What It Means To Be The Body: On Sex, Ethics, and Community

Second Sunday of Epiphany, Year B, January 14, 2018

1 Samuel 3:1-10, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, John 1:43-51

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

 

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

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

When Christians in America today talk about sex, we tend to talk about it in terms of individual moral behavior.  And we also tend to talk about sex from the perspective of sex being inherently bad or shameful unless it’s done the right way.  The problem with talking about it as an individual moral issue is that the Bible says very little about individual moral issues, focusing instead on the ethics of the community as a whole.  So, for example, in our lesson from Corinthians, Paul is not speaking to individuals but to the whole Corinthian community.  We know this because Greek language is different when you’re talking to one person or to a group.  And the problem with talking about sex as if it’s inherently bad or shameful is that what the Bible has to say about sex is a lot more complicated than can fit into the standard purity jargon.  And I think it’s important to think about this a little bit more deeply in a time when sex scandals are in the news.  So let’s look at our reading from Corinthians.

Before we talk about sex, though, we have to talk about community in Christ Jesus.  Because that community of all believers is, for Paul, the absolute bedrock foundation for morality.  All Christians are members of the Body of Christ, a metaphor Paul uses repeatedly throughout his writings, and especially in his letters to the Corinthians.  We are members, one of another.  Nobody can stand alone, and how we act affects others.  If our actions hurt others, they are bad.  If our actions build up the body, make it stronger or more unified or more healthy, they are good.  We don’t have to worry about our eternal salvation because Jesus has forgiven and freed us from our sins.  Therefore, we are free to pay attention to how our behavior affects our brothers and sisters in the here and now.  If we hurt one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we abuse one another, we hurt the body of Christ.  If we ignore the needs of others for our own selfish gain, we hurt the body of Christ.  And Paul explicitly addresses this message to the stronger, more powerful members of the community.  The more power you have, the stronger your faith is, the greater your responsibility to take care of the weaker, poorer, more marginalized members of the community.

Paul’s morals have nothing to do with legalism, and everything to do with relationship.  It doesn’t matter whether something is legal or not.  It doesn’t matter whether something is normal or not.  If it hurts people, especially if it hurts your brothers and sisters in Christ, you shouldn’t do it.  And if there are people in the community who are more vulnerable than you are, it is your job to look out for them, as it is the job of the whole community.  There’s an exchange from a book by Terry Pratchett that describes it well: “Sin, young man, is when you treat people like things,” said Granny Weatherwax.  “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes—” said the young man.  “But they starts with thinking about people as things,” Granny responds.  I think Paul would agree.  If you think about people as things—as commodities, as obstacles, as enemies, as burdens, as freaks—it’s a lot easier to hurt them.  Because their needs and wishes and feelings are irrelevant, because they’re not really people.  They don’t matter.  But when you see people as siblings in Christ, instead, as members of the same body of which you yourself are a part, you act differently.

What does this have to do with sex?  Well, everything.  If you start with the assumption that other people are objects for your gratification, then prostitution, sexual harassment, and sexual assault become no big deal.  If other people are there for your gratification, if they’re not really people, or at least not people worth caring about, then their wishes don’t matter and you can use and abuse them without a second thought.  Instead of a mutual intimacy to build a relationship, sex becomes a means of domination.  It becomes selfish and ugly, instead of a God-given gift.

In Paul’s day, prostitution was both legal and commonplace.  In Corinth, people would hire prostitutes for their parties as a matter of course.  Nobody thought much about it.  Paul’s objection to prostitution was not that sex is inherently sinful.  No, Paul’s objection to prostitution is what it does to the body, the Body of Christ.  Say you were a Corinthian man, and you went to a party for your guild, and there were a bunch of prostitutes there for anyone who wanted one.  They’re party favors.  And it’s legal, and it’s fun, and everyone else is doing it, so why not?  But in order to use a prostitute, you have to think of them as a commodity to be bought and sold, objects who exist for your personal gratification.  You have to think of sex as a commodity to be bought and sold.  So then you leave the party, and go back to your house.  But you bring that attitude, that mindset with you; it lingers.  The idea that women exist for your gratification, as commodities, instead of as people.  It would affect the whole body of Christ, because it would affect how you thought of, spoke to, and treated the other women you knew.  And that sort of thinking, that other people are not really people, it spreads.  Pretty soon, it’s not just women.  It’s men with less social or economic standing.  It’s people of a different race or culture.  It’s anyone who’s inconvenient.  And thinking leads to actions, to all kinds of mistreatment.  Once you stop thinking of people as people, any kind of mistreatment becomes justifiable.  It affects you and everyone around you.  It damages the body of Christ.

Prostitution isn’t legal today, but it exists right here in North Dakota.  Girls and boys are kidnapped, raped, sold, beaten, and kept moving around to prevent them from finding help.  It happens because some people think the pain and degradation of those young people is less important than the money to be made from them, or than their own gratification.  Prostitution continues because there are too many people who don’t care who gets hurt as long as they get pleasure or profit.  And it’s not the only sin or injustice that begins that way.  When something bad happens, when people hear about someone doing something terrible, they often come to me and ask how someone could do something like that.  And the answer is, because they don’t see other people as people.  They don’t see other people as children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ.  They see them as things, as commodities, as obstacles.

