Kosher, change, and community

Easter 5, Year C, May 19, 2019

Acts 11:1-18, Psalm 148, Revelation 21:1-6, John 13:31-35

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

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

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

Our first reading, from Acts, is the second part of a story.  In the first part of the story, Peter received a vision from God telling him that it was okay to break the kosher rules, the Jewish dietary and cleanliness laws.  (At this point, all of the followers of Jesus were Jewish.)  Peter got this vision, and then God sent some Gentiles to him, asking about Jesus.  He went to them and realized they had the Holy Spirit, and he lived in their house for a while and baptized them.  Then he went back home to all the other followers of Jesus, and instead of going “oh, yay, more followers of Jesus!” they went ” … you lived with Gentiles?  You ate non-kosher food?  What is wrong with you?”

There are two things that we Christians really don’t get about the Jewish rules of keeping kosher.  Well, there’s a lot more than two things we don’t get about kosher, but for the purposes of understanding today’s reading from Acts, there’s two things we need to appreciate.  First, when Jewish people call food “unclean” they sometimes mean it literally.  Kosher rules were way ahead of their times when it comes to food safety and washing your hands and your dishes and making sure you’re not contaminating your food with whatever dirt or germs might be nearby.  Jewish kitchens were so much cleaner than the kitchens of their neighbors.  If I travelled back in time to 35 AD and had a choice, I would much rather eat kosher food than non-kosher food just for sanitary reasons.  Non-Jewish kitchens of the time were pretty gross.

And hygiene wasn’t the only reason Jewish people were disgusted by their gentile neighbors’ eating habits.  When your culture doesn’t eat something, a lot of the times the thought of eating that thing is pretty gross.  You or I might not get why someone could ever object to bacon, but when I learn about foods in other cultures—like chicken feet, monkey brains, various edible insects or weird deep-sea creatures, and stuff like haggis—I often grimace in distaste.  It may be perfectly digestible and even good for you, and some people may love it, but it’s gross to me.  If Jewish people in Peter’s day felt the same way about things like bacon that I do about monkey brains, and then you add in the lack of cleanliness in the average gentile kitchen, I can certainly see why no Jewish person ever wanted to break kosher and eat with their neighbors.  And why they would give a pretty hard time to any of their fellow Jews who did.  It wouldn’t just be a matter of keeping a religious law; it would be a matter of visceral distaste.  You ate what?  That was prepared in a kitchen with how many health code violations?  Blech.

And then there’s the other part of the kosher rules.  Christians may regard them as extraneous and unnecessary, but the fact remains, they were commands given by God to the Jewish people and recorded in Scripture.  This isn’t just a case of “we’ve always done it that way.”  It isn’t just a case of blind traditionalism or human custom.  By keeping kosher, they were keeping commands given by God!  And however much certain modern Jewish denominations might have decided that strict adherence to kosher is unnecessary, there was no debate over the matter in ancient times.  If you were one of God’s people, you circumcised your sons and kept kosher.  Period.  End of story.  If you did not do either of those things, you were not one of God’s people.  You might love God … but you were not part of God’s people or part of God’s covenant.  You were an outsider, an apostate, unfaithful.  Eating unclean food was both viscerally disgusting and breaking God’s commands and putting yourself outside God’s covenant with God’s people.

So, given those two factors, you can see why the rest of Jesus’ followers were pretty upset when they heard that Peter was eating Gentile food prepared in a Gentile home.  This is not just a matter of personal preference.  It’s not just a matter of hospitality.  It’s a question of whether or not Peter is one of God’s people, and what it looks like to be one of God’s people, and what basic principles should God’s people uphold.  And it’s also a matter of Peter having done something that the rest of his community thought was absolutely disgusting.  We, today, hear this story and think the answer is simple.  Of course God wants us to go out into the world and convert people, and of course kosher laws are silly and unimportant!  But Peter’s community of faith, all of those who had followed Jesus in life and remained faithful even after his death and resurrection, they would also have thought the answer was simple.  Of course God doesn’t want us to mix with Gentiles, and of course kosher laws are much more important than reaching out to outsiders!  And they had the weight of all of scripture and thousands of years of tradition on their side guiding them to that conclusion.

The problem is, sometimes God does something new.  Sometimes the next step in God’s plan for the world isn’t what humans think is the next logical step.  Sometimes the Holy Spirit calls us to things we didn’t anticipate and couldn’t have predicted.  Sometimes, it turns common wisdom and tradition on its head.  Sometimes, it leads you to places you really, really don’t like.  That was the case in the days of the first believers, who couldn’t have predicted that God would rescind the kosher laws so that they could bring God’s Word to the Gentiles more easily.  And it’s the case for us today, as we ask the question of what it means to be followers of Christ in a world that is changing so rapidly.  It makes this story important to study as an example of how God’s people faithfully discern what God is calling us to do in times of great change.

So the first thing to remember is that, for all the believers were shocked, and Peter was taking things further than anyone anticipated, God reaching out to Gentiles was not completely unprecedented.  There are a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures where God says that one day, all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship God.  And none of those passages say that the nations will then become Jewish, following Jewish dietary laws.  God sent the prophet Jonah to preach to Gentiles, and told Jonah that they were God’s people too.  King David’s grandmother Ruth was a Gentile.  Then, when Jesus came himself, while most of his ministry was among Jewish people, he did several times travel into Gentile areas and preach there.  He healed Gentiles, he cast demons out for them, he taught them.  He never ate with a Gentile, but he did drink water with a Samaritan woman, and he ate with Jewish sinners and tax collectors.  That wasn’t quite as much of a kosher violation as eating with Gentiles, but it was closer than most good Jewish people would want to come.  Then, after Jesus’ resurrection, after the Holy Spirit had sent them out to share the Good News, Jesus’ followers had a series of encounters with Gentiles, most notably the Ethiopian eunuch whom Philip baptized.  So while the disciples would never have thought that God would tell them it was okay to not keep kosher, they could look back at Scripture and their experience of God and see how God kept including Gentiles and sending God’s Word to them and sometimes crossing the boundaries between Jew and Gentile.  They could see how this connected to what they had known.

