Torah, Torah, Torah

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Year A, February 9, 2020

Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112:1-9, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

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.

Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”  Which is a very interesting thing to say, considering that in just a few verses Jesus is going to start changing the law.  If you read just a little further, the next part of the Sermon on the Mount (and by next part I mean literally starting the verse after our reading for today ends) is Jesus saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ … but I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment …”  And he goes on to talk about the commandments and give much more stringent interpretations of them than the letter of the law.  Jesus says the law can’t be changed right before he goes … to change it.  What the heck is up with that?

Here’s the thing.  There is a huge gap between how Jewish people understand the concept of law, and how Christians understand the concept of law.  Jesus was Jewish, and he’s using the Jewish perspectives on law, not Christian ones that developed long after he was dead.  So let’s explore what Jesus—or anyone else in the Bible—means when they talk about the law.  We’ll start by defining terms.  First of all, the Hebrew word for “law” is “torah.”  And it means a lot of things, because the Jewish concept of “law” is a lot broader than the Christian concept.  Torah also means teaching, or instruction.  Torah is the thing that teaches you how to be a good person, how to be a child of God.  In a broader sense, “Torah” is also what Jewish people call the first five books of the Bible.  The laws in Leviticus?  Torah.  The stories of Abraham and Sarah and their descendants?  Torah.  Adam and Eve in the Garden?  Torah.  It’s all Torah.  Teachings, instructions, laws, given from God to God’s people.  When a Jewish person talks about “the law and the prophets” they mean Scripture.  Because the Hebrew Bible—what we Christians call the Old Testament—is made up mostly of the Torah, the Law, and the Prophets.

So on one level, when Jesus says “I have come not to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them,” he is telling us that the Hebrew Bible is just as important to him and anyone who wants to follow him as it has always been to all Jewish people.  We can’t just take Jesus and the New Testament and throw out the rest of the Bible.  Jesus’ whole life and ministry and death and resurrection is based squarely on his position as the same God who created Adam and Eve, the same God who called Abraham and Sarah, the same God who freed the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, the same God who chose them for God’s own people and gave them instruction and commandments on how to live and was with them in good times and bad.  Christians and Jewish people interpret many of those stories and teachings differently, but they are still the same stories and teachings.  And they are important.  If you have ever heard someone talk about the Old Testament God vs. the New Testament God, or anything that implied that Christians didn’t need to pay attention to the Old Testament because we have Jesus, or anything like that, they were being unfaithful to Jesus and his teachings.  The God of the Old Testament is the God who sent Christ Jesus.

But when Jesus is talking about how important the Law is, and how it can’t be changed, he meant more than that.  And, again, it goes back to the word Law, and how we don’t really understand it.  See, when we think of law, we think of modern legal codes.  Things written down in books, or, these days, posted on official websites.  They’re big, and complicated, and no one person could possibly know them all, which is why we have specialist lawyers who focus on, say, tax law, or corporate law, or criminal law, or family law, or whatever.  And when you want to know what law applies to whatever situation, you look it up in a big book, and that tells you.  And if there is a gap between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, well, you go with the letter of the law.  Because in most cases, it doesn’t matter what the people who made the law wanted it to do, if that’s different from what the law itself says.  If they wrote the law badly and the letter doesn’t match the spirit … that’s unfortunate, but nine times out of ten we go with what the letter of the law says.  The law is a settled thing, for the most part.

That’s not how laws worked back when the Bible was being written.  First of all, most law wasn’t written down.  It was about custom, about what the society thought was right.  And even when the law was written down, it wasn’t as inflexible as modern law is.  It was a guideline, a level, a way of thinking about right and wrong and how people should live their lives.  Education consisted of copying down the wisdom and laws and stories of your people, and discussing them with others, and figuring out the heart of what they meant.  The purpose of writing down laws was not to make a reference book to look things up in when you need to and forget about the rest of the time.  The purpose of writing down laws was so that you could have a whole class of people copying them down, discussing them, meditating on them, debating the finer points of how they would be applied in various circumstances, being shaped and molded by the ethical norms enshrined in those laws.  Listen to how the Psalms talk about God’s law: “their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.”  “The law of the LORD gives wisdom to the foolish.” And there are a ton of psalms that talk about how the law of the LORD—the teaching, the instruction, the torah—are written on the heart.  If you want to know how people in Jesus’ day looked at the law, read Psalm 119.  It is a hundred and seventy six verses long, and it is all about how awesome God’s law is and what it means.  God’s law isn’t about dead words on a page that are a straightjacket for all time.  God’s law is about shaping us in God’s image, and making our moral view of the world conform to God’s will, instead of to whatever the society around us happens to think.  It’s not about the letter of the law.  It’s about the spirit of the law.  It’s about getting the spirit of the law so deeply ingrained in your mind and heart that it shapes everything you say, do, and think.  And what’s the spirit of the law?  Well, according to Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

In other words, all the rest of the law depends on that central truth.  All the rest of God’s Law are merely ways of organizing people to live out that law in their life and society.  If you ever read through the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, the question you always have to have in your mind as you read through is “how does this help me love God and my neighbor?”  Because no matter how weird or harsh any given commandment may sound, that’s what it was designed to do.  And even though we don’t live according to the letter of the laws as written down in the Old Testament, we absolutely still live by the spirit of those laws, or at least we’re supposed to.  What it looks like to love God and your neighbor sometimes changes, as the world we live in changes.  How we live out the command to love God and our neighbor may change.  But the core of the law, that doesn’t change.  And the core of the law is that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

May we learn to keep this law always in our hearts and minds.

Amen.

What’s Your Call Story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Call of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What is Baptism?

Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, January 12, 2020

Isaiah 42:1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

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.

 

Ritual baths to cleanse away impurity have always been an important part of Judaism.  They’re called mikvehs.  Have you touched a dead body or someone with a disfiguring disease?  Mikveh.  Have you just finished menstruating?  Mikveh.  Have you just recovered from some gross or disturbing medical condition?  Mikveh.  Are you converting to Judaism?  Mikveh.  Getting ready for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish religious calendar?  Mikveh.  Did you just buy new dishes from a gentile?  They need to be purified in a mikveh.  Unlike the Christian sacrament of baptism, mikvehs in Jewish religion are something that people do many times throughout their lives, any time someone needs to be ritually purified.  John the Baptist was part of this long tradition.  He invited people out to the Jordan river for a mikveh that would cleanse them from the impurity of their sin.  But he probably wasn’t expecting this to be a permanent change in their spiritual status, any more than any other mikveh was.  It would be something that needed to be repeated over and over again throughout the person’s life.

This is why John the Baptist was so confused and horrified when Jesus came to him and asked to be baptized.  John’s baptism—John’s mikveh—was all about sin and ritual purity.  Jesus, as God’s son, was not sinful.  He was already pure.  He didn’t need to be washed and made clean.  But in the process of being baptized, Jesus was doing something new.  Jesus was taking the ritual bath of his Jewish heritage, and turning it into the Christian ritual of baptism.

On the surface, they are very alike.  Both involve water symbolically washing away impurity; and while modern Jewish mikvehs don’t usually have anything to do with sin and repentance, John’s version did, and so do Christian baptisms.  Yet Christian baptism is not just about repenting from sin.  If sin and repentance were the only part of it, we’d need to re-baptize people all the time.  Baptism is a lot of things.  Here are some of them:

Baptism is an initiation rite.  In baptism, we become part of the Christian community and fellowship.  The person being baptized (or their parents, if they are too young) make promises to be a part of the Christian community, and the congregation responds by promising to support them in their life of faith.  Through this we become part of the body of Christ, the hands and feet of God in the world.  We confess the same faith as all Christians in every time and place.  We begin our service to the same Lord, and our worship of the same Savior.

Baptism is an adoption.  In baptism, we are claimed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the seal of the cross of Christ forever.  The words that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism—”This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased”—are also the words God speaks over every person being baptized.  We are adopted into the family of God and become brothers and sisters with Christ and with every other Christian who has ever been or ever will be.

Baptism is a washing away of sin, but not on a temporary basis.  We are not cleansed by the water itself, but by God’s promises of forgiveness.  It is that promise, and not the water, we trust in; it is that promise to which we turn, and it is that promise that will never be rescinded, no matter how much we sin after our baptism.  It’s the first time we experience the grace of God, which showers down upon us for the rest of our lives.

Baptism is new birth.  Just like being born from our mother’s womb means passing through the waters of birth, so too does being born from above mean passing through the waters of baptism.  By the way, if you’ve ever been asked if you have been born again, the answer is yes: it happened when you were baptized.

Baptism is death.  In the waters of baptism, our old sinful self is drowned, and we rise out of the water as new people, tied to Christ’s death and resurrection.  As Christ died, so too we will one day die; as Christ rose from the grave, so too will we one day rise from the grave, when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

Baptism is when the Holy Spirit first enters into us.  It is when we are anointed with the power of God.  Every time there is a baptism in the New Testament, the Spirit is there.  Sometimes the Spirit appears before the baptism, sometimes during it, sometimes after it, but in all cases, the Spirit is there.  The Spirit is planted in us like a seed, and helps us grow in faith, hope, and love.  The Spirit helps us prepare for and participate in God’s coming kingdom, to the glory of God the Father.

Baptism is both God’s gift and our response to that gift.  It is God reaching out to us to claim us as God’s own, and it is how we accept and reach back to God.  It is something that God does to us and in us, and it is something we choose and claim as our own and affirm and incorporate into our lives.

Baptism is a sacrament.  It is something commanded by God, which combines a promise of God with a visible symbol for all to see.  Baptism takes something intangible—God’s promises and our faith—and unites it with something which we can see, touch, taste.  It takes something absolutely ordinary and every-day (water!) and turns it into the most extraordinary thing imaginable.  It connects us with God.  It is the living water which sustains our souls.  It reminds us of God’s presence and God’s promises and our own promises every time we turn on the tap or cross the river or go to the beach.

God shows no partiality.  The gift of God’s grace, the gift of living water, the gift of adoption, the gift of the Holy Spirit, these gifts are open to everyone.  All we have to do is receive them.  God has done the hard work already—God has sent God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to call us, to teach us, to heal us, to claim us, to die for us, and to rise from the grave for us.  All we need do is respond to what God has done and is doing in us.  There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus; nothing that can invalidate the promises God made at our baptism.  We can go astray, leave the faith, abandon God, and still when we come back our baptism is just as valid as it ever was.  All we have to do is say ‘yes’ to it again, say ‘yes’ to God again.

This is the foundation of the Christian life.  This is the foundation of the Christian calling.  This is the foundation of everything that we have and everything that we are, which is why in many ancient Christian traditions, the Baptism of Jesus is a far more important holy day than Christmas.  God calls us to do many things, to love one another, to work for justice and peace, to feed the hungry and care for the sick and clothe the naked and visit those in prison and free those held in bondage by the injustices of the world.  All of these things have their foundation in baptism.  We are children of God.  We are members of the body of Christ in the world.  We are brothers and sisters of all God’s children.  We are filled with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ.  We are claimed by God and sent out into the world to do God’s will.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The God of Small Things

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2019

Isaiah 9:2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

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.

Luke’s account of Jesus birth begins with power and might—worldly power, that is.  “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  The Roman Empire ruled as much of the world as it could conquer, and exercised influence through threat of military reprisals on an even larger area.  To Romans, anyone who wasn’t a Roman citizen was a barbarian … and they made a distinction between being a citizen, who had rights, and merely being a subject, someone who lived in the Roman Empire, but didn’t have rights, and this latter category was the majority of the population.  Rome prided itself on having brought peace, but it was the peace of a sword.  They called the Emperor the Prince of Peace, but it was a peace based on killing anyone who disagreed, and selling their children into slavery.  It was a peace based on the idea might was right.  There were no checks and balances, no pretense of neutral courts.  Parents had a right to do whatever they wanted to their children, up to and including killing them.  Husbands had a right to do whatever they wanted to their wives and concubines, up to and including killing them.  Slaveoners had the same rights over slaves, and slaves made up a large and ever-growing proportion of the Roman population.  Things that we would consider horrific abuses were believed to be right and good.  And over it all, the Emperor reigned, oppressing the poor so that he and his favorites might be enriched.  This was all seen as inevitable and good.  Goodness, for the Roman Empire, lay in the exercise of power, and obedience to authority.

So when the Emperor to be sure he was squeezing every last bit of taxes possible out of the poorest and most marginalized people, he declared a census of the entire world—or, at least, the part of it he controlled, which to him was the same thing.  And so it was, that a two newlyweds–the wife heavily pregnant–had to leave home and go to a distant town called Bethlehem, because that was where the husband’s family was from.  They had to travel knowing that Mary was heavily pregnant and could give birth at any time.  They had to travel to a place where they had only distant family, family that might not take them in because Mary had been pregnant already when she and Joseph got married.  And they got there, tired and sore, and found that there was no room for them, no room except a stable filled with animals.  And so it was, that in a humble stable, in a backwater region, in poverty and disgrace, the God of all creation was born in human flesh.  The greatest power in all the universe came not in pomp and splendor, but in weakness, in hardship, in humility, thousands of miles away from any power or authority that humans recognized.