Then we turn to the revelations of sexual harassment that have been so public in the last few months.  Here, too, is sexual misconduct that stems from treating people like things.  And it’s not just Hollywood, or politics, or something that happens to a certain kind of women.  There are far more cases than will ever be reported in the news, simply because most of the victims and perpetrators aren’t powerful enough or well-known enough for people to care about.  I was in middle school the first time a pickup truck full of college boys yelled sexual things at me.  These sorts of things aren’t new.  I’ve seen a lot of people wondering why it happens, and how to stop it, and what are the right punishments for it, and what consequences for it are too much and what consequences are too little, and what about men who might say things they shouldn’t but don’t know it’s wrong?

This is actually something psychologists and sociologists have been studying since the 70s.  In the vast majority of cases, the men who do things like this know perfectly well where the line is, they just don’t care.  Or, if they don’t know where the line is, it’s because they don’t want to know.  They don’t care about where the line is because they don’t care about their victim as a person; all they see is something they can use for their own pleasure.  When harassers claim that they didn’t know any better, it’s a lie because either they did know better, or they chose not to know better.  They chose not to see anything but their own personal gratification.

So how do we as Christians respond to all of this?  How should we respond?  Obviously, we should condemn the behaviors that hurt and injure people or take advantage of them, whether in a sexual sense or any other.  But I think we need to go back to the basics, to the foundation of Christian ethics.  And that foundation is the knowledge that we are all members of the body of Christ, that we are all children of God, created by him, named by him, and claimed by him.  We are, each and every one of us, fearfully and wonderfully made by a God who loves us and all of creation.  From the least of us to the greatest, every human being is a person who matters, a person for whom Christ died.  When we forget that, we leave ourselves and our world open for all kinds of evil.  When we remember that, everything else falls into place.  May we always remember that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, and one body together, and may that knowledge guide our thoughts and actions.

Amen.

Advertisements

Those Weird, Wacky Wise Men

Epiphany, Year B, January 7, 2018

Isaiah 60:1-6, Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

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

 

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

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

Have you ever noticed just how weird the story of the Three Wise Men is?  It is seriously strange.  Let’s start with the so-called ‘wise men’ themselves.  There’s a lot of folklore about them, but the Bible actually tells us very little.  It doesn’t even tell us how many there were.  We assume there were three because they brought three gifts, but there could have been two or ten or a hundred.  And they weren’t kings, they were magi—a word which could describe anything from street magicians to court entertainers to astrologers.  And it’s worth noting that every other time someone is described as “magi” in the Bible, it’s not a compliment.  Magi are hucksters, manipulators, people who use unearthly powers—or claims of unearthly powers—to manipulate people and cheat them out of money.  They don’t tend to respond well to the power of God in Christ Jesus, which they usually regard either as a threat or a way to prop up their own act.  That’s the case every time magi show up in the Bible—except for here, when they come seeking Jesus, and worship him.

These guys were probably astrologers, not street magicians, because no street magician could have afforded the gifts they brought, and because they were watching the stars.  Somehow, they have figured out from watching the skies that a new Jewish king has been born, and they come to Jerusalem figuring that the palace of the king is the right place to find him.  Except King Herod hasn’t had a child or grandchild born recently.  So Herod is both surprised and dismayed.  (Also, I would point out that while we tend to assume that the magi were following a single extraordinarily bright star, if that were the case, surely SOMEONE else in all of Judea would have noticed it and Herod wouldn’t have been caught by surprise, which is why I tend to think they saw a conjunction of stars or a comet or something that they interpreted to have symbolic meaning.  But it doesn’t really matter, in the end.  They saw something, and it brought them to Herod, and, eventually, to the young Jesus and his family.)

Anyway, when the magi appear, Herod calls up the Temple and asks them where the promised king given by God was supposed to show up—not because he wants to worship him or give up his throne but because he wants to kill his rival.  The magi take the information, and that plus the star leads them right to the house where the baby Jesus and his mother Mary and stepfather Joseph are living.  (If you’re wondering what happened to the inn, the magi didn’t show up the night of Jesus birth, but some time later, possibly not until Jesus was around two years old.)  They were living in a house by this point, but it couldn’t have been a very nice house because they were fairly poor.  And on finding this small, poor house, inhabited by peasants, completely the opposite of what they thought they were seeking, the magi are overjoyed!  (Which may be the strangest part of the whole story.  Think about it: how often are you overjoyed to find out you’re completely wrong?)  They come in and paid homage to Jesus—they may have worshipped him, or they may knelt and kissed his feet as some countries required when people met their king, the Bible is unclear.  They open their treasure chests and bring out fine, costly gifts worth a king’s ransom.  And then they leave.  And nobody ever hears anything about them ever again.

Imagine you are Mary and Joseph.  While Jesus’ birth was kind of wild—in a stable, with shepherds and angels coming to see the baby—you’ve had some time to get into your new routine.  You have a house, presumably a job, you’re getting used to being parents.  Then, one day, out of the blue, a group of weird foreigners show up with gifts worth a king’s ransom.  They don’t speak your language, they don’t look like you or dress like you, and they are pagans who worship other gods and practice magic.  They say they got here by following a star.  Now, God has never used astrology.  Sometimes the stars respond to things God does, but God doesn’t use stars to communicate with humans, and the actions of the stars don’t control human destiny.  Astrology is something humans make up, just like every idol in the world.  Yet somehow God has used the stars to draw these foreign weirdos to his son—your son.  They kneel before the baby, like a person would kneel before their king, and then they give you the gifts, and then they leave as suddenly as they arrived and you never hear from them again.  Bet they told that story around the dinner table a lot.