Second, Peter didn’t just decide this on his own.  He prayed, and he listened to the Holy Spirit, and he didn’t just throw out thousands of years of tradition and Biblical understanding on a whim.  He didn’t let tradition blind him to what the Spirit was calling him to do, but he didn’t throw out tradition willy-nilly.  Human beings have always found it easy to delude themselves about what God wants and what God is calling them to do; Peter was right to be cautious and hesitant at first, and test things to make sure he wasn’t mistaken.

Third, the Holy Spirit wasn’t just at work in Peter.  When Peter got to the new place the Spirit was leading him, he found that the Spirit was already there.  Which, of course the Spirit is everywhere.  But if Peter had been mistaken about what God was calling him to do, Peter would not have found the Spirit being poured out so freely.  And Peter was looking for it.  Even after Peter had figured out what he thought God was calling him to do, Peter kept looking, kept praying, kept listening, to confirm he was on the right path.  And having gotten that confirmation, Paul followed that call, even though it led him somewhere he would never have chosen to go himself, and led him to change beliefs and practices he would never have chosen to change on his own.

And then, fourth, he went home and talked with his community about it.  He shared what he had seen and heard with the community, and the community debated it.  The community kept on debating it.  This is not the last time the issue of kosher and Gentile believers would come up; it would come up constantly for the next several decades as Jesus’ followers figured out exactly what the new boundaries would be and what this new thing would look like and how God’s commands to them would or would not apply to their new brothers and sisters in Christ.  It didn’t happen overnight, and it wasn’t simple, and it wasn’t easy.  Some people disagreed; some people stopped being Jesus’ followers entirely over the issue.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple, but they talked about it together.  They prayed about it together.  They looked for what the Holy Spirit was doing together.

This wasn’t just a matter of one person having a vision and then everything is changed.  This is a matter of people coming together in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, and listening to all the many voices of faithful people, and scripture, and experience, and the Spirit, and figuring out where God was calling them to go.  It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t simple.  And yet, it laid the foundation of everything that was to come.  If they hadn’t done this hard work, none of us would be here today.

Now, over the centuries there have been times when God called people in new and different ways, and times when people thought God was calling them to do things for very convincing reasons, but they turned out to be wrong.  Sometimes where we think God is calling us is where God is really calling us, and sometimes it isn’t.  And sometimes even if God is calling us in a certain direction, God may not be calling us to do it the way we think it should be done.  God may have a lot of different things in mind, and no one person can ever fully know what God is calling us to do.  But if we listen to God, if we look for the Holy Spirit in us and around us in the world, if we study Scripture, if we listen to one another and talk it out, the Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us as we make these decisions.  When change comes, we should never make changes just because it’s trendy or new, but we shouldn’t reject it just because it’s new, either.  Like Peter and those first followers of Jesus, our goal should be to find out where God is leading us, where the Holy Spirit is speaking, and listen to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ, and to trust that God is leading us as we move forward, even if we disagree.  May we learn to listen to God and to one another.

Amen.

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Listen and Follow

Easter 4, Year C, May 12, 2019

Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

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.

It was there every year at the county fair: the little trailer with the big sign blaring out ‘ARE YOU SAVED? TWO QUESTION TEST REVEALS THE ANSWER!’  Even as a kid I thought it was funny.  I knew I was saved because I was a Christian and Jesus loved me, and I figured that everybody either was already a Christian and knew they were saved, or weren’t Christians and didn’t care about salvation one way or the other.  Having grown up in a Lutheran church that put a lot of emphasis on the grace of God, it hadn’t occurred to me that it was possible to believe in Jesus and at the same time wonder if you were saved or not.  I had not realized just how much time and effort Christians have spent over the years worrying about who is saved and who isn’t, and how one tells the difference, and how one separates out the sheep from the not-sheep.

That little trailer is just the tip of the iceberg.  Despite the fact that the Bible talks far more about heaven than about hell, we humans are obsessed with you-know-where.  In one of the more popular interpretations of Christianity over the ages, God the Father is a vengeful, angry, destructive tyrant just waiting for an excuse to throw people into hell and torture them mercilessly for all of eternity.  Jesus, in contrast, is a nice kind loving friend who is trying to save us from God’s wrath, but only if we’re good enough.  Therefore, humans better shape up and be good enough people to buy God’s favor.  After the Reformation, people added the idea that it wasn’t enough to believe, you also had to believe the ‘right’ way.  You could tell who was saved and who was going to Hell by whether or not they believed the doctrines your church taught.  If you believe the “right” way, you don’t have to worry.  But all those other people who disagree with you better watch out, because they’re gonna be in trouble when Judgment Day comes!

We examine every Bible passage that has any reference to judgment or hell, and build elaborate interpretations that we then tell each other over and over and over until we have a much clearer picture of hell than of heaven, despite the fact that the Bible spends a lot more time talking about heaven than hell.  We use our interpretations of hell to try and motivate people, to terrify them into behaving the way we think they should or believing the way we think they should.  We terrify people with stories of what the Father will do if you’re not good enough, and then say you should love Jesus because he saves you from the wrath of God.

