Fishing for People

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 10, 2019

Isaiah 6:1-13, Psalm 138, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11

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.

Then Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Shortly after I arrived at my first call, one of my parishioners came up to me and said, “Pastor, you know, there are a lot of people around here who don’t go to church.  And a lot of them are new to the area,” (by which he meant they’d only arrived sometime in the last thirty years).  “So,” he said, “maybe you should go around and knock on some doors, introduce yourself, and invite them to church.”  Well, I was just full of seminary-trained wisdom, and one of the things they teach us is what evangelism strategies tend to work and which ones don’t.  There’s been a lot of research on the subject in the past several decades.  And, as it turns out, having the pastor go out and knocking on the doors of strangers is one of the least effective things you can do.  Once they’ve come to church at least once, then a pastor’s visit can be very effective; but some religious person they don’t know showing up out of the blue tends to turn people off.  Think about it: when Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or whoever show up at your door, does it make you think you should join them, or does it make you roll your eyes in annoyance?

No, the research is quite clear.  In almost 90% of cases, what brings someone through a church door for the first time is an invitation from a friend, someone they already have a positive relationship with and trust.  In other words, not a relationship based on the churchgoer looking on them only as a potential convert, but one where there is mutual care and concern for all aspects of their life, not just the spiritual.  A relationship where the Christian is open about their faith but not preachy or single-minded about it, so the non-Christian can see what a difference faith makes in the life of the believer, but doesn’t have it shoved down their throat.  That trust, that mutual care, that openness, makes all the difference in the world.  When you have that foundation, that’s when an invitation to come to church is most likely to be effective.

I explained all of that, and made a counter suggestion.  How about, instead of me going out and visiting strangers (which almost never works), we did some classes on discipleship and spiritual formation, to help members of the congregation deepen their faith?  And then some workshops on how to make friends and build community to help them get to know the “newcomers” who had lived in the area for decades but had never really been welcomed in?  And then in the course of those new relationships, issues of faith and discipleship would naturally come up, and then they could invite their new friends to church with them.  That’s something which has a very good track record!  The community in the area would be strengthened, and the church would be strengthened as well.  My parishioner listened to what I had to say, said “that’s interesting pastor, I never thought about it that way,” and wandered off.  That was the last I heard about evangelism for a long time.  I suspect it was because making friends with new people sounded scary and hard.  There’s a reason Jesus told his disciples not to be afraid when he invited them to follow him and fish for people.

We have this idea of ministers being the professional Christians that the congregation pays to do all the ministry and churchy stuff like evangelism.  We have this idea of the pastor being the one called by God.  Well, hopefully pastors are called by God to their specific ministry, but then again, all Christians are called by God.  In many and various ways.  God has vocations for each and every one of us, and for all of us together.  Some of those callings are about our relationships—parent, spouse, sibling, child, grandparent, aunt or uncle, friend.  Some of those callings are about our jobs—teacher, farmer, fisher, logger, mechanic, nurse, lawyer, or whatever it may be.  And we are all called to ministry in various and different ways.  And one of those ways that we are all called is that we are all called to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ.  In our Gospel lesson, Jesus calls the Disciples to fish for people, but after the resurrection Jesus expanded that call to all Christians.  Jesus gave us the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Remember I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

We are all called to tell the story about how Christ died and rose from the dead and will come again, and what difference that makes in our lives.  When we tell that story to ourselves and our fellow Christians, we reinforce and deepen our faith.  When we tell that story to our friends and relatives, we open up the possibility for them to see God at work in their lives, as well.  And that is how most non-Christians come to the faith.  Through hearing the faith stories of people they know and trust, and then being invited in to the community of faith and to seeing God at work in their own lives.

In fact, that’s not just a modern phenomena.  That’s the way the majority of evangelism has always worked.  It’s true, the Bible tells us stories of mass conversions, thousands of people hearing the Word and being saved all at once.  But such instances are recorded in scripture precisely because they were so rare and shocking.  Most people came to faith from hearing their friends and neighbors, people they loved and trusted, talk about their faith.  When you see and feel what God has done, the impact Jesus Christ has made in your life, and you tell your friends about it, and they see and hear what God has done in your life, sometimes they respond by looking to see if God is doing something for them, as well.  It doesn’t happen every time with everyone, but it does happen some of the time with some people.  It’s not large, it’s not dramatic, but it makes a difference.  Historians ask the question, “how could the Jesus movement have grown from just a handful of people after Jesus died, to half the population of the Roman Empire just three centuries later?”  We’re talking tens of millions of people!  And it turns out that all you need is for each small worshipping community to have a new family join every few years.  You don’t need mass conversions, you don’t need big showy revivals and expensive programs.  You just need a handful of new people every few years.  And you can get that just fine from the natural movement of Christians making friends with others in their community, and not shying away from talking about how they have experienced God’s love in their own life.  That’s it.  That’s all you need to have to go from “a tiny handful” to “a great multitude.”  The slow and steady growth from natural relationships in which people share their experiences with the love of God.

