It’s About Change

Transfiguration, Year C, March 3, 2019

Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-43

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

 

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

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

When you hear the word “transfiguration,” how many of you think of Harry Potter?  I know I do.  For those of you who are not fans, transfiguration is one of the subjects taught at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  It is taught by Professor McGonigal, who is capable of changing herself into a cat whenever she wants to.  And on a daily basis, she teaches young wizards and witches how to transfigure things: to turn needles into matchsticks, and rats into teacups, and any object into any other object.  Transfiguration, you see, literally means to change shape.  Leaving aside the world of fantasy, to transfigure something is about making one thing into something else.  And not in little ways, either.  To transfigure something is to completely and radically alter it.  It’s about conversion.  It’s about transformation.

Today is the Sunday of the Transfiguration.  It is one of the minor festivals of the church year that we celebrate every year on the last Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday.  On this day, we remember the transfiguration of Jesus, when he went up on a hilltop with some of his disciples, and changed before their eyes into something heavenly, something glorious.  For a few brief minutes they saw him not only as their friend and a fellow human being, but also as the Son of God.  Two of the ancient Jewish heroes of the faith, Moses and Elijah, appeared with him and spoke with him.  And a voice from heaven repeated the words spoken at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son.  Listen to him!”  And then, things went back to normal, and Jesus and the disciples went back down the mountain, and Jesus began walking to Jerusalem to be crucified.

Jesus was transfigured before his disciples’ very eyes.  He lit up like a superhero in a movie.  It was the first time that the glory of God was revealed, not just in Jesus’ actions, but in his appearance.  Jesus’ nature did not change—he had always been God’s Son, fully human and fully divine—but that nature had been hidden.  There, on that mountain, for just a few brief moments, he was revealed for all to see.  The power of God wasn’t just something he could call on to heal people or feed people, it was a part of him.  What changed was that the disciples could see that, even if only for a short time.

But Jesus’ appearance wasn’t the only thing about him that had been transfigured.  His mission was transfigured, too.  This is the hinge point of Jesus’ story.  Before this, Jesus had been wandering around the area teaching and healing and feeding people and eating with them and welcoming them and, generally, doing ordinary ministry.  After this, Jesus’ face was set towards Jerusalem.  After this, Jesus started teaching his disciples about his coming sacrifice, suffering, and death.  Jesus didn’t stop teaching and healing and loving people along the way, but there was an urgency to it.  A sharper edge.  Jesus was getting ready to die to save the world: Jesus was getting ready to use his own suffering, death, and resurrection to begin the transfiguration of the whole world into the kingdom of God.

When you get right down to it, God’s work in the world is all about change.  It’s about bringing life to places where there is death.  It’s about bringing healing where there is woundedness.  It’s about bringing salvation to places where there is sin.  It’s about turning this world into God’s kingdom.  And none of that happens quickly or easily, and none of that will be complete until Christ comes again, but that is what we’re here for.  The church is not a social club.  The church is not here so that we have a place to have coffee and chat with our friends once a week.  It’s certainly not here just because we’ve always done it that way.  No.  The church is here so that we can worship God, and here God’s word, and be transformed by God’s presence in our lives, and sent out into the world as God’s people.  The church is the place where ordinary, sinful, conflicted and conflicting human beings are gathered into one and formed into the body of Christ.  God does not call us to remain mired in all the things that have shaped us—our society, our fears, our sins, and the words and actions of others.  God does not call us to conform to the ways of the world.  God calls us to be made new in Christ.  God calls us to be transfigured.

The problem is, most people … don’t really want to be transfigured.  We don’t want to be changed.  Even if we’re not happy with who we are, we’re used to it.  How many times have you seen someone stay in a bad situation or repeatedly make the same bad choices over and over again?  This is something that humans do a lot of.  We cling to what we’re used to even if it’s terrible, because then we know what to expect.  We want life to be predictable.  We want to feel that we have control.  Acknowledging that there are things outside our control—even God!—is scary.  Letting God start us on a journey we can’t see or imagine the end of is pretty dang unnerving.  Which is why we tend to respond in fear, or denial.  We pray for God to do the things we want, but we very rarely pray that God will change us according to God’s will.

When Moses spoke with God directly, God’s glory shone on and around him, and the people of Israel were afraid.  He had to cover his face so that they couldn’t see the visible manifestation of God’s power.  The people had promised to follow God’s commands and be God’s people.  They had promised to worship God and put God first; and yet they were still afraid of God’s power manifest in their midst.  And no matter how much the promised to love and serve God, they kept going astray.  They kept returning to old ways.  They kept hollowing out God’s words until they were following the letter but not the spirit.  They set up society the way they thought it should be, and told themselves they were following God’s will.  They kept turning away.  They did not want to be changed into the people God kept calling them to be.

But don’t be too harsh on them.  After all, the disciples were no better.  They heard Jesus’ teaching, and they saw his glory manifest on that mountain, and they did not understand.  They chose not to understand.  They wanted God’s power to fit neatly into their expectations.  They wanted God’s power to be something they could control.  They wanted God to turn the world into what they imagined, with themselves in positions of power.  And when Jesus tried to talk about his death, when he tried to talk about sacrifice and resurrection, they didn’t listen.  They told him to be quiet.  Peter and John and James saw Jesus transfigured before them, but they didn’t allow themselves to be changed by that awesome sight.  And, when at last Jesus was arrested and put on trial, they fled.  Peter denied Jesus altogether.  It took both the Resurrection and Pentecost to get them to truly follow Jesus out of what they were used to; and even then, they sometimes fell back into old habits instead of following where the Spirit led them.  There have been times in Christian history where a group of people, large or small, truly opened themselves up to whatever God might ask of them, and each time they accomplished amazing things.  They were transformed, and so was their community.  But it never lasts for long, before we slip back into our old, bad habits.