This is not an accident.  It is not a coincidence.  God chose that poor couple to bear and raise his son.  God chose that stable for his son to be born in.  God could have arranged for Jesus to be born the son of a great emperor; God could have arranged for Jesus to have all the wealth and prestige and worldly power that the world has to offer.  But God didn’t do that, because God sees things very differently than we humans do.  God doesn’t care about wealth and human power; God cares about every human being from the smallest to the greatest.  God cares about justice for all people, not just the ones on top; God cares about joy and hope and love and life and light, and God wants these things for all people, not just the ones fortunate enough to be born in palaces.  When we spend too much time chasing worldly power, we let it shape our views of who matters and who doesn’t, who deserves good things and who can be ignored.  But the truth is, nobody gets ignored by God.  Nobody gets forgotten.  There is no place too small or too humble or too poor for God to be present in, and no human being too wretched or sinful or despised for God to love.  And God sent God’s only Son, Jesus, to be born in a stable as a sign for us of what really matters.

I’m going to close with a poem by Ana Lisa de Jon that says this better than I could:

My God is the God of small things.
Seeds….
Newborn babies.
Nutshells that contain multiple truths
in humble small containers.

My God is the God of small beginnings.
Like breathing
or opening eyelids.
If we but move today
we can accomplish what he asks.

God, my God of swaddled babes
that fumble for the breast
He teaches us the worth of
lying still in trust.

My God is the God of humble things.
Caves.
Beds of straw.
Lives that don’t amount to much
if judged upon their origins.

My God is the God of silent things.
Wombs.
Passages in the dark.
Quiet incubators, within which cells divide
and muscles stretch towards the light.

God, my God of birth pangs
and pain that finds release
He teaches us that the dark
often precedes new life.

My God is the god of honed things
Parred down.
Simplified.
A carpenter sanding back the wood
to reveal the grain beneath.

My God is the God of beloved things.
Neglected.
Abandoned.
Rescued for nothing they have done,
but because of a plan of redemption.

God, my God of Christmas coming
somehow the wonder of Advent
is knowing we need do nothing
but let new life be birthed in us.

Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 22, 2019

Isaiah 7:10-16, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-7, Matthew 1:18-25

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.

Paul’s letters are just that: letters.  Like all letters even today, they start off with a greeting, a salutation.  Something to open the letter and introduce the writer and what the letter is about.  I began my Christmas letters this year with a salutation of “Merry Christmas from the Washington Coast!”  Short, sweet, and to the point.  Everyone on my Christmas card list knows me, so I don’t have to introduce myself, and everybody knows what to expect in a Christmas letter, namely, a cheerful summary of everything the sender has done in the past year, wrapped up with best wishes for the holidays.  So a brief holiday greeting is all I need.  Paul’s letters, however, are a different story, especially his letter to the Romans.  Our entire second lesson, all seven verses of it, is the greeting portion of this letter.  It took him seven verses to say “Dear congregation of Jesus-followers in Rome, Hello, it’s Paul, I’m writing about Jesus the Messiah, God be with you.”

That’s a much simplified version, of course, but that’s basically what it’s saying.  Paul’s introducing himself and what he’s going to be talking about in the whole rest of the letter, and blessing the people he’s writing to.  So let’s dive into the details.  First, this is the longest salutation in any of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, because it was the only one where he was writing to people he didn’t know.  Every other letter we have from Paul, he was writing to a congregation he himself had founded.  He’d go to a city, live there for a while, plant a congregation, and then move on.  He kept in touch with everyone through letters, some of which were collected in the New Testament.  In those letters he would remind people of his teachings, and address issues that had cropped up since he had left.  Since everyone in the congregation knew him, he didn’t have to give any long explanations of who he was or why he was writing.  But the thing is, the congregation of Jesus followers in Rome had been planted by someone else.  Paul had never been there.  So he wrote this letter to introduce himself and his interpretation of Jesus’ teachings, in the hopes that they would welcome him when he arrived.  They didn’t know him from Adam, so he had to introduce himself and prove his bona fides as an apostle, and give kind of a summary overview of his perspective on the good news of Jesus, in the hope that they would welcome him when he arrived and help support his future missionary journeys.  Because Paul hadn’t planted the church in Rome, his letter to the Romans mostly doesn’t address specific issues the Roman church was facing; instead, the letter as a whole is a step-by-step journey through Paul’s understanding of Jesus, his teachings, and what the meaning and impact of Jesus’ death and resurrection was.

Death and resurrection?  In December?  We’re less than a week away from Christmas, the day we celebrate Jesus’ birth!  We are months away from Easter!  So why are we talking about death and resurrection?  All our attention is focused on that sweet little baby who will soon be laying in the manger, and on the shepherds and wise men and angels who surrounded him and his parents Mary and Joseph, and also on details like Christmas parties, last-minute present shopping, and everything else we need to make the holidays wonderful.  But the thing is Jesus was not born just to be a cute little baby in a manger that we can feel good about every December.  The central holy day of our faith is not Christmas, but Easter.  If Jesus had never died and been raised from the dead, it wouldn’t matter that he had been born.  We talk about Jesus being the reason for the season, and that’s true, but it’s not just that Jesus existed.  It’s that Jesus came to save us and all creation from sin and death.  Christ came to the world for a purpose, and that purpose was to break the chains of sin and death and dysfunction and despair that bind us, so that we and all creation might participate fully in the abundant life God wants for us and created us to experience.  If we celebrate Jesus’ birth while ignoring what he came to Earth to do, all that is left is sentimental fluff.  And sentimental fluff is nice, but it’s not a strong enough foundation to build our lives on.

Paul was an apostle of God.  An apostle means one who is sent.  Paul was sent to share the good news, and so are we.  And that doesn’t just mean share it with people who haven’t heard it or who have heard it but don’t care.  Paul, in this letter to the Romans, was sharing the Good News with people who already knew it.  No matter how many times we’ve heard the good news of Jesus Christ, we all need to be reminded of it sometimes, or to hear a new and refreshing perspective on it.  The message of Jesus isn’t just something to hear once, memorize, and then ignore; the message of Jesus is something we should be constantly thinking about, remembering, and exploring.

That good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preached, that we still share with one another today, it didn’t come out of nowhere.  God has been at work in the world since God created the world, working to bring life and healing to a world broken by sin and death.  God has been promising that God will save, that God will redeem, that God will set free, from the very beginning.  God has been shining a light in the darkest places in the world, and in the darkest places in the human heart, since sin and death first entered the world.  Some of those promises are recorded in the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament.  No book could ever be long enough to record all the wonderful things God has done, but the Bible contains the stories of how God was at work in the lives of our ancestors in the faith, even thousands of years before Jesus’ birth.

Jesus’ birth didn’t come out of nowhere.  The message Jesus came to preach is consistent with the messages God had been giving God’s people since the very beginning.  Although Jews and Christians have come to interpret the Hebrew Scriptures very differently, Jesus and Paul and the rest of the apostles and the entire early Christian Church constantly and consistently looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for guidance and support.  In fact, any time in the New Testament where someone talks about scripture, they’re talking about the Hebrew Scriptures, because the New Testament was in the process of being written and didn’t exist yet as a finished book.  Paul and the rest of the early Christians looked back at Scripture and saw all the ways in which Jesus’ birth, life, ministry, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection, fit within the story the Scriptures were telling.  Among other things, Jesus had been raised and adopted by a man of the house of David, the lineage the Messiah was going to come from.  You sometimes hear Joseph described as Jesus’ stepfather, because of course we know that Jesus was God’s Son.  But the thing is, Joseph claimed Jesus and named him and raised him as his own, and in the ancient world that was at least as important as a modern adoption.  Joseph wasn’t “just” anything.  Joseph was Jesus’ dad, and in that way Jesus became part of the great covenant with David and David’s heirs.

But the covenant was only the beginning.  Jesus came to bring life, and to bring it abundantly.  Through his teachings, through his healings, through his miracles, and most especially through his death and resurrection, Jesus proclaimed the coming kingdom of God.  Jesus called all things and all people to himself, and through our baptisms we are tied to that death and resurrection.  The renewal of the world is coming.  The re-birth and re-creation of all the cosmos and all people in it, is coming.  Abundant life free from sin and death is coming.  And it is coming through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

And while we wait for that great and glorious day, we are called to belong to Jesus Christ, and to put that allegiance higher than any other.  We are called to be faithful, to be obedient to God’s will, and are sent out to share that good news with one another and with all the world.  To all God’s beloved in Rome and Chinook and Naselle and across the world, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Third Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10, Psalm 146:5-10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11

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.

John the Baptist was a prophet.  God spoke to him, and gave him a mission, and he knew it.  That mission was to prepare the way for God’s anointed holy one, by proclaiming a need for repentance and forgiveness.  John the Baptist could say “Thus says the Lord” and be absolutely correct and literal that the Lord was speaking through him.  John the Baptist knew Jesus from his earliest days, because they were cousins.  And John the Baptist doubted.  His mission to point out sin where he saw it got him put in prison, because powerful people don’t like having their misdeeds pointed out.  He sat there, in prison, and he knew that God was at work, and he knew that God was going to send a messiah, but sitting there in prison, waiting to be executed for the crime of speaking the plain, unvarnished truth, he wanted reassurance that the messiah was coming soon.  He sent his followers to ask Jesus “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?”

We Christians have this idea that faith has to be perfect, and that faith and doubt are opposites.  Christians, we think, are supposed to have this serene confidence that never wavers no matter what happens around us.  Christians, we think, are supposed to have all the answers to every possible question, and if none of those are true—if we doubt, if we have questions we can’t answer, if our confidence in God’s saving grace wavers—then we are bad Christians.  But there are two problems with that.  First, people throughout history have done all sorts of terrible and evil things without remorse because they had convinced themselves that it was God’s will.  Being certain you’re right doesn’t always mean you actually are right. And secondly, what about John the Baptist?  As a prophet, if anyone on the planet should be able to sail through life doubt-free, it would be him.  And yet he questioned.  He wasn’t sure.  He thought he knew what God wanted, and when things turned out differently than he expected, he let himself wonder whether he had been right or not.

And Jesus doesn’t condemn or scold him for it.  Jesus doesn’t rebuke or admonish him, or turn to the watching crowds and tell them they needed to be better than the great John the Baptist himself.  Jesus doesn’t get offended at being asked to prove who he is and what he has come to do.  Instead, Jesus responds with reassurance.  Look at what I’m doing and what is happening around me, Jesus tells John’s disciples, and ask yourself what it looks like for God’s coming kingdom to break in among us.

See, the one thing all of scripture and the prophets are really clear on, is what it looks like when God’s will is done.  What it looks like when the kingdom of God happens in reality here, now among us.  People with physical impairments, whose body or brain doesn’t work quite right, are healed.  People who have been abused or exploited or suffered receive good news and freedom from that abuse and exploitation and suffering.  All people receive justice and mercy and healing, in whatever way they need it, but that is especially true of those whose lives have been full of injustice and cruelty and illness.  We tend to see God in the good times and beautiful things in the world, and God is certainly present in those times and places; but according to scripture, God is most truly present in the dark places, the times when everything goes wrong, the places where there is hurt and suffering and pain and grief, the places that we think are the most God-forsaken.  God is in those places, and God is at work to bring healing and wholeness and life.  If you want to know where God is you go to the places where there is the most pain and despair, and you look for healing and hope and things getting better.  The cross is one such place: a place of death and destruction and pain and humiliation, and yet God was present in that place, and using that horror to save the world.  So when John has doubts about whether or not Jesus is God’s promised Messiah, Jesus points not to himself but to what he has done.  The people he has healed and fed and loved and made new.  Those are all signs of God’s coming kingdom, so when you see them, you know that God is near, and God is at work.

This is why I keep asking where people have seen God, and sharing my own stories about where I’ve seen God.  Because we all have times of doubt.  We all have times when we can’t quite believe that God is present.  It’s easy to believe when everything is going well and all your needs are met.  It’s a lot harder to believe when you are in pain, when you are grieving or depressed, when you are lonely, when everything is going wrong.  Human nature tends to focus on the bad stuff, for the simple reason that if you’re alone in the wilderness and you don’t notice a beautiful flower, no harm done.  But if you’re alone in the wilderness and you don’t notice a hungry bear, you could die.  So our brains focus on all the horrible things as a survival strategy, and so we don’t notice—or don’t value—the ways in which God is at work in the midst of all those horrible things.  We notice the bears that want to eat us, but not the grace-filled flowers that make our world better.  We have to train ourselves to notice God’s saving work, both in the wonderful good times, but also especially in the times of pain, and fear, and doubt.  And that’s what Jesus tells John: yes, things are really bad right now, especially for you.  But even in the midst of all this pain and suffering, God is still at work.  Don’t lose hope.

But the other thing is, that John isn’t alone, and Jesus makes sure that John’s disciples won’t leave him to suffer by himself.  It’s not just John’s faith that’s important; the faith of his community is important too.  It’s not just about what John sees, it’s about what they all see.  It’s not just about John having faith in the midst of his doubts, in the midst of pain and fear, it’s about them all having faith in the midst of doubt, and pain, and fear, and supporting one another and John.  Human beings were not created to be lone wolves.  Human beings were not created to be isolated individuals.  Human beings were created to form relationships, communities.  Right there in the first chapter of Genesis, God says that it is not good for human beings to be alone.  And this passage shows why.  In the midst of his suffering, in prison, and about to die, John’s faith is faltering and weak.  John’s ability to see God’s good work in the world is at its lowest ebb.  John has reached the end of his rope.

