The Cost of Discipleship

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 23C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

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

 

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

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

A lot of people—a lot of Christians—seem to think that the most important thing we can do is to grow our churches—get more people attending, fill the pews.  Save souls in mass groups, and, not coincidentally, put the Christian church in the position of power in the community that it used to have.  There’s just one problem with that: when we look at Jesus’ ministry in the Bible, converting people in large numbers does not seem to have been something that concerned him.  Calling disciples and training them for the Christian life, yes.  Large mass altar calls, no.  Take a look at today’s Gospel reading.  It comes from the middle of Luke.  Jesus has already been preaching and teaching for a while, and doing miracles like healing people and feeding large crowds.  So people are following him!  Huge crowds of them!  Now, this is the part where a successful evangelist should start talking about the beautiful peace of following Jesus, the heavenly rewards, all the joys and benefits that come with being a disciple.  He should be sealing the deal, right?  Getting them all fired up and committed to God.

That’s not what Jesus does.  Jesus, in fact, does the exact opposite of that.  Jesus starts talking about how hard it is.  That there’s a very real cost.  Hating your family, carrying a cross—which wasn’t a religious symbol then, but rather a very real instrument of torture and death—and giving up all that you have.  I would bet you that a lot of the people following him just up and turned around at this point.  Jesus told them to count the cost of becoming his disciple, and they did, and they decided that they just did not want to pay it.  And who can blame them?  This is not a pretty picture Jesus is painting.  Jesus doesn’t want to lure people in with rosy pictures.  He is not playing the numbers game.  Jesus wants disciples, people who are committed to their faith, not people who will be fair-weather friends.  So he is very up-front.  There is no small-print to being a disciple, no important things hidden in the Terms of Service.  Jesus plainly spells the cost out for all to hear.

Let’s take the whole family thing.  Let’s assume Jesus is using a little bit of hyperbole here and he doesn’t actually literally want you to hate your family.  (This seems like a pretty safe assumption, given how much time and effort the Scriptures spend telling us to love people, and how often God uses family metaphors to describe God’s love for us.)  But even so, Jesus is saying that family can’t be your priority.  Life itself can’t be your priority.  If it comes down to a conflict between your family and God?  Or between your life and your faith?  You can’t be Jesus’ disciple if you’re not willing to give up your whole family and even life itself to follow him.  I don’t know that we really get how big a deal this was back then.  Yes, family is important to us even now, but there are other options available.  People leave home all the time.  It’s normal.

Leaving home was not normal back then.  You lived in the same community with your entire extended family for your entire life, and you worked in the family business, and you married other people from the community, and you lived at home with your parents or your spouse’s parents your entire life, and you took your parent’s place in the community just as your children would eventually take yours.  There wasn’t really any other option.  It wasn’t like today, where even if you stay in the same town most people get their own home where they can do things their own way.  And today, if you don’t like the family business, you can get a job in a different trade or profession that suits you better.  And if you and your family don’t get along, you can move somewhere else and make a new family and build new relationships.  Those things didn’t really happen in Jesus’ day.  If you cut yourself off from your family, you would have nowhere to go and no ability to start a new life.  And, Jesus says, if you’re not willing to do that for God?  You can’t be his disciple.

Think of it this way.  I know you’ve seen marriages where one of the spouses is … unhealthily attached to their family of origin?  Like, they always and only want to go to their own family’s holiday gatherings, and never their spouses, and if one of their parents has advice on something, they give it more weight than their spouse’s opinion?  And it’s really clear to everyone that their parents and siblings are more important to them than their spouse?  That is not a healthy marriage.  When you get married, you have to learn to prioritize.  It’s not that you literally hate your parents and siblings, but your spouse and kids have to be the top of your priority list.  In the same way, to be a disciple—a healthy disciple—following Jesus has to be your #1 priority.

As for possessions, well, it’s not that having stuff is bad; but how often do our possessions—the things we own, the things we want to own—guide our lives?  How much of our time is taken up with earning money to buy stuff, and then using it and taking care of it, and then getting more stuff?  How often do the cares of our house and our work and our cars and our stuff keep us occupied and prevent us from doing the things that need doing the most?  It’s not that our possessions are bad, just that if we put too much of our heart and mind into them, they can keep us from putting our hearts and minds—and hands—where they are actually needed.  For example: boats are great, I love being out on the water on a boat.  But if I had a boat and a neighbor needed help and I say I can’t because I’m taking my boat out on the lake … well, that’s a problem.  But the problem isn’t with the boat, the problem is with my priorities.  To be a disciple, our priorities have to be with Jesus, not with our possessions.

And as for carrying the cross, well, like I said: the cross was an instrument of torture and death.  You carried your cross on your way to be executed.  Jesus knew, as the crowd did not, that he was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be crucified.  He was going to die for the sake of the world.  The world is a place of sin and brokenness and pain and oppression, and far too often the powers of this world get their powers by adding to that brokenness and pain, and so they don’t like those who try to bring justice and mercy and healing.  What Jesus is saying here is that if you truly follow him—if you are truly his disciple—you are going to need to be willing to stand up to the powers of this world and work for healing even when they like things broken, and work for peace and love when they are making a profit on war and hate and fear and suspicion.  And the powers of this world are not going to take that lying down.  And they will lash out to protect themselves.  And if we are not willing to take the heat, we cannot be disciples of Jesus.  It’s not that all Christians get crucified—literally or figuratively—but some do.  If following Jesus leads us to our own equivalent of Calvary, well, we have to be ready to carry our cross, whatever that may be.  If working for justice, peace, and love in God’s name means running up against society and taking some hard knocks, well, that’s par for the course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran who lived in Germany in the early 20th Century.  He was a youth leader.  As the Nazis came to power, most Christians in Germany joined the party.  After all, the Nazis were very family-friendly.  They emphasized wholesome family values, and they had a slogan emphasizing that: “Children, kitchen, church.”  But Dietrich could see the evil underneath that shiny exterior.  They were supporting those wholesome family values by persecuting and killing anyone who didn’t fit their picture of what a good German should be: Jews, Romani, Communists, homosexuals, Slavs, people with disabilities, people with mental illness, non-whites, all were harshly discriminated against, and eventually rounded up and killed by the millions.  And so, while most Christians went along with this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not.  He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi regime, working against them to build a Christian church that held true to Jesus’ way of healing and love and justice.  And eventually the Nazis executed him.  That was his cross to bear.  Before his death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book, which is one of the great Christian classics of the 20th Century.  It’s called the Cost of Discipleship.  It’s about being willing to be a disciple even when it means challenging or going against the world around you.