Evangelism is not about having all the perfect arguments or knowing the right chapter and verse to quote.  If it were, Jesus would not have chosen a bunch of uneducated fishermen to follow him and help him fish for people.  Evangelism is not about backing people into a corner or scaring them with Hell.  If it were, Jesus would have been forcing people to listen, instead of inviting them, and he would have talked about Hell a lot more than he did.  Evangelism is about experiencing the grace and mercy of God in your own life, and letting the story of that grace and mercy overflow in you and in your relationships with others.  Evangelism is about building relationships with people, relationships based on the love of God.

The first step is to learn to see God’s presence in your own life.  You can’t tell others about things you don’t even notice.  And it’s not hard.  It just takes practice.  All you have to do is keep your eyes open and looking.  Before you go to bed each night, before you say your prayers, ask yourself where you saw God that day.  Then, in your prayers, thank God for being there and helping you to see.  If you do that, day after day, you will probably be amazed at all the things you never noticed before.  And you will probably feel the urge to talk about it with your friends and family.  And if you let yourself do that—if you put aside your fears and talk openly and honestly about what you have experienced—you will strengthen your own faith, and you will be fishing for people.  May God give us the courage and the grace and the insight to see God’s work in our lives, and share it with those around us.

Amen.

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Love is an Action

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, February 3, 2019

Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30

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.

 

So how many of you are sitting there thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about our second lesson from Corinthians?  It is one of the most often quoted passages of the entire Bible, and usually for feel-good purposes.  It is also used frequently at weddings.  Everyone loves this passage.  Even people who aren’t Christian love it, quoting it often.  And, you know what, sometimes we all just need a warm and fuzzy feel-good message about love.  That can be very important.  But especially in today’s climate, I think it’s really important to realize that this is not a warm-and-fuzzy passage designed to make people feel good.  This passage is a condemnation, a challenge, and a call to action.

See, the thing is, this passage was written to the church in Corinth.  And it was not written as a reflection on how loving that congregation was.  Quite the opposite.  This passage was designed to point out everything the Corinthians were not.  See, the Corinthians were pretty messed up.  Paul wrote more to the Corinthians than to any other church he founded, and it wasn’t because he loved them so much.  I mean, he did love them, but he wrote to them because they were the worst.  If there was a way to get something wrong, they would do it.  If there was a way to screw up worship, or theology, or the working of the Holy Spirit, or community, or anything else, the Corinthians would find that way.  They were a bunch of arrogant, selfish, prideful jerks who would find any excuse to attack and belittle their fellow Christians.  As much as we mourn for how divided and unloving modern American churches can be, the Corinthians were at least that bad and quite possibly worse.

They created divisions based on gender, race, and class, treating some people better than others based on the social distinctions of the world around them.  They judged people based on how flashy and flamboyant their spiritual gifts were.  And from Paul’s words, it’s quite clear that they were not judging those gifts based on how useful they were in spreading God’s Word and God’s mission.  No.  They treated the gifts of the Holy Spirit as personal playthings for self-aggrandizement, and then tried to shame and belittle those whose gifts were less publicly visible.  That’s why, in last week’s lesson, Paul was trying to get them to see that no gift is more important than another and that the important part is how we work together as one Body in Christ.  Right?  Paul’s been talking about this for a while, by the time we get to the love chapter which is today’s lesson.  Nobody is better than anybody else, and all are needed together.  As Christians, we are not supposed to see through the eyes of the world, but through God’s eyes, and remember that we are all children of God and members of Christ’s body together.  It’s not about individual heroic Christians, it’s about all Christians coming together and being made one in Christ.

And then, after talking about how we all need each other as members of the body and no person or spiritual gift is more important than any other person or spiritual gift, that’s when Paul talks about love directly.  And it’s a continuation of everything that he’s been saying.  “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels,” he says.  Well, speaking in tongues is one of the spiritual gifts the Corinthians have been fighting about.  Prophetic powers—that’s another gift the Corinthians have been fighting about.  But Paul says that all those awesome gifts of the Holy Spirit that they are so keen to fight over and use as an excuse to snub and humiliate others are useless without love.  The more they fight, the more they scheme, the more they puff themselves up and try to cut others down, the further away from Christ they go.  All of those powers are useless without love.