But if John can’t see, his friends can see for him.  If John can’t be strong enough to endure, his friends can help support him.  If John’s faith is faltering, his friends can have faith for him and in him.  John is not alone.  God is with him, but in this time of suffering when God’s presence is the hardest to see, John’s friends can be the tangible manifestation of God’s presence and love.  We all have times when our faith falters.  We all have times we fail.  We all have times that our own strength is not enough to get us through.  That’s why God gives us good and healthy relationships: family, friends, communities both secular and religious.  And yes, sometimes those communities fail; sometimes we form unhealthy, manipulative and abusive relationships instead of healthy and life-giving ones.  But the good and healthy relationships are a blessing from God and God desires all people to have such blessings.

Our world can be a bleak and scary place.  We are waiting for Christ to come again in glory; we are waiting for the promised salvation; we are waiting for the reign of God to blossom among us.  Sometimes it’s hard to keep the faith; sometimes it’s easy to assume that God has abandoned us and the whole world is going to hell.  And yet, even in the darkest places, God is present and at work.  Even in the midst of evil, God is working to bring hope and healing and new life.

Amen.

The Lion and the Lamb

Second Sunday of Advent, Year A. December 8, 2019

Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Romans , 5:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12

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 thing most people don’t understand about the Pharisees is that the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people who were genuinely trying their best to follow God.  It’s understandable; they clashed with Jesus a lot.  In today’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and forerunner, and a prophet in his own right, calls the Pharisees ‘a brood of vipers.’  So we assume that they must have been really terrible people.  But the thing is, in the entire Bible, if you’re looking for a group similar to most modern American Christians, the Pharisees are it.  There are no people in the Bible as much like us as the Pharisees are.

The Pharisees were, by and large, middle-class people.  They were the ones very concerned with reading the Scriptures, and teaching people about God, and genuinely trying to follow God’s will.  They were the ones who created and ran the local places of worship, the synagogue.  They were the ones who took the most active role in local charity, feeding the hungry and tending the sick and so forth.  They were faithful, moral, reliable people.  They were the pillars of their communities.  They were genuinely committed to following God.  That’s why they show up all over the Gospels.  They heard there was a new and exciting religious teacher who was bringing people to God, and they wanted to know more.  Just like we would if we heard of a new and exciting religious teacher.  So why did they have conflicts with Jesus?  And why does John the Baptist call them a brood of vipers?

The problem is judgment.  Not God’s judgment of humanity, but the human capacity for judgment.  More specifically, the human capacity to get judgment wrong.  This is something I struggle with a lot as a pastor, and I’m probably going to spend a lot of time this year wrestling with it.  You see, judgment is one of the main themes of Matthew.  God’s judgment of humanity, and the ways in which we judge and misjudge one another and ourselves.  God is the righteous judge, and humans consistently judge wrongly.  Our Gospel reading is one example of this: the Pharisees would have been shocked to hear themselves condemned by a prophet.  They wanted to see sinners repent, of course, but they would not have believed that they themselves needed much repentance.  After all, they were the good people!  Not like those sinners they condemned!

Judgment is necessary.  Some things are simply wrong.  Some things are completely incompatible with God’s good gifts of life and love, and need to be pointed out and condemned whenever they occur.  Some things simply are not compatible with God’s will for the world.  The problem is, humans are terrible at figuring out what deserves condemnation and what doesn’t, who deserves judgment and who don’t.  People who are mentally healthy almost always judge themselves far more leniently than they deserve.  “I’m a good person, I had good reasons for anything I’ve done wrong and all my sins are only tiny ones, I’m fine,” we think to ourselves.  “It’s those people over there that I don’t like who need to be judged!”  Meanwhile, people with mental illness or who are abuse survivors almost always judge themselves far more harshly than they deserve.  I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to who genuinely believe they are evil, that they could never be a good person, that they deserve damnation, that God hates them and they deserve it.  And these are not bad people, by and large.  They are ordinary people, no better or worse than average.  This is why it’s so hard to preach about judgment: I know that most people listening will fall into two camps.  One group will assume that they don’t need to examine themselves, and that the only people in need of judgment are the people they don’t like.  The other group will assume that I am talking about them, and that they are uniquely sinful and deserve only condemnation.  Every person has both good and bad inside them, but we don’t do a very good job of recognizing that.  We do a terrible job of acknowledging both the good and bad in a person, and judging it accurately.  Very few people actually have a healthy balance where they can judge themselves—or anybody else—accurately.  We either judge too harshly or not at all.

The same is true of our view of the world around us.  We tend to judge not based on God’s plan for the world, but rather on what is comfortable and familiar to us.  If it is comfortable and familiar, if we think it is normal, if it’s just the way the world works, then it must be good.  And if it’s not good, then it can’t be that bad, can it?  And if it’s strange to us, if it’s different, if it takes what we think we know about the world and turns it on its head, then it must be bad.  And the truth is, neither of those are accurate guidelines for whether something is good or not.  Sometimes what is normal is good, and sometimes what is normal is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is comfortable is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  Sometimes what is new is good, and sometimes it is deeply harmful.  And most of the time, there are both good and bad aspects to it.  It’s not as simple as we would like to make it.  And so we judge wrongly.

In order to judge rightly, we need to see the world through God’s eyes.  We need to be able to recognize what God wants of the world, and what God is working to create.  And our reading from Isaiah is one of many places in the Bible that shows us what it looks like when God’s will is done.  ‘He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.’  In other words, he’s not going to be judging by the things the world judges by.  ‘But with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.’  In other words, God doesn’t share all the prejudices that we have about poverty, and God cares deeply about people that our society ignores and abuses and lets fall through the cracks.  It’s not that God loves poor people more than God loves anyone else.  Rather, it’s that the poor are more in need of God’s love and support than most people.  They’ve had harder lives, and have often had to face really terrible times when there are no good choices, and are more likely to have been chewed up and spit out by life than the rest of us.  And God is going to take that into account in God’s judgment.  And going forward in God’s kingdom, there will be no more injustice.  There will be no more abuse.  There will be no more people falling through the cracks and getting chewed up and spit out by life.  All people will receive what they need to live good and full and happy lives, both their material needs and their emotional and spiritual needs.

‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.’  Notice that he doesn’t say that the wolves and the leopards will become lambs.  They’ll still be themselves.  But they won’t prey on others.  The parts of the world that are based on the strong preying on the weak  and creatures devouring one another for their own profit will no longer work that way.  In no part of creation will anyone or anything take advantage of another or use them for their own benefit.  All people and all creatures will live together in peace and harmony—harmony not based on being the same, but based on mutual respect and seeing that everyone gets what they need without hurting someone else.

And obviously there are parts of that that we can work towards in the here and now and parts of that that are going to have to wait for God’s coming.  And that’s what God judges us and the world based on: how closely do we conform our lives and our hearts to God’s coming kingdom, and how much do we just go along with what the world tells us is normal.  How much do we work so that all people and all of creation are treated fairly and get what they need to thrive, and how much do we buy into the dog-eat-dog mentality where you just have to look out for #1 and the people like you and if people you don’t like are suffering, it’s not your problem.

We are called to follow Christ.  We are called to live into the coming reality of God’s kingdom.  And within each of us, and within every human being and every social institution, there are good parts and there are bad parts.  There are weeds that need to be pulled out, and there is good grain that needs to be nurtured and grow so that it can bear good fruit.  Judgment is based on whether we take out the weeds and fertilize the wheat, or whether we just accept the weeds as normal.  We will fall short sometimes.  We will sin.  We will have times when we make terrible judgments.  But the point is not perfection, because that’s God’s job.  Our job is to do the best with what we can, and trust that Christ is coming and that God’s judgment will prevail.  Our job is to live in the light of that coming kingdom, where all people will receive peace and joy and love and support.  We pray that that kingdom comes quickly, and we pray that we can do our part in helping it take root in this world.

Amen.

 

The Frog and the Crab

First Sunday of Advent, Year A, December 1, 2019

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

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.

I read an article about Russian online trolls and how they work to interfere in and steer US public opinion and make things more dysfunctional—and thus easier to manipulate.  The interesting thing was, how little the trolls look like what most people (including me) expect them to look.  On the surface, they look ordinary.  They’re designed to make people think they are interesting and have important things to say.  They don’t generally spread lies, or at least, not big ones.  They take the cares and concerns and legitimate issues facing each target demographic, and then they spin like crazy.

Their goal is to make their followers disgusted with the world and with other demographics.  They don’t want to make people angry; angry people take action.  They want people to roll their eyes at people who aren’t like them.  They want people to assume that anyone outside their own group is stupid and selfish.  They want liberals to think all conservatives are bigots, and they want conservatives to think all liberals are hypocritical elitists.  They want centrists to think people left or right of them are fringe nutcases, and they want people on the left and right to think that centrists are panderers with no principles.  They want Black people to think all White people are actively and consciously racist, and they want White people to think that any Black people who point out racial injustice are exaggerating or just like to be victims.  They want young people to think all old people are irrelevant and incapable of understanding the modern world, and they want old people to think all young people are selfish egotists who don’t understand how the world actually works.  They want urban and suburban people to think rural people are ignorant hicks, and they want rural people to think urban and suburban people are snobbish elitists.  They want to ensure that the last thing anybody ever thinks, when faced with someone different than they are, is “maybe we can find common ground or any kind of understanding.”

No.  Trolls want us to be isolated into every little clique, and they also want us to be apathetic.  They want us to look at the world around us and say, “well, yeah, things suck, but there’s no point in trying to fix anything because nothing’s ever going to get better, and so we might as well just sit here sniping at one another and patting ourselves on the back for being right.”  They want us to accept dysfunction and cruelty and indifference and greed and violence as normal.  Something to complain about on social media, but not something anything can do anything about.

And as I was reading this article, it reminded me of two things: first, some analogies I recently learned for how dysfunctional societies work, and second, this week’s Scripture theme of keeping awake.  The analogies are the frog in the pot, and the crab bucket.

If you put one crab in a bucket, it will climb out.  If you put several crabs in a bucket, then each time one of them tries to climb out, the others will pull it down and then none of them will escape.  Each of them are individually capable of escaping, and certainly if they worked together they could all escape, but instead they actively work to bring each other down.  You find crab buckets in online communities and offline face-to-face communities.  You find them in major organizations and in small groups.  Russian trolls encourage such crab-bucket groups, but they also form just fine without any Russian help at all.  And they are toxic.  Crab buckets prevent healing, they prevent growth, they prevent love, they prevent every good thing.  And they are the absolute opposite of God’s kingdom.

Our reading from Isaiah talks about God’s coming kingdom.  And the thing this passage emphasizes is how people will come together.  All different types of people, every nation and tribe, will come together in peace and harmony.  We will all learn the ways of the Lord; we will all learn to do things that nurture and help things grow.  We will turn all the weapons we use to hurt people into things to help nurture growth.  And obviously that’s talking about physical weapons, but the thing is, it’s also talking about spiritual weapons, all the words and attitudes and social tactics and attitudes we use to hurt and demean one another will be changed into ways to heal and respect one another.  Instead of being a bucket full of crabs trying to tear each other down, we will be actively using our God-given gifts to help build one another up.

And while we can’t make God’s kingdom come any faster than it will, and we can’t know when it will come, if we’re alert we can look around and see the places where we can make this world a little more like God’s kingdom to come, even if only small ways.  We can look for ways to help and heal, instead of hurt; we can look for ways to connect, instead of drive people apart.  Very few people end up in metaphorical crab buckets because they actively want to be in that kind of environment, just like few people end up following and sharing the posts of Russian trolls on purpose.  But it’s so easy to slip into.  It’s easier to judge people than to understand them, especially when they’re people we don’t know.  It’s easier to argue about whose fault things are than it is to fix them.  And once you get into the habit of focusing on the negative, it’s really hard to stop.

That’s why we have to pay attention.  We have to pay attention to God, who is working for the salvation of the world, and who will come with a judgment far more just—and far more merciful—than any judgment we could make.  And we have to pay attention to the things we are doing and saying.  Do our words and actions show Christ’s redeeming love to the world?  Do we give witness to the kingdom which is to come?  And no, we aren’t perfect and we mess up and we fail, and sometimes we find ourselves creating crab buckets, and we cling to Jesus’ promise of forgiveness when that happens.  But the thing is, the fact that Jesus forgives us doesn’t mean we can just shrug and give up.  Even when we can’t make things better—even when we can’t heal the broken and terrible places in ourselves and in the world—we at least need to acknowledge the reality of that brokenness.  Once you’re in a crab bucket, you may not be able to climb out.  But at least you can be aware that it’s not a good place to be, and that God desires a better life for you and everyone else in that crab bucket, and that the day will come when Christ will come to destroy the crab bucket and put something better in its place.