There are several fairly major problems with that basic understanding, though.  One of them is that you can’t scare people into loving anything.  No, really, you can’t.  You can scare people into complying with actions they’re supposed to take or words they’re supposed to say, but you can’t scare people into opening up their hearts.  Fear makes our hearts close in on themselves, whether that is fear of hell or fear of God or fear of the world or fear of anything else.  And even though you can scare people into doing what you want them to, that different behavior only lasts as long as the fear does.  And people can’t stay afraid forever.  It just turns into exhaustion and anxiety and numbness.  So by trying to use the threat of Hell to make people be faithful good Christians, we aren’t actually reaching hearts and minds, just the shallow surface behaviors.  Under the surface, all those threats and fear only separate us from God, they don’t bring us closer.

And then there’s the other major problem with the idea of believing that the Father is angry and wants to punish us, and Jesus is gentle and loving and wants to save us from the Father’s wrath.  Jesus states it flat-out in our Gospel reading for today.  Jesus and the Father are one.  They’re not separate.  It’s not a case of the Father being angry and Jesus being loving, it’s not a case of the Father wanting to punish people and Jesus wanting to save people.  No.  The Father, Son and Holy Spirit one God, now and forever.  They’re different people, but you can’t separate them out because they are unified.  They have the same goals and desires.  They are acting together, and always have, and always will.  That belief that the core of God’s nature is anger and a desire to punish, it’s simply not true.

Yes, sometimes God gets angry at the way we treat one another and the world that God graciously gives us.  But it’s not a case of Jesus having to save us from the Father’s wrath.  God—all of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—desires that the world should be saved.  God loves the world.  God doesn’t want us to be tortured for all eternity because of the evil we have done; God wants us to stop doing evil and return to the Lord and be saved.  God loves us, like a shepherd loves the flock.  God gave us into the hands of Jesus specifically so that we might be saved.  Yes, we can turn away.  Yes, we can ignore God’s call.  Yes, we can choose Hell if we want to.  But God is willing to do everything up to and including the death and resurrection of God’s only Son to save us and all of creation.  God is putting all God’s power and might into the salvation and re-creation of the universe, us included.

God’s goal is that we might have life—abundant, eternal life.  God’s goal is that we might have that life now and for all to come.  And that eternal, abundant life isn’t just about getting into heaven, either.  God wants us to have life now, too.  We are in God’s hands—we are in Jesus’ hands—to protect us and guide us and give us life here, now, in the midst of all the troubles of this world.  And there is nothing, neither life nor death nor powers nor politics, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  No matter what happens to us, no matter what we do, God will be working to keep us safe.

And when I say “no matter what,” I really mean it.  Consider the multitudes in our reading from Revelation.  They are safe and protected in God’s care.  You know what’s going on around them?  The opening of the seals.  Death on a pale horse is riding, along with famine and plague and conquest.  And yet, God’s people are safe under God’s protection.  It’s not necessarily a physical safety, because some of them have been killed; but they are not alone and they are not forsaken and they are shielded by God even in the midst of some pretty terrifying things.

And it’s not that they’re all perfect saints, either.  They have been made holy by God.  That’s what happened when they washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb.  All the sin and evil that they had done or said, or allowed to happen through their own inactivity, all of it was washed away by the blood of the Lamb.  All of it was redeemed through the free gift of grace in Christ Jesus our savior.  They have listened to the voice of the shepherd, and even in the middle of all this death and destruction, Christ will lead them and guide them and wash them clean with his blood and protect them and wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And that blood that redeems?  It’s not rationed out by the teaspoon for those who have earned it or deserve it or can prove they understand the correct theological interpretation of it.  The blood is shed for everyone, for all of creation, by a God who loves us and claims us and is always reaching out to call us and claim us and save us and wipe the tears from our eyes.  We don’t have to earn it.  We don’t have to be “good enough” or have all the right answers memorized.  We just have to listen to our shepherd’s voice, and follow.

Amen.

The Lamb Who Was Slain

Easter 3, Year C, May 5, 2019

Acts 6:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19

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

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

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

I have had music going through my brain all week.  And it’s all the fault of our Revelation reading.  First there’s the Handel: Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, and hath redeemed us to God by his blood, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing. Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb.  Then is the Hymn of Praise from setting ten: Come, let us join our cheerful songs with angels round the throne; ten thousand thousand are their tongues, but all their joys are one.  But then again, the Hymn of Praise in most liturgies quote this passage: Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Amen.  Not to mention the hymns and songs.  Did you know that Revelation is one of the most popular books of Scripture for Christian songwriters to draw on?  The only books that are used in more hymns are the Gospels and the Psalms.  In the ELW, there are 91 hymns that quote or reference the book of Revelation.  And this passage is one of the more popular.

Remember how I talked last week about how Revelation is actually a book of great hope, a book designed to give comfort in times of trouble?  A book designed to encourage Christians who live in troubled or dangerous times, that no matter how scary or dangerous or sinful or broken or evil the world seems, God will triumph and destroy evil and purify sin and re-create the whole world.  Well, hymn-writers and song-writers have known that for a long time.  The book keeps circling around through the evils of the world that God is working to fight, and then returning to God’s kingdom to show us a foretaste of the joy and hope that God brings.  This does two things: first, it is a foretaste of the feast to come, and second, it shows us how to rejoice and worship God and trust in God’s power and mercy even in the midst of turbulent and difficult times.  Because no matter how troubling things get, God is always with us.