And think about us, here, today.  How many of us come to Christ to be transformed?  How many of us truly conform our hearts, minds, and lives to Christ?  All too often, even devout Christians come to church hoping for their opinions to be confirmed, rather than opening themselves up to the possibility of something new.  And this is true regardless of ethnicity, age, political ideology, gender, economics, or nationality.  We want Jesus in our lives as long as he has the same opinions we do and doesn’t ask us to do anything we don’t already want to do.

But what if we were willing to change?  What if we opened our hearts and minds to Christ and allowed him to transform us according to his will?  I don’t know what that would look like, but I bet it would lead to awesome, amazing, wonderful things.  May we be open to the transforming love of God, now and always.

Amen.

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Grace and the Golden Rule

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 24, 2019

Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40, 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50, Luke 6:27-38

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

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

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

Ah, the Golden Rule.  Treat other people the way you would want to be treated.  It’s such a basic idea that you find a version of it in most cultures and ethical systems.  This ethical teaching is practically universal.  Jesus’ commands to love one another, forgive, and not be judgmental are more unique to Christianity, and are fundamental to the Christian life.  They are the bedrock of how God calls us to live.  Because they are so foundational, we obviously understand what these precepts mean, and act accordingly, right?  We always follow the Golden rule, love others, and forgive as we have been forgiven, right?

Oh, if only that were true.  Alas, Christians are not much better at doing these things than non-Christians are, in my experience.  And sometimes, it seems to me, we don’t even understand what these commands from Jesus mean.  Or we interpret them too narrowly so that we can follow the letter of the law while ignoring the spirit.  We tend to want things nice and neat and easy, tit-for-tat.  You do something good and you get rewarded.  You lend money and you receive back with interest.  You help someone and they help you.  You treat someone well, and they treat you well.  Simple, easy, rewarding.  But the thing is, these commandments aren’t about narrowly following the rules, they are about love and grace.  And by interpreting them too narrowly, by turning them into a quid-pro-quo, we miss the whole point.

Let’s take some examples.  “Treat people in the same way you want them to treat you.”  The Golden Rule!  The world would be a much better place if everyone acted according to this basic rule of thumb.  And yet, even when people follow the letter of this, they can miss the spirit of it.  I have a colleague who serves a church where the surrounding community has changed a lot in the last fifty years.  What used to be a mostly white working-class neighborhood now has very few white people living there, and the economic spectrum ranges from very poor to upper-middle-class professional.  The church, however, is still mostly made up of white people—they moved to other neighborhoods, but keep commuting to church.  They have several ministries in the neighborhood, including a food pantry.  Problem is, the congregation has a habit of donating the things they would like to eat.  Peanut butter.  Potatoes.  Standard American fare, because when they give to the food pantry, they ask themselves “what would I like to eat?”  Golden rule, right?  If you had kids you struggled to feed, you’d want someone to give you lots of peanut butter.  So you should give peanut butter.

Problem is, the people who now live in the neighborhood eat different foods.  A lot of standard American fare, they either don’t like or don’t know how to cook.  So what good does it do them?  When the food pantry volunteers told the congregation this and asked for them to donate things their clients could actually use, a lot of members got huffy.  Those poor people should be grateful for that food, and they should learn to cook it and like it!  They never stopped to think about what they would want, really want, if they were hungry.  Obviously, they’d want people to help give them food.  But would they prefer that food to be stuff they didn’t like and would struggle to figure out what to do with, or food they loved and that they already knew tons of ways to use?  The congregation was interpreting the golden rule very narrowly.  “If I needed food, I would want peanut butter, so I’ll give peanut butter,” they thought.  A more grace-filled response would have been, “If I needed food, I would want food I liked and knew how to cook.  So I will give food they like and know how to cook.”  Fulfilling the Golden Rule is easy when everybody is pretty much the same and likes and wants the same things.  It’s a lot harder when you’re dealing with people who are different.  But somehow, I don’t think Jesus meant it only to apply to people who are like us, or only when it was easy.  Jesus gave us the command to help us love one another, and it’s not very loving to ignore peoples’ actual wants and needs because you think they should want or need different things.

Then there’s forgiveness.  We live in a world broken by sin and death, a world in which people hurt one another through actions and through inaction.  There is so much pain and evil in the world, and most of it is caused by humans.  We can ignore the problems around us and become apathetic, or we can strike back an eye for an eye and add to the pain in the world.  Or, we can choose to forgive and love our enemies, working for healing and reconciliation and the possibility of peace.  And guess which one Jesus wants us to do?  Jesus wants us to work for healing and reconciliation through forgiveness and love.

But when we talk about forgiveness, too often we make it superficial.  Instead of a tool for healing and reconciliation, we make forgiveness a tool for maintaining the status quo.  We pair forgiveness with forgetting, so that the ones who have done the hurting face no consequences or accountability for their actions.  So often, when our society tells people that they should forgive, what they really mean is “you should stop talking about what they did so we can sweep it under the rug and pretend it never happened.”  Instead of healing, more injury is done.  Instead of healing, the wound festers.  Instead of love and grace, there is only more resentment as the one who hurt people continues to hurt them.