Here we come to the second metaphor, of the frog in boiling water.  See, if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out again.  But if you put it in cold water and turn the heat up slowly, it won’t notice that things are getting hot and will stay there until it’s boiled to death.  It thinks things are normal until it’s boiled to death.  Just the same way, it’s so easy for us to look out at the world and think that the way things are is normal.  That all the terrible things that people do to one another are just the way things are, and hey, it could be worse.  And that’s just not true.  God did not create the world to be this way.  God did not create human beings to treat one another like this.  God’s desire is that all God’s children might have life, and have it abundantly.  God’s desire is that all God’s children should have lives overflowing with love and every good thing.  And God was born in human flesh in order to make that happen.  God came to earth in the form of Jesus to show us that way, to call us to God, to wake us up so that we can see both the problems in the world and in ourselves, and so that we can see what God is doing to make things better.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, lived, taught, died, and rose from the grave, and he is coming back some day.  And when he comes back, all the seeds that he planted will burst into flower.  All the wounds we create in ourselves and in one another will be healed.  The dead will be raised, and all the living and the dead will be judged, and all people will flock to God, and the world will be made new.  And our job, as we wait for that to happen, is to keep awake.  To keep alert.  To see the crab buckets and the trolls for what they are: dangers to be dealt with.  Our job is to notice when things are bad, when the water is heating up around us.  And if we can do something, if we can put God’s love into action, we should; but even when there is nothing we can do to change things, we can at least bear witness to the fact that a better world is possible, and Christ Jesus is bringing it.

Amen.

 

Being Part of the Community

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019

Malachi 4:1-2a, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13, Luke 21:5-19

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.

 

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  This is a principle that has been used by both the far right and the far left at various points in the last few centuries, ignoring its context both in the community of Thessaloniki to which it was written, and in the larger canon of Scripture.  On the right, people use it as a justification to defund social programs, on the reasoning that poor people are poor because they are lazy and not working and therefore should not receive help without elaborate and ever-increasing bureaucratic hoops to jump through to prove they’re worthy of being helped.  On the left, socialists and communists have both used this as an organizing principle for communes.  On both the right and the left, people use it as an excuse to judge and exclude people and to avoid helping those in need, which is not what the passage is about.

First, let’s look at the larger context of Scripture.  The Bible is filled with commands to help those in need, from beginning to end.  We’re to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the prisoner, seek justice for the oppressed, lend to any in need (without collecting any interest in return), and in general make sure that everyone in society is getting what they need to live.  And we’re supposed to take special care to make sure that the most vulnerable people in society—widows, orphans, strangers, etc.—aren’t being taken advantage of or forgotten.  Passages about these obligations are all throughout Scripture from Genesis to Revelation.  God loves all people as his children, and desires all people to have a share in the abundance of God’s good creation, and part of our calling as God’s people is to see that that happens.  This passage is the only passage in the entire Bible that says or even implies that there is a limit to that.  Are there scammers who only want to prey on peoples’ generosity?  Of course there are.  But most people who come looking for help genuinely need it.  And it is possible to weed out most of the scammers without placing too much of a burden on those in genuine need.  If someone needs help and you can’t help, that’s one thing.  If anyone is using this passage as a reason for why they shouldn’t help, or why they should assume anyone asking for help is on the make, they’re proof-texting.  They’re skimming the Bible for verses that support their desires, rather than letting themselves be shaped by the whole scope of Scripture.

Second, let’s look at what was specifically happening in the Christian community in Thessaloniki at the time.  Like all Christian communities of its day, the congregation in Thessaloniki was small, a few households gathering for worship and service together in a large pagan city.  Most of them were poor, slaves and laborers and the like.  They were a small group in a hostile world, and they could only survive if they trusted one another and worked together for the common good.

And they believed that the Second Coming was imminent.  They believed that Jesus was due back any day, which would of course lead to massive changes as the heavens and the earth were made new and the dead were raised and the living and the dead were judged.  Therefore, some did what lots of Christians have done when they thought Jesus was coming back soon: sat around waiting for it to happen.  And no matter how much time passed, they were sure it was just around the corner so there was no point in participating in the work of the community.  Sitting and waiting for years is a problem for two reasons.  First, obviously, it puts an unfair burden on the members of the community who are doing all the work.  Secondly, however, Jesus didn’t ask us to be idle.  Jesus gave us work to do.  We are called and commanded to love God and love our neighbor, and not just in some vague feeling way.  We’re called to put that love into action.  And you can’t do that if you’re just sitting around waiting for Jesus.  They were so excited about Jesus returning that they were neglecting pretty much all of Jesus’ teachings about how to live.

But it gets worse.  They weren’t just sitting around waiting and doing nothing and being a burden, they were interfering with the work of the people who were doing the work.  They were showing up to events, not lifting one finger to help, and complaining that the people actually doing the work weren’t doing it the right way.  It’s not just that they weren’t helping; they were getting in the way of people who were helping, and interfering with the work God was calling them to do.  This is not about whether we should feed the hungry or whatever.  This is about saying that people who do nothing but get in the way of the community’s goals shouldn’t get the benefits of being a member of the community.  Paul doesn’t say we should throw them out or be mean to them, but we don’t have to bend over backwards for them, either.  And, most importantly, Paul points out that regardless of when Jesus comes back, we have work to do in the meantime.  Work that God has called us to do in the here and now.  The Christian life is not about passively waiting for Jesus to come back and fix things.  The Christian life is about loving God and our neighbor, and serving as God’s hands and feet in the world.  We have work to do.

But if you’re sitting there feeling guilty that you haven’t done enough, let’s remember that God’s view of what’s important doesn’t necessarily match human views of what’s important.  And that’s especially true when it comes to work.  Our culture has a very skewed and unhealthy view of work.  Work is seen as one of the highest moral goods.  People who can’t work—people who are old or disabled or mentally ill—are seen as burdens.  They have less value.  And actually the whole idea of people having a value at all is messed up.  We see people with price tags.  If they can’t do something or make something, if they need help, then they are worth less than people who can produce more.  And we have internalized that so much we don’t even realize how toxic it is.  I can’t count the number of elderly or disabled people I have ministered to in my life who were absolutely convinced that they needed to apologize for existing.  Who were absolutely certain that their whole reason for existence was about what they could do or contribute, and so when they couldn’t do as much they should just die.  Or who believed that it was better to isolate themselves and endure easily correctable pain and suffering and loneliness than to reach out and ask for even simple help.  One of our society’s greatest sins is that we teach people to believe that.  It causes so much unnecessary suffering.

God calls us to work not because work is some great moral virtue, but because it takes work to see that all God’s children receive God’s love and grace and abundance.  The work is not the point.  The love and grace and abundance are the point.  The work is just the process used to share that love and grace and abundance.  And focusing too much on visible results can distract us for that.  God created human beings so that relationships are one of our fundamental needs, as important as food and water, more important than shelter.  Love is one of the deepest needs we have.  Being known and cared for is one of the most important things anyone can have.  And you don’t need to be physically active to build a meaningful relationship with someone.  You just have to care about them, and listen to them, and be there for them, and give them opportunities to do the same for you.

If you can help with the physical work, you should, whether that’s quilting or cleaning the gutters or doing shifts at the warming center in Astoria or whatever other work God puts in front of you.  But if you can’t, or if you can do less than you used to, that dos not make you a burden or an idler or lazy.  If all you can do is show up and talk with people and care about them, that’s important work too.  And if you can’t show up because you are ill or injured, you are still a beloved child of God.  You are not a burden.  Your importance to our community and to God has nothing to do with how much work you do.  It’s about relationships and sharing God’s love with one another and the world.  That is the greatest work we have as Christians: to love one another.  May we all share in that.

Amen.

Life After Death

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, November 10, 2019

Job 19:23-27a, Psalm 17:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

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.

 

Let’s talk about death in the Bible.  Here’s something that most people don’t realize: the concept of resurrection in the Bible is almost completely absent from the Old Testament.  The last few books of the Old Testament to be written have a few vague references to it, most notably Daniel; many other books have passages that we can insert the resurrection into.  But God’s people didn’t even start talking about the possibility of the dead being raised until a few centuries before Jesus was born.

Up until then, the standard Jewish belief was that you were born, you lived, and you died.  And that was the end.  There was no heaven, no hell, only Sheol, where all the dead went, a place of nothingness.  If God wanted to reward you, God did it during your lifetime.  They looked forward to a day when God would come and set to right all the things that were wrong with the world and make creation perfect again, and if you were a good person living at that time things would be awesome for you, but if you died before that point you would just miss out on it.  As things got worse and worse for the Jewish people, as they got conquered and enslaved and sent into exile and returned from exile and got conquered again and again, this belief got less and less satisfying.  If you didn’t get rewarded for being a good follower in life, then you had to get rewarded in some other way.  Since they didn’t believe in a separation between body and soul, that meant that you had to come bodily back to life.  That’s what resurrection is.  It’s not about disembodied souls floating on clouds somewhere, it’s about the whole person, body and soul together, coming back to life in the most physical way possible.

In Jesus’ day, the idea of resurrection was highly controversial.  The Saducees, who were the high-level priests who controlled the Temple and had awesome lives, thought the whole idea was absolutely absurd.  And why shouldn’t they?  They had lots of money and power and influence, and their lives were pretty good.  Ordinary Jewish people from the Pharisees on down, on the other hand, loved the idea of Resurrection.  Because their lives were terrible.  They were horribly oppressed by the Romans, and the idea of a resurrection into a new life (one that the pagan Romans couldn’t share) sounded pretty good to them.

So when Jesus came to Jerusalem, preaching about a coming resurrection, the Saducees wanted to discredit both him and the idea of the resurrection.  To show just how absolutely absurd the whole concept was, they asked a question designed to stump him, about a woman who’d married a series of brothers.  Now, we think it’s an odd scenario, but it was actually fairly common back in those days.  Women had very few rights and very little ability to support themselves.  For protection and to make sure they didn’t starve, women needed to have either husbands or sons, preferably both.  And women who weren’t under the control of a man were seen as an unstable force, a threat to society.  So a woman whose husband died without sons was expected to marry his brother and have kids with him.  That way she’d be taken care of, and she would be kept out of trouble.  It was the law.  This happening seven times in a row was a bit unlikely, but hey, why let probability get in the way of a good straw-man argument.  So the Pharisees tell this story about a woman who married a series of seven brothers, all of whom died on her, and then they turn to Jesus, sure they’ve got the example that will point out just how absurd this whole idea of life after death is.  She’s got to belong to a man, and she can’t belong to more than one.  That’s how patriarchy works.  So which one is she going to belong to?

Of course, as Jesus points out, the problem is that they’re expecting life after resurrection to be just like life before resurrection.  And what would be the point of that?  If resurrection exists because there is terrible injustice in the world and people suffer, being resurrected to a life with just as much injustice and suffering would be nothing more than an invitation to more suffering.  The whole point of the resurrection is that God will fix things.  God will heal people.  God will make things better.  All the injustice and sin and evil in the world—and in all of us—will be gone.  Things will be made new.

As for marriage, well, we’re still going to have loving and life-giving relationships.  In fact, we’ll have better relationships because all the sin and brokenness that distort us and our friends and family will have been healed.  What we won’t have is all the legal and social frameworks based on economics and power and prejudice.  The Saducees asked the question assuming that a woman had to belong to a man, and that was the basis of marriage, so the question was which man she was going to belong to in the Resurrection.  But God didn’t institute marriage for economic reasons or as a way of controlling people.  God gave us marriage because it’s not good for human beings to be alone.  Because we need companionship and affection and mutual respect and support.  That’s what God has always wanted marriage to look like, and that’s what relationships of all kinds are going to look like after the resurrection.  Which man is she going to belong to?  Nobody’s going to belong to anybody in that way.  Nobody’s going to be a piece of property to be handed around as convenient for society.  She’s not going to belong to anyone but herself and God.  If she wants to form a relationship of mutual love and respect, that’s great, but it won’t be anything like the Saducees thought marriage should be.

The Saducees couldn’t imagine a life different from the one they were living.  So when they imagined a resurrection, they imagined it looking just like the life they already knew.  We have the opposite problem; we tend to think of the resurrection as not being anything like the life we already know.  Ask someone what heaven looks like and they imagine people in white robes sitting on clouds and strumming harps.  The thing is, both ideas are wrong.  The resurrection will be something like the life we know because it is life.  Soul and body together, filled with eating and drinking and enjoying God’s good creation and loving God and one another.  But at the same time, the resurrection is utterly different from this life because we and all of creation will be saved and forgiven and healed and made new.  All the things that hurt people will be gone.  All the things that distort or corrupt our hearts and minds and bodies and souls will be gone.  All the things that bring fear or pain or jealousy or worry or anger will be gone.  And all those emotions shape us and our society in this life so much that we can’t even begin to imagine what life would be life without them.

God is god not of the dead, but of the living.  The life we will have in the resurrection is the life that God wants all people and all of creation to have, the life that was the plan from the very beginning and was only prevented by human sinfulness.  God isn’t waiting to destroy this world and all but a few people in it, God is working to make this world into the world to come.  We can’t construct God’s kingdom on earth in the here and now, but we can look to that world as the guide for what God wants life to be like.  The point of being a faithful Christian is not to escape this life and try to make it into the next one, but to try and live our lives now in the light of that life to come.

Amen.

#Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1:11-23, Luke 6:20-31

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.

In the popular imagination, saints are especially holy people.  People who are righteous and good beyond what ordinary people can hope to be, or who do some great miraculous thing.  In this view of things, saintliness is a quality some people possess and others don’t.  In this view of things, being a saint is something you do, or something you achieve through your own merit.