That’s true of this particular passage and many others in Revelation, some of which we’ll be reading over the next few weeks.  But this particular passage has a message all its own about the one whom we worship.  The thing about this passage that we don’t notice that people back when it was written would have spotted immediately is that it’s intensely political.  See, in those days whenever some great leader—the Emperor, a noted general, whoever—came to a major city they’d have a big celebration like this.  Especially if they’d just won some battle or other.  The celebration was called a triumph.  And everyone in the city and outlying areas would gather around the one being honored, and they’d bow low in homage, and they’d sing songs of praise to the great leader, and they’d wish them blessing and honor and wealth and power and wisdom, and they’d say how worthy they were of all the honors and accolades being heaped on their heads.  It was the ultimate in ego-stroking, but it was also a power-move for the one being honored: if you were given a triumph, you were one of the absolute cream of the crop, the most important people in the Empire.  You were a force to be reckoned with.  Emperors and victorious generals got triumphs; and many generals throughout Roman history used a triumph as the springboard to overthrow the Emperor and place themselves on the throne.  They were serious business.

And notice that the one receiving the triumph in our reading is not the Emperor, and he is not a general.  He never fought a battle in his life.  In fact, the one time he came face-to-face with any serious violence, he died.  He died an agonizing and humiliating death.  He was not a brave, cunning warrior who slaughtered his enemies and brought wealth and glory back to the empire.  He was a nobody, a victim.  By the standards of the world, he was absolutely worthless.  And this passage doesn’t try to hide that.  In fact, it revels in that fact.  It doesn’t refer to Jesus by name, but calls him “the lamb that was slain.”  Most people of the day would have been deeply offended, because a slaughtered lamb is not what power looks like.  A minor traveling preacher from a poor backwater, who got on the wrong side of powerful people and got himself killed because of it, is not what power looks like.  At least, not according to the world’s standards.

And yet, it is part of the Christian mystery that the power of God does not look like what we expect.  The power of God is not found in the might of empires or emperors or armies or generals or political leaders or rich people or industry or beautiful buildings.  The power of God is not found in the bright, shiny, perfect-looking people we take as our role-models and idolize.  The power of God is not found in imposing buildings or mighty armies or huge bank accounts.  The power of God is not found in winners.

The power of God is found in the victim.  The lamb that was slain.  The one who was tortured and suffered and died.  The power of God is found in the loser.  And that is a truth that we give lip service to today, but deep down even most Christians find it offensive.  We are more like the ancient Romans than we would like to admit.  We still look at worldly power and might—at the ability and resources and willingness to make other people to do what you want—and assume that that’s the goal, that’s the right.  Luther called that a theology of glory.  We look at the world’s glory, at the people who win by the world’s standards, and assume that it’s good.  After all, it’s got so much going for it!  If it looks good, it must be good.  If it’s winning, it must be right.  If it brings power and wealth, it must be the way God wants the world to be.  And therefore if people suffer—if people are poor, or sick, or abused, or oppressed—it must be their own fault and they must deserve it.

Problem is, that’s not what the Bible shows us.  The Bible shows us a God who repeatedly hears and saves those who are weakest, those who are lost, those whom the world has chewed up and spit out.  The Bible shows us a God who is most truly present in Jesus Christ, who was not born to wealth and power but born in poverty and obscurity, who suffered and died on the cross to save the world.  That’s the most powerful act in the whole Bible.  That’s the thing that turns the whole universe on its head.  That’s the reason we are here today: God took the thing we humans thought was the weakest, most disgusting, most shameful thing imaginable, and used it as an instrument of his power to save the world.  God took death itself and turned it into life.  When we recognize this, we have what Luther called a theology of the cross: if God works through the despised, the wretched, the disgusting, the shameful, the painful, and the horrifying, then we should look for God in the places today that we find shameful, or horrifying, or painful, or weak.  Because we know God will be there.  God will be there giving strength and bringing life and healing even in the midst of death itself.  If God can work through the cross, if God can use God’s own death and resurrection to transform the world, then there is no place too shady or too sinful or too broken for God to work in.

We do not see with the world’s eyes.  We do not see God’s power in physical might or worldly power, but rather in the Lamb who was Slain.  We see God’s power at work in the cross, in every place where people suffer, working to bring healing and life even in a world filled with death and destruction.   And it is that self-sacrifice that we honor, that great love that makes Jesus worthy to receive honor and glory and power and might.  Wars and politics and wealth don’t make anyone truly great, in the eyes of God; only love and service can do that.  And that is why we worship Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, who sacrificed himself for the salvation and healing of the universe.  Blessing and honor and glory and might be to God and the Lamb forever.

Amen.

 

The One Who Was, Who Is, and Who Is To Come

Easter 2, Year C, April 28, 2019

Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 150, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31

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

 

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

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

Revelation is probably the single most misunderstood book of the Bible.  When Christians today read it, we often try to crack the code and read it as a road-map of the future, a timeline so that we can be prepared for the end days.  Or we try and figure out what people today are associated with the various symbolic figures in the book: who’s the Beast?  Who’s the antichrist?  And so on and so forth.  Most of all, we get scared.  We read about all the terrible things that happen in the book, and we get scared: of God, or of the world, or of judgment.  But the thing is, the Book of Revelation was written to inspire and comfort its readers, not scare them.

Revelation was the last book of the Bible to be written.  The great persecution hadn’t started yet, but Christians were despised and discriminated against.  Almost all of them were poor and marginalized—slaves, women, landless laborers, the sort of people who were easy to use and abuse.  They were ostracized and mocked for their belief.  They were persecuted and suffered for following Christ.  American Christians sometimes complain about being “persecuted,” when what we mean is that  we don’t have the respect and prestige that we used to.  The Christians of John’s day had never had any respect or prestige.  They had been despised their whole lives, and their faith was just one more thing to despise them for.  And, when someone is poor, and has no social influence, and belongs to some weird minority—which is what Christianity was at the time—it’s really easy for that person to be hurt.  To suffer.  Anyone who likes to do evil can hurt them with impunity.