And when Paul talks about love, he’s not talking about love as a state of emotion.  Oh, no.  That’s a modern delusion, to think about love as being mostly about how you feel about someone or something.  No, in Paul’s day love was a verb.  It was an action.  And it might be truer to the Greek original text to translate this passage in a way that makes that more clear: “Love acts with patience, love acts with kindness, love does not act jealous.”  The love that Paul is talking about is not about sitting around thinking nice thoughts.  And it is certainly not about mouthing platitudes about how of course you love someone while stabbing them in the back or ignoring their needs.  No.  For Paul, love is about actively working for the good of others.  Love is about actively choosing to do something that will help others even if you receive no benefit from it.  Love is about actively choosing what kind of a person you are going to be and how you are going to treat the people around you.  And then actually following through and doing something about it.

Humans are not good at loving.  Or rather, we’re not good at loving people who are different than us.  We make up little groups of who is in and who is out, who matters and who doesn’t, and we treat those on the inside well and those on the outside badly.  In Corinth, that manifested as cliques within the church, and fighting between different cliques.  In other places, that manifests as prejudices about class, race, gender, ability, politics, nationality, sports teams, food choices, music preferences, and just about anything else you care to name, big and small.  We love those who are close to us, those on the inside, and not those who are different from us.  But Paul tells us that no matter what the divisions among us are, we are all one body together in Christ, and that nothing else matters if we do not act with love.  If we choose to act with love, we are acting as part of the great body of Christ and those actions will resonate throughout time until Christ comes again.  If we choose not to act with love, if we mouth platitudes about loving others while acting with jealousy and resentment and fear and arrogance and selfishness, we are useless.  Noisy gongs, clanging cymbals.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That’s not easy to hear.  I wonder how the Corinthians reacted.  Did they take Paul’s words to heart?  Did they change their behavior?  Did they start loving people outside their own cliques and building up the body of Christ?  Or did they give lip service to following Paul’s words and keep on acting badly, hurting the whole community?  The Bible doesn’t tell us how they reacted.  However, the Gospel reading today reminds us of what often happens when people get told things they don’t want to hear—especially when that thing includes opening up to outsiders.  Jesus was preaching in his hometown, after having done some miracles elsewhere, and people loved him!  They loved him right up until he pointed out that God’s gifts were not reserved only for them.  Those people he names from the Old Testament are all from the surrounding nations.  The Widow of Zarephath was a Philistine, who lived in what we today call Lebanon.  Naaman was a Syrian, and not just any Syrian, a general!  Jesus’ neighbors loved what he was saying until he pointed out that his words and his power were for everyone including the people they did not like, and then they drove him out.  I can imagine the Corinthians hearing Paul’s words of love and nodding and explaining how they only applied to some people—the ones they already loved—and not the people they were feuding with.  And then getting angry when Paul makes it clear that his words apply to how they treat everyone.

It’s not easy to put godly love into action.  It’s a lot easier to come up with reasons why it doesn’t apply to the people we don’t like.  And it’s even easier to claim that we love people while letting our actions reflect what we really think and feel about them.  But we are not called to do the easy thing, we are called to do the right thing.  We are called to live lives of love and service, putting that love into action in every word and deed.  Because only through love—the love God shows us in Christ Jesus, the love God calls us to spread throughout the world—do our actions have any meaning.  May we love as Christ calls us.

Amen.

In the Midst of Change

Third Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, January 27, 2019

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:13-31a, Luke 4:14-24

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.

Nehemiah is one of the books of the Bible we don’t talk much about.  In fact, this is the only time in the three-year lectionary cycle that we read from the book of Nehemiah.  And it’s companion book, Ezra, doesn’t get read in worship at all.  So I think we should take a little time to explore the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, to explain why reading the books of Moses aloud in public was such a big deal.  And to do that, we need to take a look at the big picture of Judah’s history.

After the Exodus from Egypt and forty years wandering in the wilderness, God led the Israelites into the Promised Land and gave them a set of instructions to live by.  Some of those instructions were what we think of as religious things—having to do with faith, worship practice, etc.  But most of them were general rules for society.  Don’t cheat people.  Make sure that even the poorest people in your lands have access to things they need.  Make sure that rich and powerful people can’t run roughshod over everybody or get out of punishment when they do evil.  Make sure that people who fall into debt have a way out of it.  Make sure that justice and mercy apply to everyone.  Because God cares about more than just the religious stuff.  God wants justice and mercy for all people.  You cannot have a good and godly society where some people are exploited and some people get away with murder.  You just can’t.

The thing is, the Israelites did not live up to those instructions.  They kept failing.  Sometimes by ignoring the religious stuff—worshipping other gods, and the like—and sometimes by ignoring the social stuff.  Instead of a nation ruled by fairness and equity, they kept tipping further and further over into a society where the rich lived idle and opulent lives, and the poor got poorer and poorer and their lives got worse and worse.  And they didn’t want to admit that they were not living up to the good and just and merciful society God wanted for them.  And so they came up with all sorts of justifications for their unjust and unloving behavior.  God sent prophet after prophet, and sometimes they listened and reformed things for a little bit, but a lot of the time they just … ignored the prophets.  They ignored God’s word in their midst.  And then, finally, in 587 BC, God stepped aside and let the Babylonians conquer them as punishment for their sins.