I wonder why the magi came.  They weren’t looking for a religious revelation; if they were, they would have asked for Jesus in the Temple, not in a palace.  They were looking for a new political leader, which is why they went to Herod in the first place.  But Judea was a backwater.  An insignificant territory of the great Roman Empire, which maintained its own king only so long as that king spent enough time and money sucking up to the Roman Emperor.  To most of the world, which person was King of Israel was pretty irrelevant.  The neighboring kingdoms and provinces might send a small gift and congratulations on hearing a new prince was born, but nobody else would bother.  And the magi probably weren’t sent by one of the neighboring kingdoms, because they would have said so.  Given the mercenary nature of most magi in the Bible, I wonder if they intended their journey as a sort of job hunt.  “Hey, see how good we are at astrology, we learned that you had an heir born through the stars!”  And then they show up and the king hasn’t had a child or grandchild born after all—how embarrassing to be wrong.  There’s no way to know why they went to find the new king whose birth they saw heralded in the stars, but come they did.  And they didn’t let getting things wrong the first time discourage them, either; they went on to Bethlehem where Jesus actually was.

They get to Bethlehem and what they find is nothing like they were expecting.  Instead of riches, they find poverty.  Instead of power, they find weakness.  And instead of politics, they find the son of God, who will bring light to the whole world.  What they found was the opposite of what they thought they were looking for … and yet they were overjoyed.  Think about your own life.  I’m sure there have been times when you have gone looking for one thing and found something completely different instead.  I’m sure there have been times when you realized that you were absolutely, completely, and totally wrong about something big.  It happens to all of us sooner or later.  But very few of us react with joy to learning that we’re wrong.  Even if we learn something better, even if it’s a positive change, we find some reason to be upset about it.  Shame of being wrong, or fear of the unknown, or resentment at looking foolish—we find some reason to be mad.  But when the magi found out they were wrong—when they found out God had been leading them somewhere stranger and better than they had imagined—they were overjoyed.  They kept following even when they weren’t sure where they were going, and they rejoiced when God led them someplace new.

I think there’s something to be learned from that.  God does new things.  God does things we’re not expecting, things we could never have imagined.  God has plans for us and for the world that we’re not aware of.  And sometimes, while we’re headed off to do our own thing, God radically redirects us to someplace new.  Even when we think we know what’s going on, and even when we think we’re going where God wants us to go, we may be wrong.  We may be clueless.  We may be headed somewhere else entirely.  And when God shows up in our lives to put us on a new path or reveal things to us that we don’t expect, we should respond to it with joy, and adjust our plans accordingly, instead of trying to force things back to the way we think they should be going.  Even if it means admitting we were wrong.  And that light they followed is here, with us; even on the darkest night, even when shadows creep in, that light continues to guide.  Even when we it takes us places we wouldn’t have imagined.

And the other thing to remember about this story is that all people are God’s people.  The magi were foreigners.  We don’t know who they were or where they were from, but we do know they were from someplace far away.  Throughout the Old Testament, in many places such as our first reading today, God promises that his light will shine for all people, and all people will come.  Not just those who already know him, not just the people already gathered around his table, but all people of every tribe and race and nation.  The magi were the first example of that promise being fulfilled in Christ Jesus, but they weren’t the last.  We are here today because that light they followed kept spreading throughout not just Judea, but throughout all lands, just as it keeps spreading today.  Mary and Joseph were probably surprised by those weird foreigners, but they accepted them as people sent by God.  May we also follow the light of God as the magi did, and accept those whom God’s light brings to us, as Mary and Joseph did.

Amen.

What Kind of Savior?

Christmas Eve, 2017

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

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

 

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

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

I have a confession to make.  This year, I have not found it easy to get into the Christmas spirit.  I have spent a lot of time wondering what difference it makes that Jesus was born, in this world in which so many terrible things have happened.  This year, I have not enjoyed the candle-light that comes with Advent and Christmas.  The light in the darkness imagery, which I usually find powerful, has been corrupted by current events.  Specifically, Charlottesville, and the Nazis who paraded down its streets one night, carrying torches and calling for the murder of anyone they didn’t like.  Those torches brought light, but only so that they could cast deeper shadows.  Which then begs the question: what kind of light are we waiting for?  What is the light that shines in the darkness, bringing good news?  Which brings up another question: what kind of savior are we waiting for?  What kind of savior is this baby Jesus, born in a manger two thousand years ago?  Which leads to the final question: what difference does it all make?  What does it matter, to you or to me or to anyone, that two thousand years ago a poor Jewish baby named Jesus was born in a backwater village, grew up, lived for about thirty years, before being executed for treason and blasphemy?