And the thing is, the Roman Empire wasn’t exactly a good and kind nation.  Their idea of creating peace was to kill their enemies and salt the ground so it couldn’t be used anymore.  The whole empire was built on slave labor on a scale that wouldn’t be seen again until the 18th Century.  They’re the people who thought up and regularly used crucifixion, one of the most sadistic ways of killing people ever created.  They divided the world into “us” vs. “them,” and if you were not a Roman citizen (and most residents of the Roman Empire were not citizens), there was almost no protection from the brutality of anyone who wanted to hurt you.  And most Christians were pretty near the bottom of the social pyramid.  So the Christians of John’s day were very used to suffering.  They were used to having evil done to them.  They were up close and personal with death, with violence, with all the terrible things that people can do to one another, because most of them happened to them at one time or another.

When someone has suffered, you can’t just paper over it and smile and assure them of God’s love.  When someone has had evil done to them, you have to deal with the reality of the evil.  You have to deal seriously with the question of why good people die and bad people live, why good people suffer while their abusers prosper, why evil exists, and with the question of where God is in the midst of al of this.  How can God be good if God allows evil?  Where is God when there is pain?  And if your religion doesn’t offer a convincing answer, well, it’s not going to last long.

The book of Revelation is John of Patmos’ answer to the problem of pain.  Evil is always present and acknowledged.  Yes, there is evil in the world.  But you know what?  Evil is temporary.  Evil is defeated, always.  God is stronger.  Even if things look grim, even if things look weird and strange and horrifying, the book of Revelation is quite clear: God is going to win.  Evil will be defeated and destroyed.  God’s love is stronger than any other power in the universe, no matter how much it may seem otherwise in the moment.  The book takes evil and suffering seriously, both showing the consequences of evil and the ways in which God will eventually defeat it, but the point of Revelation isn’t to dwell on the evil or destruction or suffering.  The point is that such evil and destruction will be defeated.  The point is that the suffering will eventually end and God will be triumphant, that God who created the world will also be there to re­create the world as the paradise God always intended it to be.  The point is that no matter how grim or hopeless things seem, God is always at work, and God’s will—God’s peace and love and salvation—will prevail.

The book of Revelation isn’t a road map, it’s a vision.  Like an impressionist painting, the purpose is not to provide an accurate, factual account, but to make you feel, to capture an impression.  When we read it, we’re supposed to feel how terrible the evils of the world are—and we are supposed to be relieved and filled with joy by the knowledge that they will end, that they are finite, that God is greater than they are and their time is limited.  We are supposed to take comfort in the knowledge that even if we have to live through the worst the world has to offer, even if we must suffer and die, our lives are not in vain and there will come a time when all evil will be destroyed, all sickness and injury will be healed, all people will be made whole, and all of heaven and earth will be made new.  And all this great joy and hope comes to us through the saving life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.

The book of Revelation starts and ends with this hope, and keeps returning to this hope and joy throughout the book, even in the midst of some of the most frightening parts.  So let’s take a look at the introduction to Revelation, which is our second reading for today:  God is the one “who was, and is and is to come.”  God was present before all things—God created all things, seen and unseen!—and God is with us now, and God will always be with us.  We can trust in God, because God will never end.  God is the Alpha and the Omega: Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, and Omega was the last letter of the Greek alphabet.  So John is telling us that God is the A to Z, the beginning and the end.  But also, that God is part of everything and in everything.  There is no part of the universe that God does not touch.  There is no part of the universe that is hidden from God, or that is more powerful than God.  All the physical things that we can see and touch come from God, and all the unseen things—all the spiritual forces—bow before God.

Jesus Christ is the faithful witness, the one who shows us what God is like in his actions and words.  Jesus Christ is the one through whom we come to meet God more fully than any other path.  Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the dead.  As Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, so one day all the dead will be raised, when Christ comes again in glory.  We are dust, and to dust we shall return; but the God who created us out of the dust in the first place will re-create us, will resurrect us just as Christ was resurrected.  Even the powers of death are nothing before God, for Jesus Christ has destroyed death and rose from the grave, and will one day raise us from the grave as well.  He did this because he loves us, and forgives us our sins.  There is evil in the world—there is evil in us—but God forgives us through the saving actions of Jesus Christ.  And because of that love, because of that salvation, we have a calling: we have been made God’s people, called to serve and be part of God’s kingdom.

Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.  The day will come when Christ will return, and the dead will rise, and evil will be defeated, and all the living and the dead will be judged.  So we don’t have to worry.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil happens, no matter how much we suffer, we know that God loves us, that God is with us, that God’s love will win in the end and all the evils in and around us will be defeated.

Amen.

 

Abundant Love

Lent 5, Year C, April 7, 2019

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8

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

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

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

 

My family went to church every Sunday when I was a kid, but the first time I remember consciously hearing the story of our Gospel reading was actually from the original cast recording of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And that’s a great show with a lot of good songs, but like all dramatizations of Scripture it takes liberties here and there.  Being a good, church-going Christian child, I knew that God wanted us to give generously to those in need, and I knew that Jesus had spent a lot of time feeding the hungry and healing the sick and things like that.  So I assumed that when Jesus said that there will always be poor, it must have been made up for the show.  I was very surprised when my Dad explained that no, Jesus actually did say something like that, although the show elaborated it a lot.  It just did not make sense to me.  It didn’t fit with what else I knew of Jesus.

This passage made a lot more sense to me—or, at least, fit better within what I knew of Jesus—when I got to seminary and learned that Jesus was actually quoting from Deuteronomy 15.  Deuteronomy 15 talks about how God’s people are supposed to be generous to the poor always, and give without being stingy or resentful.  There will always be poor, and that’s why God’s people need to be constantly generous.  Not just a little bit here and there, but always generous to those in need.  Most people take Jesus’ line that “there will be poor always” as an excuse not to be generous—after all, it’s not like it’s going to make a difference.  But Jesus is actually quoting a Scripture passage that, if you read the whole thing, says that we should be generous precisely because there are always people in need.