The Babylonians destroyed all the cities, leaving nothing but rubble and taking everything of value.  They carried off most of the population—including all of the religious and civil leadership, and most of the wealthy people—to be slaves back in Babylon.  They brought people from other parts of the Babylonian Empire to settle in Judah among the remnant of the Israelites left behind, so that it would be harder to rebel.  And this was really hard.  Some people lost their faith, but for the rest—both those in captivity in Babylon and those living in the ruins of their homeland surrounded by foreign strangers—they had to figure out what it meant to be the faithful people of God in exile.  Did God not love them any more?  What had they done to deserve this?  Was God ever going to have mercy on them and rescue them?  And through all of this, they clung to their faith, but they also clung to their memories of the good old days.  They told and retold the stories of what life had been like back in Jerusalem, except they told them through rose-tinted glasses that ignored most of the problems that had led to God removing God’s protection and allowing the Babylonians to conquer them.  If they could just turn back the clock—if they could just restore things as they had been—everything would be perfect.

And through this time, God still loved them and kept sending prophets to them, to reassure them and give them hope that this time of exile and slavery would not last forever.  And, after about a century, the Persians conquered the Babylonians and everybody could go home!  The first two waves of Israelites to return home to Judah were led by Ezra and Nehemiah.  And when they got back to the land they’d spent a century idealizing, they were shocked.  And horrified.

For one thing, all the cities were still in ruins, because the Babylonians hadn’t allowed any rebuilding.  For another, there were people living in the land they’d once owned, who’d been farming it for a century and had no intention of giving it back to strangers who hadn’t been there in generations.  Both those who had been taken and those who had remained had kept their faith and adapted it to their new lives … but they hadn’t adapted in the same way.  The ones who had stayed had intermarried with the new tribes the Babylonians had settled among them.  The ones who had been taken had adapted to life among the Babylonians and spoke with Babylonian accents and wore Babylonian-style clothes.  The ones who had been taken thought the ones who had been left behind were mongrel half-breeds who’d thrown away the purity of Israeliteness and ought to bow before their betters.  The ones who had been left behind thought the ones who had been taken were elitist, xenophobic thieves who were entirely too cozy with the empires that had conquered and oppressed them.  And both sides thought the other side was unfaithful to God’s commands.  And so, instead of coming together as God’s people reunited in God’s land, they fought.  They built walls.

The ones who had been in exile in Babylon had had this beautiful vision of how perfect everything used to be, and they’d thought that if they could just get back to Judah, they could make everything perfect and beautiful as it used to be.  But they were wrong.  The past was gone, and there was nothing they could do to bring it back, and the more time they spent trying to force things to be the way they used to be, the harder things got.  And again, they asked, “where is God?  Has God abandoned us?”  Because they were so focused on the vision of the way things had been that they could only see God’s work among them if God was doing the same things God had done before.  But the thing was, God did love them, and God was working among them, and doing wonderful things.  Life was never going to be the way they’d imagined it.  The old kingdom that had been destroyed was never coming back.  But they were still God’s people and God was still their God, and God would be with them and their descendants.  The old kingdom of Judah was gone, but the Jewish people remained, God’s chosen people.

And that’s what’s going on in our Gospel reading.  The exiles have returned, but to a place that is radically different than they were expecting or hoping.  And they are just beginning to grasp that life is never going to be the way it was, that they’re going to have to face the reality of a life radically different than they had hoped or imagined.  They’re going to have to do the hard work of figuring out what God is calling them to do now in this new world they’ve found themselves in.  So there’s a lot of grief.

But also, they know that God is with them.  And here is the story of how God had been with their ancestors, and promised to be their God, and live among them.  And they’re hearing it read aloud in public for maybe the first time, because while the Babylonians didn’t forbid worship of God they didn’t allow it in the public square, either.  And so even amidst their grief for what was lost, they have hope and joy because they know that they are not alone, they know that God is with them, and they know that these words they’re listening to bring life.  So there’s a lot of hope and joy, too.  It’s no wonder they cried.

Unlike those ancient people in our reading, we’ve never been exiled.  We’ve never had our entire nation destroyed and turned into rubble.  But we do have two things in common with them.  First, we live in a world that has changed radically in the last fifty years or so, and is still changing around us.  Things aren’t like they used to be, and it’s really easy for churches to look back in longing to the days when the pews were filled and churches had power and influence in society, and long for those days.  It is really easy to think, “if we could just get back to those days—if we could make things like they were—everything would be great and all our problems would be solved!”  But the thing is, we can’t turn back the calendar.  We can’t make things the way they were, we have to deal with things the way they are now.