There’s all kinds of light, and there’s all kinds of saviors.  If you had asked most Roman citizens in the year that Jesus was born if they needed a savior, they would have said they already had one.  Emperor Augustus was the ‘savior’ of the Roman Empire.  That was his official title.  They put it on all the money.  He saved them from disorder by seizing control and turning the Republic into a dictatorship.  He saved them from war by brutally putting down Rome’s enemies so that none of them would dare oppose him again.  He was the biggest, the best, the most powerful, and so he won control of everything, and ‘right’ and ‘good’ and ‘truth’ were whatever he said they were.  If you were one of his supporters, life was pretty good.  If you weren’t, however, or if you just happened to be one of the masses of people he didn’t care about one way or another, life got worse.  Emperor Augustus brought light to some people by making the world darker for others.  He saved some people by hurting others.

All too often, that’s what the world thinks light and salvation are supposed to look like.  And when you are scared, or upset, or hurting, or angry, or proud and someone promises you that they will fix all your problems for you, it’s very easy to go along with it.  To say that if a good life for me and my people means that other people have to get clobbered and hurt, well, it’s worth it.  To say that the power to hurt and control others is what makes a person or a nation great.  To go through life with your fists up, expecting the worst, assuming that anybody who isn’t your family or tribe is out to get you and you’ve got to get them first.  To look for the kind of light that you can control and use as a weapon, the kind of safety that’s rooted in hurting others before they can hurt you.  And it seems like a lot of people are looking for that kind of light and salvation.  We’ve all seen it, in the rhetoric of politicians, in rants on facebook, in the torches and online mobs of white supremacists.

But the light that God gives is not a weapon, and it’s not something we can control, and God did not create us to treat the rest of God’s creation like enemies, and God’s salvation is not based on hurting others before they get a chance to do it to you.  God’s salvation is not about temporary safety from people we hate or fear.  God’s salvation is about creating a world where hate and fear are gone, permanently, a world where all people—even those we believe are our enemies—have a good and safe and happy place.

God’s light is Jesus Christ, who lived and died without a scrap of earthly power to his name.  He was born a poor child in the middle of nowhere, member of a race that’s spent most of its existence getting pushed around by just about everybody.  He was born in a stable, and while angels heralded his birth, the only humans who took any note were poor shepherds and weird foreigners called magi.  And that baby, that savior grew up, but he didn’t grow up with power to rival the self-professed savior of the world, Emperor Augustus.  Jesus the savior grew up with quite a different power, a different salvation.  A power that’s about healing and justice for all people, not just those on top of the heap.

Listen to the words of Isaiah: all the boots of the tramping warriors, all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  All the trappings of violence and hate, all the weapons of oppression, will be destroyed.  There will simply be no place for them in God’s kingdom.  All people will be free, from whatever holds them captive: freed from unjust laws and bullies and abusers, but also freed from fear and greed and hate.  That’s the salvation that Jesus brings.  A world where nobody walks around with their fists up to fight with, but with their arms open to embrace with.  And the light he brings is a light for all people who live in darkness.  It’s a light that obliterates the shadows, instead of making them loom larger.  It’s a light that brings joy for all people—not just the chosen few, but for all of creation, all humans and animals and rocks and plants and stars.

That’s the kind of light and salvation that Jesus brings.  It’s not just for a few people, it’s for everybody.  And while the fullness of that light will not be seen until Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we as Christians live in response to it.  We can’t control the world, but we are called to let Christ shape our response to it.  We are called to live in the light of that future reality, to live as people who walk in light and not in darkness, people who have seen the salvation of God.  We are called to live as people who know that the baby Jesus, born in a manger, has made and is making a real difference in the world and will continue to do so.

The world has a lot of darkness in it, and there are some people who want to make that darkness deeper, or who think that light and salvation and safety belong only to themselves.  But we are called to spread the light to all people who walk in darkness.  We are called to open our arms to embrace all of God’s children in love, as Mary and Joseph embraced their baby boy, as Jesus himself embraced all people who came to him.  We are called to live lives of joy, knowing that God has given us light and salvation.  We are called to remember that Christ is here, with us, now, this night and every moment of our lives, and that Christ is at work in us and through us even when the world seems darkest.

May we always follow the true light of Christ, and may that light shine forth for all the world.

Amen.

Witnessing

As part of my sermon preparation every week, I listen to a couple of podcasts on the scripture lessons assigned to the upcoming Sunday.  One of them, Pulpit Fiction, really caught my attention this week.

Their musings on what it means to “testify” in the Gospel reading from John 1 (around the 28 minute mark) really struck a chord from me. As a Lutheran, I, too, come from a religious tradition where people just don’t testify. We talk about God in the abstract, or in the general, or in the Biblical sense, but rarely in the personal sense.  The answer to the question “Can I get a witness?” if ever asked in any congregation I’ve belonged to would most often be a resounding “NO.”

When I was applying for entrance into candidacy (in other words, asking my synod to allow me to start the process of training to become a minister), one of things I had to do was write a six-page essay about my personal faith journey. Nothing fancy, just six pages about my experience of God in my life, and how I responded to it. I should say, at this point, that I am a writer; it’s always been a hobby of mine. I do it for fun. I’ve written novels, poems, short stories, you name it, I’ve done it–and had done it by that point in my life. And my undergrad degree is in history, with a minor in English; I’d written many longer essays.