Bonhoeffer said it like this: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old self which is the result of our encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old self at his call.”

That is the cost Jesus is talking about.  To be his disciple, we have to be willing to pay that cost, even if it means conflict with our families, giving up things we might enjoy so that God’s work may be done, or even suffering for the sake of God’s healing work in the world.  May we become true disciples, willing to set aside all the things of this world and follow Jesus, regardless of the cost.

Amen.

The Discomforting Guest

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 28th, 2016

Jeremiah 2:4-13, Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1-14

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

 

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

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

We often say that the altar—the Communion table—is not our table.  We are not the hosts at the meal of salvation.  Jesus Christ is the host; we are the guests.  And I am especially glad of that after reading today’s Gospel lesson because Jesus was not a very good guest.  In fact, if I were giving a dinner party, I don’t know that I would want to invite Jesus.  Because look what he does here: he starts out by embarrassing his fellow guests, and then he moves on to embarrassing the host, all while completely throwing out every piece of etiquette and protocol on the books.

Let me explain what dinner parties were like in the ancient world.  First, these were not private affairs, a few friends getting together for a good time, the way we think of it.  I mean, sure, they would mostly be friends at the party, but there was nothing casual about it.  There was a very strict social and political order and agenda for such events.  They were designed to facilitate connections between people of the same class and social sphere.  You would invite people of roughly the same social status as you.  They, in turn, would invite you to parties at their house.  Both business and pleasure went on at the same time.  If there was a court case coming up that affected you?  The ruling would be influenced by whose party the judge had gone to the week before.  If you ran a business and needed to hire a ship to transport your goods?  You’d get a much better deal if you worked with someone at one of these parties.  Anything that needed to be arranged would be up for discussion.

At the party, there was a strict social order observed.  The highest ranked people were in the middle, with lower-status people on the ends of the table.  Everyone could see just exactly where you ranked in the social scheme.  Did you ever watch Downton Abbey?  Those elaborate dinner parties they gave, with place cards for who sat where?  It was a little bit like that.  Where you sat at the table mattered.  It could have a huge impact on your business, your standing in the community, your whole life.  We don’t have anything quite like it, but think about parking spots.  You know someone’s important when they have their own reserved spot.  You know someone isn’t important when they take one of those spots and get told they have to move their car for the rightful owner.  Or think how, when you walk into an office building, you can tell immediately what the pecking order is by who’s got the nicest office, who’s got a cubicle, and who doesn’t even get that.

If there was going to be something interesting at the party—a new and exciting religious speaker, for example, like that Jesus fellow, you might let it be known that you would let people in to watch.  So at the center of the room, would be the table with the invited guests.  And around the outside, standing against the walls out of the way, would be any community member who was interested but wasn’t high-enough status to get a seat at the table.  (But even so, there were some people—the disabled and the ultra-poor, tax collectors, anyone labelled a “sinner”—who couldn’t even get in to watch from a spot along the wall.)  So when Jesus stands up and starts talking about etiquette, there are a lot of people watching.

Now, the invited guests—the ones at the table—have been doing exactly what their society says they’re supposed to: jockeying for the best place, so that everyone can see their social status and how worthy and popular they are.  Jesus, however, shoots that whole idea out of the window: don’t strive for the best seat.  Go and take the lowest seat, instead.  The one that’s beneath you.  Let your host move you up if he thinks you’re worthy of a better spot.  Completely ignore all the unwritten rules about how to make sure you come out ahead, and trust that someone else knows your worth.  I can practically hear them scoff: yeah, but what if the host doesn’t invite you to a better spot?  What if you’re stuck there?  And I bet at least some of them felt like Jesus was attacking them, or criticizing them.  Some were probably defensive—after all, they were doing what they were supposed to!  That was the way the system worked!  Others probably felt uncomfortable, remembering similar advice in the book of Proverbs.  Could their whole society’s way of looking at this be wrong?  Maybe wealth and power and influence aren’t as important as we’ve always thought?

Then Jesus turns to the host.  “Hey, forget all those rules of etiquette you’ve learned.  Forget trying to use your parties for social and political maneuvering; don’t invite the people who live next door and that you’re already friends with.  Don’t worry about breaking ties with your business partners by eliminating them from your guest list.  Don’t worry about being a laughingstock.  Don’t worry about favors and quid pro quos; forget everything your community has ever said about the right way to do things.  Instead of inviting your normal guests, invite the people on the very bottom of society, the ones you wouldn’t even allow in to watch the party from a distance.”

What Jesus is doing here is contrasting the way things will be in the kingdom of God with the way they are here on earth.  Here on earth, we have hierarchies.  And if our modern hierarchies are more flexible and less explicit than those of Jesus’ day, they are no less powerful.  Some peoples’ lives matter more than others, to our society.  Some peoples’ voices get heard, and some don’t.  Ever heard someone called ‘poor white trash’?  Yeah.  That’s a nasty metaphor.  It’s not a coincidence that most ecological disasters in this country, from Hurricane Katrina to the water crisis in Flint, mostly affect poor whites and people of color—Blacks and Latinos and Native Americans.  Or how about the way we tend to assume that men of color are thugs and violent and if they get shot in the back they must have done something to deserve it?  A few months back, a California judge gave a white college guy convicted of rape a sentence of only six months, because he said he didn’t want to ruin the guy’s life for twenty minutes of bad behavior.  The judge evidently didn’t care about the victim’s ruined life.  And then later that same judge gave a Latino rapist three years for the same crime that got the white rapist just six months.  Despite our great principle that all people are created equal, we do not treat them that way.  In George Orwell’s satire “Animal Farm,” he explains it this way.  “All animals are equal.  But some animals are more equal than others.”  We judge people based on race, class, gender, sexuality, physical and mental ability, and a host of other reasons.  We exclude people, because down deep we’d rather find reasons to justify our own prejudices than deal with those different than us.  And we buy in to society’s hierarchy because human beings love hierarchies—as long as there’s a chance we can make it to the top of them.