The second thing we have in common with the people of Nehemiah is that we are God’s people and God is with us and God’s Word is among us.  No matter what happens, no matter what changes come, we are not alone.  God loves us, and God is working in us and among us.  Our job is to listen for God’s voice, and follow where God leads.

Amen.

Abundance

Second Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, January 20, 2019

Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11

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.

 

We are in the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany means revelation, and specifically something being revealed by or about God.  An epiphany is a “Eureka!” moment, when you realize something big that changes the way you see the world.  And so, the Gospel readings in the time after Epiphany tend to deal with revelations of who Jesus is and what his ministry is all about.  On Epiphany itself, we hear about God revealing the coming of Jesus to the Magi through the star.  In Jesus’ baptism, we hear of the Spirit coming down like a dove, and a voice from heaven calling Jesus the Beloved Son.  And today, we read John’s account of Jesus’ first act of public ministry, his miracle at the wedding of Cana, in which Jesus was revealed as something more than just another wandering rabbi.

So Jesus goes to this wedding, and something TERRIBLE occurs: they run out of wine!  Now, weddings in the Middle East are BIG BUSINESS.  The parties can go on for DAYS, and food and drink are supposed to flow freely.  If the bridegroom didn’t provide enough hospitality, he would be shamed in the community.  Everyone would talk about it for decades to come.  It would have been a nightmare.  But Jesus and his mother Mary were there, and Mary knew darn good and well Jesus could fix this.  And he does: he turns water into wine, into really good wine.  The party is saved, and so is the bridegroom’s reputation!  Yay!

To our ears, it’s a weird little story, because why is this party special enough to rate a miracle from Jesus?  And why is this the first public act of Jesus’ ministry?  Like, if I were planning my first public act as pastor of a new church, providing refreshments at someone else’s wedding reception wouldn’t be what I’d choose, I’m just saying.  But every story included in the Gospels is included because it’s important, because it tells us something about Jesus or about the life of faith.  And this passage is specifically picked for the season of Epiphany because it reveals something about who Jesus is.

First, abundance is one of the themes of the Gospel of John.  Each Gospel has its own perspective on what traits of Jesus should be emphasized, and one of the things the Gospel of John emphasizes about Jesus is that life in Jesus brings abundance.  As Jesus says in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”  Or as John 1:16 puts it, “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”  If you ever read through the Gospel of John, notice how Jesus provides: wine here, bread and fish at the feeding of the 5,000 with twelve baskets left over after everyone had eaten their fill, so much fish for the Disciples in John chapter 21 that they couldn’t haul all of them in, healing and forgiveness whenever anyone needs them.  Any spiritual or physical need that Jesus encounters, he provides for it, abundantly.  Things overflow, or are given beyond any rational hope or expectation.  Like here: the party’s already been going on long enough for the wine to run out.  Jesus provides somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of wine.  That’s the equivalent of somewhere between 600 and 900 bottles of wine.  And not just two buck chuck, either; this is the really good stuff.

So what this tells us about Jesus, besides the fact that he has good taste in wine, is that when Jesus provides he really provides.  In a world in which there is scarcity, Jesus provides abundance.  So often in the world, people run out of things they need.  People go hungry, or cold, or thirsty; people can’t afford to pay for healthare; people struggle to pay rent, or go homeless; people are one paycheck away from disaster; people are afraid of losing what they have.  But our God is a God of abundance.  God does not measure out grace by the teaspoonful, demanding we prove ourselves worthy and grateful for every drop.  God’s love overflows like wine at a really good party, more than we need, simply because we need it.  Because that’s the kind of God that God is: God loves abundantly.  God gives abundantly.  God wants us to have abundant lives.

But still: why a party?  Why a wedding banquet, specifically?  We don’t tend to associate parties—particularly ones with lots of wine—with God, but they did back in Bible days.  Specifically, contrary to our modern imagery of people sitting on clouds and strumming harps, the most common metaphor for heaven in the Bible is a party.  God’s coming kingdom is repeatedly described, throughout the Bible, as a feast, a banquet filled with rich foods and well-aged wines.  It’s not some sort of ethereal unworldly place for souls to float around in.  It’s an earthy, joy-filled, feast, like the best holiday dinner you ever had except better, because all the impurities, all the bad things that creep in to mar even the best earthly experience, will be gone.  There will be no fighting or hurt feelings, because every petty or selfish or scared or hateful bit of us will be healed, and we will all love and understand one another.  There will be food that tastes better than anything you’ve ever imagined, and nobody will have to worry about calories or allergies or balancing their blood sugar, or anything else.  For those who drink, there will be the best wine you can imagine, only nobody will have to worry about addiction or hangovers.  For those who don’t drink, there will be other awesome things.