Those six pages were, by far, the hardest thing I’d ever written. I was reduced to tears many times. I grumbled about it to my family, until my parents pointed out that as a pastor, my JOB would be to teach people about Jesus and lead them to stronger relationships with him, and that if I couldn’t talk about my own journey along that path, I was going to run into serious trouble. Eventually, I got it done, and thanked God as I sent it off that it was over.

But why was it so hard? What was the issue, the block, the underlying problem? The simplest layer was simply inexperience; as I said, I come from a tradition that (while it does many other things very well) simply doesn’t do a good job of witnessing. I’d seldom seen my elders or peers in the faith witness to their own experience of God, and when I had it was people from other traditions, whose perspectives and experiences were so different that I could not fit my own understanding into it.  I had no model to use as a baseline or guide.

But I think a lot of it has to do with fear of vulnerability. My experiences of God’s presence are times when my soul has been touched, times when things have happened to me that I can’t ever really put into words. They are personal, in the most deeply intimate way possible. I was writing for an audience of Christians, of course, who were predisposed to believe me, which helped. (I certainly could not have written that essay for an audience of skeptics!) But I knew they were going to be judging me on it, just the same. And judging me, not just my interpretation of a Bible passage or something like that. It’s hard, at an time, to talk about something so personal as your own experiences of God.  But for the first time I really seriously did it be for an essay to people I mostly didn’t know, who would then decide my future partly on their impressions of that essay–that was excruciating.

Witnessing or testifying to our experiences of God is difficult and intimate, but at the same time it’s part of our calling from God as Christians.  It’s not something that just belongs to formally-trained ministers, but to all who believe and are baptized.  And yet I know I haven’t done a very good job of it since becoming a pastor myself, either in my own witnessing or in teaching others to witness.  The two are very connected; how can I ask my people to do something I am not comfortable with?  But how can any of us get more comfortable with doing it–with sharing the stories of our faith, with sharing what God has done for us–not just in Bible stories, but in our own lives and experiences–without just buckling down and doing it?

First Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 3, 2017

Isaiah 64:1-9, Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37

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

 

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

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

Ah, December.  That wonderful time of the year when churches and homes are decorated with beautiful nativities and pictures of baby Jesus … and in worship we read about the end of the world.  Like in our Gospel reading, where Jesus talks about the day when he will return in power and glory, and our first reading, when the Israelites call for God to come to earth and renew them, showing his power in earthquake and fire and storm.  It seems an odd juxtaposition, contrasting sweet baby Jesus with apocalyptic readings, but it’s actually on purpose.  You see, December is a time of waiting.  We are waiting for Christmas to come; we are waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem … but we have to always remember who we are waiting for.  The beautiful baby that is the center of so many sentimental songs and Christmas cards and nativity sets is also the one who sacrificed himself on a cross for the redemption and renewal of the world, and he is also the one who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

It’s all too easy, in this season of parties and homecomings and sentimentality, to trivialize Jesus, to sentimentalize him into a warm fuzzy “oh, wouldn’t it be nice if everyone got along over the holidays.”  Yes, it would be nice; but Jesus did not and does not come for a superficial niceness and getting along with one another.  Jesus comes for something deeper, something better.  The peace that Jesus brings requires that all the root causes of injustice and harm be ripped out and done away with.  This peace is not just a truce; this peace requires us to face the deepest, darkest parts of ourselves and our world and acknowledge all the hurt we have done to ourselves, our world, and our neighbors, because only then can true healing begin.  Jesus came to bring love; but not the kind of superficial love that pastes a smile over deep disagreements and old hurts.  Jesus came to bring the kind of love that is open and honest even about the unpleasant things, and that works to heal brokenness and bring new growth, better growth.  That’s what Jesus was born to do; that’s what the judgment that he is coming again to bring will do again, finishing what he started in his death and resurrection.

And there are a lot of things in us and in our world that just aren’t compatible with that kind of love and peace and justice.  Stony ground is going to have to get the rocks picked out.  Hard ground is going to have to be tilled up.  Weeds are going to have to be pulled.  Dead branches pruned.  Ways of life and ways of thinking and ways of doing business that add to the pain and hurt in the world are going to have to end.  The world as we know it, ourselves as we currently are … there’s just too much selfishness and greed and hate.  That’s all going to have to end.  And it will.  There will be a new heaven, and a new earth, and we shall all be changed.  We need to be ready, and waiting, for that change to come.

But the literal-end-of-this-world-and-beginning-of-the-next isn’t the only kind of world ending we need to be alert for.  Worlds end all the time, in good ways and bad ones.  When somebody’s life crumbles, they lose their job and their spouse divorces them and everything they worked for and counted on crumbles to ashes, that’s the end of their world.  When a child who’s been passed around the foster system for years gets adopted and a fresh start with a family that loves and supports them and helps them heal and grow, that’s the end of the world as that child knew it.  And sure, a better one is coming, but it’s still the end of everything they know.  Peoples’ worlds end all the time.  And there’s a lot of pain and grief involved in it.  But even in the pain and grief, God can do a new thing.