But the thing is, that’s not how the Bible talks about being a saint.  For example, when Paul says in the letter to the Ephesians “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints,” he’s not talking about how the Ephesians love a few especially holy people.  To Paul, a “saint” is anyone who has received the grace of God.  Being a saint is not something you do or achieve, it’s a gift from God.  No human being can ever be truly holy or truly righteous on our own merit alone; we are all, even the best of us, sinners who fall short of God’s call for us.  And yet God saves us anyway.  God calls us, forgives us, renews us, claims us as God’s own, and makes us holy; and that is what it means to be a saint.  We are all, every single one of us, sinners who fall short of the glory of God and hurt ourselves and other people; we are all, every single one of us, saints made holy by God.  Sainthood is not about any internal resources or abilities we have; sainthood is about being forgiven, redeemed and made holy by God.

When we remember the saints who have gone before us, we’re not just remembering the really nice ones that everyone loved.  And we’re not just remembering the good parts of people and sweeping the bad parts under the rug.  So often when people die, we feel we have to pretend they were perfect even if we still bear the scars and wounds and grudges they gave us.  But acknowledging the saints doesn’t mean pretending they were perfect, because they weren’t.  Even the best of them were still sinners.  And when we call them saints, we aren’t forgetting the truth of their behavior and choices.  We are lifting up the work of God to save and redeem and make holy, even in this broken, sinful world.  We remember the saints, all of them, the good parts and the bad alike, and remembering that they are in the hands of Jesus Christ, just as we ourselves will some day be.  For those who helped us grow in the faith and loved us, we give thanks.  For those we had quarrels with, for those who hurt us, we pray that our wounds and scars will heal, and we pray that they will receive the forgiveness we ourselves hope to receive.  No one is holy on their own merits.  But God does not measure out grace and forgiveness by the teaspoon.  God pours out forgiveness and grace and mercy and salvation and blessing in overflowing cups for all who will receive it.

But blessing is another one of those words that is very different in the popular imagination than it is in the Bible.  The most common thing people use “blessed” to mean is lucky.  Christians on social media will point out something good that happened to them, and tag it #Blessed along with a picture of themselves looking happy and perfect.  And if that’s what blessing truly means, then our Gospel reading makes absolutely no sense.  Jesus says the poor, the hungry, the grieving, and the despised are blessed.  All the people whose lives are terrible, the people that society alternately ignores, exploits, pities, shames, and abuses—Jesus says they’re blessed.

You see, blessing in Biblical days didn’t just mean lucky or happy.  It could mean that good things had happened to you, and certainly if you blessed someone you wished for good things to happen to them, but that was only part of what it meant.  On a larger level, to be blessed was to be satisfied, at peace, unburdened.  To be blessed was to be respected and given honor.  Jesus pronounces blessing upon the poor and despised because they are the ones who need it, and because God doesn’t just want to save the nice happy comfortable people.  God is at work in even the darkest places, among the people we would rather forget about.

Blessed are the poor and the hungry, because God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to give them the resources they need to survive and thrive.  God’s will is for all people to share in the abundance of God’s creation, and God is at work to see that it happens.  If human inaction and callousness prevent them from sharing God’s abundance in this world, they will certainly share in God’s abundance in the world to come.  If human sinfulness—both their own and other peoples’—works to prevent them from experiencing peace and satisfaction in this life, they will certainly receive it in the world to come.  Blessed are those who weep, for God respects and honors them, and God is at work in their lives to provide them the support they need as they grieve.  And if human sinfulness and indifference work to isolate them so they don’t receive the support they need here and now, they will certainly receive that support in the world to come.  Blessed are the people society despises, because God sees them and God cares about them and God loves them, and God is at work in them and among them to help them heal from all the hurt they have received in this life.  And if their wounds are too deep to heal in this life, they shall certainly be healed in the next.

And note that this isn’t just the deserving poor, the ones who have done everything right their entire lives and never made any mistakes.  This isn’t just the people who are persecuted or hated for something they can’t change and are otherwise perfect and innocent.  This is all the poor, all the hungry,  all the people who are despised, and that includes the ones who are poor or hungry or despised because of their own sinfulness and brokenness and bad choices.  Because God sees with the eyes of a loving parent.  God knows all their potential, all the wounds and illness that twist them, all the terrible things in their life that have made them who they are, and God knows that healing for them and the world can only come from a place of compassion.  And God’s desire is that all people and all of creation be healed and saved and made knew.  So God blesses those who don’t deserve it.

But if that’s not enough to convince you that what God sees as blessing is not what human society sees is blessing, Jesus pronounces woe on those whom society thinks are blessed.  Woe to the rich and those who eat their fill, Jesus says.  And it’s not that wealth is evil or wrong, but God created a world of abundance with more than enough resources for everyone to have enough.  If some people are hungry and poor, that’s not because God hasn’t provided enough, it’s because we humans haven’t used God’s gifts for the good of all, only the good of some.  And if we can sit and enjoy God’s good gifts while others are being denied those same gifts, and do nothing to help them, well, that says a lot about us and none of it good.  If we can ignore and dismiss the suffering of others because things are going well for us, that’s pretty callous.  And sometimes when everyone speaks well of someone it’s because they’re really that good and deserve all the praise … but that’s not always the case.  Sometimes it’s flattery, sometimes it’s because the only people we’ve hurt are the ones nobody cares about.  Sometimes it’s just because we’re really good at playing the social game and putting on a good face—how often does someone commit a horrible crime, and the people around them are shocked because he was such a nice guy?  The eyes of the world see only the surface of things.  Our view of blessings and woes isn’t the same as God’s view.  And as Christians, we are called to conform our hearts and minds to Christ, not to the world.

As we remember those saints who have gone before us, let us

Amen.

Living In God’s Word

Reformation Sunday, October 27, 2019

Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 146, 2 Timothy 3:14–4:5, John 8:31-36

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

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

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

When Martin Luther set out to reform Christianity and fix the things that he saw were broken in the church, one of the problems that was most important to him was how little ordinary Christians knew about the Bible.  At the time, it was a crime to translate the Bible into the language people actually spoke in their day-to-day lives.  When the Bible was read, it was usually read in a Latin translation called the Vulgate.  Only scholars and the wealthy elites were fluent in Latin; not even all parish priests could read it.  And the church liked it that way: if ordinary people couldn’t read the Bible, then they couldn’t form opinions of their own.  They would have to believe Scripture said and meant whatever the church hierarchy said it did.

You see, Peter was neither the first nor the last person to notice that human beings often have itchy ears and turn to teachers who suit their own desires.  We human beings are masters at manipulating the truth to make it say what we want to hear.  We are very, very good at finding ways to interpret Scripture, the law, and reality itself so that it fits whatever we want to believe, even if that means twisting ourselves into a pretzel.  We take things out of context.  We make mountains out of molehills.  We flat-out ignore things we don’t like.  And there is no person or group of people immune to the desire to do this.  If you are sitting here thinking self-righteously about all the people you disagree with or dislike who creatively interpret everything from Scripture to science to current events in order to make it fit the way they want it to be, I have bad news for you: you almost certainly do it to.  Knowing this about human nature, the medieval church tried to prevent misinterpretation of God’s Word by restricting it to only a few.  If you couldn’t read Scripture for yourselves, you would have to accept what the church leaders told you it said and what it meant.

That strategy has two major flaws: first, it drastically underestimates how good humans are at creatively misinterpreting things.  The less you know about something, the easier it is to twist it to suit your own ideas, so restricting the reading of Scripture led to more misinterpretation, not less.  And second, this strategy assumed that the church leadership and hierarchy would not themselves fall prey to the temptation to interpret Scripture to their own benefit.  And, as it turned out, when they did fall prey to that temptation, since few people outside their ranks could read Scripture, few people could point out the problems with their teachings.  The more familiar people are with Scripture, the easier it is to see when someone’s interpreting it for their own benefit.

Today we put lots of effort into translating the Bible into the common language.  There are hundreds of translations into English, and there are multiple organizations dedicated to translating the Bible into every language on Earth.  The house I grew up in, like most Christian households, had many Bibles which I could choose to read whenever I wanted to.  Unfortunately, I very rarely chose to do so.  And I’m not alone in that.  For every funeral I do where the deceased had a beloved Bible with creased and dog-eared pages and helpfully underlined or highlighted passages, I do probably ten or twenty where neither the deceased nor anyone else in the family has spent enough time studying Scripture to have any preferences.  I’m not saying this to shame anyone, I’m just saying that this is the reality we live in.  If, as Peter says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work,” what does it say about us that we so seldom turn to Scripture except on Sunday mornings?

There are many reasons for this, of course, but one of the main ones is that the Bible is a big, complicated story full of lots of smaller stories.  It’s messy.  It contradicts itself.  There are parts of it that are hard to understand, and parts that are boring, and parts that are gross and disturbing.  It’s really easy to open your Bible, find a passage that you either don’t understand or that is really nasty, think “what the heck am I supposed to learn from THIS?” close your Bible again, and go away feeling guilty for not being a good enough Christian.  It’s also really easy to be afraid of reading the Bible and taking away the wrong message, or interpreting it badly, so we don’t even try.

I think part of this problem is that most people—even most Christians—don’t really understand what the Bible is.  It’s not a textbook.  It’s not a history textbook, or a science textbook, or even a religion textbook.  It’s not a list of facts to memorize so that you can pass a test.  It’s not a law book; it’s not a set of rules to follow blindly.  It’s more like sitting in the living room with the family scrapbook, with your grandparents and all your aunts and uncles gathered around, hearing the family stories about where you come from and how you all came to be here, and what happened along the way.  They tell you why things are the way they are.  And some of the stories are funny and some are sad and some you just had to be there for, and sometimes grandma and grandpa argue about how exactly it all happened, but even if the details are fuzzy sometimes, the stories they tell are true and real.  And if you listen to those stories enough, if you ask questions and think about the answers and come back to those stories day after day, you’ll find that they shape how you see the world.  Not just how you see the past, but how you see the present and the future, as well.  Those stories will shape how you see yourself and how you see those around you.  And listening to those stories and responding to them will build your relationship with the people telling them.

The Bible is a little like that.  The Bible is the story of God at work in the world, from creation to the end times.  And the Bible is the story of God at work in the world, working to heal and safe and re-form the world, even in the midst of human sin and brokenness and evil.  These stories tell us truths about who we are and who God is, and about the world, and the more we read Scripture the more we are shaped by it.  The more time we spend reading our Bibles, and praying about what we read, and thinking about it, and talking about it with others, the more likely we are to conform our hearts and minds to God’s Word, instead of twisting it to suit what we want to believe.  And in the process of studying Scripture, we strengthen our relationship with God.

The Bible is big, and messy, and complicated, because life is big, and messy, and complicated.  Sometimes the Bible doesn’t have a clear answer to a particular question; sometimes the Bible has multiple conflicting answers to a particular question.  And that’s because sometimes life doesn’t have one clear answer that is correct and everything else is wrong.  But like I said, the point of reading Scripture isn’t to memorize the right answer to any particular question.  The point is to wrestle with the stories and be shaped by them, and to build our relationship with God in the process.  Even the weirdest, darkest, hardest-to-understand parts of scripture have truths to teach us.  Sometimes that truth is simply that human beings can do terrible things, even when we believe in God and are trying our best to follow him.  Sometimes that truth is that even when human beings screw up, God is still present in us and with us.

I encourage you to set time aside regularly to read your Bible, whether by yourself or with your family, and pray about what you read.  Don’t start from the beginning and try to read everything in order if that’s not working for you; it’s better to stick to things you can make sense of than get bogged down and give up.  But as you’re reading, and praying, ask yourself questions about the story.  What truths might God be trying to teach through the story?  How does that particular story fit with other Bible stories you know?  Is there anything in the story you agree with, or disagree with, and why?  Is the message easy or hard to hear or live out?  Does anything remind you of things in your life or in the world around you?  Don’t be afraid to ask questions you don’t know the answer to, and if things come up you’re not sure of I would be overjoyed to talk about it with you.  If you do this regularly, you will find your faith life getting stronger.  You will find your relationship with God getting deeper, and you will find yourself understanding more and more about Scripture.

Amen.

The Problem of Pain

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, October 6, 2019

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10

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 prophet cries out to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?  Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.  So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

It’s one of the big problems of the Bible: why is there pain?  Why does evil happen?  Why does God not smite the evildoers of the world?  Why do bad things happen, and especially, why do bad things happen to good people?  Where is God in all the brokenness of the world?  From the third chapter of Genesis when Adam and Eve eat the apple, to the last chapter of Revelation when we hear of the righteous being saved and happy in God’s kingdom come to Earth while evildoers are kept out, the writers of the Bible wrestle with the problem of pain, and argue about it.  Deuteronomy claims that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people.  The book of Job, in which an innocent man suffers dreadfully, finally concludes that mortals are too limited to understand the problem of pain.  Ecclesiastes asserts that since so much of the world—good and evil both—is temporary and ultimately empty, the question is meaningless.  Lamentations focuses more at expressing profound grief than asking why.  Revelation says that even though the evil may prosper in the here-and-now, they will not reach God’s kingdom.  Other books have different perspectives.  And people of faith, both Jews and Christians, have been continuing the conversation and talking about it and arguing about it all the time.  Theologians have a fancy word for it, called ‘theodicy.’