That fit better with what I knew of Jesus, but it still didn’t explain why he didn’t agree with Judas that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would be a better use of it than extravagantly anointing Jesus with it.  True, Judas had selfish motives, but he also had a point about how extravagantly wasteful this whole thing is.  I mean, what does Jesus need oil for?  It serves no practical purpose.  It does serve a couple of different symbolic purposes; as Jesus said in the reading, it’s something that they did to dead bodies, and Jesus was about to die.  And also, kings and priests and prophets were commonly anointed with oil; “Messiah” literally means anointed one.  The person who’s had the special oil put on them as a symbol of how chosen and precious they are to God.  So Mary’s actions served as a sign both of who Jesus was and what was to come.  But surely, there was less expensive oil that would have done the job, or she could have used less; spending the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars on a single action is pretty extravagant.  Surely they could have found some very good quality oil that would have been less expensive, and used the rest for feeding the hungry or whatever?  It just doesn’t seem like good stewardship.

The thing is, though, that abundance is a theme in the Gospel of John.  In the first chapter, we are told that we have all received grace upon grace from God’s fullness.  Jesus’ first act of ministry is providing 150 gallons of the best wine for the wedding at Cana.  In John 10, Jesus says “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.”  God’s goal isn’t just that we might have enough, but that we might have more than enough.  God works to provide enough so that everyone’s life might overflow with goodness.  The fact that there is need and poverty isn’t because of some failure on God’s part to provide; God provides abundantly.  If there is scarcity and need in the world, it is because of human sin and greed and stinginess.  God provides abundantly, and calls his people to do the same.

And this anointing is abundant.  It’s a pound of pure nard, imported from the Himalayas, a pungent, earthy perfume that filled the house.  Like any perfume, it would have lingered, and lingered even longer than we might expect, given that water was scarce and they probably didn’t bathe often.  Jesus might have carried the fragrance of that anointing with him all the way to the cross.  It was an extravagant gift, an extravagant act.  When Mary knelt and poured it over Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair, it was an extravagant act of worship, far beyond what could ever have been asked or expected of her.  And that extravagance is kind of the point.  Love overflowed in her, love of Jesus who had raised her brother from the dead, love for the God whose power was revealed in Jesus’ saving actions.  That love overwhelmed her, and no rational, logical, small gift would have conveyed the enormity of what she felt.  The only way to express her devotion was through an immense gift, given in a spirit of worship and service.  It was not the prudent choice, but not everything is about prudence.  Sometimes, it’s about abundant love.  Sometimes, it’s about a leap of faith.

Yes, the money spent could have been given to the poor.  But the poor are always with us; one extravagantly generous gift wouldn’t have solved anything.  Mary and Martha and Lazarus were devoted followers of Jesus, so I have no doubt that they lived lives of generosity and service, giving regularly to help those in need.  The fact that in this instance Mary gave such a gift to Jesus doesn’t mean she wasn’t also giving to those in need.  The thing is, while God’s call to be generous is an important part of the Christian life, it is not at the heart of it.  We give because of our love of God, and because we have experienced the love of God poured out in us and in our lives.  That love—the grace upon grace we receive and share—is the core of the Gospel.  That love is the reason God sent Jesus to minister to us, to die for us, and finally to rise from the grave for us.  That love is the reason for all of God’s saving actions.  That love is what created us in our mothers’ wombs, nurtured us as we grew, and has been with us every step of our lives.  That love is what redeems and saves us from our own sins.  That love is what heals us and makes us whole.  That love is what brings us here today.  And that love is what calls us to share God’s abundance with the world.  As we ourselves have received grace upon grace from God’s loving arms, we are called to share that grace with others, in word and deed.

The church is not a social service agency that happens to have a worship service every week.  The church is a community built around God’s love, nurtured through worship and God’s Word, which sustains us and helps us grow and sends us back out into the world to be God’s hands and feet.  This last week our Lenten Bible Study focused on the fruits of the Spirit.  To use that metaphor, generosity to those in need is the fruit of the spirit … and the love of God is the root.  You cannot have one without the other.  You cannot have the constant generosity God calls us to without being devoted to the love of God.  If you try to separate generosity and love, all too often you end up like Judas: nickel-and-diming everything, and using charity as a cover for your own selfishness.  Mary knew how to love beyond measure.  Mary knew how to let God’s love overflow in her.  Mary did not allow anything—not self-consciousness, not society’s approval, not money, not anything—get in the way of letting her show that love in word and deed.  And it was extravagant, and it was amazing.

I wonder what it would be like if we loved like that.  If we were willing to let the love of God overflow in us that much that sometimes—not always, not in everything—but sometimes, we let that love overflow into extravagant, abundant signs of the kingdom.  If we spent more time focusing on God’s abundance than on what we lack.  If we let go of our fears and anxieties and self-consciousness and put our trust in God.  If we let that love and trust be the core of everything we do, not just in name only but in reality.  I don’t know, but I bet amazing things would happen.

Amen.

Fruit Worthy of Repentance

Lent 3, Year C, March 24, 2019

Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 62:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9

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

 

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

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

In the passage just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told his followers they should recognize the signs so they could tell what was really going on.  Unfortunately, they prove immediately that even when the signs are clear (such as major disasters and acts of evil), they don’t understand the message they’re supposed to.  And I’m not sure if we’re any better than they are.  In fact, I think all too often we make the same mistake they did.