Our first reading from Isaiah comes from a people who know about the world ending.  The people of Israel and Judah had spent centuries giving lip service to God while building unjust and idolatrous societies.  They had ignored the words God sent to the prophets warning them to reform their ways.  So God had stepped aside and allowed their enemies to conquer them, and lead them off into captivity.  When that happened, their world ended.  Everything they knew or loved was gone.  After a few decades of slavery in Babylon, God allowed them to return—and coming back to their ancestors homes, they found that there were strangers living there and all the buildings and roads and cities lay in ruins.  They were free, and home, but rebuilding was a massive task.  Their parents’ world had ended when the Babylonians captured them; their world had ended when the captivity ended and they returned to a ruined homeland they had never seen before.  This reading comes from the third part of Isaiah, as the prophet comforts and guides people whose world has ended twice in as many generations.

They long for God to come.  They long for God to make God’s power known in earthquakes and fire, something that nobody can mistake.  They long for God to take all the pain and misery and transform it, to take all the broken things and make them whole.  They know that even as screwed up as things are, God can and will make all things new.

But they look for this promised day of the Lord with clear and open eyes.  They know that they themselves will have to face a reckoning, that at least some of their problems are caused by their own bad behavior, their own selfishness, their own iniquity.  They know that they will have to change; that God’s presence will change them and mold them into something better as a potter’s hands mold formless clay into beautiful and useful pottery.

They know that God was with them generations ago, before they were exiled to Babylon.  They know that God was with them while they were captives in Babylon.  And now that they are home from captivity, God is still with them.  And they know that if they turn to God, God can and will save them; God’s power will re-make them, and their world, better than they ever could on their own.  They don’t know when God is coming, but they know he is acting, and they long for his presence.  They know that even though it will require change on their part, that that change is a good thing.  They are not sitting in their sins and pretending they’re doing well.  They are open and clear-eyed.

That’s a hard thing to do.  It’s not easy to live with one eye peeled for God’s presence and coming.  It’s not easy to acknowledge the things in ourselves that need to be mended and healed, the ways in which we hurt ourselves and others.  It’s so much easier to accept everything in us and in our world as normal and just the way things are.  It’s certainly a lot more comfortable!  To just go with the flow, do what everyone else is doing.  It doesn’t take much thought, and it doesn’t take any soul-searching.  You can sit there like a bump on a log and you don’t have to think about anything hard.  Or maybe you know things should be different, but shaking your head and making disapproving noises is all that’s required to salve your conscience.  It’s simple, it’s easy.  It doesn’t require you to take any risks.  It doesn’t require you to change.

We were not created by God our father to sit there like bumps on a log.  We weren’t given eyes to see so that we could turn them away from the dark places in ourselves and in our world that need God’s light.  We weren’t given brains to think so that we could just go along with whatever the world around us wants of us.  We were created to love one another—true and deep love that acknowledges pain and hurt and works towards healing and new growth.  We were created to help one another, to work for a God’s kingdom.  And we can’t do that if we’re not paying attention, if we’re not looking for things in ourselves and in our world that need to be changed, and we certainly can’t do it if we’re not looking for the places God is working in us and the ways God’s kingdom is breaking into our midst.

We are flawed, imperfect people, who live in a world broken by sin and death.  We need God’s presence and God’s guidance to see the way the world should be.  We fall short of the good people God created us to be, which is why we wait in hope for the day Christ will come again to make all things new.  We can’t make the perfect world of God’s kingdom on our own; only God can do that.  But while we wait, we have work to do.  Work that begins with keeping awake.

Amen.

A Relational God

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017

Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12

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

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

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

In the ancient world, they had a very transactional view of God.  By which I mean, most cultures in the Ancient Near East, the cultures around the Holy Land, kind of thought of their gods as vending machines in the sky.  If you prayed the right prayers, sang the right songs, conducted the right rituals and festivals, and offered the right sacrifices, your god would be happy and would send you rain for your crops and protection from your enemies.  Perform the right rituals and you would be rewarded.  But if you neglected those rituals, your god would be angry, your crops would fail, your herds would die, and your enemies would triumph over you.  This should be fairly familiar to us, because lots of people in the modern world think of God as a vending machine in the sky, too.  Lots of Christians think that if you pray the right prayers, go to church often enough, and believe the right things, that God will reward you with material prosperity: wealth, health, whatever they want.

The problem with this idea is that God is not a transactional god, but a relational one.  That is, God does not base his actions on a kind of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours tit-for-tat sort of calculation, but rather on relationships.  God’s focus is not on measuring whether any one person is worthy of help or punishment, but on building relationships with all of God’s people.  God’s focus is on love, on grace, on helping us grow to be the good, generous, loving people God created us to be.

And not just individual relationships, either.  Modern society is very individualistic, which leads to a sort of “me and Jesus” focus where it’s all about your personal relationship with your Lord and Savior.  But when you look at God’s Word in the Bible, God is just as concerned with community relationships.  Community relationships as in God’s relationship with the whole community, yes, but also as in how people from different parts of the community treat one another.  Which, if you take the image of God as our Father seriously, makes perfect sense.  After all, think about it: doesn’t a loving and good parent care about how their children treat one another?  If a parent has several children, and one of them is bullying another, a good and loving parent will not be happy with the bully.  If one child is cheating another, a good and loving parent is going to be upset.  If one child is going hungry and another has more than enough but doesn’t share, a good and loving parent is going to have a serious problem with the child who doesn’t share.  Well, God is our good and loving parent, and God is the good and loving parent of each and every human being on the planet.  Even those who are not Christian were created by God in God’s own image.