That is not what God’s kindom is like.  God’s kingdom is based on true and radical equality of all people.  Not just pretend equality, but real equality.  Because all people are beloved children of God regardless of race, gender, social class, sexuality, physical and mental ability, or any other thing that divides us.  Every single human being who ever lived—every one of us—was created in the image of God.  And we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  And we have all been given the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness and love.  In our world today, even here in America, the principle of equality is more of a hope and dream than it is a reality.  In God’s kingdom, that principle is actually true.  And so when we exclude some people from the table—when we give some people the benefit of the doubt but not others, when we look for reasons to confirm our biases and prejudices, when we let the whole system of society treat some people better than others—we are excluding God’s children, made by God in God’s image, people who will be at the table with us in God’s kingdom.  And we are excluding people whom God is working through today.  As it says in our reading from Hebrews, we should always show hospitality, because sometimes God sends us messengers—angels—that we don’t even notice.  Do we really want to take the chance of missing out on God’s message for us just because it comes in a package we’re not comfortable with?

I have no doubt that the people at that dinner party were very uncomfortable with Jesus’ words.  They believed they were good and godly people living in a good and godly society.  They probably believed that since they were good, faithful people, their ordinary way of doing things—including who they invited and who they didn’t—was good and faithful, too.  And here Jesus is, pointing out that even though they’re faithful in some areas, others just don’t match up with the kingdom of God.  But that’s true of all people, then and now.  We are saved by God’s grace, but until Christ comes again we are still sinners living in a sinful world.  We are always going to be falling short of God’s plan for us—but God loves us and saves us anyway.  No matter how faithful we are, our world has very different standards than God’s kingdom.  We are obsessed with status, and power, and wealth.  But those have no meaning in God’s kingdom.  We have a choice: we can follow the ways of the world, or we can shape our lives according to the standards of God’s kingdom, by making sure all are welcome and have a place at the table.  May we learn to follow where Jesus leads, and live as children of God’s kingdom.

Amen.

The People We Don’t See

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 21st, 2016

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17

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

 

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

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

There are a lot of people in America today who don’t go to church, or go to church only rarely.  But, if you sort them all out by categories and rank them from highest church attendance to lowest church attendance, one group is squarely at the bottom, with the lowest church attendance of any demographic: people with disabilities.  Now, there are a lot of reasons for it—for one thing, even today most churches are not handicap accessible, or only barely qualify—but part of it is stories like our Gospel reading today, or at least the way we normally read them.

One of the reasons for this is obvious.  After all, Jesus may have healed this one woman crippled for eighteen years, but there are a lot of people out there today with disabilities that bad or worse, who’ve dealt with their condition for longer.  Why, many of them wonder, have they not received that healing?  Why have miracles happened for other people, but not for them?  We believe that God heals all ills, but sometimes—a lot of times—that healing does not happen in this life.  Instead, it will happen when Christ comes again and the dead are resurrected and all of creation is remade in the good, whole, sinless way it was meant to be.  And that’s great, it’s certainly better than nothing … but it doesn’t change the pain and suffering that people experience in the here and now.  And so people who suffer hear stories like this and ask, “why not me?” and turn away from a God they believe has failed them.

But he other reason is because our focus on miracles of healing means that we don’t really see them, or welcome them into the community.  Sure, we as a community just love to hear the inspirational stories about disability, the nice, neatly packaged things that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside and carry messages we approve of, like “if they can do it, so can I!”  Or “the only disability is a bad attitude!”  As if thinking good thoughts at stairs will turn them into a ramp, or smiling will stop a seizure.  And the way we tell those inspirational stories, it’s all about us.  Our reactions, our inspiration, turning people with disabilities into mere objects to make us feel better about ourselves.  We don’t like to hear about the problems, the ordinary realities of getting through the day—especially not if learning about those problems might require us to change our thoughts and actions to accommodate their needs.  Worse, if their story doesn’t fit the inspirational pattern—if they haven’t been able to pray their disability away—many Christians will think it’s somehow their fault.  If they had stronger faith, a miracle would happen.  If they prayed more, or prayed the right thing, they’d be cured.  If, if, if.

One of the professors I studied with in seminary is legally blind.  He told a story about an encounter he once had with a faith healer, who asked to pray that his blindness might be cured.  The professor agreed.  And so the healer placed his hands on him and prayed.  Nothing happened.  Well, nothing happened to the professor; his sight was not changed.  But the healer grew upset as he tried and tried and tried to heal the blind, and failed.  Normally, he would have taken it as a sign of some failing on the part of the person he was trying to heal—their faith wasn’t strong enough, perhaps.  But he knew that the professor was a good man of deep and abiding faith.  In the end, the blind man ended up comforting and consoling the faith healer.  The faith healer had been so focused on the cure—on trying to make the miracle happen—that he couldn’t see anything else.  He couldn’t truly see the man he was trying to heal; he could only see his disability, and that only as something to be prayed away.

In some ways, he was like the Pharisee from our Gospel reading.  He didn’t see the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He didn’t see her as she was; he only saw her as she fit into his ideas of what ought to be.  He looked at a woman praising God, and saw only a problem.  No work should be done on the Sabbath; healing was work; therefore, the Pharisee believed Jesus was wrong to heal her on the Sabbath and she was wrong to praise God for it.  She was a problem, because she was too visible—too many people saw her cured, too many people saw her rejoicing, and so too many people might be tempted to forget the Sabbath.  The Pharisee didn’t see her, he didn’t see her as a beloved child of God, a daughter of Abraham.  He looked at her and saw a problem.

