, for one reason or another.  Some of them are fleeing violence; some the disastrous effects of climate change on their farms; some the actions of their own governments.  Many are internally displaced, that is, they have left home but stayed within the borders of their own country.  21.3 million of them are refugees, who have had to leave not only their own homes but their entire countries in the search for safety.  Of those 21.3 million refugees in the world, over half are under the age of 18.  To those people, these words from the Bible don’t tell a story about strange people long ago and far away.  To refugees, the stories of the Babylonian Exile are their stories, the stories they live every day.  How can they live in a foreign land, knowing their homes have been destroyed?

The Babylonian Exile is far from the only story about refugees in the Bible.  God’s people have spent a lot of time on the move, for one reason or another.  Some, like Abraham and Sarah, were drawn forward by God’s promises to leave their homeland behind and move to a new place, a place where they would always be strangers in a strange land.  Some, like the Babylonian Captives, like Joseph, were carried off by force.  Some, like Jeremiah and the exiles who followed him to Egypt, were fleeing persecution and violence.  Some, like Ruth and Naomi, were fleeing economic and environmental devastation.  Some, like the Hebrews in Exodus, were escaping into freedom.  Even Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus fled from Judea to Egypt while Herod the Great was searching for Jesus to kill him.  In all these cases, they left their homes behind, going into an uncertain future, trusting that God would take care of them.  Sometimes that trust in God was all they had.

Maybe that’s why the ancient laws given by God in the first five books of the Bible repeatedly insist that God’s people take special care of foreigners, strangers living among them.  For example, Leviticus 19 says “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. Treat them like native-born Israelites, and love them as you love yourself. Remember that you were once foreigners living in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  And again, in Exodus 20: “You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt.”  And throughout the law and the prophets is a constant drumbeat telling God’s people to take special care of widows, orphans, and foreigners.

But the foreigners themselves—the strangers, the refugees, the exiles—how were they supposed to live?  Jeremiah’s words in our first lesson were written specifically to them: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  In other words, don’t just stay in temporary camps waiting to come home.  The Exile would be a long one, generations long.  And even after the Babylonian Empire was itself destroyed by the Persians and the Jews could return home, many stayed in the places they had put down roots.  It was the beginning of the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world.  God had given them new homes in what had once been a foreign land.  And they had built houses and gardens and businesses and multiplied and worked for the good of their new communities, and they had prospered.

Refugees today face that same choice, except most of them don’t have the benefit of a prophet telling them how long their exile will be.  Most refugees don’t want to be resettled; like the Judeans in the Exile, they hoped to return home soon.  They want their homeland to be safe so they can rebuild their communities, and so they wait and hope that the conflict that drove them out will cease soon.  The average refugee lives in a refugee camp for a few years and returns home as soon as peace comes.  The small percentage who are permanently resettled in other countries stay in refugee camps for an average of twenty years before being resettled in a new land.

And what are they like, these strangers who come to their new homes grieving and destitute, with nothing but the clothes on their back?  We hear a lot about immigrants and refugees, in the news and through the rumor mill, and most of it is completely wrong.  For example, immigrants (whether refugees or legal immigrants or illegal immigrants) commit fewer crimes per capita than native-born citizen.  They are less likely to steal, start fights, vandalize, cheat, do drugs, or hurt people than the average American is.  And they’re not burdens on the system.  If they get help right at the start to learn our language and find homes and get jobs, they are less likely to need social services from government or charity than the average American is over the long haul.  They don’t take jobs away from Americans, because they are significantly more likely to start new businesses than native-born Americans.  Immigrants and refugees create jobs.  In fact, the five cities in the country with the fastest-growing economies are also the five cities with the largest percentage of immigrants.  There are a few bad apples—every group has them—but they are only a tiny part of the whole.

God told the Exiles to build communities and seek the welfare of their new home.  Immigrants and exiles and refugees today do that too.  The question we face today is, how are we going to respond to them?  How are we going to respond to the strangers in our midst?  The Bible is quite clear: whenever it talks about strangers, it says we are to ensure they receive both justice and mercy.  The Hebrews were a nation of immigrants, people who travelled and found new homes in the places God led them.  And because of that, God said, it was especially important that when they had a homeland, they remember and respect those who didn’t.  America is also a nation of immigrants: every one of us is descended from people who came here from somewhere else.  My own great-grandfather homesteaded in 1916.  Our own ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, not speaking the language or knowing the customs, trying to start a new life in a safe and prosperous place.