You can see this concern for human relationships in many places in the Bible.  It’s in the way Jesus spent so much time with the poor, sick, outcasts, sinners, people society had rejected.  It’s in the way the laws of the Old Testament consistently focus on making sure that the people on the fringes of society didn’t get left behind or shut out.  The laws of God spend a lot of time specifying that every good thing applies not only to the VIPs but also to the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, the poor.  The Biblical laws also outline quite a lot of protections for those people, so that society can’t trample over them without noticing.  And you know how sometimes when someone’s been knocked off their feet financially, it’s so hard to get your life back together?  The Biblical laws have provisions to help with that, too.  The Biblical laws spend more time specifying protections and rights for people on the margins than they do on anything else.  You cannot follow the spirit of God’s laws if you focus on ritual and ignore the plight of poor people, foreigners, widows and orphans, and anyone else who suffers.  You just can’t.

Unfortunately, human beings are really good at self-justification, and by the 8th Century BC, the time of the prophet Micah and many of the other prophets, all of this had gotten lost.  Because it’s easier to pray the right prayers than it is to care about the wellbeing of those who are different from you.  And it’s cheaper to offer the right sacrifices in worship than it is to make sure that all of God’s people receive fair treatment by the law and by those with more wealth and power than them.  And it’s certainly simpler to think of God as a vending machine in the sky than it is to take seriously what a relationship with him and all his people means.  So they changed society to favor the rich and powerful, the ones who they thought “deserved” better treatment because after all, if you can tell how much God loves someone by how rich they are, then obviously God must not care about poor people.

So, there they were.  With a society that followed some of the letter of God’s law, but completely ignored it’s spirit, and a religious community that was zealous in making sure that every worship service was done extravagantly well, but ignored pretty much everything else God ever said.  And every year the poor got poorer, and life got harder for ordinary people because the laws and customs that were supposed to protect and support them were ignored and changed.  And the people in charge of everything—religious leaders and social leaders both—thought things were going great.  They thought they had a wonderful connection with God!  They thought that the way they treated the most vulnerable people in their society didn’t matter.

God had a much, much different perspective.  God thought things were going horribly.  God was like a parent who sees one of their children hurting another of their children and then expecting that their parent won’t care.  That’s why God sent a bunch of prophets—Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea—to try and change the hearts and minds of the people so that they would go back to the fair and good ways God intended for them.  And that’s where our first lesson for today comes in.  First, God condemns the religious leaders who say things are awesome because they’re comfortable, but attack and hurt people who are struggling to survive.  “Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.”  They’re all going to be disgraced.  They are all going to be publicly humiliated, and everyone is going to know that they’re hypocrites who are perverting God’s Word.

Then God turns the prophet Micah’s attention to the rest of society, and specifically to the leaders who keep changing the laws to tilt the playing field ever more in their own favor.  Because they are creating a society in which more and more people suffer, they are guilty of creating all that suffering.  When people starve to death, it’s their fault.  The blood of all those who died because of poverty and injustice are on their hands, and God is keeping track.  “9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!  …  12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.”  They have hurt other members of God’s family; they have consistently and repeatedly caused others to suffer and be trampled on for their own selfish gain.  And they’re going to pay for it.  God is not going to protect them from their enemies.  God is not going to be placated by offerings and sacrifices and prayers and any of the other things they offer God, because on a fundamental level what God wants most are good and life-giving relationships not just between God and humanity, but between God’s children.  And you cannot build a good relationship with people if you’re cheating them, abusing them, causing them to suffer, or even just ignoring their suffering.  You just can’t.

We keep forgetting this, though.  We keep thinking of God as a vending machine in the sky, who will give us what we want if we just pray the right prayers, believe the right things, or worship in a ‘spiritual’ enough way, or read our Bibles enough.  But if we believe, study, pray, and worship the right way and ignore the suffering of others, we’re hypocrites.  If we do all the religious stuff right but don’t work for a society that treats even the lowliest people fairly and well, we’re fulfilling the letter of the law but not the spirit of it.  And if we work on our personal relationship with God but neglect our relationships with the rest of God’s people, we’re missing half of what God calls us to be and do.  May we seek to be all that God created us to be, and work for a society where all God’s people receive the justice and mercy they need to flourish and grow.

Amen.

In Times of Trouble

All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

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

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

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

Revelation is quite possibly the most misunderstood book of the Bible.  It was the last book of the Bible to be written, and it was written during the time of the worst persecution of Christians.  And when I say persecution, I don’t mean the kind of thing a lot of modern American Christians think is persecution, being asked to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” or things like that.  The persecution of the early church was of quite a different nature.  People were killed for being Christian, if they happened to be in the wrong time or place.  If they were really unlucky, they might get tortured to death, or thrown into arenas filled with wild animals for the entertainment of their pagan neighbors.  And in this time of trial, when everything was as bad as it could possibly be, a mystic named John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation as a comfort for his people who were suffering and in grave danger.