There had been two major tragedies in the area.  In one of them, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who would later order Jesus crucified to appease the crowd and the religious elite, had sent his soldiers in to the Temple and killed those who had gathered there to worship.  Why, we don’t know; Pilate was a cruel man, and not terribly bright, from what records we have of him; he was prone to violent overreactions.  Then there had also been another great tragedy: a tower had fallen and killed a lot of people.  Not an unusual event in a land with regular earthquakes and relatively poor building materials and techniques.  But still, a tragedy, one that would have been big news.  And the people had looked at these two tragedies, and heard Jesus telling them they should be alert for signs to tell them what sort of age they lived in, and they had concluded that those people had died because of their sins.

Which sort of misses the point, because the thing is, we’re all sinners.  Every single human being ever born, except Jesus Christ, is a sinner who cannot save themselves from their sins, or the consequences of them.  We don’t like to remember that.  We’re fine with noticing the sinfulness of people we don’t like, or don’t care about; but unless we have a mental illness like depression or anxiety, we will do a great deal to avoid noticing our own sinfulness.  As a pastor, one of the most frustrating things is how people with mental illnesses often fixate on their own sins, real or imagined, to such a degree that they cannot accept God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, while most people convince themselves that they’re not sinners—or, at least, not bad sinners, even if they give lip service to acknowledging their sins—and thus don’t think they need much forgiving.  It’s either feast or famine: we either fixate on our sinfulness to the exclusion of all else, or try to ignore it and excuse it.  We rarely have a realistic appraisal that might lead us to change our behavior.

The other thing humans love doing, besides ignoring our own sinfulness, is control things.  We crave control.  We want to feel like we are in charge of our own destiny even when it is perfectly obvious that we are not.  We want the world to fit into nice, simple categories with nice, simple reasons for things happening.  Then, all we have to do is figure things out and take the appropriate steps to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us.  Put these two factors together, and you get the common human response to tragedy: figure out why those who suffered or died deserved what happened to them.  Then reassure yourself that since you don’t deserve it, it could never happen to you.  Is someone you know sick?  Well, they didn’t exercise enough or eat the right foods.  But you do, so you won’t get sick.  Did somebody slide on an icy road and crash their car?  Well, they were a bad driver, but you’re a good driver, so you won’t have an accident.  Is someone poor?  Well, they must just be lazy, but you’re not lazy, so you’ll never be poor.  Did someone get raped or assaulted?  Well, they must have led their attacker on, but you‘d never do that, so you’ll never be assaulted.  Did some big tragedy happen?  Well, it must have been a punishment from God because of their sin, but you’re not a sinner, or not as bad a sinner as they were, so it can’t happen to you.  It’s very reassuring.

You can judge the person suffering, and give them all sorts of advice, and never have to grapple with the fact that sometimes bad things just happen and we can’t control it.  Sometimes tornadoes and floods just come.  Sometimes people get sick because of things outside their control.  Sometimes accidents just happen.  These and other tragedies are manifestations of the sinfulness and brokenness of the world, but they are not caused by any one person’s actions or inactions.  And even when a tragedy is caused by the sinfulness of one person in particular, all too often, the consequences are not felt by the sinner.  The Galileans that Pilate killed in the temple weren’t killed because they were particularly horrible sinners who deserved death more than any other group of people; they were killed because Pilate was a sinner, a cruel, stupid man, and he decided to have them killed.  They died because of his sins, not their own.

Knowing the time and reading the signs is not about reassuring yourself by blaming the victim for their suffering.  It’s about realizing that the whole world—including your and me!—is broken by sin and death.  It’s about recognizing that the whole world and everything in it—including you and me!—desperately needs to be healed, made new, and reconciled to God.  It’s about knowing that you and me and everyone in the world depend completely on the grace and mercy of God, and trusting that mercy, and letting it overflow in our lives.  It’s about being transformed by Christ, instead of conforming to the ways of this broken, sinful world.  It’s about knowing that we and everyone else deserves the judgment that is coming, and still trusting that God is at work to bring salvation and healing and new life.  In other words, it’s about repentance.

But repentance is another thing we don’t understand.  We tend to think of repentance as feeling sorry for our sins, or feeling guilty.  As if the thing God wants most out of us is that we feel bad.  Sometimes our understanding of repentance broadens enough to include trying to atone or make up for specific sins we have done, but all too often it’s just about feeling bad about what we did.  This is why a number of non-Christians of my acquaintance really don’t like Christian talk of sin and repentance.  From what they’ve seen, either it’s shallow and doesn’t lead to real meaningful change, or it leads to depression and anxiety and still doesn’t lead to positive change.

But for Luke, repentance isn’t just about admitting your sin and feeling bad about it.  Repentance is about bearing fruit.  You may have heard sermons in the past that “repentance” literally means “turn,” and that true repentance is turning away from sinful behaviors.  And that’s true.  But the repentance God wants isn’t just any old change, any old turn.  It’s not just about rejecting sin, it’s about turning towards something good.  Towards the beginning of Luke, John the Baptist tells people to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  And here, Jesus immediately connects talk of sin and punishment and repentance to the parable of the fig tree that doesn’t produce.  It’s root-bound, in poor soil, and without enough water, and so it does not bear fruit.  And the gardener says, instead of cutting it down, let’s fix the problems and heal it and see if it bears fruit then.  And if it doesn’t bear fruit even after that … then comes the judgment.  Repentance, here, is not about the tree apologizing for not bearing fruit; repentance is the gardener working to get the tree to bear fruit.  The fruits of the Spirit, the fruits God is calling us to bear, are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the things that we need.  These are the things the world so desperately needs.  These are the things we are called to produce and bear into the world.