There is a lot of fear in America today.  Fear of people who are different, mostly, whether they are our fellow Americans from different walks of life or different political beliefs, or people who come here from different lands hoping to build a new life.  And there are a lot of people, particularly politicians and news media, who have a lot to gain by keeping us afraid and nervous.  But we as Christians are called to put aside our fear, to trust that God will be faithful no matter what.  Just as God was with the Exiles in Babylon; just as God was with our own ancestors who first settled this prairie; just as God is with those today who have no choice but to flee their homes.

Amen.

How to Lament

Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, October 2nd, 2016

Lamentations 1:1-6, Lamentations 3:19-26, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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.

Today’s first reading and psalm come from the book of Lamentations.  A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.  A lament is when mere tears are not enough.  A lament is when every inch of your body and soul cry out within you.  When no consolation is possible.  There are times for songs of joy and hope, but there are also times for songs of sadness and despair.  There is a time for grief.  The book of Lamentations is a whole book filled with lament.

We don’t know how to lament, these days.  We are uncomfortable with grief and sorrow.  When someone suffers a loss, we don’t often cry with them.  How often have I seen this: someone is overcome with grief, and we pat them on the shoulder, tell them we’re praying for them, and then explain why they shouldn’t cry.  God wanted another angel in heaven.  She’s in a better place.  You’ll feel better soon.  God’s got a plan—and don’t you trust God?  Shouldn’t you be over it by now?  We tell ourselves that these platitudes are to comfort the one who grieves; yet all too often what they really do is just shut them up.  In big ways and small ways, our culture tells us that we can’t grieve too much.  We can’t be too extravagant in our tears, and we can’t take too long.  It makes people uncomfortable.  As Christians, especially, there is a pressure to hide our grief and recover quickly, to put a good face on our sorrows.  After all, don’t we have God?  Isn’t God supposed to take care of us?  Isn’t God supposed to supply us with all good things all the time?  If our suffering is too great, if our sorrow is too deep, well.  Maybe we’re not being faithful enough.  Maybe we just don’t have the right attitude.  And yet, here in the Bible is an entire book filled with grief and pain and anger and fear and sorrow and all the emotions that rage through us in the darkest times.

The book of Lamentations was written after the Babylonians destroyed the country of Judah, and its capital the city of Jerusalem, in 587BC.  And by destroyed I don’t just mean they conquered it.  They tore down the Temple to its very foundations.  They took a large portion of the population away in chains to live as hostages to the good behavior of those left behind, and to be forced to serve the very empire that had destroyed their home.  A large portion of Judah’s population, including the prophet Jeremiah, fled to Egypt, where they lived as refugees watching from afar as their enemy destroyed their homes.  To add insult to injury, the Babylonians resettled people from other parts of their empire in Judah, to make doubly sure that even Judah’s culture would be destroyed.

Imagine that.  Put yourself in their shoes.  How would you feel?  Imagine that America was conquered by a foreign power.  Imagine that an occupying army patrolled the streets of Bismarck every day, and swept through Underwood regularly.  Imagine that they destroyed the church, the city hall, the pharmacy, the grocery store.  Imagine that they took your friends and family away at gunpoint, and took them somewhere else—you didn’t know where.  Imagine that they were coming for you, and so you gathered your family and what you could carry on your back and slipped out of town at night, heading for Mexico, in the hopes that you would be safe there.  Imagine arriving with nothing, terrified and alone, in a place you didn’t speak the language, a place where no one liked you and no one wanted you.  Imagine waiting every day for news from home, hoping that the invaders would be destroyed and you could go back, but only hearing more stories of pain and suffering.  How would you feel?

That’s what the book of Lamentations is all about.  That despair.  That pain.  That sorrow.  “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! … she weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks … all her friends have dealt treacherously with her.  Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude.”  They sang these songs, Jeremiah and the rest of the refugees in Egypt, and they cried, and they wept.  There is no platitude that will fix this, no consolation that will make it all worth it, no sweet, pious words that will make things better.  And you know what?  It was okay to be honest about that.  It was okay to be honest about the depth of their pain and their grief.  It was okay to scream and yell and rage at God.  God knew what was in their hearts.  Putting a brave face on it and pretending to be okay would not fool God; all it would do is bottle all that emotion up where it could do nothing but fester.  God is big enough to take all of us, even the ugly parts, even the grief and the pain and the anger and the fear and the sorrow.

And yes, the captives and the exiles and the refugees were partly to blame for their own misfortunes.  As a nation, they had turned away from God, taking his love and protection for granted, seeking after other gods and allowing injustice free reign in their communities.  If they hadn’t done that, if they had remained as faithful to God as he was to them, even all the might of Babylon would not have prevailed against them.  By turning away from God, they had removed his protecting hand from them, and so the Babylonians had come.  I imagine that must have made things ten times worse, to look back and wonder what they might have done differently, what might have been possible if they had been more faithful.