That is not what God’s forgiveness looks like, and it isn’t what our forgiveness should look like, either.  Forgiveness does not mean being a doormat.  Sometimes, the issue has to come out into the open so that everyone can see and address it.  The normal human instinct for how to address an injury is to fight back, to try and inflict the same hurt on the one who hurt you.  But Jesus calls for accountability without violence and revenge.  For instance, giving someone who sues you your tunic as well as your coat is a way of bringing the issue out in the open without responding in kind.  Most people in those days only had one outfit, which is why the law prohibited taking both coat and tunic.  If they did, you would be naked and the whole community would be shamed.  So if someone takes your coat and you give them your tunic as well and walk out of there buck naked, it’s a problem for the whole community.  Everyone has to reckon with the actions of the one who sued you.  Everyone has to ask, was it justified?  What are the consequences?  It’s not just business as usual.  The community has to stop and deal with what has happened.  And in that process, there is a possibility for change.  There is a possibility of new life.  There is a possibility of grace.

Forgiveness is not about forgetting, or about sweeping things under the rug.  It’s not about pretending things never happened, or forcing a smile onto your face when all you want to do is scream.  It’s a way of dealing with the hurt that was done without hurting back.  And it doesn’t mean you have to let them keep doing the hurtful thing.  In seminary, one of my classmates was pastor of a church where two parents had abused their child so terribly that they had gone to jail for it.  When the mother got out, the child was still a member of the church, and they had to figure out what to do.  Obviously, as Christians we are called to forgive, but they were also called to protect the vulnerable—including the child.  They forgave the mother, but knew they couldn’t allow her to worship where the child she had brutalized would have to see her.  So they found her another church in the area, and worked with that congregation to provide her spiritual support and community without letting her near children.  She received grace, and was welcomed back into a community of faith, but with clear and open eyes so that she could not repeat her terrible deeds.  And her child was given a safe space to grow, knowing the family of God cared for them and protected them.  It was not easy or simple or quick, but there was grace and healing for both victim and perpetrator.

In fact, Jesus actually uses the word “χάρις” in this passage, which is the word we usually translate as grace.  Where our translation reads “What credit is that to you?” another way to translate it might be “What grace is that in you?”  If you only give so that you may receive, how does that show forth the love and grace of God?  If you only love those it’s easy to love, how does that show forth the love and grace of God?  What grace is that in you?  The Golden Rule, the command to forgive, these are not balance sheets.  They’re not coldblooded rules to follow by the letter.  They are means by which the love and grace of God can overflow in the world.  They are means by which we can be a part of that love and grace.

The world has enough violence and hate and narrowness.  It doesn’t need more.  It doesn’t need people lashing out in anger and fear and jealousy, it doesn’t need revenge even when it seems justified.  What the world needs, what God’s good creation needs, is more graced, and more love, and more healing.  May we act according to God’s grace, acting for forgiveness and reconciliation, and when we fall short, may God forgive us.

Amen.

The Resurrection of the Dead

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2019, February 17, 2019

Jeremiah 17:5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26

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 believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.  We recite these words in church almost every Sunday we gather … and when we don’t, we usually recite the Nicene Creed instead, which says basically the same thing.  In so doing, we join a Christian tradition stretching back to the very earliest days of Christianity, when all new converts to the faith memorized and studied the Apostles’ Creed, the teaching of the Apostles distilled into its purist form.  We believe in the Resurrection.  We believe that Christ died, and descended to the place of the dead, and that he was resurrected.  He rose from the grave not just in spirit but in body.  In flesh and blood.  And we believe that when Christ comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, all the graves will open and all those who have died will be raised.  All people will be resurrected, not just Jesus, and enter God’s kingdom in bodies purified and made whole by God.  Resurrection happened first for Jesus Christ, but it will come for all of us.

At least, that’s what’s in our faith statements.  How many Christians actually believe it … I don’t know.  We tend to think of heaven as some ethereal place,  spiritual, not physical.  Lots of Christians believe that when you die your spirit goes to be in heaven with Jesus, leaving behind all fleshly matters.  It’s a very old way of thinking about things, and it comes straight out of pagan Greek philosophy.  And it’s what Paul was arguing against in our reading from Corinthians.  “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”  In a nutshell: Salvation comes from Christ, who died and was raised from the dead and in so doing destroyed sin and death.  If there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised, and all of Christian teaching is false.  You can’t have just one resurrection, in Paul’s view.  Either resurrection is impossible, and nobody has ever been raised or ever will be; or resurrection is possible, and Christ was raised from the dead, and we, too, will be raised from the dead some day when Christ comes again.  As Christ was raised, so too will we be.

To get why this is so important to Paul, you have to understand a little bit about the way Jewish people think.  In Greek, as in English, there are separate and distinct words for body and soul, because we think about them as two separate things, as if human beings are ghosts who just happen to walk around in meat suits.  In Hebrew, however, there is no word for soul that doesn’t include the body as well.  When you read an English translation of the Old Testament, and you see the word “soul,” the actual Hebrew word is usually “נפש” which means your whole self, personality and body and spirit and heart and guts and all the things that make you who you are.  The word most Old Testament translations give as “spirit” is “רוח” which literally means breath.  The Holy Spirit, in the Hebrew Scriptures, is literally God’s breath.  In Genesis, God breathes on the primordial chaos and the world comes into being.  There is a connection between the spiritual and the physical.  One cannot exist without the other.  There is no concept in the entire Old Testament of a spirit or soul separate from a physical body.

Because of this, physical things matter.  Evil and sin come through physical means—eating the forbidden fruit—and are manifest in all the many ways human beings abuse one another and themselves.  But you can’t ever forget that all good things come through physical means, too.  The Garden of Eden was a physical place.  It was a garden, filled with plants and animals, in which humans and God walked side-by-side.  The Old Testament is very earthy.  Condemnation is being trapped in a world where humans hurt one another and where the soil is rocky, thin, and full of weeds.  Blessing is a world where humans reconcile with one another and the soil is fruitful and easy to work.  Creation, like humans, may be marred by sin and death, but first it was a good gift from God.  And, so, it is not just souls that need to be redeemed, but bodies too, the whole self, and all of creation.  And that is what Jesus Christ came to do.