The thing is, though, when you’re the one in pain, when you’re the one suffering, none of these answers are particularly convincing or helpful.  Despite the platitudes and Bible verses that well-meaning people of faith are prone to spout in times of trouble, when you or people you love are really suffering, no possible answer can satisfy.  “Everything happens for a reason” is a terrible answer to someone wondering why their child has cancer, or wondering why their father molested them, and in fact is more likely to harm someone’s faith than help it.  “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle” is even worse.  First, it implies that God caused your suffering, and second, lots of people face harder challenges than they can possibly handle, harder challenges than anyone could handle.  People break under the strain of hardship and tragedy all the time, and that platitude implies that if you do, it’s your own fault for not being strong enough to take what God wants you to.  Or, to take a verse from our reading today out of context.  “The righteous shall live by faith!” as if that means that having enough faith will mean nothing bad happens to you, when what God means is that faith means trusting God is still there even in the midst of the worst the world can throw at you.

We Christians really don’t like that idea.  We’re not comfortable with the reality of suffering, we’re not comfortable with the problem of pain, we want a world in which everything happens for a reason and if you’re a good enough person, nothing truly bad will ever happen to you.  I think it’s about two things: not wanting to question God, and control.  We Christians have this idea that being pious and faithful means quietly accepting everything God does in our lives and always having perfect trust in Jesus and never doubting, never struggling, never arguing, never wrestling with anything that happens.  Our Jewish brethren don’t think that; they argue with God all the time.  And if you look at the great heroes of the Bible—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the writers of the Psalms, pretty much all the prophets—they wrestled with God.  They questioned God all the time.  They disagreed … and not only was that okay, sometimes they changed God’s mind.  Sometimes they got told they just weren’t capable of understanding, but never does the Bible say they were wrong to question, to cry out, to demand answers.  The belief that you can’t argue with or question God, or complain to God, is not just wrong, it’s un-Biblical.  When we don’t think we can question God, those questions don’t go away, they just fester deep in our soul.

The other reason we cling to a belief that we can make sense of suffering is that we want to feel like we control what’s going to happen to us.  If being good earns you good things and happiness, if suffering is caused by doing things wrong or not having enough faith, then you can control whether or not you suffer.  If you are good, you don’t have to worry.  You can pray your way out of any problem.  If your faith is strong enough, you will literally be able to move mountains, so even if you have a serious problem, your faith will be rewarded by a miracle cure.  You can figure out the divine plan, do the right thing, and any problems you suffer will be merely temporary inconveniences on the way to glory.

The problem is, life just doesn’t work like that.  While some people are fortunate enough to have their good behavior rewarded with good outcomes, not everyone is.  Sometimes bad things just happen.  Sometimes evil people cause pain and suffering for others while they themselves have a wonderful life.  Sometimes the world is simply broken by sin and death, and it’s nobody’s fault, it just is.  And even if you believe, as we Lutherans do, that God is at work even in the darkest, ugliest parts of the world, that doesn’t help much when you’re walking through one of those dark, ugly parts and you feel so alone.  Even if you believe that Christ will return and judge the living and the dead … that’s not much comfort if you are suffering from the actions of evil people and you need relief from it now.  Those platitudes about everything happening for a reason and good people getting rewarded are a way of papering over people’s suffering and making ourselves feel better about it.  It doesn’t help the people who are suffering; it just reassures the bystanders that they’ll never suffer like that, and if they did, they have a stronger faith and would be able to handle it better.  It wouldn’t crush them, only make them stronger.

And if you’ve built your understanding of God and life around an idea that if you’re good enough and your faith is strong enough, you’ll never suffer, never doubt, never have something you can’t sail through easily … then if something terrible does happen to you, you’ll have no way of dealing with it.  When you are in the deepest trouble, when you are most in need, all your certainties will come crumbling down around your feet.  There are some things so terrible that they can’t be explained.  Some experiences so shattering, there’s no possible way of making meaning from them.  And sometimes people go through things that may not be as severe, but which drag on for a soul-grindingly long time.  And even knowing intellectually that God is with you, that God will never abandon you, doesn’t help much when you feel abandoned.  The only thing you can do, when all the explanations fail, is cry out to God.

Faith isn’t about being confidently serene no matter what.  Faith is about living with God.  It’s about a relationship.  And crying out to God, complaining, lamenting, letting out all your grief and pain and fear and horror, as the prophet Habakkuk does here, as Job does, as Jeremiah does in Lamentations and the psalmist does in the psalms, that’s a part of having that relationship.  Because what kind of a relationship is it if you can’t take your fears and doubts and troubles to?  Not a very strong or intimate one, that’s for sure.  Faith isn’t about being certain, and it’s not about being safe.  It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting God is right beside you as you do it.  And sometimes that trust is small and feeble and hard to keep ahold of, and that’s okay.  Sometimes we have questions that have no answers, and that’s okay.  God knows how we’re feeling, and what we’re going through, and God is willing to wrestle with us through our doubts and fears and questions.  God has been there.  God was tortured to death on a cross; there is no grief or pain or fear that God can’t understand.  There is no place on earth so dark or twisted or corrupt that God can’t work.  I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen, but I know that God is at work in the midst of them.

And although it can seem almost impossible to imagine, one day all pain and suffering will cease.  One day, all evil will be cast out and all wounds will be healed.  One day, the dead will rise from their graves and all the living and the dead will be judged.  One day, all sins will be forgiven and every tear will be wiped away from every eye, and there will be no grief or pain or suffering any longer.  We wait for that day, and although it seems like we have been waiting forever, it will come.

Amen.

Serving God above all else

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 22, 2019

Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

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.

Jesus said: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  It’s a pretty bald statement, and fits very well with other of Jesus’ statements about money elsewhere in the Gospels.  Jesus spent more time talking about money more than about any other topic except the kingdom of God, and Jesus tended to be very critical of wealthy people.  Moreover, this statement that you cannot serve God and wealth fits very well with many parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, where wealth and poverty and economics are central themes.

Our first reading is a prime example of this.  Amos was a prophet known for his thundering denunciations of sin, and he focused on the sin of economic injustice.  In our first reading he rails against the business owners and traders who use treachery and deceit, cooking the books and falsifying measurements so that they can cheat both the people they’re buying from and the people they’re selling to.  That’s what “making the ephah small and the shekel great” means.  It’s like if a grocery store sold 2lbs of meat as being 2¼ lbs.  Obviously, lying is wrong, but the thing that makes this kind of lying even worse than regular lies is that it preys on the most vulnerable.  Sure, it’s not good for anybody; but the poorest people in the community are the ones for whom it is the heaviest burden.  The powerful people in Amos’ day were quite willing to cause poverty and enslavement among the most vulnerable people in the community, as long as they got paid for it.  In a straight-up decision between higher profit margins for themselves personally, and doing the right thing, they would always choose profit.  They believed themselves model citizens and good people, but they destroyed lives and communities for their own profit.  And Amos was appalled.  Amos warned them: The lord God almighty saw what they were doing, and God was not going to forget.  All the good things about them—how much they went to worship, how they respected their own parents and treated their spouses and kids well, all the money they donated to good works—was not enough to make up for the evil that they did in impoverishing others for their own gain.  They were going to have to answer for their actions.

You cannot serve God and wealth.  It’s like a servant trying to serve two employers.  For a while, it looks like it works.  But what happens when both of them want the servant working at the same time?  He can’t be in two places at once, he’s got to choose between them.  In the same way, there are times when our allegiance to God will conflict with our allegiance to money.  Because sometimes doing the right thing is not always the most profitable thing.  Generosity is the most obvious: it is more profitable to keep your money for your own things instead of giving to those in need, but God calls us to be generous.  But it’s more than that, as the reading from Amos shows.  Bad business practices gain wealth, but they are exploitative.  But there are even business practices that are perfectly legal and above-board that are still very likely to disproportionately penalize poor and working-class people.  You make more money if you don’t pay your employees well than if you pay them a good wage.  You make more money if you use unpaid interns instead of paid employees.  You make more money if you treat employees like interchangeable machines rather than accommodating any disabilities or special needs they might have.  But all of these things result in poverty and vulnerability and peoples’ lives being measurably worse.  And God values people more than money, and God expects us to do the same.  It’s not that money is bad, it’s that when it comes down to a choice between doing what God wants and doing what is most profitable, we have to choose.

Which brings us to the parable.  It’s so weird.  Jesus praising dishonesty?  That’s not something you find much of in the Bible.  And we tend to assume that the master or landlord in a parable is an allegory for God, but I don’t think that’s the case here.  Let’s look at a little bit of Roman economics to see if we can shed some light on this parable.  In the Roman Empire, landowners were pretty much all absentee landlords.  They lived in the city and owned lots of land all around, which was worked by slaves and tenant farmers.  The tenant farmers were like sharecroppers, and the whole system was designed to benefit the landlords at the expense of the people who actually did the work.  You had to plant mostly olive trees and grape vines, because olives and olive oil and wine were profitable and that’s what the landowner wanted.  But that meant that you weren’t growing the wheat and barley to feed yourself and your family.  Which meant you had to buy food, which meant you were always in debt.  And if you got into too much debt, the only recourse was to sell yourself or your children into slavery.  A good year was one in which you and your family got enough to eat and only went a little bit into debt.  A bad year, well.  It was a great system for the major landlords, very profitable.  But it was awful for the vast majority of people, resulting in hunger and grinding poverty in the midst of a world filled with abundance.  There were the super-rich, and there were the people living in grinding poverty, and in between there were the managers who made sure that the wealthy landowners got every shred of profit they could squeeze out of their land and their tenants.

The manager in our parable had probably spent his life sucking up to the wealthy people he worked for.  Of course he did; how else was he going to advance?  The landowners controlled the purse strings; they controlled everything.  If he didn’t want to have the same dire straits as most of the people of the community, he needed the wealthy people to like him and employ him.  He probably aspired to join their ranks some day, the ranks of the people who had it all and pulled all the strings.  And if that meant carrying out their orders and turning the screws on the workers he managed, well.  It was better than being a laborer himself.

And then he got accused of wasting his employer’s money or property.  Taking advantage of poor people and forcing them into greater poverty and possibly even enslavement was business as usual; wasting a rich person’s wealth was a crime.  And this manager, who’s built his entire life on sucking up to the rich and exploiting the poor, all of a sudden he’s terrified.  Most people really don’t like him, for good cause.  He is the embodiment of a system that has made their lives hell.  Nobody’s going to give him the benefit of the doubt.  If his employer fires him for cause, nobody else is going to hire him to be a manager … and then he will be well and truly up the creek without a paddle.

So he cheats.  We don’t know if he’d actually wasted his employer’s money before this or if he was falsely accused, but we know that at this point, he absolutely cheated his employer.  He went to the people who owed the landowner money—the same people that, up to this point, the manager and landowner have been doing their level best to chisel and gouge and exploit—and cancels some of their debts.  He’s doing it for purely selfish reasons: he hasn’t had some miraculous change of heart, he hasn’t decided to turn and undo the whole system, he just wants to have people willing to take him in and help him once he gets fired.

But do you think it matters?  The people whose debts he forgave, do you think they care whether he did it for selfish reasons or out of the goodness of his heart?  The people whose burden was relieved, who didn’t have to worry about being sold into slavery because of their debt, do you think it mattered to them why he did it?  The whole system was messed up.  The whole economy was based on degradation and exploitation and putting profits above people.  Is there any such thing, in that system, as honest wealth?  And that manager who cheated his employer by relieving peoples’ debts, he may have been cheating his manager but he might have been faithful in that moment to what God wanted, even if he didn’t know it.

And that’s the real question for us as Christians, isn’t it?  When it comes to a conflict between God and money, who are we faithful to?  Will we serve money—the profits, the market, the corporation, the bottom line—or God?  Our economy is a lot better than the Roman one, it’s far less exploitative, far fairer.  But it’s not perfect, and we still have to make choices sometimes: will we serve God, or money?  Will we be faithful to God, or faithful to money?  Which master will we serve?  Which will have the greatest place in our hearts?  Money is very useful, but if we are to call ourselves Christian, we have to serve God above all else.  May we learn to care more about God’s call and command than about what the world teaches us about money.

Amen.

Rejoice

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 15, 2019

Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

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.

 

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the religious leaders were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” … and Jesus said, “I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  You know what struck me about this reading, when was studying the texts for this Sunday?  It’s the contrast between God’s reaction to sin, and the religious leaders’ reaction to sin.  In our reading from Exodus, God sees the Hebrew people sin and becomes furious.  He knows the harm they are doing to themselves and one another.  And, like anyone who sees someone they love being hurt, God gets angry.  Meanwhile, the religious leaders see people who have committed sin, and grumble that Jesus talks to them.  Their reaction is not about punishing sin; it’s not about hating the brokenness and destruction that sin leaves in its wake; it’s certainly not about trying to heal that brokenness or help people turn away from sin.  No, their grumbling is about dividing people into good people and bad people, people who deserve good things and people who don’t—and then making sure that everybody knows who’s supposed to be on what side of that equation.