But even in the midst of that grief, God was with them.  As they grieved the destruction of their homes, as they took responsibility for the things they had done leading up to the fall of their country, God was there.  He wasn’t there with a magic bullet to take away their pain and make things better.  He wasn’t there with greater rewards to make the destruction of their homeland and the deaths and kidnappings of so many of their loved ones unimportant.  He wasn’t there to tell them to get over it.  He was there in the midst of their pain to hold them as they cried.  He was there in a million small ways, giving them strength to get through each day and courage to start building new lives.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul thinks continually of it and is bowed down within me.  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”

I hope and pray that we never suffer what they suffered, but there are people today who suffer that and worse.  Between imperialistic nations, terrorists, gang violence, and environmental disasters, there are more refugees in the world today than there have been since the end of World War II.  But there is no Olympics of grief: no scale to weigh things out and go, well, this grief is worse than that one, so you can’t be too upset about that one.  There is death in this community.  There are broken relationships and broken homes in this community.  There is abuse and rape and homelessness and suicide in this community.  There is loss and grief and pain.  And you know what?  It’s okay to lament.  It’s okay to not be okay.  If grief overwhelms you and fear and pain and doubt and anger and sorrow drag at your footsteps and threaten to drown you, that’s okay.  It doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian, and it doesn’t mean your faith isn’t strong enough, and it doesn’t mean that God isn’t there with you, helping you along and giving you strength.

Things may never be the same.  There may be no happy shining thing that makes what you have suffered all worth it in the end.  Sometimes things get better; sometimes, there is a dramatic recovery and change of fortune and everything becomes almost perfect.  And we rejoice when that happens and celebrate it.  But that doesn’t mean the pain wasn’t real, and it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or your faith if that never happens.

Because God is with us.  You, me, every person who suffers loss, every person who celebrates a joy.  God is here.  With us.  God is always faithful; his steadfast love never ceases; his mercies never come to an end.  Even in the darkest parts of our lives, when we can do nothing but lament and wail at our suffering, God is with us, and God will never let us fall.  You are not alone.  We are not alone, not any of us, for God is with us.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Laws of Giving

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, September 25th, 2016

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31

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

 

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

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

The rich man is suffering in death because he ignored poor Lazarus’ suffering in life.  He doesn’t want his brothers to suffer a similar fate.  And so he asks Abraham to send someone to his brothers to warn them of what happens to those who ignore the poor and suffering.  Abraham replies: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”  The rich man says, but that’s not enough!  He had Moses and the prophets, and he didn’t listen; that’s how he ended up in this mess.

This begs the question: what is it that Moses and the prophets said that the rich man should have listened to?  By Moses, he means the first five books of the Bible, which were traditionally attributed to Moses.  And, most specifically, he means the laws recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  These laws told the ancient Jewish people how God wanted them to behave.  They covered everything from farming to economics to political questions to business laws to how to dress and what to eat to what garments the priests should wear and how to celebrate the various festivals.  And the thing we Christians often forget about those laws, is how much care they take that everyone has enough and no one gets cheated.  In every section, on every subject, there are explicit instructions for how to treat the poor and the vulnerable.  Widows, orphans, immigrants, poor people, those suffering in any way: the laws God gave through Moses continually put their needs in the center of the question.

Farmers were instructed to farm so that everyone in the community had enough to eat, whether they had enough money to buy food or not.  Merchants were instructed to be especially honest with poor people.  The entire economy was set up so that no one could be left permanently destitute through high debt, if they followed God’s laws.  Every seven years, all debts were to be forgiven, and any land that had been sold out of the family reverted to the original family that had owned it.  And it was everyone’s duty to protect foreigners, because, as God repeatedly said, God’s people needed to remember that they, too, had once been strangers in a strange land, wandering in search of a new place to call home.  The rich had no special rights or privileges, only greater duties to those less fortunate than they were.  This is not because God loves the poor and vulnerable more than the rich; God loves everyone equally.  But the rich can take care of themselves, by and large.  It is the poor, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, who need special protection.  These were the heart of the laws given by God to his people through Moses.