So what are the things we need to do to bear fruit?  What are the ways that our soil needs to be prepared, and the soil of our community?  Where are the places in us or our community that need fertilizer or water, or weeds removed?  May God so garden in our souls that we may bear fruit worthy of repentance, and may we help others bear such fruit also.

Amen.

It’s About Trust

Lent 1, Year C, March 20, 2019

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-13

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

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

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

Ever since paganism died out in the West, most Christians have not really paid attention to the First Commandment, “you shall have no other gods besides me.”  After all, there aren’t exactly any temples to Ba’al or Zeus or whoever around.  If you’re going to worship, the main choice is which branch of Christianity you’re going to follow.  But Martin Luther didn’t think that first commandment was obsolete.  On the contrary, Martin Luther saw idolatry everywhere.  Luther put it this way: whatever you say on Sunday morning during worship, your true God is the thing in which you put your trust.  The thing you rely on to keep things going well, the thing you look to to get you out of any problems.  And for a lot of people, even for devout Christians, we may say we trust God, but we don’t necessarily actually do that.  We put our trust in ourselves, our money, our political ideology, our leaders, in a lot of things, but not in God.  We focus so hard on the things we are doing, the things we can affect, that we don’t always see the other things around us that go into making our efforts possible.

Say you have a group of people go to play Monopoly together.  And one of them—decided at random—has different rules than the rest.  Rules that make the game much easier.  They start with more money and collect twice as much money when passing Go, for example, and get out of jail freely every time.  Chances are, they’re going to win.  Not because they’re such awesome players, but because the rules are slanted in their favor.  But if you ask them why they won, what factors contributed, nine times out of ten they start talking about what a great player they are: how they made sure to buy up all the real estate they could get their hands on, for example, and managed to avoid having to mortgage anything.  Even when it’s perfectly obvious that they won because the rules were slanted in their favor, they won’t notice it, trusting instead in their own abilities and talents.

Which is why, in our lesson from Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites to remember just where their harvest comes from every year.  First of all, the land is not theirs.  The land—all of creation—belongs to God.  God lets them use it, but it’s God’s land.  Their ancestors were nomads, people with no land and few possessions.  Then they became slaves in Egypt, which was pretty horrible.  The only reason they escaped was because God heard their cry and freed them.  And then God brought them to a land where they could live and farm and become prosperous.  I’m sure that especially after the first generation or so, when there was nobody left who remembered anything other than living in the Promised Land, it was tempting to believe that they had that land because they had earned it, because they were strong enough to defend it from other tribes, because they deserved it.  I’m sure it was tempting to believe that the crops they grew and the wealth they amassed were because of their own hard work, because they were good farmers.  I bet it was hard to remember that without the seed and sun and rain, their hard work would be absolutely useless.  I bet it was even harder to remember that the only reason they were able to do that hard work in the first place was because God gave them healthy bodies.

And that’s why they had a whole litany to remind them just where all the good things came from, and how much they depended on God’s good gifts.  Even when they had nothing, they had God.  When they were slaves, used and abused so that others might grow wealthy, God was with them.  It was God who saved them, it was God who brought them to their new homeland, and in their new prosperity there, it was still God who gave them every good thing they had.  Their lives, their health, their land, the sun and rain—everything was a gift from God.  Their own hard work mattered, but it was only a tiny part of the reason for the good things in their lives.  But that’s hard to remember when everything’s going well.  We blame God when things go wrong, but seldom give credit when they go right.  I don’t believe that God causes all the things that go wrong—for example, there’s no hint that the Israelites time of slavery was any sort of punishment; in the Bible, it’s not something God wanted, it happened because of Pharaoh’s fears and greed.  And even though everything was going wrong the Israelites were terribly oppressed, God was with them and God heard their cry and freed them.  God didn’t cause the evil that befell them, but God saved them from it and brought them to a place where they could grow and prosper and gave them every good thing they had.  They needed to remember that.  They needed to put their trust in God, rather than in themselves or their kings or their land or anything else.

Then we come to our Gospel reading.  When I was a kid, the story of Jesus’ temptation confused me.  Not the temptations to power in exchange for worshipping the Devil; the bit about food.  Because God wants people to be fed!  God spends a lot of time, in the Old and New Testaments, providing food for people through various miracles!  We as Christians are supposed to feed hungry people as part of our ministry.  That’s why we have food pantries and things, that’s why there are so many Christian ministries that provide food.  Jesus was hungry, and God doesn’t want people to go hungry.  So what would have been the problem with turning those stones into bread?

But the problem is, who was asking Jesus to do that?  The devil.  If Jesus had done it, he would not have been trusting God to provide for his needs.  He would have been listening to the voice that says “well, you know, the consequences of doing something wrong won’t be that bad.  After all, your goal is a good one, and what can it hurt?  Jesus would have been putting his trust in that voice, and not in his Father who was with him, supporting him and providing for him in good times and bad.  And we do that too, you know?  We have something we need, or that we think we need, and the only way we think we can get it, well, it’s not what we should be doing, but it’s not that bad, is it?  And so we do things that we think are small, but the whole point is that we’re not trusting God.  We’re not trusting God to provide, and both as individuals and as communities we go for expediency, the easy way, instead of doing the right thing.  Instead of doing the right thing and trusting that God will be with us even if there are consequences, we do things we shouldn’t—or we don’t do the things we should, because we put our faith in our own abilities instead.  Or we put our trust in our money, in our political parties, or in our leaders and bosses, or anywhere other than where it should be.

Where do we put our trust?  What is our god?  Is our trust in the Lord our God whom we come here to worship on Sunday?  Or is our trust in ourselves, or in our money, or in all the other things in the world that come to us and say “hey, I can solve all your problems, if you’ll just put me first.”

May we always put our trust and hope in the Lord where it belongs.

Amen.