On the other hand, the Greeks hated the physical world.  Or, at least, they didn’t trust it.  Pagan philosophers as far back as Plato (and possibly even earlier) had decided that the realm of spirit and the realm of flesh were two completely separate things, and obviously anything to do with the flesh or the physical world or the body was inherently bad and disgusting.  This is why they believed rich people were better than poor people—work required physical effort, and doing things, and that was degrading.  The only good things in the world were sitting around, thinking deep thoughts, and contemplating art.  And so when Paul converted Greek people, they brought with them this idea that there is a separation between body and soul, and that flesh is inherently bad and spirit is inherently good.  Some of them even thought that Jesus hadn’t been a real flesh-and-blood human being at all, just a divine spirit sent to bring enlightenment.  (This is a heresy called Gnosticism.)  Even the ones who accepted that Jesus had been human before his death often thought that Jesus hadn’t really been resurrected, he’d just appeared to have a physical body, and that when Christians died, they would be freed from the prison of flesh and brought into a realm of spirit.  Which, uh, isn’t that far from what many Christians today believe.

And then we come again to Paul: “If the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”  Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who died, and one day we too will be raised.  We are not ghosts piloting meatsuits, we are whole people—body, mind, and soul—and Christ came to save all of us, body and soul together, along with all of creation.  God created the world to be good—God created us to be good—and even the worst that sin and death can do doesn’t change the fact that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.  God has been at work in the world since the very beginning, bringing light and truth and calling people to live in the world according to God’s good plan.  God has been working to bring life and healing and renewal and reconciliation even in a world that keeps turning away, and God keeps calling us to participate in that work.  And one day, when Christ comes again, all will be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.  All that is broken will be healed, all that is destroyed will be made whole, all of creation will be made new.  The work that God keeps beginning in us will be completed.  And we will see God face-to-face.

Bodies matter.  The more we learn about the way bodies and brains work, the more connected we realize they are.  Our bodies influence our brains in a multitude of ways great and small, and our brains influence our bodies just as much.  Those ancient Jewish people in the desert understood human nature far better than the Greek philosophers did.  When we focus too much on the spirit alone, we forget about the body, and we forget about the world we live in.  We pray for peoples’ souls while ignoring the ways in which their bodies are suffering.  We are flawed, sinful, fleshy people living in a flawed, sinful, fleshy world.  We live in a world in which sin and death have done unbelievable damage to people and communities and to creation itself.  But we believe in a God who triumphed over sin and death, a God who will make all things new, a God who became flesh and blood like us, who died and rose again, and who will raise us to life again.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Preparing the Way

Advent 2C, 2018, December 19, 2018

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-69, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

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 Mom’s family is really outdoorsy, so when I was younger, the big yearly family event was a three-day backpacking trip into the woods on Labor Day weekend.  We’d all gather at the trailhead, strap on our packs, and go.  And by “all” I mean Granddad Huck, all the aunts and uncles, and all my cousins.  Down to babies in arms—one year, my aunt and uncle came along with their six month old baby, which added some unique challenges.  Everyone meant everyone … except Grandma Kitty, whose health was just not up to scrambling up and down narrow, twisty, up-and-down trails with several days worth of supplies on her back.  The rough terrain was too much of a barrier to her.  She stayed behind, at home by herself, while her husband and kids and grandkids went off together.  And it never occurred to me, at the time, to wonder how she felt about being left behind like that.  How she felt about not being able to do what everyone she loved was doing.  And it never occurred to me to ask if maybe we should change our traditional family event to something she could participate in.  When your brain and body are able to do pretty much anything you want to do, you don’t think very much about the people who have it harder.  Whose bodies and brains just don’t always work.  Who need help or accommodations to do things.  You just don’t tend to notice the barriers that keep some people out.

Now that I’m older, I notice these things more.  The more I learn about my autism, the more I realize I just can’t do some of the things other people do, or I can’t do them in the same way, or I can do them but it takes a lot more out of me than it does most people.  And I have friends with physical disabilities, chronic illness, and mental health challenges.  There are so many things I take for granted that they can’t do, and sometimes things they take for granted that I can’t do.  And our world is built for people who are able-bodied, people whose brains work on a normal model.  Even though we have the Americans with Disabilities Act, to require businesses and organizations to take the needs of disabled people into account, all too often people with disabilities are left out in the cold, on the outside looking in.  And most people don’t even notice.  And when we do notice, as a society, there are a lot of people who think things are fine the way they are.  That it’s unreasonable to expect people to do things differently so that all are welcome.

In our Gospel lesson, John the Baptist talks about the coming of the Lord.  And he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”  Now, when the prophet Isaiah spoke those words, the Jewish people were captives in Babylon.  They had been enslaved and carried off and now lived almost a thousand miles from their homeland.  They dreamed of the day when they could return to Judea, but the road home was long, and treacherous, crossing deserts and mountains and wilderness.  It was an arduous journey in the days before modern highways and cars, one that only the young and healthy could successfully complete.  Isaiah’s words told them two things: first, that God would free them from their captivity and bring them home, and second, that God would make the journey as easy as possible, one with broad, flat roads that went straight to their destination.  A road that would be easy to travel, with as few barriers as possible.  No force on Earth in those days could have made a level, straight, flat road from Babylon to Jerusalem.  But God could.