And the prophets—from Elijah to Ezekiel, from Amos to Zechariah, the Prophets of old whose words and deeds are collected in Scripture had called God’s people to be faithful.  They had condemned sin, and told people that unless the people of Israel and Judah turned from their sin God would not protect them from their enemies.  And what were the sins that the people of Israel and Judah?  In most places, the prophets left it vague.  But when they got specific, there were two sins named far more often than any other.  The first was worshipping other gods, and not being faithful to the one true God.  And the second great sin was exploiting the poor and vulnerable.  Even just ignoring the needy was enough to be condemned by God’s prophets.  When you ask a modern Christian what the major sins are, a lot of us will answer with something about sex.  But that says more about us than it does about God’s priorities, because the Bible says very little about sexual morality.  But from cover to cover, one of the primary ethical concerns in the Bible is how we treat people who are less fortunate than we are.  From Moses to the Prophets to the Gospels to the Epistles, one of the constant themes is concern for the poor and vulnerable.

So.  With all of that—with Moses and the Prophets and the whole Jewish cultural tradition of charity—why didn’t the rich man lift a finger for Lazarus?  Why didn’t he even let him have the crumbs that fell from his table, those scraps and leftovers that were just thrown out, that were still better than anything Lazarus could afford?  I don’t know; the parable doesn’t say.  But I know why some Christians today walk right on past the Lazaruses in our society.  One of the questions I get asked about the Community Cupboard of Underwood is what kind of screening process we’re going to have.  How are we going to weed out the scammers and the addicts and the people who don’t deserve help?  The people who could work, but don’t?  The people whose misfortunes are caused by their own continual bad choices?  The ones who take advantage of peoples’ generosity?

Funny thing, folks.  With all that the Bible has to say about helping the poor and needy, there is only one verse in the whole Bible that says anything about who deserves help.  And even that, it’s in the context of participation in the work of the congregation.  You don’t get to take credit for someone else’s work.  Aside from that one single verse, the question of whether or not people deserve help is irrelevant.  And I guarantee you it’s not because scammers and lazy bums are some kind of newfangled modern phenomena.  People are people, and have been since Adam and Eve first ate the apple.  But the question in the Bible is never whether or not people deserve food—it’s whether or not they’re hungry.  The question is never whether or not people deserve charity, only whether or not they have the necessities of life.  And if we see someone who lacks basic necessities—food, shelter, clothing, healing, community—and we don’t help?  We are sinners who have failed in one of God’s purposes for us.

A man was at a Bible study one evening, and afterwards as he walked to his car he passed a homeless man who asked him for money.  The Christian asked him why he wanted it, and the homeless man was honest: he wanted a beer.  The Christian said no, he couldn’t give him money for that, and walked past him to his car.  Where he drove to a bar, and bought a round of beers for his friends.  The Christian could buy drinks for his friends, who didn’t need his help—every one of them could afford their own drinks.  And every one of them wanted a beer to help them enjoy the evening.  But the homeless man might be an alcoholic, so he didn’t deserve a drink to help him enjoy his evening.  Nevermind that there are plenty of homeless people with no substance abuse problems, and plenty of addicts with homes and jobs.  Something that is unquestioned in someone with money becomes a mark of being undeserving in someone without it.  And of course there’s a difference between enabling an alcoholic and feeding the hungry, but the point is that our society today, Christian and secular, spends more time and money looking for reasons not to help than helping.  Private charity and government welfare program alike spend so much time trying to weed out the bad apples that we turn away people with genuine needs.  We spend more time judging than caring.  We harden our hearts and our minds, and listen more to fear and anger than to God’s good word.

The thing is, it’s very convenient to focus on who deserves help and who doesn’t.  Because there’s a million reasons to disqualify people.  They made bad choices.  They sin.  And if we can find a reason why they don’t deserve our help, well, then we don’t have to give it.  We don’t have to care about them.  We can keep our time, and our money, and our caring, instead of spending it on people who will probably never be able to pay us back.  If we can label someone as undeserving of help, then we can ignore God’s commands to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, welcome the stranger, ensure justice for the vulnerable, and visit the prisoners.  We can ignore God’s commands, and still think ourselves perfectly just and righteous.  Just like the rich man in the parable.

The rich man had the Scriptures to guide him.  He had Moses’ laws and the prophet’s words, and he found a way to convince himself they didn’t apply to him and Lazarus.  When he died, he found out otherwise, and asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world of the living to warn his brothers.  Abraham said no, because “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

We have someone who rose from the dead: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, our Lord.  He did not come to condemn this world, but to save it.  He came to break our hard hearts, to wash us clean from our sinfulness, our selfishness, our fears and angers and all the things that separate us from God and one another.  He came to be the living Word that speaks in our hearts; he came to bring the Holy Spirit, which sets us on fire for God.  He came to save us—whether or not we deserve it, whether or not we earn it.  He came to show us what true love and compassion really look like, in his life, death, and resurrection.  May we follow Jesus’ example, trusting that no kindness is ever truly wasted, and having faith that even when we fall short, he forgives us.

Amen.