For most people in the world, there are two kinds of sinners: the ones they can sympathize with, and the ones they can’t.  There are some people, and some sins, where we can put ourselves in the sinner’s shoes.  “If I were in their position, I might have done something similar.”  We feel compassion.  And, very often, we begin to excuse the sin, to minimize it.  It’s not that big a deal!  Anyone might have done that, in that situation!  We believe ourselves to be good people, and we can see why they did it, therefore they must be good people too, and therefore the sin must not really be that bad.  Or maybe the sinner is so nice, and they seem so much like us, so surely they can’t be that bad.  Therefore, the thing they did can’t have been that bad, either.  We close our eyes to the hurt their sin caused, the damage, and sweep any consequences neatly under the rug.  This is what happens every time a man known to harass women keeps getting invited to parties, or someone gets mad that their friend was called a racist for saying and doing racist stuff.  If we sympathize with the sinner, we are very likely to excuse the sin.  If there’s a way to sweep things under the rug and prevent them from facing any consequences, we’ll do that.  We may even convince ourselves that their actions were good.

When we can’t sympathize with the sinner or the sin, however, things are exactly the opposite.  Then there is no excuse for their behavior or their words.  Why, they must be pure evil to have said or done such a thing.  No punishment is too much for their offenses.  And anyone who can have compassion or sympathy for them must be just as bad.  Even minor sins, done by people we dislike or have no sympathy for, loom large in our eyes.  We want the book thrown at them, and we are quite happy to exclude them and demean them and treat them badly, because obviously they deserve it.  If terrible things happen to them, that’s okay, because they don’t deserve compassion or humane treatment because they’re bad.

How much harm the sin caused is less important than how we feel about the sinner.  If we like the sinner, we think there is nothing to forgive.  If we don’t like the sinner, we think forgiveness is not—or shouldn’t be—possible.  And neither of these is healthy, good, or godly.  In God’s eyes, no sin can or should be swept under the rug or minimized.  God sees all the hurt and pain that sin causes.  God knows exactly how bad each sin is, even when we humans blind ourselves to the real consequences of our thoughts and actions.  But at the same time, God truly loves sinners and can and will forgive anything if we give God half a chance.  And God rejoices every time someone can be saved, every time someone can be turned to a more life-giving path.

Consider God’s words in our reading from Exodus.  We see how angry God is at the Hebrew people for breaking their promises and going astray.  It’s not just that they’ve started to make themselves idols, it’s that God knew where that was going to lead.  Once you’ve decided that one of the ten greatest commandments can be broken, and that everybody should just go along with it, where does it stop?  This isn’t just a minor thing like jaywalking.  Idolatry is creating God in your own image, a god you’re comfortable with who will only ever tell you what you want to hear and confirm what you already believe.  Once you have taken that step—once you have stopped listening to the actual God who created the universe and saves people from slaver and sin and death, once you have started substituting your own preconceptions and  prejudices and ideologies and telling yourself that’s what God wants you to do—then any other evil becomes excusable.  Because it’s just a matter of finding the right justification.  And if there’s one thing humans are good at, it’s finding justifications.

The gods of our own creation like all the same people we like, and hate all the same people we hate.  The idols of our ideology tell us that we are righteous when we do the things we want to do, whatever that may be and no matter who gets hurt.  After all, if our actions or inactions hurt people we don’t care about, the gods we make in our own image don’t care about them, either.  Murder, rape, torture, theft, adultery, abuse, exploitation … all of them can be justified.  If we work hard enough, we can even find a way to explain them as a good thing.

And that’s why God is so mad about the Hebrew’s idolatry.  God knows where it will lead.  God knows that they will use the idol they have created to justify the worst parts of human nature.  They will hurt one another, and do evil, and they will use their idol to excuse it all.  If your children whom you loved and had tried to teach good to were hurting one another, and convincing themselves that their cruelty and selfishness was good and right, wouldn’t you be angry?  Every single human being ever born is God’s beloved child, whom God created in God’s own image.  Every bit of the universe was created by God, and made good.  Every time we hurt another human being, we hurt someone God loves.  Every time we hurt ourselves, we hurt someone God loves.  Every time we ignore another human being’s pain, we ignore the pain of someone God loves.  Every time we hurt the world, we are hurting God’s good creation.  God cares about everyone, even the people we don’t.  Even the people we actively hate or despise.  That’s why God hates sin, because it hurts people God loves.  That’s why sin makes God angry.

And that’s also why God forgives.  Because God loves.  God loves both the sinner and the sinned-against.  God loves both the one who is hurt, and the one who caused their pain.  God hates the things we do that hurt ourselves and others and creation, but God still loves us.  And no matter what we have done, or failed to do, God will always seek us out and work to turn our lives around.  No matter what others have done or failed to, God will always seek them out and work to turn their lives around.  And when it works—when someone is saved, when someone is put on a better path, God and all heaven throws a party and rejoices.  Wouldn’t you, if it were your child?

The Pharisees saw sin as a way of determining who’s in and who’s out, who’s good and who’s bad, who’s worth caring about and who’s disposable.  And so when they saw Jesus spending time with people they thought were sinners, they grumbled.  Because God should care about the nice people like us, not the bad people like them.  All too often, that’s the way we think about sin and sinners, too.  But that’s not the way God sees it.  To God, sin is the tragedy that causes his beloved children to hurt one another and God’s good creation.  Sin is the thing that breaks the world and separates us from God and one another.  But no matter how great our sin is, God’s love is greater still.  And sometimes, sometimes people choose to be better.  Sometimes people choose to stop contributing to the cycle of pain and violence.  Sometimes people who have gotten lost are found and put on a better path.  And when that happens, God and all heaven rejoices.  Shouldn’t we rejoice, too?

Amen.

Power and Equality

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 8, 2019

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33

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.

Philemon is my favorite book of the Bible.  We get such a clear view of Paul’s personality, here, as he guilt-trips Philemon into doing the right thing.  I can imagine the scene so clearly: Philemon’s church gathered to hear the letter, all of them knowing all the dirty gossip about the fight between Philemon and Onesimus, and waiting to hear what Paul’s take on it is.  All of them knowing that Roman law and custom was firmly on Philemon’s side.  Philemon’s pride at the first section, as Paul buttered him up, only to become chagrined and flustered as Paul pulls the rug right out from under him, but not being able to respond.

Then there’s the connection with American history.  Like the early United States, the Roman Empire was a slave state, whose entire economy depended on the enslavement of a huge percentage of its population.  This year marks the 400th Anniversary of slavery in America; the first African slaves arrived in August of 1619.  Slavery was legal in America for longer than it was forbidden.  And the effects linger on, in policies and community standards that seem innocent on the surface.  When I was a kid, I was taught that the Civil Rights Era had fixed all the racial problems in America.  We teach our children a history in which the evils of slavery are minimized and excused, and so is all the discrimination and oppression that followed it, and yet that’s not true.  Our criminal justice system treats people of color far differently than it does white people.  For example, average illegal drug use is the same in both the White and Black communities, and yet Black drug users are seven times more likely to be arrested and put in prison than White drug users.  And convicted prisoners are the one group of people that it is legal to force to work for little or no pay; they are specifically exempted from the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery.  Thousands of companies across America contract with prisons to use their prisoners—mostly people of color—as slave labor.  In states that still have the death penalty, the most crucial factor deciding whether you will be sentenced to death or to life in prison is not the severity of your crime, but the color of your skin.

And it’s not just the legal system, it’s our whole society.  About a decade ago, a documentary on race in America staged an experiment.  They found two average, nice, ordinary, mostly-white suburbs in areas not known for being especially racist.  And then they had two groups of teens—one White, one Black—purposefully vandalize and destroy a parked car.  And they waited to see how many people called the cops.  Nobody called the police on the White kids, but there were many calls to the police about the Black kids.  More than that, the Black kids had some friends of theirs waiting a few streets away for them to be done, and concerned White citizens called the cops on those kids who were quietly sitting in a parked car and talking to one another.  They believed Black kids sitting and talking quietly is more threatening and criminal than White kids actively vandalizing things.  I could go on and on with story after story, but I would never come to the end of such stories.  We may ignore the question of slavery and our nation’s history with it, but it is baked into our nation’s bones.

None of us were alive when that terrible institution was outlawed, and yet we are all affected by its legacy, despite the ways we as a society have chosen to ignore it.  And the ELCA is the whitest Christian denomination in the US—that is, we have the lowest percentage of people of color in our membership of any denomination.  The legacy of slavery and racism is not something we can or should ignore.  It’s easy to look back at the crimes of our ancestors and think, “if I were alive back then, surely I would have been an abolitionist.  Surely I would have spoken up about slavery and worked to bring it down.”  But that’s not a very relevant question, is it?  The question is, when we look at the world around us and see the ways in which slavery’s ugly legacy still holds sway, when we see how racism affects so many things in our society and in our community, what will we do now?  What will guide our response?  Will we shrug and say, well, it’s not that bad, surely, and it’s always been this way?  Will we go with the trendiest response and follow the crowd, whichever way the crowd happens to be going at any particular time?  Or will we ask what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do?

That’s a question Paul was wondering about, as he wrote this letter.  The Roman Empire had no anti-slavery advocates.  Slavery was part of the way the universe worked: some people were rich, and some people were slaves.  Like people today, people in the ancient world accepted the world they knew as normal, the way things should be.  And then God knocked Paul down on the road to Damascus and Paul saw the grace and mercy of Christ, the Good News of the Gospel, and all Paul’s old certainties turned upside down and inside out.  Paul had learned that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  How do you reconcile that with a world that values some people more than others?  If we are all siblings in Christ—if that identity trumps and subsumes all the other identities human beings make for one another—how do you deal with the realities of a world which gives some people every advantage at the expense of degrading and oppressing others?  And what do you do when you turn around and look at all the things around you that you’ve always thought were normal … and realize that they are contrary to the Gospel?

That’s what Paul’s dealing with, in this letter, and in a lot of ways it’s a lot like the world we live in today.  In the last couple of decades, a lot of our old comfortable certainties about how the world works and how the world should work have been challenged, leaving Christians scrambling to figure out what a faithful response is.  Not just on race, but in other areas, too.  Gender, sexuality, so many old certainties are in question.  We have been very comfortable ignoring anything we didn’t like, and the voices of those who have been at the bottom of the social ladder.  But now we can’t do that anymore.  Those voices we’ve hushed up or ignored for so long are louder than ever, and we as faithful Christians have to figure out how to respond.  And, as faithful Christians, the first place we should turn should be the words of Scripture.  So how did Paul handle it?

Paul focused on the people involved, the one who had been enslaved and the one who had enslaved him, and responded to both with love and encouragement.  At the time, Christianity was just a tiny portion of society; Paul had no influence over the larger world.  He couldn’t work for the overturning of the whole institution, but he could take action in the little world of the Christian community.  He told Philemon to free Onesimus, but that in itself wasn’t enough.  Roman society had a whole system for how to treat freed slaves: they still were legally subordinate to their former master.  No, Paul said, Onesimus should be your brother.  No matter what society says you should do, no matter what your friends think of you for doing something different, your former slave should be your brother, your equal, not your subordinate.  Whatever the disagreements between the two, whatever Philemon thought about Onesimus, however Philemon had treated Onesimus up until that point, whatever had been the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted Onesimus to flee, that was over.  Done.

And it wasn’t up to Onesimus to bridge the gap, it was up to Philemon.  Philemon was to welcome him back as a brother.  Family.  An equal.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions and experiences mattered.  That was to be the basis of their relationship going forward, and that was the basis on which Onesimus was to return.  Not as a subordinate, or charity case, or someone to be condescended to.  An equal.  A beloved brother.  Someone whose thoughts and opinions mattered.  And Paul was willing to use every rhetorical trick and every ounce of manipulation and pressure he could pull out to see that it happened.  It was hard, it was difficult, it went against everything the world around them would have taught them to do—and it was also essential to the health and life of the community of faith.  Because otherwise, all Paul’s words about the Gospel, about the love and grace of God, would be just that: words.  Pretty words, but empty rhetoric.

Like Paul we believe that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category.  Our world is better on all those issues than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, but still falls far short—and it’s easy for people who aren’t at the bottom to close our eyes to just how much we still fall short.  Christianity has more power than it did in Paul’s day, but far less than we did a few decades ago.  We can’t fix society single-handed, but we can work to make our community reflect the mutual love and respect and equality of the Gospel.  We can work to treat all people like brothers and sisters worthy of respect … including the people our culture would tell us to treat as less than we are.  This is what God calls us to do: may we treat all of God’s children, all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, with the love and equality God calls us to.

Amen.

Keeping the Sabbath

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 25, 2019

Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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.

 

Barna Research Group did a study of American Christians of all denominations, trying to see what the average level of theological understanding was among church-going people.  The vast majority of regularly-worshipping Christians knew almost nothing about their faith.  Most of them believed only in a vague sort of wishy-washy feel-good spirituality which Barna labelled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  Which basically means that you believe there is a God out there somewhere, but God isn’t really involved in your life or the world, and God wants you to be a good person and be happy.  That’s it.  That’s the sum total of what most American Christians knew or believed about God and their faith.  And it’s not that that’s wrong; after all, there is a God, and God does want us to be good people who are happy.  But it’s also only a tiny part of who God is and what God does in the world, and it’s only a tiny part of what God desires for us.  It’s a child-like faith in the bad sense, shallow and vague.