For Isaiah, that’s what redemption looked like: a road home that anyone could travel easily.  No matter how infirm you were, no matter what you struggled with, God could and would redeem you out of the hand of the enemy and bring you safely home.  And when John the Baptist thought about what God’s kingdom coming would look like, when John the Baptist thought about God reaching into the world to redeem it, that’s what it looked like: God reaching into the world to make a path that anyone could travel.  All barriers removed.  All living things welcome.

And I wonder what barriers we face?  What are the things in our lives, in our communities, and in our world that prevent us from seeing and responding to God?  Even worse, what are the barriers we put up that prevent others from seeing and responding to God’s salvation?  Sometimes the barriers are easy to see: like churches that have steps but no elevators, so that only people who can climb stairs can attend.  But sometimes we don’t even notice the barriers.  For example, there are about 1 million deaf people in the US.  Almost none of them go to church, because churches with sign language interpreters or closed captioning are vanishingly rare, and even in churches like ours where everything is printed in the bulletin, the sermon generally isn’t.  And what about disabilities that are less visible?  Things that affect the brain, or behavior, or make people just a little bit different than what we think of as “normal”?  Our society—including all too many churches—are quick to judge.  I know a woman with a disabled child who stopped going to church because too many people disapproval of how her child behaved.  “I know Jesus loves me and my son,” she said, “but our church sure didn’t.”

Then there’s all the other barriers we put up.  Barriers based on race, on class, gender, sexuality, politics.  People like creating barriers.  We like dividing the world up into “us” and “them.”  And of course people like “us” are good, and people who are not like us can’t be trusted.  I think that’s what sin looks like, a lot of the time.  All people, every single human being who ever lived, was created by God in God’s own image.  Every single human being is beloved by God.  And Christ died to save every single human being who’s ever lived.  Yes, even the bad ones.  Yes, even the ones who reject him.  Our response doesn’t change the fact that God reached out to us, first, and continues to reach out, continues to act for the redemption and salvation of all the world.  No matter how many obstacles we create, as individuals and as a society, God is always at work to make the rough places level and the crooked straight.

We live in a world with a lot of barriers.  Physical barriers, like the ones I’ve been talking about, that keep disabled people from participating; but also barriers of prejudice, or ignorance, or just plain not caring about those who are different from us.  And sometimes we notice those barriers, but a lot of time we take them for granted.  We assume that, like the mountains and deserts and wilderness that separated the ancient captives from their homeland, they are simply facts of life that can’t be changed, only accepted.  But that’s not the way God created the world to work.  God created the world so that all people might have abundant life, so that all people might love one another and build communities together, communities in which no one is forgotten or left behind or excluded.  Communities in which all people might live in the light of God.  That’s the way God created us to be, and it is sin that has broken us apart and put barriers between us.  But you know what?  The Lord is coming.  Christ Jesus, who was born in a manger two thousand years ago, is coming again.  The Messiah, God-with-us, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Prince of Peace.  He is coming.  And we’ve put up so many obstacles, between ourselves and between us and God.  So it’s time to get ready.   “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

Amen

The Sacrifice of Following Jesus

Lectionary 29B, October 21, 2018

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

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

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

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

The Gospel of Mark, although the first Gospel written, was first completed about 70AD, forty years after Jesus’ death.  At that point, John was still alive, although James was not.  He’d been killed in the year 44AD, the first of the Twelve Disciples to be martyred.  Peter and Paul had also been killed by then, and Jesus’ brother James, and Stephen the Deacon, and others.  So when this passage was first read aloud in its present form, and those first listeners heard how James and John had requested power and glory beside Jesus in his kingdom, and been given a call to serve and die instead, they understood it far better than we do today.  They knew what service meant; they knew what giving your life away meant.  The organized, widespread persecutions of Christians were yet to come, but it was already a dangerous thing to serve Christ, with consequences that could sometimes prove fatal.  In the first few centuries after Jesus’ death, nobody became a Christian expecting wealth and power.  The very idea would have been incomprehensible.  If wealth and power are your goal, you do not choose to join a group whose founder and leader died in the most humiliatingly painful way possible, a group made up mostly of poor people, women, foreigners, outcasts, slaves, and other unesirables.  If power and influence are your goal, you do not join a group dedicated to service and submission.  Power and influence are the ways of the world.  They are antithetical to the Christian life.

Christians today don’t really get this.  Christianity has been the religion of the powerful for so long that we can hear Jesus’ words condemning worldly power and the behavior of the powerful, and not connect it to anything about our own behavior.  We are used to power, and we don’t know what true sacrifice is.  Or true persecution.  I’ve had faithful Christians tell me that Christians are being persecuted because people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  We Christians are fast losing our cultural power, it’s true, but being less powerful is not the same as being persecuted, and many Christians today follow James and John’s belief from our Gospel that power is something Christians should seek.  We give lip service to serving others, we give lip service to “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” but we don’t really know what it means.

So let’s look at what Jesus meant, and what that looked like in his life and the lives of early Christians.  For Jesus, service came in two forms: earthly service, and spiritual service, although he didn’t really separate them out that way.  For Jesus, they seem to have been all the same.  He healed the sick and forgave their sins at the same time.  He fed the hungry.  He built community wherever he went, eating with sinners and religious authorities.  All were welcome.  If any had a need—physical or spiritual—that he could fill, he did.  And if any criticized him for doing so, he rebuked them regardless of their power.  He taught anyone who would listen, regardless of who they were or what they had done in the past.  He loved them all, and welcomed them even when society objected.  He offended a lot of people by eating with sinners and outcasts.  He did it anyway, because loving his neighbors—ALL his neighbors—was more important to him than cosying up to the powerful.  If Jesus had spent less time building community with outcasts and welcoming the downtrodden and more time upholding the existing social order, the authorities probably wouldn’t have felt so threatened by him that they chose to execute him.  But if he had sought earthly power, he wouldn’t have been able to reach the people who most needed him—the suffering, the sinners, the powerless.