But you know what?  I wonder if the Pharisee had ever truly seen her in the eighteen years she’d been bent over, either.  Eighteen years.  That’s a long time.  In all that time, had he ever gotten to know her?  Had he ever asked her if there was anything the synagogue could do to help her deal with the effects of her condition—and then really listened?  Had he ever asked her what would make the synagogue’s worship more accessible to her?  Had he ever asked her what support and help she needed to get through her daily life?  Had he ever asked her what she thought about her life?  Had he ever taken the time to make sure she was not excluded because of her differences?  Had he been willing to change things up so that she could be included in the community instead of left on the outside looking in?  Had he ever been a friend to her and her family?  Had he ever been there for her to lean on when things were difficult?  And when there had been times of rejoicing during those years she was bent over, had he ever been there to celebrate with her?  Or had he just ignored her, forgotten about her, except to pity her occasionally, and maybe toss a few coins her way in charity?  I think that if he had ever truly seen her before the miracle, if he had ever recognized her as a child of God and descendant of Abraham, he could not have responded to Jesus’ miracle by treating it as a problem.

Too often, we act like the Pharisee.  We don’t see people with disabilities, not really.  They’re problems to be solved.  Or, better yet, ignored.  If someone is disabled, and needs accommodations to help them get through the day and participate in society, how often do we think that it’s unreasonable to take the time to help?  How often do we discount their needs because they might be faking it?  How often do we look at them and assume we know more than they do about the realities of their lives?  How often do we look at people with disabilities, and see burdens to society instead of children of God?  There was a movie out this summer, Me Before You, that a lot of people absolutely loved.  It was a tearjerker, about a man who becomes disabled and chooses to kill himself, which the movie presents as a good and noble thing.  It’s the kind of thinking behind the assisted suicide movement, which wou1ld rather make it easier for people to kill themselves, instead of doing the hard work to allow people with disabilities to live full and meaningful lives, as part of the larger community.

And even if we avoid the Pharisee’s viewpoint, we as Christians act like the faith healer.  We see people with disabilities as problems to be solved, as things to inspire us and prove the goodness of God.  We see them as opportunities to do a good deed and bask in how nice we are, how faithful we are, instead of seeing them as fellow children of God to be included in God’s family.  We get so caught up in miracle stories and heartwarming narratives, that we have no idea what to do with the real people around us, many of whom never get that miracle in this life and whose lives are far too complicated to fit into that heartwarming Hallmark movie.  And so, even in church, where all people should be welcomed, people with disabilities are still left on the outside looking in.

This whole sermon, I’ve been saying “they” and “them.”  But the truth is, I have a disability; I’m autistic, which is a developmental disability, and I have anxiety, which is a psychological disorder.  Now, my anxiety is relatively mild, as clinical anxiety goes, and I happen to have a subtype of autism called Aspergers which means that when I am well-rested and my anxiety isn’t flaring up, and I’m in a known environment with no surprises, and I know the right social scripts for the occasion, I can pass for normal if I work hard enough.  My disability is often invisible.  It means that I’ve faced less discrimination and stigma than others have, and been able to do a lot of things that others can’t.  But the fact that I can often pass for normal—and thus let those around me forget that I’m different—doesn’t mean I don’t have a lot of extra challenges.  It doesn’t make me a better person or more worthy of being accepted by society than those whose disabilities are more visible.  And it certainly doesn’t mean that I am more of a child of God!  We are all God’s children, whether we have able bodies or disabled ones, whether our brains are neurotypical or not.  We all need community; we all need to love and be loved; we all need support, although some of those supports are more obvious than others.  And that community starts by seeing people—truly seeing us—not as problems or inspirations but as people and children of God.

Jesus saw the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years.  He knew her.  And when he saw her, he healed her.  We can’t work miracles of healing on cue like Jesus did; when they come, they come unexpectedly.  And there are some people with disabilities who don’t need healing; while I would gladly be healed of my anxiety, my autism is a part of who I am that I would never change.  But we can build communities where all of God’s children are known and welcome.  We can build communities where all people receive the support they need to live the full and abundant lives God promises to all his children.  May we learn to do so.

Amen.

The Sin of Sodom (It’s Not What You Think)

Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, August 7th, 2016

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-41

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

 

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

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

Here’s a trick question: who was the prophet Isaiah talking to in our first lesson?  If you were listening, it sounds like Sodom and Gomorrah.  That’s how Isaiah starts out, in verse 10: Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom!  Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!  Except Sodom and Gomorrah didn’t exist anymore by the time of Isaiah.  They’d been destroyed a thousand years earlier in the time of Abraham.

As it happened, Isaiah was talking to the people of Israel.  God’s people, who worshipped the Lord, who had a covenant with God.  But things were rotten in the state of Israel.  And that’s why Isaiah starts out by talking about Sodom and Gomorrah.  Because all the sins of Sodom?  They were happening in Israel.  And the people of Israel didn’t think there was anything wrong.  They thought, “oh, we’re God’s people, we worship God, we have the promise and do all the right things in worship and read God’s Word, so we can do anything we want and it’s just fine.”  And Isaiah wanted to point out the problems in that argument.  It’s like if I saw a group of Americans doing and saying racist things, and being nasty to Jews, and called them out by saying “Hey, Nazis, listen up!”  Everybody knew how bad Sodom and Gomorrah were, back then, just like everybody knows how bad Nazis are now.  So if you described someone as being from Sodom and Gomorrah, people took notice.  It was a harsh condemnation.

But what they were being condemned for will shock you.  See, when we think of Sodom and Gomorrah, we think sex, and more specifically, homosexuality.  But that’s because we modern people are obsessed with sex and sexuality.  The ancient Hebrew people heard the story differently; to them, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah was inhospitality.  Sodom and Gomorrah attacked vulnerable people they should have been protecting.  The sexual aspect of it was just the cherry on top the sundae of evil.  The prophet Ezekiel is the only person in the entire Bible to explicitly name the sin of Sodom, and here is what he had to say: “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”  In other words, the people of Sodom were rich and prosperous, and they ignored the vulnerable in their midst.  In their power, they cared only for themselves.  To Ezekiel, being a Sodomite has nothing to do with what you do in bed.  It’s about how you treat those less fortunate than you.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who feasts while others starve.  To Ezekiel, a Sodomite is someone who ignores injustice as long as it only affects other people.