Yes, comfort.  The book is violent, weird, gory, and pretty freaky, but it’s also a book dedicated to reminding all who read that God will win in the end.  Revelation does not sugar-coat anything.  It doesn’t try and sweep evil under the rug or downplay it or ignore it.  Revelation confronts evil head-on and shows it for what it is, but Revelation also insists that evil is only part of reality.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil there is in the world, no matter how much it looks like the devil is winning, we know how the story ends.  And it ends with the devil being cast down, the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of all people, and heaven coming down to earth as all things are made new.  It ends with the water of life, and the healing of the nations.  It ends with peace, and joy, and love.  And yes, our world can be violent, gory, and freaky, and there is evil here even in our own hearts, but we know how everything ends.  God wins.  Love wins.  Evil is destroyed forever.  That’s the end of the story.

The other thing that gets misunderstood about the book is that it’s not a road map.  It’s not a history of the future.  It is a vision, a dream, full of symbolism that doesn’t correspond to nice, neat, timeline that we can pin down and understand logically.  It’s kind of like an impressionist painting, which shows the emotion and essence of a scene but would be absolutely useless for identifying the people in it.  God didn’t give John of Patmos this vision to share as a textbook or map applying to only one series of events, but as a comfort in all times of trial, big and small.

Our first reading, today, is not from the end of the story, where the final victory and healing is.  It’s from the middle.  Specifically, it’s from the middle of the seals, a period full of earthquakes, pestilence, and death on a pale horse.  But before the seventh seal is opened and more earthquakes and blood and fire spring forth, God takes time to show us where the great multitude from every nation are, the faithful good people of every time and place, the ones who have died in the Lord.  And the thing is, even in the midst of all this violence and war and pestilence, they are safe.  They are with God.  Everything is literally going to hell around them, and yet they are with God.  Nothing can hurt them now, and nothing can grieve them, because God supplies everything they need and protects them from all the evil around them.  They are not safe because of any particular merit or strength on their own, but because God has claimed and sealed them as his own.

It’s kind of like the Beatitudes, in our Gospel reading.  Because the people Jesus says are blessed—they aren’t really the sort of people we tend to think are blessed.  Jesus has just been healing and teaching the most wretched people in that part of the world, the sick and injured and lame and poor and sinners and outcasts.  And now he’s telling his disciples that they are blessed.  The poor in spirit, the ones whose faith is small and who are plagued by doubt and pain and grief and depression?  God’s going to give them God’s kingdom.  The people who mourn, who have lost so much?  God will comfort them.  The meek, the ones who get pushed around and abused and trampled on and society doesn’t even notice they’re hurting?  They’re going to inherit the earth.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who see all the hypocrisy and self-serving callousness and all the evil in the world that we just take for granted as normal and ache for a day when things will change?  They’ll get the justice and mercy and righteousness they so desperately crave.  And on, and on.

Jesus keeps picking out people who the world sees as unfortunate, and saying that they are blessed.  It’s not hyperbole.  It’s not a metaphor.  It’s not just a case of “well, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a silver lining.”  The word translated here as “blessed” could also mean “highly honored.”  It doesn’t mean material wealth, as we so often reduce it to, or reward, or something nice happening to you.  It means that you are honored, that you are seen and valued.  Specifically, that you are seen and valued by God.

And these people—these people that the world does not see, or that the world sees but disregards—these people are seen by God.  And loved by God.  And God is present with them, no matter what.  Even in the midst of death and pain and grief, God is present.  God brings healing, and consolation, and justice, and mercy, and hope.

Do you remember a few weeks ago, in my sermon series on the Reformation, when I talked about a theology of the cross, which basically means that God chooses to show up in unlikely places?  God chooses to show up in the middle of pain, and loss, and darkness, so that those who suffer are never alone.  So we should be looking for God’s presence in places where people are suffering, places where people are poor in spirit, places where people hunger and thirst for righteousness because there is nothing but selfishness and injustice to be had.  God shows up there.  God blesses people trapped in those places.  Not because they are better than anyone else, or deserve it more, but because they need it more.

Most people have times in their lives where they are poor in spirit.  Most people have times in their lives when they grieve, and grieve deeply, the loss of someone they loved.  And if you don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness right now, well, you probably haven’t been paying much attention in the last year or so to national and international news.  There are people who have it worse, true, but suffering is not a competition.  And when you are in pain, when you are grieving, when everything around you is falling apart, the good news of God is twofold:

First, God sees you.  The God who formed you in your mother’s womb sees you and knows you and loves you and will never let you know.  You are not alone.  No matter what happens, even if the very worst anyone can imagine happens to you—even if things are worse than you could have imagined before—you are not alone.  And God is working in you to bring healing and strength and hope, and God is working in those around you to bring you a supportive community.  But even when those around you fail or fall short. God will not.

And second, this is not the end of the story.  There is grief, and pain, and injustice, and evil, in the world today.  There are horrifying things in the world today.  But they will not win in the end.  We know what happens.  They will be destroyed, and all things on heaven and earth will be made new, and the dead will be raised, and all people will be judged, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.  And there, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, there will only be peace, and joy, and love, and faithfulness.

Those who have died in the faith, all those centuries of Christians from the earliest days after Jesus to those who died just this last week, they are safe in God’s arms.  And someday we will join them.  And the day will come when we will all awaken, when we will be resurrected and made new, and judged, and healed, and join the great cloud of witnesses around God’s throne.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.