In a very real way, his suffering and his death cannot be separated from his service.  When Jesus says he came not to be served but to serve, he wasn’t being metaphorical.  Everything he said and did was a service to others.  And it all culminated in his death.  He died to save the cosmos from sin and death, he died to redeem sinners, he died to serve the very people he had served in life: all people, of every tribe and race and class and category.  His suffering was not random, not the whim of a cruel and indifferent taskmaster.  Jesus suffered and died so that we might live.  This is not suffering for the sake of suffering.  Jesus came that we all—every human being ever created—might have life, and have it abundantly, both in this life and the next.  And he was willing to put in the work to make it happen, by serving people, body and soul, through feeding, healing, teaching, forgiving, and finally, by dying and rising again at Easter.

The early church followed Jesus far more closely than we do today.  The early church didn’t seek power or wealth; the early church served.  They fed the hungry, healed the sick, visited prisoners, and created communities in which nobody could lord it over anyone else.  They weren’t perfect; they were still sinful humans just like us, and they failed often, but by and large they worked to create communities where all were welcome, where all could hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and where hungry people were fed, sick people healed, naked people clothed, lonely people befriended, and nobody abused or abandoned or neglected.  And together, as the Body of Christ in the world, they did amazing things.  Just as Christians have done amazing things throughout history whenever we have let go of our own selfish expectations and truly devoted ourselves to following Jesus no matter where he leads.

And, just as people had been suspicious of Jesus for his service, people were suspicious of those early Christians.  Everybody wants power, or so the Roman Empire thought; so if Christians don’t seem to be seeking power the traditional way, they must be trying to overthrow the current order and set themselves up instead.  So Christians were persecuted.  Many were killed.  But still they kept serving.  St. Lawrence is my favorite example of the early church.  Lawrence was a deacon, which means “servant.”  He coordinated the church’s ministry in Rome.  It was his job to go out into the city, figure out what poor people needed, and help them get it.  He fed the hungry, clothed the naked, prayed for the sick and brought the medicine they needed.  Lawrence did anything and everything he could to see that everyone in his city had what they needed.  And, in so doing, he was publicly known as a Christian, and so when persecution started, he was one of the first brought to trial.  Now, because he was the head deacon, Lawrence was also in charge of all the money the church collected for charity.  And the judge knew that.  So the judge said, “I’ll let you go, if you give me the treasure of your church.”  Lawrence agreed, and said he would need a day to collect it.  So the judge released him.

The next day, Lawrence returned with the treasure of the church: all the poor people he served.  You see, Lawrence didn’t care for riches, or power; Lawrence cared for the grace and mercy of God.  Lawrence knew that the Christian life is not about safety or security, not about power or wealth or glory, but about service.  And when there is a conflict between the powers of this world and service to God, well, we’re not called to serve the powers of this world.  He followed Jesus’ example, and like Jesus, he was executed.  Legend says he was roasted alive over a griddle, and that his last words were “turn me over, I’m done on that side!”

We live in a much different world than those early Christians.  Nobody here will ever be in danger of being executed for being a Christian.  We won’t lose our jobs, or homes, or anything like that.  We have it a lot easier than Lawrence did!  And yet, we’ve forgotten what it means to truly serve.  Like James and John, we’ve let the world’s love of power and glory guide our views and goals, instead of Christ’s call to service.  We are seldom willing to follow Christ if it means going outside our comfort zone, or lowering our status, or dealing with people who are different from us.  And I wonder, what would it look like if we changed that.  What would it look like, if we put following Christ and serving the world at the top of our priority list?  What would it look like if we stopped judging by the world’s standards of power and glory and wealth and influence?

Amen

Welcome the Children

Lectionary 25B, September 23, 2018

Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, James 3:13-4:8a, Mark 9:30-37

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.  Amen.

We did not spend much time studying Jesus’ welcoming of children in seminary, despite the fact that it is a common theme in the Gospel of Mark.  Nor were we encouraged to preach on those passages.  You see, people now—since the Victorian era, basically—have a much different view of children and childhood than people did in Jesus’ day.  In Jesus’ day, children were the most vulnerable members of society, and the least valued.  Half of all children died before the age of ten; if you survived to reach adulthood, then you were worth paying attention to.  It’s not that parents didn’t love their children, but rather that many of them kept emotional distance until they knew whether the child would live or not.  And society as a whole really did not care about children.  The basic strategy was, have as many kids as possible, work them hard so their labor benefits the family as much as possible, and hope enough of them survived to take care of you in your old age.  Parents loved their children, but the overall culture still believed that children should be seen and not heard, that children should be worked hard, that children were not valuable.  Families cared for their own children, and the children of their friends, but not other children.  And society as a whole didn’t care.  If a child’s family couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them, or were abusive, there was little help available.  There was no concept of children as special, or innocent, or to be protected.  Childhood was a dangerous, hard, ignored part of life that you escaped as soon as you could.

In that context, when Jesus spends several chapters repeatedly chastising his followers for their power-hungry squabbling and telling them to be more like children, it was something surprising, shocking.  You want us to be like children, Jesus?  Some of the most vulnerable, ignored, unimportant people in town?  No thank you!  The disciples wanted power, riches, glory—they wanted to be important.  They wanted to matter.  They wanted, in short, everything the children in their community didn’t have.  But unlike the disciples we live in a society that values and cares about children, in which “think of the children!” is one of the most effective calls to action there is.  So, a professor told me, sermons preached on Jesus’ words about children usually aren’t very effective, because they just turn into maudlin sentimentality about how wonderful children are.