And what about Isaiah in our reading today?  What has him so concerned about the people of Israel?  What are they doing, that is so terribly bad that he calls them Sodom?   Here’s what he tells them to do: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  In other words, pretty much the same thing as Ezekiel.  You see, in Isaiah’s day, there was great injustice in Israel.  Rich people cheated poor people.  They had altered the good economic system that God had given them so that it benefitted people at the top of society and was harsh and unfair to people on the bottom.  If you came from a rich family, it didn’t matter how terrible you were, everything would be forgiven you and you would get every opportunity there was.  If you came from a poor family—or were orphaned or widowed, and had nobody to speak up for you—well, no matter how hard you worked, you would never get ahead in life, because the whole system was rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.  Poor people were more likely to be convicted of crimes, not because they were more criminal, but because the justice system was biased against them.  I’m sure there were a lot of justifications for it; I’m sure that the people at the top of the pile had a whole lot of arguments for why it was right, and fair, and good that they had everything and others were barely scraping by.  But the fact remains that it was evil and unjust in God’s eyes.

And so God told Isaiah to call them out on it.  God told Isaiah to tell them, with no sugarcoating, what he thought of their arrogance, their hoarding of God’s abundance, their injustice, their lack of care for those around them.  They were just like Sodom and Gomorrah, no matter what pretty justifications they had.  And all their wonderful worship was useless as long as they continued in that evil.  They said all the right words and did all the right things in worship, but it didn’t matter one bit.  All their beautiful worship, all their fancy words and emotional songs and all their reading of Scripture was not only irrelevant, it was offensive, as long as they kept preying on the poor and vulnerable.  And it wasn’t enough for the people of Israel to say, well, I don’t do that, I’m a good person.  There were some individuals in Israel even then who acted with justice and mercy as God commanded.  But the society as a whole was corrupt.  The society as a whole was unjust.  The society as a whole was cruel and ignored—or even attacked—the most vulnerable people among them.  Even though you make many prayers, God said through the prophet Isaiah, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

This reading should make us nervous.  There is goodness in America; there is justice and mercy.  But there is also injustice in America. There are opportunities for growth in America, but there are also people who are oppressed, because of the color of their skin or their religion or where they grew up.  We Americans are, as a nation, very prosperous.  As a nation, we are by far the richest country in the world.  Yet nationwide, one in every five children goes hungry sometimes because their family cannot afford food.  There are hungry people here in Underwood, and in all the small towns across North Dakota.  There are people incarcerated on minor charges because they couldn’t afford to pay the fines.  There are people incarcerated on major charges who got much harsher sentences than others who committed the same crime because their skin was darker.  There are orphans and abused and neglected children in America who receive the care and support they need, but there are also children failed by the system, children who fall through the cracks, children left to struggle through it alone.  There are elderly people who receive the support and care they need as their health declines, but there are also others who don’t because we just don’t know what to do.  There are hungry people, sick people, disabled people, jobless people in America who get the help they need to get back up on their feet; there are others who get ignored because we’re more worried about the possibility of fraud than about making sure that people get the help they need.

And I wonder what Ezekiel or Isaiah would call us?  What words would God give them to describe us?  Now this was the sin of our sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.  Does that describe us?  As a nation, as a church, as a people, does that describe us?  We have slipped up far, far too often, and let our prejudices and our greed and our fear shape our society instead of the justice and mercy God requires of us.  How much blood is on our hands?

We Christians, we know God.  We have God’s Word in the holy Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ our Lord, we have beautiful hymns, we have the faith handed down by our ancestors and inspired in us by God.  And these are all important.  But as God told the Israelites in our reading, our worship means nothing if it is not accompanied by care for the poor, the oppressed, the vulnerable people among us.  That care comes in many forms: government policies, private charity, our business practices, our community’s treatment of the people in our midst, and the way we live our everyday lives.  Hopefully, that care is a part of all aspects of our lives, just as our faith is.  Too often, we as individuals and as a society fall short of the care God asks of us.

Seek justice, God says.  Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall become like snow.  May God forgive us our sins, wash us clean, and guide us in the path of his justice and mercy.

Amen.

What Makes a Fool

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 18C, July 31st, 2016

Hosea 11:1-11, Psalm 107:1-9, 43, Colossians 3:1-11, Luke 12:13-31

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

 

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

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

 

Fair warning: I spent the week out at Camp of the Cross where we had Christmas in July, and so I’ve got Christmas on the brain right now.

This parable is often called the parable of the rich fool.  But what is it that makes him foolish?  Is it because he built silos to store his harvest in?  I don’t think so.  As any farmer knows, you don’t use up your harvest all at once.  Particularly if, as in those days, you weren’t selling it to a company and shipping it off far away, but were going to be eating much of it yourself over the course of the year and selling the rest bit by bit as people need it.  Building silos to hold your harvest is not only good common sense, it’s necessary to prevent spoilage, and to prevent pests from devouring your crops.  And God has no problem with good food storage in case of future bad harvests—remember the story of Joseph in Egypt.  The Pharaoh had bad dreams, which Joseph realized were a warning from God about years of famines to come, and it was through that warning and Joseph’s interpretation that allowed the Egyptians to store up supplies of grain to get them through the lean years, and in the end save Joseph’s family, too.  Building barns big enough to hold the harvest was not what made the rich man a fool.

The rich man had managed his land well.  The Bible tells us that the land produced abundantly—the soil was good, there was enough sun and rain, everything working together to produce a bumper crop.  But as any farmer knows, the farmer’s actions in cultivating the crop make a huge difference.  When to plant, when to harvest, what type of crop—even back in the days before things like pesticides and fertilizer sprayers, there was a lot of work that had to be done the right way to get a good crop, even when the weather and the land were perfect. The land that he had inherited was good, and God gave him good weather, that year; but he would still have had to manage it well to get such a wonderful crop.  So it’s not his land husbandry that makes him a fool, either.

No, what makes him a fool is something subtler.  What makes him a fool is that he relies solely on himself, on his own actions, to safeguard himself.  He doesn’t consider his family and community, he doesn’t consider the larger world, and he doesn’t consider God.  It’s all about him.  Him, him, him.  His skills, his fears, his grain, his barns.  What matters to him?  That he, personally, has “enough” that he doesn’t need to worry.  Whose needs does he consider?  Only his own.  Whose advice does he ask?  Only himself.  This guy is the loneliest guy in the entire Bible.  He’s more alone than prophets fasting in the wilderness, because they at least had God with them.  This guy, not so much.  He kind of reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge.  Like Scrooge, he had all the wealth a man could possibly want.  Like Scrooge, he wanted more.  Like Scrooge, he was utterly, completely alone, and he seemed to like it that way.