This is how the Bible describes God’s kingdom: a vast and great party, a banquet, with every good thing you can imagine overflowing, and all bad things destroyed or healed or purified.  It’s no accident that in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the first thing the father does when his son returns is throw a huge party.  Think back to the Garden of Eden.  The thing that made it paradise was that it was a garden filled to overflowing with every good thing.  Our God is a God of abundance.  Our God is a God who rejoices.  Our God is a God whose love and mercy overflow.  That’s just how God rolls.

So why, then, is the world the way it is?  Why is there scarcity?  Why is there suffering?  And the answer is sin.  Sin warps people, and sin warps the universe.  In Genesis, we’re told that things like weeds and rocky soil and all the things that make life hard are a result of sin contaminating things.  And even then, God’s creation keeps providing, but we do not use that provision wisely.  Every year, enough food is produced to feed everybody, but people go hungry because there aren’t good roads to transport that food on, or because they can’t afford to buy it, or because stores throw out food they can’t sell, or because violence destroys their livelihood.  If we as a planet sat down and decided we were going to ensure that nobody went hungry, we could do it.  We could solve the problem of hunger.  It is human sinfulness, not God’s gifts, that cause hunger.  And yet, even in the midst of human sinfulness, God is at work to provide.  Even as people do things that add to the pain and suffering in the world, God inspires others to work for the good of all.  There are countries in the world that cut their rate of hunger in half between 2000 and 2015.  It took a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people at the local, national, and international level, but they did it.  And I firmly believe that God was working in their midst, inspiring them and leading them and bringing them together to help more and more people receive the gifts of God’s abundant creation.

It’s really easy to look at the world and think that there is no redeeming it.  That there is too much violence, too much hunger, too much conflict.  It’s easy to look at the world and think that there just isn’t enough to go around, so we need to fight for ourselves and our families even if it means depriving others of things they need.  But that is not the way God created the world to work.  Our God is a God of abundance, who showers all of creation with love and every good thing.  Our God is a God who created the world to be a great feast, a banquet, a wedding party, with more than enough for all.  The question is, can we see that?  Can we see all the gifts God has given us, and give thanks for them?  Or will we let ourselves get hypnotized by all the bad things?

May we all feel God’s abundance in our lives, and may we respond in gratitude to share that abundance with all God’s creation.

Amen.

Advent 4C, 2018, December 23, 2018

Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:46-55, Hebrews 10:5-10, Luke 1:39-45

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

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

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

There is a Christmas song that is very popular these days.  I’m sure that you’ve all heard it, and enjoyed it, because it is beautiful and, (unlike most modern Christmas songs) actually talks about Christ and what he means.

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Mary, did you know

that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

Did you know

that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you?

If you’ve ever heard this song and wondered if Mary knew, well, the Gospel of Luke is quite clear.  She did.  The angel spelled out for her who and what her infant son was going to be, and then she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit and confirmed that the baby was going to be special, and Mary responded with the Magnificat, the Song of Praise, which we used as a psalm today.  And then even after Jesus was born, when they took him to the temple, two separate people, Anna and Simeon, prophesied about the baby Jesus and what he was going to grow up to do.  So, yes, Mary knew.  She might not have had everything spelled out with each individual miracle listed, but she knew the general gist of what Jesus was going to come to do.  She knew that Jesus was going to continue God’s saving actions.  She knew he was going to scatter the proud, the greedy rich who let others starve, the powerful who gained power by oppressing others, while at the same time lifting up the lowly, the downtrodden, the hungry, caring for them and making sure they had what they needed to live abundant lives.  She might not have known specifically that he was going to walk on water, but she knew that he was going to save the world by turning it upside down and doing incredible things.

But a lot of the time, simply knowing isn’t enough.  We may know the right thing to do, but that doesn’t mean we’ll do it.  We may know that something hard and difficult is going to be worth it in the end, but that doesn’t mean we’re happy about the hard and difficult bits.  How often do we put off or try to avoid something because, much as we might desire the end result, we really do NOT want to have to go through the process of getting there?  Mary knew who Jesus was going to be and what he was going to do, because the angel told her; but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it or looking forward to it.  I don’t know how she felt about it, but I imagine she was in a lot of shock.  And also, she was probably worried, considering that she wasn’t married and having a child out of wedlock was a huge deal that would change her life and probably make it measurably worse.  And, sure, she probably trusted that God would take care of her and provide what she needed to do the task he had given her … but that doesn’t mean she was happy about it, or looking forward to it.  Knowing isn’t enough.  Most of the time, we need something further to help put knowledge into action.