Our God created the universe to be good, to be filled with life and joy and abundant good things, and then God saw human sin break and twist and sicken that good creation.  But God has not been sitting idly by since that happened; God has not turned away, nor left us to our own devices, nor shrugged and said we get what we deserve.  God has been active in creation and in our lives, working to heal and re-create and redeem.  As our passage from Hebrews reminds us, God has been working to heal and purge since the days when Cain committed the first murder in human history, killing his brother Abel.  God has been creating covenant after covenant, promise after promise, and asking us in return to live just and merciful lives, and create just and merciful societies based on loving God and loving our neighbor.

That redemption, that re-creation, that healing, it doesn’t happen simply or easily.  It required nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, to set it in motion; and it will re-shape the entire cosmos.  In the words of our reading from Hebrews, it will “shake the heavens and the earth” and God will be a consuming fire, burning out all impurities and refining the good to make it even better.  The things of this world, even the things we think are certain and right and good, will need to be purified and made better.  And there are so many things we take for granted as normal that will turn out to be incompatible with the new kingdom God is building which God is planting in and around us, which will grow to fullness when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead.

So the question is, knowing all of this, how should we respond?  Knowing that the world is broken by sin and death, knowing that God is at work to redeem and re-create the world and us, knowing that God is the only one in the entire universe that cannot be shaken, knowing that Christ will come again and bring God’s good kingdom with him, how should we live?  How should we respond to all of this?  What does God want of us?  In the words of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as quoted by Jesus, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Or in the words of the prophet Micah, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”

This is about morality, but it’s not about being good for the sake of being good.  It’s not about following the right rules just because they’re rules.  God’s law exists to help guide us into the ways to live that will grow towards God’s kingdom.  It’s not about following the letter of the law, it’s about being guided by the Spirit of that law so that our lives reflect the unshakeable kingdom that is to come.  And some of that is about personal morality, but a lot of that is about communal morality.  It’s about creating societies that reflect God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy and forgiveness.

Given all of that, let’s turn to the discussion of the Sabbath which is at the heart of both our Gospel and our first reading.  Why does God command us to take time for rest and worship?  Most people today think Sabbath is just about going to church.  But it’s not.  The reason for the Sabbath is explained in several places in the Bible, most notably Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy.  In Genesis and Exodus, the command to rest on the Sabbath is connected to creation.  God created the universe, and then God rested.  As God rests, so should we; no human or animal was created to work unceasingly.  We were created for a balance of work and rest.  Worship is a part of sabbath, but worship is not the only reason for setting the day aside and it’s only part of making the Sabbath holy.  Deuteronomy expands on this, commanding us to remember being enslaved in Egypt.  It’s not enough for us to choose, as individual moral choices, to respect the Sabbath.  It’s easy for people with resources to choose to take time off; it’s a lot harder for poor people.  And it may not be a choice for people who are being exploited.  So keeping the Sabbath means not just resting ourselves, but also creating a society where everyone, including the lowest and poorest and most vulnerable people on the totem pole, have time to rest.  Personal piety and personal time off are only part of the commandment.  It’s also about justice.  It’s about protecting those who are weak.  It’s about building a society where all creation can experience God’s good gift of Sabbath time.  Where all people have time and space and freedom not only to worship, but to rest and enjoy God’s good creation.  This is how we remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Because Sabbath about more than just taking a day for worship, there are things that the law says we are supposed to do on the Sabbath.  Most notably acts of mercy.  If you see a person or animal in need of help on the Sabbath, and you can help them, you’re supposed to do it, even if that means working on the Sabbath.  This doesn’t mean that we should give over all our Sabbath time to working at a charity instead of resting and worshipping, but rather, we should not use the Sabbath as an excuse not to help.  Which the religious leader in our Gospel reading seems to have forgotten.  When he criticizes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus’ response about oxen and donkeys isn’t just random.  Jesus is referring to Scripture passages which set out the sorts of things you can and should do on the Sabbath.  Making sure animals don’t suffer is one.  Making sure humans don’t suffer is another.

The religious leader’s response to Jesus is a perfect example of the limits of thinking of God’s commands as personal morality and piety.  We’re supposed to rest and worship, so the leader wants everyone to rest and worship.  The law commands exceptions for acts of mercy, but the leader is so zealous to follow the letter of the law that he doesn’t see that Jesus healing the woman follows the spirit of the law.  Sure, Jesus could have waited and told her to come back the next day, and she wouldn’t have died … but she was suffering.  Jesus could heal her with a touch and end her suffering right then and there, and so he did.  Jesus showed the kind of compassion and love and mercy that God desires of us.  The religious leader, on the other hand, was so focused on following the letter of the law that he had no room for the love and mercy and compassion the law is supposed to help us live out.  He’s so focused on the letter of the law, there’s no room for the Spirit.  He’s so focused on trying to be faithful and pious that he is blind to the suffering of others in his community, and complains when they are healed.  He’s not the one suffering, he’s not the one in need, and so he prefers pious legalism and judgmentalism to compassion.

And the thing is, we Christians today can be just as narrowly focused, just as willfully oblivious, as the religious leader was.  We think of morality as a series of personal choices, instead of as a way of participating in God’s building up of the coming kingdom.  We see morality as individual rather than communal, a way of sorting out good people from bad people, instead of as a way of building up communities in which God’s love and justice and mercy guide our lives.  For example, the only time I ever hear Christians talk about keeping the Sabbath, it’s in the context of shaming people who aren’t in church enough.  It’s never about trying to make a better and more just society in which all people (including the working poor) have reliable and regular time to rest.  And yet, the Bible spends a lot of time teaching us about the necessity and God-given right to rest and how society should be set up to promote that.

Isaiah puts it this way: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places…. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God is at work in the world.  God is at work to heal the sick, to redeem the sinful, to re-create the broken, refine what is good and purge what is harmful.  God is at work shaking the foundations of that which is selfish, sinful, hateful, greedy, fearful, jealous, and any other kind of wrong, so that God can create a new and better world.  And we are called to participate in God’s work in the world.  May we live our lives in the light of that coming kingdom.

Amen.

You Can’t Take It With You

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 4, 2019

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14, 2:18-23, Psalm 49:1-12, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-21

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.

My grandfather did not approve of my mother’s choices, especially her financial ones.  So he tried to use his money to control her while he was alive, and even after death, tried to use the terms of his will to control her financial choices.  For reasons that don’t need exploring at this juncture, I’m now the trustee for my mother’s inheritance, which meant that when the well pump on my parent’s property gave out this week, I had to call the financial planner guy to authorize him to give my Mom money to replace it.  My granddad was not a Christian, so he probably never read anything from Ecclesiastes, but if he had met somebody complaining that their children will use their inheritance in ways they don’t approve of, my Granddad would probably have nodded in sympathy and offered the name of his lawyers and financial planners.  My grandfather was always one of those people who think that everything good in their life is because of their own hard work and good choices, and so in the last few years of his life when no amount of clean living or hard work or money would fix his health, it was hard for him.  He’d always judged anybody who had problems, whether those problems were physical or financial or anything else, because surely if they were strong enough, smart enough, good enough, hardworking enough, if they ate right and exercised enough, surely everything would be fine.  And then he came to a point in his own life where he was old and infirm, and money could buy good care, but it couldn’t buy health.  Nothing he could do would change the fact that his body was wearing out.  And that was really hard for him to deal with.  The emptiness and the loss that Ecclesiastes talks about, I think he felt in the last few years of life.  I found myself thinking about Granddad a lot this week.  Partly because I had to make a decision as a trustee for the money he left my mother, and partly because … I see echoes of him in all the readings.  Not just Ecclesiastes.

But these readings stir up other memories besides my grandfather, about how people use and abuse money.  I once sat through a sermon on this Gospel reading, for example, which argued that Jesus didn’t really mean to condemn the rich fool, because the rich guy was smart and a good planner and we should all be like him (my Granddad would have agreed with that one).  Then there’s my first internship, at a rich church with a large endowment.  They had a large congregation, but they took in very little in offering, because everybody knew that the endowment would cover all the church expenses, so why bother giving.  They didn’t need to be generous, or practice good stewardship; they had enough money to last indefinitely.  I got there just in time for the 2008 stock market crash.  When I started my internship, their endowment was worth $11 million dollars.  When I left, it had dropped to $8 million dollars and they were panicking, because how could they survive on only $8 million dollars?  I told this story to another pastor this week, who shared his own experience on the board of a Christian school.  They were given a large donation, which they invested wisely.  And after that, every month at their meetings, they would spend more time worried about what the stock market was doing with their money than they did focusing on the ministry they were doing.

Then there’s Notre Dame cathedral.  You probably know that it suffered a major fire recently, and that many billionaires pledged money to restore it.  What you probably haven’t heard is that most of them have refused to actually give the money they promised without control over how it’s used.  Some of them went so far as to say that they would give the money as reimbursement after the work was completed, once they could inspect it to their liking.  And mostly what they wanted the money to go for was the restoration of interior windows or beautiful art, not the structure of the roof.  They wanted public credit for generosity, and they wanted control; the actual needs of the cathedral restoration were irrelevant.

Money is not bad or evil in and of itself.  Money can be used to make living spaces safe and good.  Money can be used to feed people.  Money can be used to pay for healthcare.  Money can be used to help people in abusive relationships escape and build a new and independent life.  Money can do a lot of good, both for individuals and communities.  It can’t buy happiness, but it can fix a lot of the problems that cause unhappiness.

But there’s a dark side, too.  Money can become an obsession.  Money can become more important to us than people.  Money can be used to hurt, to abuse, to cover up for crimes.  Money can be used to control people.  Money can facilitate sin, or as an excuse to treat people badly.  The problem in all of these cases is not the money itself, the problem is us.

In our reading from Colossians, St. Paul says that greed is idolatry.  If you’re wondering how that works, well, Martin Luther explained it this way in the Large Catechism: your god is the thing in which you put your trust.  Do you rely on Jesus more than anything else in the world?  That’s what you should be doing.  But if you rely on anything else—on your money, on your politics, on your health, on your family—that thing becomes your god.  It’s not that money or politics or healthy living or family are bad in and of themselves, but when you make them the bedrock on which you stand, the cornerstone on which you rely, that’s idolatry.  When we are greedy, we put our love for money higher than our love for God or for our neighbor.  We put our fear of losing money or wasting it or not having enough as more important than our love for God and our neighbor.  And that is idolatry.

With that in mind, let’s turn to our Gospel reading.  It starts off with a man demanding that Jesus tell his brother what to do.  Now, Jesus wasn’t just walking or hanging out; Jesus was in the middle of teaching a crowd, and this guy yells at him to bring the guy’s brother into line.  Now, inheritance could be just as complicated then as it is now, and sometimes even more so; notice that the guy isn’t asking for Jesus to help untangle a difficult case, or mediate between two brothers whose relationship has turned sour.  All he asks is that Jesus force his brother to pay what he thinks his brother owes him.  He wants to use Jesus as a club he can use to force his brother to comply with his demands.  We know nothing about the family or relationships involved, nothing about the money, nothing about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.  We don’t know if there was anything specific the guy needed the money for.  All we know is that he put more importance on getting that money than on reconciling with his brother or learning from Jesus.

Then there’s the rich guy in the parable Jesus tells.  A fool.  Not for his financial acumen, but for his understanding of the world.  He is blessed with a great harvest, and look at how he reacts.  He doesn’t thank God for the sun and rain and soil; he doesn’t thank his workers for doing the work of planting and harvesting; he doesn’t consider that when God blesses us, God usually wants us to use that blessing to bless others in turn.  He just wants to store up that wealth so he never has to worry again.  The problem is not that he’s planning to manage his wealth, but how that wealth shapes his whole identity and all his relationships.  He’s forgotten everyone else around him, the community God might want him to use his wealth to benefit.  He’s put his trust in his new, bigger barns and the crops stored in them.  That’s his god.  That’s what he looks to for comfort.  That’s what he looks to for meaning and identity, that’s what he judges himself by, that’s the most important relationship in his life.  And then he dies.  And none of that wealth matters any more.  It’s going to be someone else’s now; one of those people he didn’t care about when he was deciding what to do with his great harvest is going to get the benefits of it.  The work he put in, the mental and emotional energy, all his worrying and all his greed and all his gloating and all his satisfaction … they’re useless.  Vain.  Empty.  No longer relevant.

Just like Ecclesiastes said, if you put your trust in your hard work or your money or your control and influence over other people, you’re going to be disappointed.  If that’s what gives your life meaning, it can only work for a little while.  Eventually, inevitably, even if it takes decades, we learn the truth: none of the things in this life that we put our trust in can truly sustain us through good times and bad, in this life and in the next.  They all fail.  They may be good things, or things that we can use for good purposes, like money, but they will not bear the weight of life and death.  And to build our lives on them is idolatry.

But we were united with Christ in our baptisms, we have died with him and been raised with him.  We are being transformed by God’s grace, and it is that grace that we should put our trust and hope in.  It is that grace that gives life meaning.  It is that grace that can bear the weight of everything in our lives, good and bad.  May we always work to live according to that grace, and to put our trust in the One who created us, who redeems us, and who inspires us.

Amen.