Notice that the fool is rich when the story begins, and he gets richer.  He shouldn’t have much, if anything, to worry about financially.  He should already be secure enough to take the time off that he so desires to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.  But his existing wealth wasn’t enough, he needed more.  Before he could relax, before he could enjoy the fruits of his labors, before he could take the time off to have some fun, he needed to be more than just rich.  He needed to have AMPLE grain and goods for many years stored up neatly.  He needs to have enough so that no matter what happens, even if there are bad harvests for the next twenty years, he’ll still have more than he needs stored up.  Only then will he be able to relax and stop worrying.

It sounds absurd.  But you know what?  They’ve done studies on this.  If you ask someone “how much money would you need to have before you stop worrying about having enough money?”  And you know what?  It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, the answer is usually about 15% more than you have right now.  And if you track people over the course of their life, and their wealth grows so they reach or surpass the wealth they thought they’d need to feel secure?  They still feel they don’t have enough, and that they would need about 15% more in order to not worry about money.  It doesn’t matter how much we have: when we focus on money, when we focus on our own wealth and earnings to make us financially secure, we will always think we don’t have enough.  We will always be craving more, thinking, “if only I had more, then I would be secure and could relax.”  And when we get that “more,” it still isn’t enough.  Because there will always be things in the world that could happen.  We could lose our home in a fire or flood.  We could get hit by a car.  A close loved-one might get a rare disease and need experimental treatments.  No matter how much money we have, we will never have the resources to handle every possible thing the world might throw at us.  Not if we’re relying on ourselves alone.

We were not created to rely on ourselves alone.  We were created for relationships—with God, and with our fellow human beings, and with all creation.  Love is God’s very nature, not as an abstract thing but as actions.  God created us in love, sustains us in love, forgives us in love, and asks that we love one another as he has loved us.  Everything that we have and everything that we are comes from God; God loves us, and wishes for us to have abundant lives filled with good things.  And one of the ways that God does this is by human relationships.  The kinds of relationships the fool just doesn’t seem to have.

When we see people in need, God tells us, we are supposed to respond.  Both the Old and New Testaments insist upon this point.  God does not give us blessings so that we can hoard them, but so that we can share them.  So, for example, farmers are supposed to leave some of their crop in the field for poor people to glean and for animals to eat.  Merchants are supposed to be scrupulously fair … but they are also supposed to see to it that no one is left destitute because of their practices.  Debts that are too onerous should be forgiven, and no one should ever be left without the basic necessities of life.  Those in the community without resources are to be taken care of.  In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul explains it this way: “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance.”  In other words, when I see someone I can help, I’m supposed to do it—and then, when I need help, they help me.  What goes around, comes around, creating a community in which everyone has enough and no one is left out.  And the reason the rich man is a fool is that he can’t see that.  He thinks he can do everything himself, that his own efforts will give him the security that he craves, and so he considers only his own fears and desires.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or wear.  For life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.”  The rich man worried about all of that.  He never had enough.  And he spent so much time trying to get enough that he was completely alone.  He never thought about the needs of others; he never thought about what God might be calling him to do with the abundance he had been given.  He never took the time to rest, to relax, to enjoy his life.  And when he finally stopped to smell the roses, it was too late.  What had all that worrying about money gotten him?  Nothing.  He died before he could enjoy the fruits of his labors.  And he died alone.  It’s as if Scrooge had died that first night when Jacob Marley came to visit him.

Money matters.  Food, clothing, housing, all these things matter.  But there are things that matter more: community, for one.  Faith in God, for another.  Healthy, life-giving relationships with God and with our neighbor.  Love, justice, freedom, and peace.  Those are the things that make life worth living.  Those are the very things the rich fool didn’t have, for all his money.  Like Ebenezer Scrooge, he was a slave to his wealth, turning away from all the good things he might have had if only he had opened himself up to God and to those around him, rich and poor alike.  And all his toil, all his worry, all his abundance of possessions didn’t save him in the end.  They couldn’t.  There is only one who saves, and he can’t be bought with money or posessions.

May we put our trust in Jesus Christ, and live abundant lives full of love and justice as he would have us do.

Amen.

Holding Together

Ninth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 16C, July 17th, 2016

Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

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

 

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

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

As I was reading the texts and preparing for this week, one phrase in particular jumped out at me in our reading from Colossians.  The author of the letter is speaking about Christ, who Christ is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean.  “In him, Jesus Christ, all things hold together.”  And I thought, really?  Because I have to tell you, these last few weeks it has not felt like there was anything holding together—on the contrary, it kind of feels like the world is falling apart.  In Christ all things hold together.

God knows the world surely isn’t holding together on its own.  In the last few weeks, white cops have killed black men who were no threat to them—one victim, a peaceful citizen out for a drive with his family, was shot and killed in front of his wife and son.  In the last few days, there were bombings in France and an attempted coup in Turkey.  In the last few weeks, a black extremist sniper shot and killed good police officers just doing their job.  ISIS terrorists bombed peaceful Muslims on pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina as well as various targets in Baghdad, murdering hundreds.  A homophobe used his Muslim faith as an excuse to murder fifty people in a gay nightclub in Orlando.  In the last year, there has been so much violence, as people of all colors and faiths take out their frustrations and their fears by turning to violence.

In the last several months, American political life has seemed to fracture even more, with party lines between liberals and conservatives hardening.  We have a culture that favors the hot-headed response, a culture that favors attacking people personally when we disagree with them.  And the election season has only made it worse, further dividing an already split nation.  I know I’m not blameless in that regard.  People feel betrayed by political leaders, and are desperate for something different, something new; so desperate, they’ll grab hold of anything.  And Britain, too, is melting down politically over the Brexit referendum and its consequences; the whole European Union is shaken.  Meanwhile, the usual parade of natural disasters marches through, and the 24-hour news cycle brings a constant stream of hatred and horrors before our eyes.