The United States is currently locking up hundreds of children for the crime of coming to this country from someplace else.  Many of them were ripped from their parents’ arms, and despite court orders, many of them have still not been reunited with their parents.  In Flint, Michigan, it has been over four years since their water became unsafe, and yet most children do not have access to safe water for washing and drinking in their own homes.  Nationwide, American schools now employ more guards than counselors.  We would rather lock children up than help them mature and grow healthier.  America is the richest nation in the world, yet over 20% of American children today live in poverty, and 40% of American children today will spend at least a year in poverty sometime before they turn 18.  Despite sharply rising child poverty rates, we have spent the last several decades making steady cuts to kids’ education, nutrition, social services, and healthcare.  As a nation, we have decided that such programs are too expensive.  We have decided that taking care of our children is too expensive.  The picture gets even bleaker when you look specifically at the reality faced by children who are not white, or children with disabilities.  Rates of poverty are even higher, and resources are even scarcer, and discrimination is sadly all too common.

So as I was reading this text this week, I found myself asking: how different are we, from people in the disciples’ day?  Do we really love and value children more than they did?  And if so, which children do we care about?  We care a lot about children who are middle-class, white, normal, and photogenic.  The further away from that they are, the less attention we pay, and the less we care.  The church is sometimes better than the rest of America, but not always.  I read an article in Christian Century magazine a while back, in which the writer—a nationally-known church speaker—recounted a story of doing a seminar in a large church.  Sunday morning, after worship, one of the Sunday School teachers came up to her with a dilemma: there was a Latina girl in her Sunday School class that she didn’t recognize.  The child might be an undocumented immigrant.  Should the teacher call the cops?  No, the speaker had to explain.  The job of the church is not to enforce immigration policy, but to spread the good news of Jesus.  You know, the guy who said to welcome children?  It’s amazing, but even good, committed Christians often need to be reminded of Jesus’ words.

When Jesus told us to welcome children, he didn’t mean to just welcome the ones from families like ours, the ones we’re most comfortable with, the ones we would naturally be caring about anyway.  Because there’s absolutely no need to tell people to welcome people they already want to welcome!  Even in those days, parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles loved their kids, and most adults probably kept an eye out for the children of people in their social circle just like we do today.  Jesus meant all children, but especially the ones we wouldn’t choose to welcome normally.  The ones we might not care about as much.  The ones who look different, or speak different languages or come from the wrong side of the tracks or have bad backgrounds.  The ones our society tells us are bad, or wrong, or dangerous, or inconvenient, or just plain worthless.  The ones we might be tempted to shove aside, as the disciples repeatedly did.  Those are the ones we need to welcome.  Those are the ones we have to care for.  Because those are the ones in greatest danger, the ones in deepest need.  If we welcome them, Jesus says, it’s the same as welcoming Jesus.  If we don’t welcome them … we are not welcoming Jesus.  The way we care for those who are most vulnerable is directly tied to the way we care for Jesus.  If we do not serve those in need, we do not serve Jesus.  This is a common theme in Jesus’ teaching.  And yet it’s one we often forget.

The disciples were arguing among themselves about who was going to be the most important of Jesus’ followers.  They dreamed of the day he would overthrow the Roman government and set himself up as God’s Anointed King, just like his ancestor David.  No matter how often he told them that he was building a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom based on sacrifice instead of power, they did not listen.  They repeatedly fought over who would be the greatest and who would have the most power and influence.  They ignored Jesus’ teachings that he would be betrayed and die; they ignored his teachings to welcome the children and others who were vulnerable.  They put their own pride and ambition above serving those who needed help.  That’s why Jesus had to keep repeating those teachings.

Are we any different?  We live in a society that worships power, in which we love winners and hate losers.  That was one of the worst insults you could call someone in my school as a kid—that they were a “loser.”  We love underdog stories … but only if the underdogs win in the end, triumphing against all odds.  We want to win, and we quickly turn on those who don’t win.  Often, unfortunately, we make “winning” more important than “doing the right thing.”  And Christians do this to, despite all of Jesus’ teachings to the contrary.

Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all…. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  We as Christians are not called to power and glory, but to service and sacrifice.  Especially the service of those who cannot help themselves, the ones society ignores or shoves aside or lets fall through the cracks or abuses.  We as Christians follow the one who submitted himself to the most humiliatingly painful death imaginable in order to save sinners.  If we want to follow him, if we want to serve him, we have to be willing to serve others as he did.  Especially the most vulnerable.  And I pray that God will work within us here, now, today, and send us out into the community to work for a society in which all children are safe, and valued, and loved.  Not just some children, but all children.

Amen.

Living Faith

Lectionary 23B, September 9, 2018

Isaiah 35:4-7a, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-37

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.  Amen.

When I was a teenager, an old, homeless, mentally ill woman lived for some time on the outside stairs down to the basement of my home church.  If I ever learned her name, I’ve long since forgotten it.  This was in downtown Salem, Oregon, and that stairwell was off the road and sheltered from the elements, and not much used.  She was pretty clearly not all there, mentally, and sometimes she was hostile.  And it’s hard enough for homeless people to keep clean when their brains are working well; like many people who are both homeless and mentally ill, she stank of sour, unwashed misery.  I don’t recall that she ever came to worship, but when we had a potluck or a meal or something, she would come in and eat.