For Mary, that something was a visit to her cousin Elizabeth.  When the Angel told Mary what was going to happen, she accepted it, but that’s all.  The angel gave its message, Mary said okay, the angel left.  Then she went off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting a child under unusual circumstances.  Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were both elderly, and they’d been unable to have children.  Now, past the age of childbearing, they had given up hope.  But an angel had come to Zechariah and told them that they would have a child, who would grow up to become a prophet—you know him as John the Baptist.  That’s who Elizabeth was pregnant with when Mary came to visit.

Elizabeth’s baby jumped for joy in her womb, and Elizabeth was blessed with knowledge of who Mary was going to be, and who her child was going to become.  And Elizabeth was thrilled.  She affirmed what the angel had said, and blessed Mary.  And here is where we get Mary’s reaction, her song of praise, in response to the news the angel brought.  Here.  Not while the angel was there, not when she received her call to become the mother of God.  Here, with her cousin.  Who had just finished showering her with love and support.

Human beings aren’t created to be alone.  God did not make us to be solitary creatures.  That’s one of the first things we learn about humans in the Bible … God creates the first human, calls it very good, and then says, “but it is not good for the human to be alone.”  And then God creates the second human being.  Because humans need companionship, and support, and love.  And we get that from God, but we also need it from our fellow human beings.

God was asking Mary to do a hard thing, by asking her to bear and raise Jesus Christ, God-become-flesh.  Partly, that was hard because pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing are hard.  But a lot of it was that people would gossip about her, and shame her, and treat her badly for bearing a child out of wedlock.  It doesn’t matter how much she told them the child was God’s Son and God’s will, they would not have believed her.  If someone told you that God was the father of their baby, would you believe them?  Probably not.  So Mary would be ostracized and alienated from her community because of this thing God was asking her to do.

But God provided her with people to support her, even so.  By giving a child to her cousin Elizabeth, and then giving Elizabeth enough insight to realize what was really going on, God ensured that Mary would not be alone.  No matter what anyone else said, she would have someone in her court, someone who would give her love and support and understanding, which are things all human beings need.  And it is at that point, when Mary knows that despite what society is going to think about her, she is going to have at least one person loving her and not judging her, that‘s when the knowledge of what was going to happen overflowed into praise.  That’s when she began to sing.

None of us are Mary or Elizabeth.  None of us are going to have mystical pregnancies that catapult us into the center of God’s work in the world and redirect our lives with one fell swoop.  But we all have callings from God; we all have a place in God’s work in the world, both individuals and as a community of faith.  Our callings may be smaller than Mary’s call, but they are still important, and still part of God’s work.  Knowing what God is calling us to do is the first step, and without an angelic messenger it usually involves a lot of prayer and study and contemplation.  But the second step is not one we can do alone.  It’s not private.  It’s about coming together as a community to support and encourage one another.  As Elizabeth encouraged Mary, so we too are called to encourage one another, to name God’s gifts when we see them and bless one another.  And that’s especially important when, as in the case of Mary, God calls us to do things that don’t necessarily fit in well with the larger society.  And sometimes what God is calling us to do isn’t necessarily to do the work ourselves, but to support those who do it.  To be there for the people who need us.  To be the arms of God wrapped in love around those who would otherwise be alone or neglected.  May we answer God’s call with joy; may we always have the love and support God desires for us; and may we always share that love and support with those who need it.

Amen

Good News in Unexpected Places

Advent 3C, 2018, December 16, 2018

Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18

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.

This week as I was reading through the Bible passages assigned for this Sunday, I noticed a common theme running through all of them: the Good News coming in unexpected places, for unexpected people, in unexpected ways.  God’s kingdom is breaking in to the world, and it is different from the world we know, and it is good news, but not always in ways that fit with our views of the world.  There are so many little surprises and so many things that are good news from odd angles that I couldn’t choose just one.

Let’s start with the first reading, from Zephaniah.  Now, Zephaniah was a prophet, but one of the less well-known ones.  Like all the ancient prophets, Zephaniah was concerned with injustice and the way people were abusing one another and turning away from God.  And he gave people searing warnings about the destruction of all the world that would happen on the Day of the Lord, as judgment for all the evil things that people did.  But the last half chapter is different.  Yes, the world deserves destruction because of its evil, because of the way they have hurt one another.  But the destruction is not the last word.  Rejoice, the prophet says, because God forgives, because God is a strong warrior who brings victory.