Things seem to be falling apart.  And yet, in Christ, all things hold together.  The people of Colossae, too, lived in a world full of violence, strife, and dissension.  The Roman Empire was the most powerful nation of its day, and Colossae was a Roman city.  Rom prided itself on maintaining peace throughout the world, which they called a Pax Romanae.  Of course, the Roman Empire maintained that peace through conquest and destruction and brutality.  They literally crucified anyone they thought was a threat—that’s what happened to Jesus.  And in the middle of that world, in which killing was glorified and brutality was the order of the day, a small group of people gathered in Colossae to worship Jesus, and wonder what it meant that the son of God had become human, died, and rose again from the grave.

What does it mean?  In a world where there is hatred and injustice and brutality?  What does it mean that Jesus came and died for us?  Jesus, who was no ordinary human being, remember; Jesus was truly God and truly human at the same time.  And so Jesus was there at creation, the word God breathed over the primordial chaos to call forth order, light, and life.  Christ was the firstborn of all creation, and everything that now exists came into being through him.  No matter how much death and darkness surrounds us, we worship a God who gives light and life, who creates and creates and creates no matter how much destruction we humans wreak on each other.

And do you remember, from Genesis, what God said every time he created something?  “It is good.”  And when humanity was created God saw that we were very good.  That is what we were created to be.  That is the true reality of every human being, everywhere: God created us in God’s own image, and God created us to be good.  We are broken by sin and death, and so we hurt others and we hurt ourselves.  Instead of the good, just, and merciful society God calls us to, we create societies where injustice flourishes in ignored corners, where factionalism and oppression work to undermine God’s good will.  God created us for a good and godly society, and yet we tear ourselves apart.  And some of us turn to violence as the solution to our problems, or just as a way to take our frustrations out on other people, or because we’re scared of what they might do to us.  And some people get some kind of sick pleasure out of hurting others.  And so, because of human sin, things fall apart.

But you know what?  God is in the midst of this world, in the midst of all the bad things as well as the good things, working for the redemption of the world.  Because God loves this world, and God loves each and every one of us, and there is absolutely nothing in all of creation that can make God give up on us.  Not even our own actions.  And that’s where the Christ, the Son of God, who danced over the waters of creation, came to earth and became flesh and blood in a woman’s womb.  He lived and taught peace and love and a better way of thinking and living.  And then he died and rose again, and in the process he destroyed the power of the devil and reconciled all of creation to himself.  We know that, no matter what, evil will not win in the end.  God has already won; evil will not win in the end.  God’s kingdom will come to earth, and everything broken will be healed and recreated better than before.  Sin and death will be no more, pain and mourning will be no more, and Christ will be there.  This is the promise of the gospel, and it has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.

But the Gospel promise is more than the hope of some far-distant future, because God is presently at work in the world through Jesus Christ.  God’s promise is not merely a matter of pie in the sky by and by.  God’s promise is for us and all of creation, here, now, today.  The first fruits of God’s kingdom are sprouting even now.  And that’s the part that the news media won’t show you, because it doesn’t make them money: there is good in the world.  Christ is at work in the world.  For every act of evil there are so many acts of good.  And no matter how dark things get, no matter how much things seem to be falling apart, the world is holding together in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A Muslim man killed 50 people in a gay nightclub, and throughout the world hundreds of thousands of Muslims gathered to pray and support the victims.  You probably didn’t see that on the news, but Christ was there.  And every day there are so many angry men and women across the globe who think about picking up a gun, but choose not to, and Christ is there.  And every year across America, some cities choose to train their police officers and officials in peaceful conflict resolution skills, and in how to be fair to all races.  Fewer people die, justice is done in greater measure, and Christ is there.  And every day there are people who get riled up about something, but choose to discuss it in good faith instead of lashing out at people who disagree with them, and Christ is there.  And every day people teach their children about justice and love, and every day people stop bullies from hurting people, and Christ is there.  Refugees flee the tyrannical and terroristic regimes that oppress them, and Christ is there with them, giving them strength and hope.  Some people and some countries reach out to support those refugees until they can return home and rebuild, and Christ is there.

Every day, there are a thousand evil things that could happen but do not, because Christ is there, helping to bring justice and love and peace.  Even when we work against that—even when we buy into the world’s story that things are going to hell and everything is terrible—Christ is there, giving hope in the midst of hopelessness and helping us to repent of our sins and step into the light of Christ.  That’s who we are as Christians—the people who have seen the light, who are sent out into the world to do God’s work of spreading justice and love and the promise that God has made to every living thing.

You know, the ancient Colossians, the ones who first received this letter?  They were a lot worse off than we are today.  We are uncomfortable because Christianity is losing power in the US—they were uncomfortable because being a Christian could mean their deaths.  They lived in constant peril, and in the midst of that this letter told them to trust God, and to work for God’s kingdom, the redemption of all creation.  Imagine how much more we can do, here, now, today.  Imagine the peace, justice, and love, we can bring to the world as the body of Christ.  And you know what?  We are doing it.  Not always; sometimes we fall short.  But even in the midst of our own shortcomings, in the midst of the worst the world can do, Christ is holding all things together—and we are participating in that work through our words, our actions, and our whole lives.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Healing They Didn’t Want

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 12C, June 19th, 2016

1 Kings 19:1-15a, Psalm 42, Galatians 3:23-29, Luke 8:26-39

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

 

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

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

You know what’s interesting to me about our Gospel story?  There are lots of healings in the Gospels, and several other cases of Jesus or his followers casting out demons.  And some of those healings and such take place, as this one, in Gentile communities.  So it’s not the healing of the possessed man that catches my attention.  Nor is it the question of whether the man actually had a demon, or whether it was some form of mental illness that they didn’t understand in those days.  I’m not sure whether or not I believe in demons, but I do absolutely believe that if they exist, Jesus Christ can cast them out; and if it wasn’t a demon, well, Jesus Christ is absolutely capable of healing mental illness.  So while some people get passionate about that question, I’m not one of them.  And some people really feel for those pigs—either horrified that innocent animals were sacrificed, or upset about the financial loss to their owners.  But the people in the story didn’t seem to care about the financial loss, so why should I?