I dreaded that.  I have a very sensitive sense of smell, and being anywhere near her made me gag.  So, probably about the second time that old homeless woman came in to a potluck, I complained to our associate pastor.  Wasn’t there anything she could do?  I mean, I didn’t have anything against homeless people or mentally ill people, but I would enjoy the potluck a lot more if that smelly person just wasn’t there.

Our pastor heard me out, and said she was sorry that I was having such a problem.  But, you know, they’d tried to help the woman, and failed.  They’d tried to connect her with every service available for homeless or mentally ill people in Salem, and nothing worked.  Either she didn’t quite qualify for services in one way or another, or the service decided she was too difficult to deal with, or getting services required a degree of organization and mental togetherness that she simply was not capable of.  She just fell through the cracks, and if she had any family or friends who might be able to help, nobody had been able to find them.

And after explaining all that, my pastor looked at me and said, “The thing is, Anna, she’s a child of God.  Just like you and me.  God loves her even though she’s smelly and mean, and not living in the same reality as the rest of us.  And God doesn’t want her to be hungry, or cold, or sick, or homeless, but she is.  So if the only thing we can do to help her is to see that she gets a good hot meal once in a while at a potluck, well, that’s quite literally the least we can do.  And, Anna, our basement is pretty big.  If you sit on the other side of the room, you won’t be able to smell her while you’re eating.  And even if you can’t eat with her in the room, you have lots of food at home.  You won’t go hungry.  If she doesn’t eat here with us, she will be going hungry.  God calls us to love all people, and welcome the stranger, and feed the hungry.  She needs a place to be welcomed, and she’s definitely strange, and she’s hungry.  So if it comes down to a choice between following the Gospel and your comfort level, I’m sorry, but we have to put the Gospel first.”

I was mortified.  I was so embarrassed.  My pastor hadn’t spoken in a condemning or judgmental way.  She had been very compassionate to me.  But I, of all people, should not have needed to have that explained.  Being a Christian and being faithful to God has always been very important to me.  As a kid, I not only listened to the main sermon, I sometimes took a printed out copy of it home with me to read later and think about.  I paid attention to Sunday School, I went to adult Bible study as a teenager, being a Christian wasn’t just something I did because my family was Christian.  I was really proud of my devotion.  If some issue in my life had a connection to Jesus’ teachings, I should have been able to spot it a mile away.  And yet, I hadn’t.  Even at that age, if you’d asked me to give a temple talk on Jesus’ words to love the stranger, I probably could have done a decent job of it.  But when I saw someone who definitely, genuinely needed compassion and help, my only thought was “holy cow, she is so gross, can we get her out of here so I don’t have to deal with her?”

James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? … have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?”  Paul, too, in his letters, says that he firmly believes that God shows no partiality to one person or group over another.  The Old Testament laws have a lot to say about how to care for the poor and outcast, and the prophets regularly condemned those who did not care for the needy.  And Jesus spent lots of time welcoming people of every description from every race and tribe and walk of life.  The story of the Syrophoenician Woman is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus ever hesitates to help anyone in need, and even then, all it takes is a few words from her, and he changes his mind and helps.  (I wonder if Jesus felt as embarrassed as I did, after having someone point out that lack of godly compassion and generosity.)

God is impartial.  God doesn’t play favorites.  But boy howdy, humans do.  We do it all the time, make biased and unfair judgments based on every human criterion imaginable.  But we usually don’t recognize when we’re doing it.  Scientists have actually done research on this.  See, the way human brains work most of the time is not based on logic, even when we think it is.  We respond based on our gut feelings, and then come up with logical reasons why our guts were right.  And our gut feelings are shaped by a lot of things: our own experiences, the common culture around us, the stories and jokes we hear and tell.  We empathize a lot with people who are like us, whom we admire, or people who have attributes our culture promotes, whether that’s money or a large social media following or a thin, beautiful body or the right ethnic background.  We don’t generally empathize with people who aren’t like us, or who don’t have attributes our culture values, or whose lives we’ve never imagined ourselves in.  And how much we empathize or don’t empathize with someone has a huge impact.  When someone we empathize with needs anything, we are willing to help, and think that they should receive what they need.  When people we don’t empathize with need anything, we find excuses not to help.  And when people we don’t like need anything, we actively look for reasons why their needs are unreasonable and bad.  Sometimes, as was the case with me and that homeless woman, we can’t even conceive of them as people.  Just obstacles to be gotten rid of, or judged, or ignored.  We don’t see people through God’s eyes, but with human eyes.  And sometimes, we don’t see them at all.

James writes: “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? …. have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? … You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.”  Unfortunately, there isn’t any way I know of to truly be impartial.  There’s no way to stop our guts from pre-judging people and caring about some more than others.  But we can be better than we are.  We can choose to show compassion even to people we don’t like or wouldn’t otherwise care about.  We can choose to stop and think twice instead of letting knee-jerk assessments lead us into injustice. We can focus on remembering that people who aren’t like us are still God’s children … and we can put that knowledge into practice by choosing to reach out to those who are different and treat them with mercy and justice.  We can choose to see the world through God’s eyes, remembering that all people are God’s beloved children, just like you and me and that homeless woman.  And we can let God’s love guide our actions, instead of our own snap judgments.

I don’t believe in works righteousness.  God doesn’t choose to save us because we earn it through good deeds.  But at the same time, if we truly believe in the love and grace of God poured out to all the world through Christ Jesus, shouldn’t we act like it?  If we have been transformed by the good news of God in Christ Jesus, shouldn’t that transform the way we see the world, and how we treat others?  If we want our faith to live and breathe and grow, we have to actually put that faith into action, so that faith is not just something we think about sometimes, but something we do.  May God’s vision and God’s love guide our hearts, minds, and hands.

Amen.