Now, this is unexpected in two ways.  First, we are called to rejoice in the midst of death and destruction?  We are called to rejoice even knowing there are terrible things in the world?  Destruction isn’t good news … unless you know how bad the thing being destroyed is, and you also know that it’s going to be replaced by something better.  The destruction of your country is not good news unless your country has oppressed you and treated you terribly and the new world that will replace it will treat you with justice and mercy.  And then there’s the message of forgiveness.  Yes, being forgiven brings joy … but only if you’ve done something that needs to be forgiven.  Forgiveness only brings joy if you acknowledge what you did that was wrong.  So, yes, Zephaniah says, rejoice.  Rejoice, all you who have done things you shouldn’t; and rejoice, all you who have been abused by the world.  You will be forgiven and granted a part of the new world.  Something better is coming.  We don’t rejoice in destruction for the sake of destruction but for the sake of the better thing that God will build to replace what cannot stand before him.

The second surprising thing about our reading from Zephaniah is that when God calls Godself a mighty warrior and king, this is not the sort of mighty warrior or king we tend to see in the world.  If we look at the world around us, people who are powerful—mighty warriors, great leaders, the rich and powerful—tend not to be very nice.  They often got where they are by attacking others, or taking advantage of them, or sometimes they abuse their power.  And even if they don’t intentionally hurt or abuse those with less power, they often ignore or don’t even see how their power and might affects those around them.  Where does the elephant in the room sit?  Anywhere it wants, and if that just happens to be on top of a mouse, the elephant may not even notice.  Or decide that it’s the mouse’s fault for being below them.  Power tends to corrupt, and we see that all the time.  If God were a mighty warrior and king like the mighty leaders of our society, that would be bad news for most of us.  But God is different from the powers of this world.

God is a mighty warrior who fights for the poor and disadvantaged.  God will fight against the oppressors and bullies, God will remove the disaster especially from those most hurt by it, God will bring together and heal and serve the disabled, the outcast, the ones who are most likely to be abused.  As I read this I thought about Captain America.  If you’ve ever seen the first Captain America movie, the doctor who is developing the super-soldier serum asks sickly Steve Rogers why he wants to join the army.  “Do you want to kill Nazis?” he asks?  “No,” Steve Rogers replies.  “I don’t like bullies.  I don’t care where they’re from.”  Steve is chosen to be Captain America because he wants to protect those who cannot protect themselves.  He doesn’t do it for power or fame or wealth or revenge or hate or fear or to make America great, but to stand up for those in greatest need and danger.  God’s power as a warrior is similar.  It’s not like that of most powerful people.  God uses God’s power to protect, to heal, to save those who cannot save themselves.  It’s a different sort of power from the world we see all around us.  God’s power and might are not about gaining more power, or about might for its own sake.  God’s power and might are about protecting and healing.  It’s good news for those who have been abused, or oppressed, for those who are alone or hurting or disabled or on the outside of society looking in.  But it’s not good news for the abusers, for the powerful who use their power for their own benefit and hurt people in the process.

Let’s move on to our second reading.  And, again, the theme is joy.  Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!  The surprising thing here is that Paul is in prison when he wrote these words.  And he was writing to a congregation that was beset by enemies trying to destroy it.  Prison is not a joyful place; it is designed to be as degrading and as punitive as possible.  And having enemies attack you is not something that generally brings happiness or good cheer.  These things are not recipes for happiness.  And yet, Paul says, rejoice!  Put your trust in God, and thank God for all the good things that are happening even in the midst of the bad.  No matter how bad things may get, we know that God is with us, and we know that God will continue to work in us and around us until the day when Christ comes again and all the living and the dead will be judged and all things and all people will be made new.  No matter how bad things get, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  And as long as we cling to that love, there will be times of joy.

And then there’s our Gospel reading.  John the Baptist is calling all people to repentance with a hell-fire and brimstone message condemning sin.  “You brood of vipers!” he calls those who have come to hear his message, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  Like Zephaniah, John the Baptist believed there would be a day of wrath, a day of judgment, a time when all people and nations would have to account for the evil that they had done.  The surprising thing is that his listeners heard him call them snakes headed for destruction, and considered it good news.  Now, judgment might not sound like good news, but there are three kinds of good news in John the Baptist’s message.  First, for anyone who has ever experienced injustice or been sickened by the evil in the world, the good news is that injustice and evil will not last forever.  The second bit of good news, for those who have done things worthy of condemnation (which is pretty much everyone), is that while the day of the Lord is surely coming, repentance is possible.  We can choose to repent.  We can choose to turn our hearts and minds away from the ways of the world and toward God.  And the third piece of John’s good news is that those concrete acts of repentance are actually things we can do.  Be generous.  If you see someone who needs help and you can help them, do so.  Treat people fairly and with justice.  Don’t hurt, abuse, cheat, or oppress people.  These are things that you and I can do.

In the sure and certain knowledge that Christ is helping us, and that what we have received, we are also called to pass on.  As we prepare for the coming of Christ, both at Christmastime and when he comes again in glory, may we turn our hearts and lives so that we live according to the will of God, and not the will of society.

Amen