What interests me about this story is the reason the Gerasenes get upset.  They weren’t mad that their pigs had been killed.  They weren’t happy that the man was healed.  They were afraid because he was healed.  They didn’t like it!  You and I, we read this story, and we think, oh, wow, how wonderful!  But the people of the town—the ones who had known this guy all his life, his family and friends—they didn’t think it was wonderful.  They saw the man healed, and they were seized by great fear, and they asked Jesus to leave.  They didn’t want his healing touch among them.  They liked things the way they were, thank you very much.  And if that was a terrible life for the man possessed by a demon, well, they didn’t care.  They were quite willing to chain him down and keep him under guard all the time—and that couldn’t have been easy or cheap.  But that was fine.  They’d pay the cost, whatever it took, no matter how much it hurt him.  But have him healed?  No, that was a problem.  To see him in his right mind, wearing clothes, ready and able to be part of the community?  Uh-uh.  No.  That was frightening.  That, they did not want.  Or, at least, they might have said they wanted it, until they actually saw it right in front of their eyes.

The Gerasene reaction doesn’t surprise me, because I know how the mentally ill and disabled are treated in our own society today.  The most popular option, by far, for how to deal with those who cannot take care of themselves for whatever reason is to lock them up and throw away the key.  We’re kinder and gentler than the Gerasenes were; we lock people up in facilities with comfortable furniture and padded rooms and high doses of sedatives and antipsychotics, instead of binding them with chains and shackles and consigning them to live naked in the wilderness.  But given options that will improve their health and quality of life, we generally choose not to use them, just as the Gerasenes sent Jesus away.  Every study ever done shows that community-based care for the mentally ill and disabled—whether home health, group homes, or other alternative—is both better for people with mental illness and disabilities, and cheaper for the community.  And yet, the only kind of care a lot of people want to fund is institutions that lock people away from the community.  It’s the same with education.  Putting children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms with appropriate support and accommodation so they can succeed is usually better for them.  They learn more, both life skills and educationally, than if they’re off by themselves in a Special Ed classroom.  And the other kids learn to be kind to those who are different.  But there is strong resistance to programs that do that.  Children with disabilities, adults with disabilities, the mentally ill.  We’d rather lock them up away from the rest of the community than have them in our midst.  We’ll pity them and use their stories for our own inspiration, but we don’t actually want to have to see them and deal with the reality of their lives on a daily basis.

I think it’s because we get uncomfortable with things that are different, especially things that remind us how much of our lives isn’t due to our own hard work and what we deserve, but rather to things we can’t control.  We want things to be normal.  We want people to be normal, too.  Because normal is easy.  Normal requires no thought, no special effort.  When everything is “normal,” we can go through our lives quite comfortably without ever once asking any questions which might make us change our minds, hearts, or actions.  But when we allow people who are different into our midst, we have to accommodate their needs, and sometimes change the way we do things.  We have to build relationships with them that might change how we see them, and how we see ourselves.  It’s a lot easier—and a lot safer—to not include them.  To lock them away, chain them up, put them in special programs so we never have to see them or deal with the reality of their lives.

In Gerasa, they chained up the man with a demon.  I don’t know how dangerous the demon was to them—maybe they had no choice.  But I do know that in today’s society, we lock up the mentally ill because we think they’re dangerous, and every time there’s a mass shooting the first question we ask is “were they mentally ill”? This is despite the fact that virtually all mass shootings were committed by men who were perfectly sane, and that the mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence than commit it.  We are far more dangerous to them than they are to us … and they are the ones who get locked up.  As a culture, we would rather make mental illness a crime than provide the resources and support they need to live decent lives.

So Jesus healed the man with a demon.  His community had done everything they could to exclude and confine him, and Jesus freed him.  Jesus freed him from the demon, and in doing so he got rid of any justification for them to mistreat that man.  And when the Gerasenes arrived they saw the man healed, clean, dressed, looking “normal,” ready to rejoin the community.  And that made them uncomfortable.  That made them afraid.  That made them want to reject Jesus, send him as far away as he could get.

They didn’t want the man healed, because then they’d have to include him.  This man they’ve chained up for years, this many they drove out of their midst, this man they did terrible things to in the name of protecting themselves … now they’ve got to face him.  They’ve got to deal with him.  Now they have to face what they’ve been doing to him all this time, and ask themselves if it was really necessary or if it was just easier for them to make him a convenient scapegoat and shove him away.  Their lives were comfortable, with him possessed.  Nice.  Predictable.  And now that’s not true anymore.  They would rather have easy certainties and normality than healing.  They would rather have easy certainties and normality than the salvation and life that come through Jesus.  If loving Jesus and hearing his word means accepting someone they have excluded?  Goodbye, Jesus, don’t let the door hit you on the butt on the way out.  And it was probably made worse by the fact that that man—the man they’d excluded and hut, the man they wanted to keep possessed and in chains—was the man Jesus sent to proclaim the Good News to them.    It wasn’t just, oh, sure, he’s not possessed anymore, so he can sit quietly in the back as long as he’s not too loud so we can continue to ignore him.  No, that man had a message to preach, about what he had experienced.  And it was a message they would rather not hear.

How often do we do the same thing?  How often do we blame and exclude those who are different because they make us uncomfortable?  How often do we as a community choose to exclude and demonize people rather than giving them the support and accommodations they need to be able to live whole and happy lives?  I know that for mental illness, most people in North Dakota suffer without ever getting help, and if they do get help, it’s usually not enough.  We don’t fund mental health; we don’t work to make sure we have enough counselors for the size of the population, we don’t make sure our teachers have enough training to spot and deal with problems before a child’s course is set.  And then people turn to drugs and alcohol because it’s the only way they know how to cope.  It’s easier to sit here and shake our heads and wag our fingers, and call the cops when things get out of hand, than it is to provide services and support that might actually bring some healing.

We worship a God who heals.  We worship a God who casts out demons.  We worship a God who comes to bring life, abundant life, abundant life for all—especially those we’d rather ignore or exclude or forget about.  The temptation is always to be like the Gerasenes, closing our eyes to their needs and preferring normality to the possibility of healing and wholeness.  May we, instead, be God’s hands and feet in the world, working towards healing and wholeness for all people.

Amen.